Previous article in this series: August 2012, p. 437.
The last three editorials (June, July, and August) were written to call us to our duty to fight for the cause of God and truth. In these days when doctrinal purity takes the backseat to unity (see my editorial #2, July 2012, p. 413), the biblical call to combat error is vital for Reformed and Presbyterian churches. The first two editorials presented Scripture’s mandate, the third issued the caution to do polemics properly.
It would not be surprising if some were to cheer for the first two but sneer at the caution; or, others, applaud the caution but cringe at the call to fight. To each we say: Balance, brethren. The danger of each ditch is real—not fighting at all, or fighting improperly. It takes strength (grace) to fight, and it takes additional strength (grace) to fight biblically.
Polemics is the activity of the church to defend God’s name in preaching and writing by exposing, resisting, and opposing error, with the prayer that God, through this activity, will destroy the error. Scripture and Reformed tradition require that we Reformed office bearers be willing and able to battle the lie. That’s motivation enough. But our motivation increases when we think of the people of God, especially the vulnerable youth. Paul warns that evil men “lie in wait to deceive,” and he speaks of the “sleight of men” and their “cunning craftiness” (). Their false doctrines, unopposed, can toss the youth to and fro and finally onto the rocks of ruin. Paul’s 2000-year-old prophecies are coming to pass: “Evil men and seducers shall wax worse and worse, deceiving, and being deceived” ( ). Polemics—fighting against these seducers—is necessary.
But because polemics must be done properly, last time I noted four improper ways of opposing the lie. Let me remind us of them:
1. The contentious spirit. This man is probably not happy unless his (or his pastor’s) sermons blast some error at length. He’s preoccupied with, maybe obsessed with, polemics.
2. Fighting against without fighting for. Like the hired gun who goes to battle for any armed force, he’s not fighting to defend a cause he loves. We must fight to defend the precious truth of sovereign grace and a God-honoring life of gratitude.
3. Contending against errors that do not (presently) threaten. This spirit, in Old Testament terms, would have been very happy had the prophet Hosea lobbed mortars of criticism at Syria, because it would have diverted attention from where it presently belonged—in Israel itself.
4. Failure to distinguish. He does not show the difference between incorrigible enemies and erring friends, between fatal errors and nonessentials, between teachers of error and those they deceive. To use another example, between a position an opponent actually takes and where we believe his present position will lead him, or between a position and the implications of the position. Both are important, and if I love the neighbor I will also show him implications and inevitable conclusions. Failure to distinguish does great injustice to the neighbor who is in error.
Now, with the prayer that the searching Spirit of Christ will reveal what elements of any of these are found in ourselves, I mention two more:
5. Taking careless aim. In my classroom at seminary I have a small mountain quail that I shot as a teenager. I used it in catechism and still use it to show the kind of quail God sent the Israelites in the wilderness. Hunting with my father in the foothills in southern California, I shot this quail “from the hip,” that is, without careful aim, because time was short—probably the one time I ever actually hit what I shot at from the hip. But shooting from the hip is unwise—not because you usually miss, but because you may hit what you don’t want to hit. Doing polemics, we may never “shoot from the hip.”
This error is really “judging rashly or unheard,” as the Heidelberg Catechism explains the ninth commandment. A man criticizes an error without understanding it, without studying it carefully, perhaps quoting parts of a man’s article out of context. Then, having failed to present the error accurately, he demolishes it as carelessly as he erected it.
The Protestant Reformed Churches ought to be especially sensitive to this error because we are often judged rashly or unheard. We are accused of teaching presupposed regeneration—when our teachings and writings show clearly that this is an unfounded accusation, wrongly linking our teaching to Abraham Kuyper’s. We have been labeled Anabaptists, guilty of world-flight mentality—when our preaching and writing on antithetical living caution against world-flight. Others publicly brand us hyper-Calvinists for opposing the well-meant offer of the gospel—when reading PRC literature will show that this is a misguided and unfair judgment. “Listen to our sermons! Read what we have written!” we plead. “Read carefully. Present our positions fully and accurately.”
When the tables are turned, we must do polemics only after careful study of what we believe to be an error, presenting the error accurately, quoting authors in full context of their writings, even reading (as much as possible) what they most recently have written. If I do not do this, I cannot expect others to give a hearing to what I write or say, to learn how their teaching contradicts Scripture and the Reformed confessions. If I will not take seriously someone who misrepresents my beliefs, I cannot expect others will listen to mine. But I pray they do read, and are helped. That’s one of the reasons to do polemics.
That is, the necessity of carefulness here includes more than the ninth commandment’s warning not to judge rashly. Our careful examination of the error shows our opponents that we are serious about convincing them of the truth and bringing them to repentance from believing a lie. A half-baked presentation of their teaching, really a caricature, will lead them to dismiss whatever else we have to say.
To conclude this point, it’s easy to set up a “straw man” that can easily be blown down. That may impress some, but it will not do anyone any real good. And it will displease the Lord.
6. Inappropriate tone and attitude. Finally, we who contend for the faith must avoid an unbiblical tone and attitude.
Calvin spoke so often of this danger that the difficulty here is to choose his best words. As a good pastor of pastors, Calvin instructed,
Godly teachers must take heed, first, that they favor not the affections of the flesh too much under the color of zeal; secondly, that they break not out with headlong and unseasonable heat when there is yet place for moderation; thirdly, that they give not themselves over to foolish and uncomely railing.”¹
In his commentary on James, Calvin says that James “discourages…that immoderate desire to condemn, which proceeds from ambition and pride….” And that “this is usually done when impertinent censors…insolently boast themselves in the work of exposing the vices of others.”²
When the young Herman Hoeksema wrote a fine article lamenting that so few were willing to engage in controversy for truth, he judged it necessary to add some significant cautions, worth repeating here:
In the first place, in criticizing, the critic ought to practice self-control and self-restraint. His emotions may not be allowed to run away with him. In the second place, as to the form of our criticism, . . . . it must be characterized by courtesy. The tone of our criticism must not violate the rules of etiquette and courtesy. Even though we may have serious objections against the views of anyone, . . . [it] must be free from personalities, must remain polite. In the third place, negative, destructive criticism may never predominate. The chief element of anyone’s work must be positive and constructive.³
The most inappropriate tones and attitudes expressed in controversy are likely manifestations of pride. If they are not due to that damnable sin of pride, then they are at least due to a disregard of the souls of those we ought to try to win. But even that has roots in self and therefore in pride. Gone to seed, pride holds up an opponent to ridicule, flatters our own judgments, demeans others. Pride elevates ourselves and derides others who disagree. Pride is ugly.
And it’s not true that some are naturally disposed to this sin and others naturally humble. Pride resides in every sinful nature. It’s also ironic—to understate the matter—that pride would show itself in the writing or preaching of one who believes sovereign grace. Among us, pride is manifestation that the unmerited favor that we confess has not made its way from our head to our heart. Pride is a horrible contradiction of grace, because grace is the favor of God to unworthy sinners, and humility—not pride—is evidence that we understand grace. Pride in a Reformed believer who confesses that we are righteous by faith alone without works makes his warning that works-righteousness leads to pride ring hollow.
What I need to hear, then, is what Paul warned the Corinthian Christians: “Who maketh thee to differ from another? and what hast thou that thou didst not receive? Now if thou didst receive it, why dost thou glory [boast] as if thou hadst not received it” (). Then I want to ask myself, “Has my knowledge puffed me up? And is it perhaps exactly because I lack the charity that edifieth?” (cf. ).
Let’s pray that the Lord will both prepare us for polemics when we would be inclined to be cowardly or even tolerant of heresy, and grace us with a carefulness to battle bravely as well as properly.
The devil is subtle, and he understands our natures. Those who are seriously wounded or shell-shocked from a former battle, he tempts to flee any battle. Understandable as flight is, it is wrong. Truth must be defended for the sake of God and His church. Others who are immature and naïve, the devil draws into his own devilish methods. In both ways, he does damage to God’s cause.
Pray for your leaders, especially your elders and pastors. Pray for truth. Love truth. “Buy the truth, and sell it not; also wisdom, and instruction, and understanding” ().
(next time: the fruit of polemics)
1 Commentary on the Acts, I:509.
2 Commentaries on the Catholic Epistles, p. 318.
3 “The Young Calvinist,” March, 1921, p. 70.