How to Deal with Those Who Differ from Us, Part 4
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 this series, 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 part 3 examined arguments that appeal to scripture, as well as general arguments that appeal to reason. In the final post in our series, Dr. Nicole looks at general arguments that appeal to Christian history and tradition.
Appeal to History and Tradition
The course of history is a remarkable laboratory that permits us to observe the probable developments that issue from the holding of certain tenets. The decisions of councils or the pronouncements of confessions of faith are often geared to guard against erroneous opinions that God's people recognized as dangerous or even fatal to the faith. To neglect this avenue of knowledge is to risk repeating some mistakes of the past that an acquaintance with history might well have enabled us to avoid. The Christological debates of the fourth and fifth centuries should protect us from the twin errors of Arianism and Apollinarianism, of Nestorianism and Monophysitism without our passing through the convulsions that the church of those days experienced. The Reformation of the sixteenth century, similarly, should shield us from repeating some of the mistakes of the Roman Catholic Church.
Constructively, it is proper for me to attempt to prove that I am in line with orthodoxy in general and specifically with statements of faith that have received wide acceptance or that are part of the subordinate standards of my church or of the church of the one who differs. This will be especially significant if the formulation was established for the purpose of warding off a position analogous to that of my opponent. Now all man-made statements are subject to revision and correction, but it appears prima facie impossible that a view that flatly contradicts the Nicene Creed or even the Westminster Standards should turn out to be right, while these revered creeds, tested as they were through centuries of Christian thinking, should be wrong.
Specifically, the position of the one who differs may so closely approximate a well-known heresy adjudged as heterodox that the course of history may provide a portrayal of what happens to those who entertain it. The disastrous course of Arianism, culminating as it did in the Moslem conquest of North Africa, may be an example. We need, however, to be careful to recognize the importance of weighing all operative factors rather than just some selected ones which seem to suit our purpose. The demise of Christianity in North Africa applied largely to Egypt where a monophysite tendency prevailed, as well as to the lands that had been conquered by the Vandals with their Arian commitment.
Those who would gloat over the increasing heterodoxy of the Arminian movement in the Netherlands should probably be somewhat sobered in thinking of the destiny of Calvinism in New England, which moved from high orthodoxy around 1650 to the rather massive Unitarian and Pelagian defection at the beginning of the nineteenth century. These remarks do not invalidate the value of the lessons of history, but merely admonish to caution in applying them.
Protectively, the course of action would parallel closely what was described above. Objections raised against our view may be shown to be counterproductive, because they support rather than undermine our view. They also may be judged irrelevant, because they fail to address our real position or because they burden equally the objector's view. Or they may simply be inconsequential, because they have only a peripheral bearing on the issues.
The Christian's Goal
Perhaps the most important consideration for the Christian is to remain aware at all times of the goal to be achieved. It is the consistent perception of this goal that will give a basic orientation to the whole discussion: Are we attempting to win an argument in order to manifest our own superior knowledge and debating ability? Or are we seeking to win another person whom we perceive as enmeshed in error or inadequacy by exposing him or her to the truth and light that God has given to us?
If the former be true, it is not surprising if our efforts are vain: we should be like physicians who take care of patients simply in order to accredit some pet theory. If the latter be true, we will naturally be winsome. This will increase our patience when the force of our arguments does not seem to have an immediate effect. This will challenge us anew to understand those who differ in order to present the arguments that are most likely to be persuasive to them. God has appointed all of us to be witnesses to the truth. (John 1:7; Acts 1:8) God is the one who can and will give efficacy to this witness.
We should never underestimate His ability to deal even with those who appear most resistant. Who would have thought that Stephen could actually reach the heart and mind of anyone in the lynch mob that put him to death? But his great discourse was actually sowing goads in the very heart and conscience of Saul (Acts 26:14). Acts 7 shows that his argument was sealed by his Christ-like spirit in the face of this atrocious murder (Acts 7:59-60). His witness was used by God to win over perhaps the ablest of his adversaries, who was to be the great apostle Paul!
A Christian who carries on discussions with those who differ should not be subject to the psychology of the boxing ring where the contestants are bent upon demolishing one another. Rather "The Lord's servant must not quarrel: instead, he must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful. Those who oppose him he must gently instruct, in hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth, and that they will come to their senses . . . " (2 Tim. 2:24-26).
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.