Five Reasons on How and Why Theological Controversy and Polemics can Be Edifying

My “e-friend” and blogging colleague (i.e. he is a theo-blogger too), Derek Rishmawy has just reposted 5 ingredients to being a good theologian from one of his favorite theologians, Thomas Weinandy (and Weinandy is good!). So in that spirit, I thought I would repost 5 reasons on how and why theological controversy and polemics can be edifying from my favorite living theologian, John Webster. Be edified!

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I have had a long and varied blogging career (since 2005, so relatively speaking), and in that career lots of life has happened. One part of that happening has been continued theological development, hopefully toward the unity of faith that has already found its terminus in Christ’s unity for us with the Father by the Spirit. Some of you have been with me for my entire blogging career (almost), and others started with me mid-career, while others of you are just new comers. Much of my career has been characterized by polemical speech. In the beginning of my career, being new to the online world, I was more intrigued than anything else; and the sense of anonymity coupled with being too close to the halls of Bible College and Seminary dorm life, fused together in a way that found ultimate expression in online debates about minutiae that might only be characterized by Fundamentalist idiosyncrasy, and zeal. This zeal, though, I can honestly say, was not born out of a vindictive heart, or a desire to show people that I was smarter than them, or better at rhetorical wit (well, maybe sometimes it could be so reduced!); but really, I have always had a passion for the truth of the Gospel and the edification of the body of Christ. My zeal for the Gospel, in its best moments could be stated this way and for this end:  “Zeal is public passion for gospel truth; without it the church drifts into indifference, weariness or irony of the late career religious professional.” [John Webster, The Domain of the Word, 167.] I don’t ever want to experience this kind of drift, but a growing in zeal with knowledge. And I would like to believe that most of my blogging career has been characterized not by wandering polemic aiming at a bunch of moving targets; but a ‘zeal’ and ‘public passion for gospel truth’!

In this spirit, John Webster offers five reasons wherein theological controversy can be fruitful and edifying. I was contemplating only emphasizing the last thesis statement by Webster, but I think I will give it a go, and transcribe all five reasons; because, well, they are that good! I will offer each thesis, and then provide a summary/response at the end.

[F]irst, and most generally, theological controversy must be an exercise within the communio sanctorum. Those who contend are saints, not mere ‘civil neighbours’. They are bound together by bonds beyond the natural, together placed in the tranquil realm of reconciliation. It is as reconciled and sanctified persons that they engage in controversy; reconciled and sanctified controversy is a very different exercise from its unregenerate counterpart. Moreover, the end of controversy is the furtherance of communion, not its erosion. Righteous conduct in theological controversy requires charity, and therefore resists the flight from society which contests commonly precipitate.

Second, theological controversy must be undertaken in a way which displays and magnifies the truth of the gospel whose author and content in is peace. This principle brings with it a remarkably demanding ascetical requirement: controversy will only serve peace in the church if it has an external orientation, if it is a movement in response to an object beyond the contending parties. Without this reference to the object – an object, we should remember, which is primarily and antecedently a divine subject, living, personally, active communicative and directive – controversy will simply reinforce discord by embedding in the public life of the church the self-absorption of sensuous minds which, the apostle tells us, do not ‘hold fast to the Head’ (Col. 2.19). may controversy be conducted without self-conceit, mutual provocation and envy (Gal. 5.25), and assist in the uniting of the hearts and minds of the saints in a common object of delight.

Third, theological controversy must not allow divergence of opinion to become divergence of will otherwise it will fail as an exercise of charity. ‘Concord is a union of will, not of opinions’. In many cases, however, we allow divergence of opinion to become inflamed, and so to erode concord, failing to rest content with the fact that those from whom we diverge in opinion may be at one with us in a commonly cherished good. There are, of course, conflicts which are generated from fundamental divergences about the gospel, and which cannot be contained within concord, there being no common object of love. But these are not conflicts within the church so much as about the church. In such cases concord must wait for conversion to the truth.

Fourth, theological controversy must have an eye to the catholicity of the object of Christian faith and confession, an object which exceeds any specification of it which we may make. The object which constitutes the peace of the church and which is the substance of common Christian love is infinite and inexhaustible. This does not give licence to any representation which may court our favour – the object of common love is this one, not a formless reality. Yet, of all possible objects of love, this one is not such that we can ever end our dealings with him, determine him in such a way that we put ourselves beyond learning from our companions. Controversy turns into conflict when opinions become weapons of the will, that is, when some one reading of the gospel becomes that to which others must conform even at cost to that friendly concord in which ‘the hearts of many are joined into one focal point’.

Fifth, and most of all, theological controversy must be undertaken with tranquil confidence that, with the illuminating power of the Spirit, Jesus Christ will instruct and unify the church through Holy Scripture. Properly conducted, theological controversy is an exercise in reading the Bible in common with the calm expectation of discovering again what makes up peace and builds up our common life. We often talk ourselves into (or perhaps allow ourselves to be talked into) a kind of barren naturalism according to which appeals to Scripture founder on irresolvable exegetical and hermeneutical conflict. Once confidence in the power of Scripture to determine matters in the church is lost, the politics of the saints quickly slides into agonistic practices in which we expect no divine comfort or direction. This is not a new experience in the history of the church; it has afflicted Western Protestants since at least the early seventeenth century – John Owen, in a melachonly aside, lamented that ‘men do hardly believe that there is an efficacy and power accompanying the institutions of Christ’. The only corrective to loss of trust is recovery of trust. Because there are divine institutions, because there are prophets and apostles in service to the prophetic presence of Christ, we are not devoid of divine assistance and we may be confident that exegesis, rightly and spiritually ventured, will not exacerbate conflict but draw its sting, and guide our feet into the way of peace.[1]

All of these are good (even excellent, at points!). But let me close by focusing on the fifth point. This is one that I have struggled with over the years, and what Christian Smith has called the problem of Pervasive Interpretive Pluralism; the idea that we all have our own kind of Wesleyan Quadrilateral: Scripture, Tradition, Reason, and Experience. And given this reality, coupled with the ‘Reformed’ Priesthood of All Believers, it becomes almost terminally difficult to come to any commonly held interpretive conclusions around the text of Scripture. And so in argument, among ourselves (per some of the dictates highlighted by Webster), we all appeal to Scripture, but we proof text right past each other. I have often argued in the past that we need to become aware of the theology that we are committed to prior to using Scripture to challenge each other’s conclusions; but what I have fallen prey to, is what Webster cautions us to. That is, a sequestering of the text of Scripture by theological concerns, such that Scripture no longer really has any kind of norming norming effect or centrality of place in our theological discussions. Scripture becomes a relic and trophy of our  heritage, but not the place where the Lordly Word can accost us in such a way that it can strip all of us bare and level us out in a way where we all are kneeling together at the foot of the cross, which is the preamble and shape of the throne at the right hand of the Father. So I am convicted by Webster’s last point! And the rest too …


[1] John Webster, The Domain of the Word:Scripture and Theological Reason, (London: T&T Clark, 2012), 169-70.

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