The polemics of love
Sometimes we are warned at Reformed Perspective to stay away from any divisive "theological" issues. Not only does dealing with such issues cause unnecessary division among the general readership, we are told, but such matters are considered really to belong in typical church magazines or denominational periodicals. A magazine such as ours, which purports to provide edifying material for the Christian family, should refrain from discussing matters of religion and theology.
The conclusion would be, then, no polemics please in Reformed Perspective!
Others vehemently disagree with the above-mentioned viewpoint. They point to the fact that all of life is a unity before God. Which means: religion may not be divorced from the rest of our life! Is not all of life essentially religious? Such readers also miss in our magazine a specific section on "religion," and they feel that Reformed Perspective must analyze and discuss issues which are being raised in churches and denominations worldwide!
The conclusion would be, then, that polemics is required for the proper forming of Christian families in the one Truth of the Word of God and the Reformed confession!
What is polemics?
Before we continue to discuss the pros and cons of polemics, it is necessary first to determine what is meant by this word. A reliable dictionary defines the word "polemics" as follows: the art or practice of disputation or controversy; specifically polemic theology, which has for its object refutation of errors.
The word "polemics" comes from a Greek root meaning "to wage war." It is precisely because of the warlike and controversial nature of polemics that many people today find it a distasteful art. Why fight?
Polemics is basically in our time a lost art. In previous times, polemics may have been a much-used mode of combatting the (wrong) viewpoints of others and promoting the truth. But in today's age of religious indifference and tolerance, who still wants to argue points of religion? Is not truth relative? Should people not be free to think whatever they please?
Perhaps here lies one of the reasons why the Reformed Confessions are today not widely appreciated. The Reformed Confessions are quite positive about what is (exclusively) the Truth and are generally polemical. The Canons of Dort, one of The Three Forms of Unity, mentioned also in the masthead of this magazine, even contain a special section in each chapter titled "Rejection (Refutation) of Errors." The Belgic Confession as well as the Heidelberg Catechism, the other two creeds of the Three Forms of Unity, in various articles and Lord's Days specifically reject false teachings and views promoted by persons, sects, or false churches. The same applies to other Reformed standards as well.
Since Truth must always be promoted and defended specifically against the ancient lie of Satan and fallen man, it is of itself antithetical and polemical. This is true not only in matters of theology, but also in matters of politics, economics, and science, yes, in every aspect of life!
The polemics of love
From a biblical viewpoint we may say that polemics is required as an exercise of Christian love towards the neighbor. In the book of Proverbs we can read the following, "Faithful are the wounds of a friend; profuse are the kisses of an enemy" (27:6) and "He who rebukes a man will afterward find more favor than he who flatters with his tongue" (28:23). The same sentiment is echoed in the Psalms, "Let a good man strike or rebuke me in kindness..." (143:5).
It is clear that if someone cares about those who are going on ways of falsehood or are being misled, he will wage a battle for their minds and hearts, and he will not shun the fight. Those who love the Truth, will always seek to promote it and will not stand by to see it attacked and ridiculed. This means that sometimes we must inflict hurt and pain in order to drive home what is true. What is first experienced as unpleasant and painful may later be appreciated as refreshing and healing.
In any case, polemics is a labor of love. The late Dr. K. Schilder was an ardent polemicist who in his time battled on two fronts: against the high (Scripture) criticism and blatant Barthianism outside the Reformed Churches and against the Kuyperian scholasticism within the Reformed Churches. When once publicly chastised that he was misusing polemics as a personal hobby, Schilder answered, "It is my firm conviction that not engaging in polemics means: to let go of a brother." He also said, "When does someone misuse his pen? When he does not deal with the issues." Indeed, to reject polemics is to refuse to fight for the unity of the true faith.
The danger of polemics
If polemics is a necessary thing also today, this does not mean that it is without danger. Polemics can easily degenerate into a battle between personalities in which personal judgments are not carefully avoided. It can become a war of wits or a verbal barrage which does not deal with the real issues but gets sidetracked in mud-slinging and name-calling. Then polemics no longer serves its purpose, namely to win the neighbor for the Truth. Was it not Calvin who warned us that when we comment on institutions and doctrines, we shall not judge persons? Let us leave the judgment to God.
Everyone who engages in polemics must be careful to stick to the issues and not to make personalistic comments. One must also be prepared to deal honestly with the points which opponents have made and to treat their viewpoint with due respect. Only when it is clear that others use improper tactics, must this be humbly demonstrated, not to vindicate oneself but to protect the readers. But let no true polemicist lose heart: at all times the Truth must be vigorously defended, no matter who the opponent is or what the topic is!
Especially those who engage in polemics must be aware of the ethics involved. Those who teach, wrote James, shall be judged with greater strictness. It would perhaps be safer and easier not to speak out or to write. But whoever is called to the great battle of the Lord, must fight and fight well, honestly and confidently tackling the issues, out of love of God and to the neighbor. Out of love for the Word of the Son who alone can set us free.