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Polemic Theology: How to Deal with Those Who Differ from Us, Part 1

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June 2, 2012 Tags: Christian Unity
Polemic Theology: How to Deal with Those Who Differ from Us, Part 1
Detail: Annibale Carracci (1560 –1609) The Samaritan Woman at the Well, late 16th century. Oil on canvas, 170 cm x 225 cm

Today's entry was written by Roger Nicole. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of BioLogos. You can read more about what we believe here.

Note: Christians are (and ought to be) held to a higher standard than unbelievers for how we treat our opponents and their arguments. Whether engaging with those who despise the faith or with our brothers and sisters in Christ with whom we differ in important doctrinal issues, we are called to love, even as much as we are called to truth.

This is the heart of Theologian Roger Nicole's 1998 essay "Polemic Theology," which first appeared in the Founder's Journal, and was more recently highlighted at the The Aquila Report. We see Nicole's work as an excellent guide for how the science and faith conversation should proceed, and so present it here (slightly-condensed for length) as a four-part series.

In his essay, Nicole poses three questions: What do I owe the person who differs from me? What can I learn from the person who differs from me? How can I cope with the person who differs from me? In today's post, Dr. Nicole answers the first of these questions.


It seems strange that one should desire to speak at all about Polemic Theology since we are now in an age when folks are more interested in ecumenism and irenics than in polemics. Furthermore, Polemic Theology appears to have been often rather ineffective. Christians have not managed in many cases to win over their opponents. They have shown themselves to be ornery; they have bypassed some fairly important prescriptions of Scripture; and in the end, they have not convinced very many people--sometimes not even themselves! Under these circumstances one perhaps might desire to bypass a subject like this altogether.

We are called upon by the Lord to contend earnestly for the faith (Jude 3). That does not necessarily involve being contentious; but it involves avoiding compromise, standing forth for what we believe, standing forth for the truth of God--without welching at any particular moment. Thus we are bound to meet, at various points and on various levels, people with whom we disagree. We disagree in some areas of Christian doctrine. We disagree as to some details of church administration. We disagree as to the way in which certain tasks of the church should be pursued.

If we are careful to observe the principles that I would like to expound in this article, we may find that they are valuable not only in the religious field but also in the realms of politics, business and family. Who does not encounter from time to time people who are not in complete agreement? Whether it is between husbands and wives, parents and children, co-workers on the job or fellow members in the church, it is impossible to live without disagreement. Therefore it is good to seek to discover certain basic principles whereby we may relate to those who differ from us.

There are three major questions that we must ask; and I would like to emphasize very strongly that, in my judgment, we need to ask them precisely in the right order:

  1. What do I owe the person who differs from me?
  2. What can I learn from the person who differs from me?
  3. How can I cope with the person who differs from me?

What Do I Owe to the Person Who Differs From Me?

Many people overlook the first two questions and jump right away to: "How can I cope with this? How can I bash this person right down into the ground in order to annihilate objections and differences?" Obviously, if we jump to the third question from the start, it is not likely that we will be successful in winning over dissenters. So I suggest, first of all, that we need to face squarely the matter of our duties. We have obligations to people who differ from us. This does not involve agreeing with them. We have an obligation to the truth, and that has priority over agreement with any particular person. If someone is not in the truth, we have no right to agree. We have no right even to minimize the importance of the difference. Consequently, we owe them neither consent nor indifference. But what we owe that person who differs from us, whoever that may be, is what we owe every human being--we owe them love. And we owe it to them to deal with them as we ourselves would like to be dealt with or treated. (Matthew 7:12)

How then do we desire to be treated? First, we want people to know what we are saying or meaning. If we are going to voice differences, therefore, we have an obligation to make a serious effort to understand the person with whom we differ. That person may have published books or articles. Then we should be acquainted with those writings. It is not appropriate for us to voice sharp differences if we have neglected to read what is available. The person with whom we differ should have evidence that we have read carefully what has been written and that we have attempted to understand its meaning. In the case of an oral exchange where we don't have any written words, we owe the per- son who differs from us the courtesy to listen carefully to what he or she says. Rather than preparing to pounce on that person the moment he or she stops talking, we should concentrate on apprehending precisely what his or her position is.

In this respect, Dr. Cornelius Van Til has given us a splendid example. As you may know, he expressed very strong objections to the theology of Karl Barth. This was so strong that Barth claimed that Van Til simply did not understand him. It has been my privilege to be at Dr. Van Til's office and to see with my own eyes the bulky tomes of Barth's, Kirchliche Dogmatik (incidentally, these volumes were the original German text, not an English translation). As I leafed through them I did not see one page that was not constellated with underlining, double-underlining, marginal annotations, exclamation points, and question marks galore. So here is someone who certainly did not say, "I know Karl Barth well; I understand his stance; I don't need to read any more of this; I can move on with what I have." Each of the volumes, including the most recent, gave evidence of very, very careful scrutiny. So when we take issue with somebody, we need to do the job that is necessary to know that person so that we are not voicing our criticism in the absence of knowledge but that we are proceeding from the vantage point of real acquaintance.

Even that is not enough, however. Beyond what a person says or writes, we must attempt to understand what a person means. If somebody fails to express himself or herself accurately, there is no great point in pressing the very language that is used. We ought to try to understand what is the meaning that this language is intended to convey. In some cases, we may provide an opportunity for an opponent to speak more accurately.

I have experienced this in my own home. I have noticed that my wife sometimes says things like, "You never empty the wastebasket." Now as a matter of fact, on January 12, 1994, I did empty the wastebasket. Therefore, the word never is inappropriate! This tends to weaken the force of my wife's reproach. Well, I've learned that I don't get any- where by pressing this point. This kind of response does not provide dividends of joy and peace in my home. I've learned, therefore, to interpret that when my wife says "never" she often means "rarely" or "not as often as should be." When she says "always," she means "frequently" or "more often than should be."

Instead of quibbling as to the words never and always, I would do well to pay attention to what she finds objectionable. And indeed, I should be emptying the wastebasket.

Similarly, in dealing with those who differ, we ought not to split hairs about language just in order to pounce on our opponent because he or she has not used accurate wording. It is more effective to seek to apprehend what is meant and then to relate ourselves to the person's meaning. If we don't do that, of course, there is no encounter because this person speaks at one level and we are taking the language at another level. The two do not meet and the result is bound to be frustrating. If we really want to meet, we might as well try to figure out the meaning rather than to quibble on wording.

Moreover, I would suggest that we owe to people who differ from us to seek to understand their aims. What is it that they are looking for? What is it that makes them tick? What is it that they are recoiling against? What are the experiences, perhaps tragic experiences, that have steeled them into a particular stance? What are the things that they fear and the things that they yearn for? Is there not something that I fear as well or yearn for in the same way? Is there not a possibility here to find a point of contact at the very start rather than to move on with an entirely defensive or hostile mood?

In the controversy between Calvinism and Arminianism, it must be understood that many Arminians (possibly almost all of them) believed that to affirm the complete sovereignty of God inevitably implies a rejection of any free will, power of decision, and even responsibility on the part of created rational beings, angelic or human. Their attachment to those features naturally leads them to oppose Calvinism as they understand it.

It is imperative for the Calvinist controversialist to affirm and to prove that he does not, in fact, deny or reject these modalities of the actions and decisions of moral agents but that he or she undertakes to retain these--even though their logical relation to divine sovereignty remains shrouded in a mystery that transcends finite, human logic.

Similarly, the Calvinist should not glibly conclude that evangelical Arminians are abandoning the notion of divine sovereignty because they assert the freedom of the human will. It is plainly obvious that Arminians pray for the conversion of those yet unconverted and that they desire to recognize the Lordship of God. The Arminian will do well to emphasize this in discussion with Calvinists so as to provide a clearer perception of the actual stance of both parties. It is remarkable that committed Calvinists can sing without reservation many of the hymns of Charles and John Wesley, and vice versa that most Arminians do not feel they need to object to those of Isaac Watts, Augustus Toplady, or John Newton.

In summary, I would say we owe it to our opponents to deal with them in such a way that they may sense that we have a real interest in them as persons, that we are not simply trying to win an argument or show how smart we are, but that we are deeply interested in them--and are eager to learn from them as well as to help them.

One method that I have found helpful in making sure that I have dealt fairly with a position that I could not espouse was to assume that a person endorsing that view was present in my audience (or was reading what I had written). Then my aim is to represent the view faithfully and fully without mingling the criticism with factual statements.

In fact, I try to represent them so faithfully and fully that an adherent to that position might comment, "This man certainly does understand our view!" It would be a special boon if one could say, "I never heard it stated better!" Thus I have earned the right to criticize. But before I proceed to do this, it is only proper that I should have demonstrated that I have a correct understanding of the position I desire to contest.

In part 2 of this series, Dr. Nicole answers the question, "What can I learn from those who differ from me?"

Roger Nicole (1915-2010) was visiting Professor of Theology at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando and professor emeritus of Gordon-Conwell Seminary. A native Swiss Reformed theologian and a Baptist, Dr. Nicole is regarded as one of the preeminent theologians in America. Nicole received S.T.M. and Th.D. degrees from Gordon Divinity School, a Ph.D. from Harvard University, and D.D. from Wheaton College. He was an associate editor for the New Geneva Study Bible and assisted in the translation of the NIV Bible. He was a past president and founding member of the Evangelical Theological Society, and a founding member of the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy. He wrote over one hundred articles and contributed to more than fifty books and reference works. For more on his life and work, see here.

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