Text of an address delivered at the Annual Reformed Free Publishing Association meeting September 20, 1984.
Through the years the Standard Bearer has had more than its share of negative criticism. This has come mainly from outside of Protestant Reformed circles. It has come from those who are opposed to us and our distinctively Reformed position. These people just plain hate us and the cause we represent, and so they criticize both us and our paper. This criticism is often harsh and bitter. I have heard, for example, the Standard Bearer called The Slander Bearer. If these people do not criticize us they ignore our paper and have nothing to do with us. I am not all that concerned about this.
What does concern me and it ought to concern you is the criticism I hear from our own people. Some of us are quite vocal and openly critical of our magazine. Some refuse to read parts of it and a few refuse to read it at all. The main criticism appears to be that the Standard Bearer is far too negative. Why must we always be pointing out error? Why must we always be harping about heresy? And more especially why must we be concentrating our attention on the errors of others, especially the Christian Reformed Church. This is more than ample reason to consider the subject: “The Standard Bearer and Polemics.” Ought we change the emphasis of our magazine? Are the criticisms valid?
Polemics is the refuting of error. It involves controversy. Polemics is the exposing of error in doctrine or in practice. It is refuting those errors. Polemics is the refutation of error by means of Scripture and the Confessions of the church. Polemics is never mere controversy. It is never arguing for the sake of argument nor is it a matter of mere logical debate. Certainly Polemics is not playing games nor engaging in mental exercises. Positively, Polemics is the exposing of error in the light of Scripture and the Confessions. In Polemics we refute error by showing precisely how it conflicts with Scripture as expressed in our Reformed Creeds. Polemics is really an exercise of faith, faith in God in Christ as revealed in Holy Scripture.
Polemics is for the sake of the truth and glory of God. The church never engages in Polemics merely in a negative way. Error must be exposed and refuted in the light of God’s Word. God’s people must know why this or that doctrine and practice is in conflict with Scripture. But they must know this in order that they may know and grow in the knowledge of the truth. Polemics is necessary for the defense and maintenance of the truth.
The truth is reality over against error or the lie. God is The Truth. God in all of His perfection, God the Creator and Sustainer of the universe, God the Sovereign Lord of heaven and earth, God our Father for Jesus sake, God is The Truth, the reality over against the lie. God is the God of all truth. Christ is The Truth. Christ as the revelation of the God of our salvation, the only begotten Son of the Father, is full of grace and truth. This is why Jesus said: “I am the way, the truth and the light.” Christ is the perfect revelation of the truth over against the lie. The truth is found in Jesus and nowhere else. The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of truth Who was poured out into the church by the exalted Christ. The Holy Spirit comforts, guides, preserves us by leading us into all the truth. The truth is revealed in Holy Scripture. Inspired by the Holy Spirit the infallible Word of God reveals the truth of God in Christ. That truth in Scripture is summed and set forth in our Confessions, the three Forms of Unity. And we confess: “as taught here in this Christian Church,” in the Protestant Reformed Churches by God’s grace. That truth must be defended and maintained over against the lie. Error in doctrine or life must be exposed and refuted in order that the truth may flourish. This is precisely the way our Confessions were born. They were formulated over against heresy. And it is in this way that the church grows in its knowledge of the truth.
The deepest reason for Polemics, therefore, is the glory of God. Error is always an attack against God. God’s Name, God’s glory are inseparably connected with the truth. God is the God of all truth. When the truth is attacked or denied, God is attacked or denied. This is the deepest issue at stake in Polemics. All error is a denial of God in all of His sovereignty, might, and glory. Deny Genesis 1 and you deny the Creator God. Deny the first Adam and you deny the last Adam. That is true of all of Scripture. What is more, false doctrine always leads to ungodly living, a transgressing of God’s law. II Peter 2:1 ff makes plain that the damnable heresies of the false teachers lead to pernicious ways of the false teachers and their followers. For this reason we must refute the lie wherever and whenever it appears. In this way the truth is defended and maintained. In this way we grow in the knowledge of the truth. In this way God’s Name is praised and we live a new, godly life. This, in brief, is what Polemics is all about.
Ought the Standard Bearer to be engaged in Polemics? To answer this question we must notice that Scripture calls the church to this task. This in large measure was the task of the prophets of the Old Testament. They were called to make known the will of God to God’s people. They spoke of the promise and they directed the faith and hope of God’s people to the coming Christ. They instructed God’s people in the truth of God’s Word. Always the prophets proclaimed the truth over against the lie. They warned the people of their sins and backsliding, of their idolatry and apostasy. The prophets spoke of the impending judgments of God on account of their sins. More often than not they were severely persecuted for this. Think for example of Jeremiah in the dungeon or Elijah under the juniper tree.
The same is true of the ministry of Jesus. Jesus engaged in Polemics. Contrary to popular thinking about Jesus, He in the sharpest of terms denounced, exposed, and refuted error in doctrine and life. Jesus taught the disciples and the people the truth to be sure. But Jesus did that over against the lie. Jesus had no time for the self-righteousness, work-righteousness doctrine of the Pharisees. He never hesitated to show the error and evil of this false doctrine from the Scriptures. A large percentage of His recorded sermons are directed against false teachers and their heresies. Entire sermons of Jesus are devoted to this, such as the one recorded in Matthew 23.
The same is true of the Apostles. They never tire of calling the people of God to the task. We must fight the good fight of faith by putting on the whole armor of God. We must avoid vain and profane babblings and follow after the truth. We must reject false doctrines and heresies and flee from the very appearance of evil. The whole of Jude and two thirds of II Peter are polemical. II Peter 2 warns of the certain coming of the false teachers into the church. These false teachers work privily. They are never out in the open. They bring into the church damnable heresies, and many follow their pernicious ways by reason of whom the way of truth is evil spoken of. The false teachers are compared to Balaam, the false prophet who was rebuked for his error by his dumb ass. They are compared to dogs who return to their own vomit and to washed sows who return to the mire. II Peter 3 warns of the scoffers who denied the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ. The church is admonished to grow in the grace and knowledge of Christ lest she fall from her steadfastness and be led away with the error of the wicked.
For this reason too, both the Church Order and the Ordination Forms and the Formula of Subscription make clear that Professors, ministers, and elders must expound and defend the truth over against all heresies repugnant thereto. This belongs to the calling of office bearers. If they fail to do this, they are unfaithful, false teachers.
Yes, the Standard Bearer ought to engage in Polemics. This was the reason historically for the existence of Reformed Free Publishing Association. Our Protestant Reformed fathers needed the freedom to expose the error of Common Grace. All through the years the Standard Bearer has faithfully and vigorously defended the faith against heresy. This must continue. This must not be done merely in a negative fashion. Errors must be exposed and refuted and we must not hesitate to do that. But we must do it in the way of the positive development of the truth. We must do it so that our readers grow in the grace and knowledge of God in Christ. We must do it so that the church’s understanding of the truth increases. We must fight the good fight of faith also by means of the pages of the Standard Bearer. We must not allow negative criticism to deter us.
The issue is crucial. A professor from another Seminary lamented recently: “We have a generation of theological illiterates.” Let us pray that that never be said of us or our children. Let us be faithful and courageous in the defense of the faith. Let us be faithful lest it be said of us: “God’s people are destroyed for lack of knowledge.” Let us be faithful lest we become the means by which the Name of God is blasphemed.