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UNCHARITABLE? DIVISIVE? STRIDENT? Recovering the Art of Christian Polemics

Discussion in 'Positive Critique' started by BrianK, Nov 16, 2017.

  1. BrianK

    BrianK Resident Kook, Crank, Curmudgeon - & Mod Staff Member


    Recovering the Art of Christian Polemics

    October 2002
    By David Mills

    David Mills is a Senior Editor of Touchstone: A Magazine of Mere Christianity.

    Most well-read Christians know the two most famous stories of the early Church's approach to dialogue. St. Polycarp tells us that the apostle John once went to the public bath in Ephesus and found inside a Gnostic teacher named Cerinthus. John ran out crying, "Let us fly, lest even the bath-house fall down, because Cerinthus, the enemy of the truth, is within."

    Polycarp himself once met the heretic Marcion walking down the street. Marcion hated the creator-God of the Hebrews, and to get rid of Him had tossed out the Old Testament and much of the New and rewrote the bits he kept. Marcion asked Polycarp, "Do you know me?" and Polycarp answered, "I do know you. You are the firstborn of Satan."

    Their Reason

    By and large, modern Christians do not speak like this, though we have teachers as hostile to the Faith as Cerinthus and Marcion. Many of them speak with the authority of chairs in theology and of "reverend" before their name, and publish books the vulnerable, the naïve, and the gullible read and believe. These teachers are just as dangerous to peoples' souls as the great heretics of the first centuries, but we do not speak of our heretics as the great saints spoke of theirs.

    This is almost as true of conservative or traditional Christians as of "centrists" and liberals. (The "centrist," I have always thought, is usually just a liberal in slow motion.) You will make a conservative group wince by calling someone a heretic, so well have we all been trained by the dominant dislike of such clear but dividing judgments. "Heretic" is a perfectly objective term, describing a particular relation to Christian doctrine, freely chosen, but almost every Christian will hear it as a vulgar term of abuse.

    St. John and St. Polycarp spoke the way they did because every word matters when you are talking about Jesus. One word is true, and another word, which may be a very similar word, is false. The right word leads to Jesus, the wrong word leads away from Him. Jesus is of one being with the Father, not of like being. He is the Son of the Father, not a son of the Father. He is begotten, not made.

    Therefore those who say the wrong words, and keep saying them after the authorities have corrected them, proclaim a Jesus who does not exist, and thereby endanger the souls of men who want to meet Him. The Jesuses they present almost always look a lot like the real Jesus, especially to those who do not know Him very well.

    And they are usually very good spokesmen for the Jesus they've invented. Men of this sort are almost always compelling teachers, who offer a Jesus designed to be what many of their hearers expect or want. The successful heretic knows how to design his product to sell in the religious market, and many people will like his Jesus a lot more than the real one.

    People who are so good at offering the world a fake Jesus must be rebuked and corrected by those, pastors and writers particularly, who have the gifts to do so. They will sometimes have to speak a hard word, in the mode of St. John or St. Polycarp. They will sometimes have to explain that Smith is wrong and that Jones is a false teacher and that Wilson is an enemy of the Faith.

    This is a way they minister to those placed within their care. The writer is his readers' shepherd for as long as they read his work, whether or not he wants to be. Both pastor and writer speak mainly to lead their sheep to water and grass, but they will also speak to guard them from the wolves, to make sure that the sheep live long enough to reach the water and the grass. They know that many of their sheep will not recognize a wolf on sight, and left on their own might invite the wolf home to dinner, only to find, too late, that they are the main course.

    Because the pastor or writer wants his sheep to get to the water and grass whole and unharmed, he must teach them about wolves, and point out as many wolves as he can. It is the job God has given him to do. It comes with the gifts God has given him.

    All Obvious

    This is all, to a traditional Christian mind, obvious. But as soon as you try it, you will find yourself criticized, even in conservative Christian circles. You will find yourself called unkind, arrogant, and uncharitable; or divisive, troublemaking, and an impediment to mission; or harsh and strident; or simple-minded. You will be accused of sins against the person (the first set of charges), sins against the community (the second), sins against manners (the third), and sins against reason (the fourth).

    You will hear this not only from the sentimental and the wooly-minded, who dislike polemics on principle, but from people who agree that Christians must write against error though they themselves shrink from the actual battle. This type will tell you that while Wilson is indeed an enemy of the Faith, you should have waited before writing against him (waited for what is almost never made clear), or treated his errors in a less combative way, or stressed the good work he is doing rather than the bad, or tried harder to find some common ground.

    You may be told that you attract more flies with honey than vinegar. I have been told this more than once, by men who thought they were being profound or wise, or something. They did not make the distinction, basic and essential to pastoral judgment, between someone who must be corrected and someone who must be rebuked.

    They assume that all such discourse must be aimed at the conversion of the heretic, and that the only way to convert him is to speak nicely to him. They have no good reason, in Scripture or in the example of the Fathers, for this idea.

    Your critic may well be right in this or that case, but I have noticed that despite his theoretical approval for polemics you never find him writing polemically, except against the easiest of targets. In the last two decades you could find many Episcopalians speaking against the former Bishop of Newark, John Spong, a man of such extreme views that they risked nothing in attacking him, and then walking about as if they had done something daring and important.

    While they wrote against Spong, they would not contest less obvious but for that reason much more dangerous errors, while privately admitting that those were just as bad as his. The more tactful skepticism of the mainstream liberals they left unrebuked, in effect telling their people that these ideas were all right. They were in the basement shooting fish in a barrel, but would not go outside to face the tiger who was hunting people by night.

    The Christian must sometimes speak against the enemies of the Faith, but he will suffer abuse for doing so. He must say the hard word when almost everyone he knows wants him to say the soft and easy word. Yet the hard word is sometimes the godly word -- even if it appears to others (including one's friends) as "harsh" or "divisive" or "simple-minded."

    Looking back to the speech of our Lord and the earliest Christians may make pastors and writers feel better about doing their duty. Their words show that to say the hard word when needed is only to say what we must say, and what our Lord wants us to say. We know at least that we are doing as the Fathers would have done.

    Of course we must speak the hard word in a way right for our time. Words that worked in one age may not work in another. I suspect that calling the semi-Marcionites of the Jesus Seminar "firstborn of Satan" would be simply misunderstood by everyone, because too few people believe in Satan to take the words seriously. The rhetorical style of the Fathers' day called for a harsher speech than ours, so that the same phrases sound worse today than they did then.

    But choosing the right hard word is a matter both of the speaker's craft and of his growth in holiness, so that he knows what God would have him say and knows how to say it well. He will know when to correct and when to rebuke and know how to do both so that the object might, if he has ears to hear, hear and change. We know that it is hard to speak the hard word rightly, but that is not an excuse for failing to speak strongly when strong words are needed.

  2. BrianK

    BrianK Resident Kook, Crank, Curmudgeon - & Mod Staff Member

    The Apostolic Style

    The early Christians did not believe in "dialogue." They were not open to questions when the answers had already been given. They did not think a claim to teach a new doctrine was simply a disagreement among friends or an argument within the family or an opportunity for an enriching dialogue or a stage in our mutual search for truth. They felt no need to talk with heretics as if the heretic had something to contribute to the community. They would have broken up many a modern church meeting.

    They spoke as St. Polycarp had spoken to Marcion whenever they needed to. Such, wrote St. Irenaeus, "was the horror which the apostles and their disciples had against holding even verbal communication with any corrupters of the truth." They felt horror, not discomfort or distaste.

    In fact, the Fathers often said that those in error spoke for Satan. The heretic was not only on the wrong side, he was on the side of evil. We tend to think of heresies as miscalculations, as simple and innocent mistakes, but the Fathers saw them as a willful turning from the light. We think of the heretic as if he had accidentally bounced a check because he made a mistake balancing his checkbook. They thought of him as one who had shaken his fist at God and thumbed his nose at the Church.

    St. Irenaeus described Marcion as one who "spoke as with the mouth of the devil." He spoke of Marcion and his peers as "malignant-minded people," examples of "an abyss of madness and of blasphemy against Christ." He and his peers are to "be recognized as agents of Satan by all those who worship God…who has prepared eternal fire for every kind of apostasy."

    St. Vincent of Lerins said: "We may be assured beyond doubt, when we find people alleging passages from the apostles or prophets against the Catholic faith, that the devil speaks through their mouths." (Vincent, you may remember, was the one who defined the Catholic faith as "that faith which has been believed everywhere, always, and by all.")

    This is the way the earliest Christian saints regularly spoke of those who spoke of Jesus in the wrong way -- which is to say, spoke of a Jesus other than the one described in the Scriptures, inventing for their own (evil) purposes a Jesus other than the one who was born of the Virgin Mary, died on the Cross, and rose again on the third day. It was the real Jesus or nothing.

    The Fathers knew, as we do not seem to, how attractive were the alternatives and what harm they would bring to their victims' lives. They knew that the heretics were playing a very clever con game on the unsuspecting, who might well lose all that they had. They knew that they had to step in forcefully, not least because no one who has been conned likes to admit it.

    Is This Christ-like?

    Here the average American Christian starts squirming in his chair. Is this Christ-like? he will ask. Presumably Cerinthus and Marcion meant well. And even if they didn't, you don't convert someone by calling him the enemy of truth or the firstborn of Satan in public. Is this the way to talk to people for whom Jesus died?

    In this case, I think, the early Christians had a much better idea of what is Christ-like than does the average modern Christian. Jesus was (and is) not "nice." He would not be a safe guest to invite to a suburban dinner party. He was not always affirming and inclusive, and He was unpredictably direct.

    His love for mankind did not stop Him from speaking bluntly to the men He loved, and speaking in a way that sounds brutal to our ears, and probably did to theirs as well. Take the famous example of His talk with the scribes and Pharisees in Matthew 23: First, He called them "white-washed tombs." They were, He said, beautiful on the outside but inside full of rotting bodies and "all uncleanness." If He were speaking today, He might compare them to one of those old stone sewage treatment plants, built in a neo-Gothic style to look like a church or a castle. He would tell them, in public, "You may look like Chartres Cathedral on the outside, but on the inside you're full of excrement."

    Second, He called them "serpents, [the] brood of vipers." In our terms, He was calling them "poisonous little vermin." In that culture, the term had the same emotional impact as calling someone a "Nazi" today. For one thing, calling them serpents tied them to the first recorded serpent, the one who tempted Eve in the Garden. He was saying that these exceedingly religious men were in fact doing the devil's work.

    He said this to their faces, and in front of others. You can find in the Gospels several other examples of Jesus' speaking to hostile listeners in the same way. But -- this is the crucial point -- He was not speaking this way to insult them. He was speaking this way to get their attention and make them see the truth, so that they would change their lives and turn to Him. If they were insulted, as they usually seem to have been (and I would have been too), that only proves that they did not know who was speaking to them. Whatever God says to you, it is, by definition, not insulting.

    The scribes and Pharisees were men He would die for in just a few months. But He would also tell them the truth about themselves, in language they could not ignore, and force them to a decision to repent and follow Him, or not. No one, I trust, would have told Jesus that you catch more flies with honey than vinegar.

    Speaking as the Lord

    So when the early Christians called a man like Marcion "the firstborn of Satan," they were in fact speaking charitably and speaking as our Lord might have spoken to him. To identify his master was an act of kindness to him, offered that he might see himself as he really is and repent. This was the only chance he had to escape his master and to avoid sharing his master's end in Hell.

    When they called such a man "the firstborn of Satan," they were also being kind to those he might fool. Marcion was good at what he did, and to "dialogue" with him would only make the vulnerable take him more seriously. They had to be sure that the people listening understood what Marcion was and what he was doing.

    In fighting over words the Fathers knew themselves to be fighting for human souls. They were forced to confront people who got the words wrong, who often knew exactly what they were doing and were very adept at deceit. By speaking the wrong words about Jesus, the heretics were in great danger of being among those who say, "Lord, Lord," but to whom the Lord says, "I never knew you. Depart from me" (Mt. 7:23). Jesus would not know them because they had refused to know Him.

    To help both the heretic and the people he might fool, the Fathers needed to sound the alarm, and it needed to sound like an alarm. A few years ago someone invented an alarm clock that played ocean sounds instead of buzzing, and whoever bought the clock was late to work the next day.

    The early Christians could not take the chance that their alarm would not wake up people who needed to wake up. In these matters, the house was on fire but many of the people slept as if drugged, and only the most blaring of alarms would drag them out of sleep.

    It would not do to say, "Our brother Marcion has raised some very serious questions for us, and we are deeply grateful to him for doing so. We want to thank him for modeling a way of engaging these very complex problems that we are all struggling with, and for giving us some very creative answers. We have learned a great deal from him. However, after a lot of intense and fruitful discussion, we feel that some of his answers are not fully in accord with the Church's teaching, but we hope he will continue this very enriching dialogue."

    By telling the truth about Marcion and telling people whose servant he was, St. Polycarp, St. Irenaeus, and the others showed their love for those tempted to follow him. The picture of Jesus that Marcion had drawn looked enough like the real Jesus to fool some people, but it was not really a picture of Jesus at all. Marcion was leading people away from God into what St. Irenaeus had called "an abyss of madness and of blasphemy."

    Think of what staid newspapers have said about companies that poisoned the water in a neighborhood and then let people live there without warning them. Irenaeus, and all the other early Christians, knew that spiritual poison was much deadlier, and that is why they spoke as they did.

  3. BrianK

    BrianK Resident Kook, Crank, Curmudgeon - & Mod Staff Member

    Peaceable Living

    St. Paul did say to live peaceably with all men if you could. He also said rather often in his letters that you cannot live peaceably with people who get the words wrong and try to teach the wrong words to others (see Gal. 1:8-9, for example). "Peace" does not mean surrender, and it does not mean silence. If it had, Paul would have died at home in his bed. He would have been spared the trouble of writing all those letters to all those troublesome churches, and liberals from his day to this would like him a lot more.

    The Fathers I have quoted wanted to live peaceably with all men. We should not think that attacking error was the thing they liked most to do. One suspects when reading them that they really didn't want to write books such as St. Irenaeus's Against Heresies -- a long and careful treatment of the bewildering flock of Gnostic heresies -- but knew they had to. They loved the Lord Jesus and loved to tell others about Him. That is what they wanted to do. Fighting those who told others the wrong things about Him is what they were forced to do.

    The early Christians did not seem to have a place for what we would call "honest mistakes" or "legitimate differences of opinion" in teaching about Christ. They saw that those in error were really in danger because they were cutting themselves off from God. They would not try to jolly them along, or invite them to stay till they saw the light, if they ever did. No, they were rebuked and banished. The early Christians told them they were wrong, and they often told them just who it was that error served.

    But that is not all they did. They would try to bring those who got it wrong to repentance, not only through warning but through kindness, mostly the kindness of praying for them.

    Even when telling the people of Smyrna not even to meet with false teachers, whom he called "beasts in the shape of men," St. Ignatius of Antioch also told them "you must pray to God for them, if by any means they may be brought to repentance, which, however, will be very difficult. Yet Jesus Christ, who is our true life, has the power of [effecting] this."

    "Let us likewise deal kindly, let us persuade our adversaries of that which is to their profit," said St. Ambrose of Milan, writing against the Arian heretics. "For we would not overthrow, but rather heal. We lay no ambush for them, but warn them as in duty bound. Kindliness often bends those whom neither force nor argument will avail to overcome." He did, however, a few paragraphs later say that "if our adversaries cannot be turned by kindness, let us summon them before the Judge," meaning the Lord, and he knew the Lord would convict them.

    A Caution

    Although the Fathers knew how important it is to get the words exactly right, they also knew that the Church and her witness suffered whenever Christians fought. Speaking of the doctrinal battles of his day, St. Basil said that "now the very vindication of orthodoxy is looked upon in some quarters as an opportunity for mutual attack, and men conceal their private ill-will and pretend that their hostility is all for the sake of the truth."

    The need to say the right words will tempt many of us to feel good about ourselves for saying hard and cruel words. "The saddest thing about it all," St. Basil continued,

    is that the sound part is divided against itself, and the troubles we are suffering are like those which once befell Jerusalem when Vespasian was besieging it. The Jews of that time were at once beset by foes without and consumed by the internal sedition of their own people. In our case, too, in addition to the open attack of the heretics, the churches are reduced to utter helplessness by the war raging among those who are supposed to be orthodox.

    When Christians argued about the Faith, they hurt the appeal of the Faith to those outside the Church and weakened the confidence of those inside. "All the while unbelievers laugh, men of weak faith are shaken; faith is uncertain," Basil said. When Christians fought, the people who didn't believe wouldn't come closer; the Christians who had trouble believing were tempted to stop; and even those who did firmly believe felt as if the foundation might fail.

    But all this said, Basil insisted that the cause of the problem was not the fact that Christians disagreed and insisted on their own teaching -- refused to accept diversity, as a modern Christian might put it. The problem was that some who claimed to be Christians taught lies. "Souls are drenched in ignorance," he said, "because adulterators of the word imitate the truth." Though they understood the cost of conflict, the early Christians had no choice but to fight the adulterators of the word.

    Fighting over words is a dangerous thing to do when they are words about God. But the early Christians fought nevertheless, because when people get the words wrong, unbelievers are given an excuse to scoff at Christ and not face Him, men who hold to the Faith but not with confidence begin to lose their hold, and people for whom Christ died simply do not know who He is.

    They were willing to fight when they had to, but they wanted peace. "One should adjust one's degrees of flexibility and rigidity so as not to give way to all and sundry simply through cowardice, nor to cut oneself off from others by being foolhardy," wrote St. Gregory of Nazianzus. As members of the same body, "it is better and of more use to adapt ourselves to one another, than to begin by condemning one another, then breaking off from one another, then destroying our confidence in one another by living in separation."

    But though they wanted peace, it had to be the peace of unity in the truth. "Let no one be under the impression that I am saying that we must always look for peace," Gregory continued. "Just as it is sometimes better to have disagreement, so on occasions, agreement can be worse than discord."

    They loved the real Jesus. They knew who He was. They wanted other people to know and love Him too. But some effective preachers were lying about Jesus and inducing vulnerable people to follow a Jesus who didn't exist and couldn't save them. To agree with these people was worse, much worse, than discord.

    The Fathers' example is a dangerous one to follow for those of us in whom the mind of Christ is not nearly as well formed, and who have not reached nearly so great a holiness as they. Nevertheless, their example is a dangerous one to refuse. People are still drawing bad pictures of Jesus, and people are still following them. If you have been blessed to see the real picture, you may be the one called to denounce the bad ones.
    Mary's child, Don_D and SgCatholic like this.
  4. Don_D

    Don_D Powers

    This article is insightful and true. Although, today, there simply is not the respect for authority which has prevailed in the past. In the world we are encouraged at every turn to live hedonistic lives and put no one before ourselves and our own lusts and fleshly desires so the famous words of Pilot ring true even more so today; Truth? What is truth? How do you speak Truth to someone who thinks that the proper formation of ones mind is cultish brain washing? The world is not listening to the Church anymore unless the Church tells the world what it's itching ears want to hear. All the Apostles were murdered, for speaking the Truth.

    I believe that much of this is partly due to the hypocrisy of many Christians who are simply modern day Pharisees. Placing a heavy yoke on others while not living under it themselves. One need only look to the Vatican to see the lack of justice meted out to those who harm children or live as if only their fleshly desires are their only concern besides looking good in the sight of other men. Now we see simply no attempt made whatsoever by many to warn others of the danger their souls are in. Instead, we hear platitudes about acceptance. After all, who am I to judge?

    When Christ said that anyone who harms a hair on the head of a child it would be better for them to have a millstone placed around their necks and thrown in the sea but yet we see a Church leadership which has not meted out justice but protected these men and hidden them away how are we to have any faith in the leadership of our own Church living the message of Christ? It is their responsibility to deal with these issues in a way that is just. Yet this does not happen, and others commit the same crimes. Crimes which cry out to heaven for Justice. Crimes which Pope Francis himself says that 1 in 50 Priests are capable of! Yet what is done?

    Remember the Priest who was recalled from DC back in August? Now, he is wanted as well in Canada.


    I hate to say this but the Church we all love is in dire need of a revolution, and not a peaceful one. We very well may get it soon and I fear that it will be at the hands of those who have no love of it.
    Mary's child and padraig like this.
  5. Praetorian

    Praetorian Powers

    Not a revolution, for that means creating something new...

    What the Church needs is a restoration!
    Last edited: Nov 16, 2017
    Mary's child likes this.
  6. Don_D

    Don_D Powers

    Good point, thanks! :)
    Mary's child and Praetorian like this.

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