If Arianism were to rear its head today, it’d likely gain acceptance rather quickly because there would be few pastor-theologians willing to speak against it as forcefully, passionately—and yes, harshly—as Athanasius. We’d thoughtfully debate the issue with our “peers” while the heresy infected our flocks. Unlike the bishop of Alexandria, we wouldn’t risk being exiled five times by four world leaders. We fear we’d be shunned from symposia and conferences for having a pugilistic spirit, so we’d debate the heresy collegially and dispassionately.
“I grew up and was nurtured in the Reformed tradition, where theological sparring is a spectator sport,” Brian Mattson says. “I participated in the games, honed my wicked tongue (which was all-too-often genuinely wicked), and vanquished many foes.”
Mattson no longer engages in the “heated theological debates of the day” because, he says, “I burned out.” But he recently stepped back into the fray for another fight:
“Why, then, did I just publish a polemical essay in The Calvinist International responding to David Bentley Hart’s doctrine of the (non)resurrection of the flesh?”
It was just over week ago. I had read Hart’s fascinating and dizzying article (regardless of his content, he is supremely talented), and thought that maybe somebody should write a response. It was one of those fleeting thoughts that quickly dissolves into “somebody else will do it.” I’m busy. I’m traveling this week.
On Tuesday I attended a funeral.
As I sat there with tears in my eyes looking at the handsome wooden box wherein the remains of my friend lay—after a rapid and sudden decline—a Christian brother so universally beloved the church building was bursting its capacity, the fire was rekindled. And it burned white hot.
This is not self-indulgent intellectual tiddlywinks. This is not a “hill to die on that isn’t really.” There is a man dead. And a very smug theologian of world renown has just proclaimed that the flesh and bones in that box will remain there forever.
I Was Nice When I Should Have Been Harsh
Mattson’s courage and passion convicts me of my own cowardice and insouciance. Seven years ago I was engaged in my own debate with David Bentley Hart. In a discussion on the death penalty Hart told me he believes Noah never existed, and that Jesus was mistaken for believing the ark-builder was a historical figure. Although I considered Hart to a teacher of unsound doctrine (2 Tim. 4:3-4), I was cowed by his credentials into a conciliatory silence. He was a world-renowned theologian, and I was not. He was a regular columnist for First Things magazine, where I was an editor, and I feared the repercussions of calling him out as a “false teacher” (2 Pet. 2:1).
I convinced myself that the most important thing was to remain collegial, and that harsh polemical theology is probably sinful. I now believe I was wrong.
Polemical theology, as D. A. Carson has explained, is “nothing other than contending for a particular theological understanding (usually one that the contender holds to be the truth) and disputing those that contradict it or minimize it.”
Polemics are therefore necessary, as Carson adds, for it is “impossible to indulge in serious critical thought without becoming enmeshed, to some degree, in polemics.”
So Christians should engage in polemics. But must Christian polemics always be collegial?
When Collegiality and Dispassion Are Not a Virtue
In academia, collegiality is the premier virtue associated with rhetoric, followed closely by dispassion. There is an unspoken rule in academic debates that disagreement should be congenial and that the first to raise their voice, even figuratively, loses the debate.
There are, of course, exceptions to the rule. Professors can be harshly polemical against those the academy deems unworthy (such as creationists), but when they take such a stance against a respected peer it’s considered gauche and unprofessional. An excess of passion, expressed rhetorically, about one’s subject is symptomatic of cranks and pundits, not scholars and intellectuals.