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Frontline Ministries - The Church's Need for Polemics in the Postmodern World, Ch. 3

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CHAPTER 3

 

THE LOST ART OF POLEMICS

 

 

“Beloved, while I was very diligent to write to you concerning our common salvation, I found it necessary to write to you exhorting you to contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints.”[1] This passage of Scripture from Jude, along with dozens of others, provides the biblical basis for what is called polemics. Polemics is defending the truth against error. It deals with refuting false doctrine in the church.

The dictionary definition of polemic is, “1. A controversy or argument, especially one that is a refutation of or an attack upon a specified opinion, doctrine, or the like. 2. Plural. a. The art or practice of argumentation or controversy. b. The practice of theological controversy to refute errors of doctrine.”[2] It is easy to see why polemics is not popular in postmodernity. Most people, including Christians, have disdain for the “negative” words found in the definition: controversy, argument, attack, refute, errors, doctrine. The nature of polemics assumes that truth and error actually exist, and that they are important enough to fight for.

It is hard to believe that a chair of Didactic and Polemic Theology existed at Princeton Theological Seminary. B.B. Warfield held this position from 1887 until his death in 1921. Michael Horton noted, “Warfield was an example of what has become a dying breed in this century: a defender of truth at all costs, regardless of its unpopularity with either liberals or conservatives.”[3] Horton further observed, “There was a time, of course, when every theologian, whether Protestant or Roman Catholic, was a polemicist. Later, polemics became merely a distinct position on a theological faculty. Finally, it disappeared altogether in a spirit of congenial tolerance.”[4]

 

Where did the idea come from that Christians should just present the gospel without refuting error? It certainly did not come from the Scriptures or the leaders in church history. Horton explained it well:

The church was born in doctrinal debate. It fought its way to dominance through centuries of arguments over doctrinal detail. The Reformation was a controversy between two different gospels. The Great Awakening was in part the result of the controversial and polemical defense of the grace of God and human inability. John Newton not only gave us “Amazing Grace,” but polemical attacks on Arminian legalism in his day. Luther and Calvin not only wrote heated polemics against the Church of Rome, but against the “enthusiasts” whom we would know today as Pentecostals. But let us go back further. Where would we be without the polemics of Athanasius? And yet he was accused by Arians--that is, those who denied Christ’s divinity (and this was in some regions the majority view)--as a divisive person. Thank God that Irenaeus preferred truth to tolerance when he drove Gnosticism out of the church.

And what of the Scriptures themselves? God gave us St. Paul, who told legalists to castrate themselves, just as Jesus had told the religious leaders of his day that they were a den of robbers, a nest of snakes, white-washed tombs that appeared spotless on the surface but were full of hypocrisy and dead men’s bones. He told them that they travel over land and sea to evangelize one single convert only to make that person more a child of hell than he was before. And the prophets? They were so polemical that they were often executed by the very people against whose judgment the prophets were trying to warn. It seems that the whole progress of biblical revelation and church history through the ages has been forged out of the fire of controversy and the often angry struggles over truth. It is these great debates that have preserved the church from error and when the church grows lazy and fat, unwilling to be corrected, the world loses its only hope of salvation. It is never easy to correct, nor is it pleasant, but we are to “preach the truth in love.” However, neither are we to pretend that our laziness, ignorance and apathy in defending the truth are really attempts to preserve the bond of unity. With Luther, we must say, “Unity wherever possible, but truth at all costs.”[5]

It seems that the church has forgotten that it is the “pillar and ground of the truth.”[6] The church, in large measure, has lost its will to discern between truth and error. John MacArthur stated, “Discernment demands that we should hold biblical convictions with the most fervent tenacity. Titus 1:9 says a basic requirement for every elder is that he be the kind of man who ‘[holds] fast the faithful word which is in accordance with the teaching, that he may be able both to exhort in sound doctrine and to refute those who contradict.’ It is thus mandated by God that we take issue with error. We must refute those who contradict, or we do not fulfill our divine calling.”[7] If one fails to love the truth, one fails to love God; or as Gordon Clark wrote, “Since God is truth, a contempt for truth is equally a contempt for God.”[8]

Martyn Lloyd-Jones wrote decades ago:

Disapproval of polemics in the Christian Church is a very serious matter. But that is the attitude of the age in which we live. The prevailing idea today in many circles is not to bother about these things. As long as we are all Christians, anyhow, somehow, all is well. Do not let us argue about doctrine, let us all be Christians together and talk about the love of God. That is really the whole basis of ecumenicity. Unfortunately, that same attitude is creeping into evangelical circles also and many say that we must not be too precise about these things.  If you hold that view you are criticizing the Apostle Paul, you are saying that he was wrong,  and at the same time you are criticizing the Scriptures. The Scriptures argue and debate and dispute; they are full of polemics.[9]

People today want to cast everything into varying shades of gray. The truth is that far more things are black-and-white issues. Nowhere can this fact be more clearly seen than in the Scriptures. Jay Adams called this the principle of antithesis.

In the Bible, where antithesis is so important, discernment--the ability to distinguish God’s thoughts and God’s ways from all others--is essential. Indeed, God says that “the wise in heart will be called discerning” (Proverbs 16:21).  From the Garden of Eden with its two trees (one allowed, one forbidden) to the eternal destiny of the human being in heaven or in hell, the Bible sets forth two, and only two, ways: God’s way, and all others. Accordingly, people are said to be saved or lost. They belong to God’s people or the world. There was Gerizim, the mount of blessing, and Ebal, the mount of cursing. There is the narrow way and the wide way, leading either to eternal life or to destruction. There are those who against and those who are with us, those within and those without. There is life and death, truth and falsehood, good and bad, light and darkness, the kingdom of God and the kingdom of Satan, love and hatred, spiritual wisdom and the wisdom of the world. Christ is said to be the way, the truth, and the life, and no one may come to the Father but by Him. His is the only name under the sky by which one may be saved.[10]

Adams suggested that “people who study the Bible in depth develop antithetical mindsets: they think in terms of contrasts or opposites.”[11] How different this antithetical thinking is from the thinking of postmodernism which claims truth is a fuzzy gray with no center. Also, how different it is from the attitude of Evangelical Christians who want to only present biblical truth in positive terms but never point out error and especially never point out proponents of error. The name for this type of Christianity is called New Evangelicalism.

In the simplest of terms, “the heart of New Evangelicalism is this: It is a repudiation of the negative aspects of biblical Christianity.”[12] New Evangelicalism has its origins in leaders like Harold Ockenga and Billy Graham. Its main voice has been the magazine Christianity Today and its main organization has been the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE). Another way of identifying New Evangelicalism is its mood of neutralism. “New Evangelicalism is a philosophy, but it is also a mood. In his discerning book on Evangelicalism, subtitled New Neutralism, William  Ashbrook notes: ‘[New Evangelicalism] might more properly be labeled The New Neutralism. It seeks neutral ground, being neither fish nor fowl, neither right nor left, neither for nor against--it stands between!’ (p. 2).  New Evangelicalism can be identified by the following terms: Soft, cautious, hesitant, tolerant, pragmatic, accommodating, flexible, non-controversial, non-offensive, non-passionate, non-dogmatic.”[13] New Evangelicalism is the prevailing ideology among Evangelicals today. Its major premise is a repudiation of separatism in favor of infiltration.

In order to better understand the decline of polemics, an understanding of New Evangelicalism is needed.[14] If polemics died with modernism, New Evangelicalism nailed the coffin and buried it. However, as has been shown, this is not the biblical position.



[1] Jude 3, NKJV.

 

[2] The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (1976), s.v. “polemic”.

 

[3] Michael Horton, “How to Be Polemical (Without Being A Downright Nasty Person),” Modern Reformation 5, no. 5 (Sept./Oct. 1996): 4.

 

[4] Ibid., 5.

 

[5] Ibid.

 

[6] 1 Tim. 3:15, NKJV.

 

[7] John F. MacArthur, Reckless Faith: When the Church Loses Its Will to Discern (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 1994), 52; Scripture quoted from Tit. 1:9, NASB (New American Standard Bible).

 

[8] Gordon H. Clark, A Christian Philosophy of Education (Jefferson, Md.: Trinity Foundation, 1988), 158; quoted in MacArthur, 44.

 

[9] D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Romans: An Exposition of Chapters 3.20-4.25: Atonement and Justification (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1970), 113; quoted in MacArthur, 48.

 

[10] Jay E. Adams, A Call to Discernment (Eugene, Ore.: Harvest House, 1987), 31; quoted in MacArthur 49-50.

 

[11] Ibid., 29; quoted in MacArthur, 50.

 

[12] David W. Cloud, “Fundamentalism, Modernism, and New-Evangelicalism (Part III),” O Timothy 12, no. 1 (1995)  [database on-line];  available from http://www.whidbey.net/~dcloud/fbns/fundamen3.htm; Internet; accessed 24 October 1997.

 

[13] Ibid.

 

[14]For a comprehensive treatment of New Evangelicalism see John E. Ashbrook, New Neutralism II: Exposing the Gray of Compromise (n.p.: Here I Stand Books, 1992) available for $4.00 from Here I Stand Books 536 Greenside Dr. Painesville, OH 44077 or phone (440) 354-7725.



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