How to Deal with Those Who Differ from Us, Part 3

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June 6, 2012 Tags: Christian Unity

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

How to Deal with Those Who Differ from Us, Part 3
Detail: Annibale Carracci (1560 –1609) The Samaritan Woman at the Well, late 16th century. Oil on canvas, 170 cm x 225 cm

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? Part 1 addressed what we owe those with whom we disagree, Part 2 took up the question of what we can learn from those who disagree with us, and today's part 3 examines arguments that appeal to scripture, as well as general arguments that appeal to reason.

How Can I Cope with Those Who Differ from Me?

In the previous two sections, we sought to explore how to derive the maximum benefit from controversy both as to those who differ by being sure that we do not fail in our duty toward them, and as to ourselves in welcoming an opportunity to learn as well as an occasion to vindicate our position. Now after having given due attention to the questions, "What do I owe?" and "What can I learn?", it is certainly proper to raise the query, "How can I cope with those who differ from me?"

Now "coping" involves naturally two aspects known as "defensive" and "offensive." Unfortunately, these terms are borrowed from the military vocabulary and tend to reflect a pugnacious attitude which injects bitterness into controversies. We should make a conscious effort to resist that trend. Furthermore "offensive" is often understood as meaning "giving offense" or "repulsive" rather than simply "passing to the attack." It may therefore be better to use the adjectives "protective" and "constructive" to characterize these two approaches.

Biblical Arguments

In evangelical circles biblical arguments carry maximum weight if properly handled, for they invoke the authority of God Himself in support of a position. This is what Luther so eloquently asserted at the Diet of Worms, and what the Westminster Confession also bears witness to in these words:

God alone is Lord of the conscience, and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men which are in any way contrary to His Word, or beside it in matters of faith or worship (WCF 20, 2).

We need here to be careful to make a reverent use of Scripture, quoting every reference in a way that is consistent with its context. This will protect our approach against the legitimate criticisms levied against "proof-texting," a method that lifts scriptural statements from their environment, and marshals them as if they were isolated pronouncements vested with divine authority without regard to the way in which they are introduced in Holy Writ. A notable example of this wrong approach would be to claim that God sanctions the statement, "There is no God" because it is found in Ps. 14:1 and 53:1.

We must therefore be careful to use the Scripture in such a way that an examination of the context will strengthen, not weaken, the argument. Very few things are as damaging to a position as a claim to be grounded in the authority of God's Word, only to find that a more careful examination of the text in its context cancels out the support it was presumed to give. An argument of this type, like the house built on sand, "falls with a great crash" (Matt. 7:27).

Likewise, a well-advised person will be careful to avoid passages that "boomerang"-- passages that are used as proof, but turn out to be more decisive against the view advanced. For example, some people quote Phil. 2:12, "Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling" and forget that Paul continues, "For it is God who works in you to will and to act . . . ."

All this demands that we should know the Word of God. God entrusted the sacred Scriptures to His people in order that they may search it diligently (John 5:39) and make it the object of their daily meditation (Ps. 119). To be acquainted with the whole counsel of God (Acts 20:27) must be the aim not only of "professionals" like pastors and professors, but of everyone who wants to be known as a Christian. To be sound in the interpretation, correlation and application of the Scriptures is the way "to be approved, a workman who does not need to be ashamed" (2 Tim. 2:15), and every child of God ought to aspire to that.

Protectively we may be aware of passages that are often quoted to invalidate a stance which we find scriptural. Sometimes we may anticipate this objection even before it is raised and be prepared to show how it does not undercut our view. If we have a particularly strong refutation, we may at times wait until the person who differs quotes the passage. In this way we may score the psychological advantage of destroying an argument thought valid. Even this however, must remain within the framework of "speaking the truth in love" (Eph. 4:15).

In some cases it may be possible to show that the interpretation which would see in a particular passage an objection to the scriptural truth we are undertaking to advocate is simply improper and indefensible because it sets this Scripture in conflict with its context, or at least with the larger context of the unity of divine revelation. In other cases it may be sufficient to show that there are one or several plausible alternative explanations of this text that do not precipitate the alleged conflict. Since we are obliged to seek the unity of the truth, a plausible interpretation that averts a conflict may well deserve preference. [EMPHASIS ADDED]

To sum up, we must ever strive to take account of the fullness of biblical revelation to have the boldness to advance as far as it leads, and the restraint to stop in our speculations where the Bible ceases to provide guidance. Polemic Theology in this respect is simply biblical light focused in such a way as to assist those who appear yet caught in some darkness.

General Arguments--- Appeal to Reason

These arguments direct their appeal to something other than the actual text of Scripture, namely to logic, history and tradition. While the authority involved is not on the same level as the Bible, the Word of God, it has a bearing on the discussions and must be considered by those who wish to make a strong case.

Human reason, especially when not guided by divine revelation, is apt to go astray either in being unduly influenced by prejudice (what we call "rationalizing") or when reason forgets its proper limits and attempts to apply to the infinite what is valid only for finite categories. Nevertheless, reason is a divine gift to humankind, indispensable to the process of receiving, applying and communicating revelation (cf. J. I. Packer, "Fundamentalism" and the Word of God, pages 128-137). It is a part and parcel of God's image in humanity. To fly in the face of logic is to court self-destruction, for logic has a way to beat its own path in the process of history. Rational arguments may therefore be presented with propriety, and those advanced by people who differ from us must be addressed.

Constructively, it behooves me to show that my view is in keeping with the totality of revealed truth, with the structure of the Christian faith as an organism of truth. I will promote the acceptance of an individual tenet if I can show that it is inescapably related to some other element of the faith on which I and the one who differs from me have agreement. For instance, one who accepts the doctrine of the Trinity is pretty well bound to confess the deity of Christ and vice versa.


Specifically, it is in order to make plain the damaging or even disastrous effects that a departure from the position I advocate will logically entail. In doing this, I must carefully distinguish between the view that the other person actually espouses and the implication that I perceive as resulting from it. [emphasis added] Failure to make this distinction has resulted in the ineffectiveness of much Polemic Theology. Christians have wasted a huge amount of ammunition in bombarding areas where their adversaries were not in fact located, but where it was thought they were logically bound to end up.

To struggle with a caricature is not a "big deal." And to knock down a straw man does not entitle one to the Distinguished Service Cross! To be sure, it is a part of the proper strategy to show those who differ that their view involves damaging implications that will be difficult to resist in the course of time, but one must remain aware that it is the present position rather than anticipated developments that must be dealt with.

Protectively, I need to face the objections that are raised against my view. Some of them are irrelevant because they are based on a misunderstanding of the issues. To deal with these will help me to clarify my position and to reassert it with proper safeguards against one-sidedness, exaggeration or misconceptions. For instance, I may show that definite atonement is not incompatible with a universal offer of salvation in Christ, even though the supporters of universal atonement frequently think it is. Other objections may be shown to be invalid because they apply to the view of those who differ as well as to mine. Still other objections may be recognized as peripheral, that is to say, difficulties that may or may not be resolved rather than considerations that invalidate a position otherwise established.

For instance, some alleged contradictions between two passages of Scripture represent a difficulty for the doctrine of inerrancy rather than discrediting this otherwise well-established tenet of the faith. Obviously the most advantageous situation is found when an objection can be turned around to become a positive argument in favor of the view objected to. Jesus' treatment of the Old Testament Law in Matt. 5:21-42 is a case in point. It might appear to a superficial reader that in this text Jesus repudiates the authority of the Law, when in fact He confirms it and reinforces it by His spiritual interpretation.

Furthermore, it is sometimes effective to challenge a person who differs from us to articulate an alternative approach which we may then proceed to criticize. For instance, a person who denies the deity of Christ may well be pressed to give his or her answer to Jesus' question, "Who do you say that I am?" (Matt. 16:15). Any answer short of full deity may be shown as deeply unsatisfactory, as leading to some form of polytheism or as failing utterly to account for the facts of the life, death and resurrection of Christ. It may be hoped that those who have unsatisfactory views may then leave the smoldering ruins of their system and take refuge in the solid edifice of the faith "once for all entrusted to the saints" (Jude 3).

In the final post in our series, Dr. Nicole will look at general arguments that appeal to Christian history and tradition

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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