Polemics in Apologetics

Post by: Douglas Groothuis & E.A. Johnston

I should, therefore like to arouse in man the desire to find truth, to be ready, free from passion, to follow it wherever he may find it, realizing how far his knowledge is clouded by passions. I should like him to hate his concupiscence which automatically makes his decisions for him, so that it should not blind him when he makes his choice, nor hinder him once he has chosen — Blaise Pascal, Pensées (119/423).

Arguments about religion often get heated, generating much more heat than light. But Christians are called to be a light in a dark place, rather than fiery furnaces in an already over-heated world. The Apostle Peter charges us to defend the faith “with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience” (1 Peter 3:15-16). His apostolic colleague, Paul, writes that love is “patient and kind” (1 Corinthians 13:4). Jesus, our Lord, promises, “The meek will inherit the earth” (Matthew 5). The arrogant receive no such promise.

This being so, is there a wise place for polemics in apologetics? Francis Schaeffer certainly thought so. In The Great Evangelical Disaster he discouraged reflexive “accommodation regardless of the centrality of the truth involved.” When faced with deception, the Christian should be both apologist and polemicist: “Truth carries with it confrontation. Truth demands confrontation; loving confrontation, but confrontation nevertheless.”

The words polemics, polemical, and polemicist typically refer to a kind of speaking or writing that is antagonistic and mean-spirited. Consider The Oxford English Dictionary’s entry:

  1. A strong verbalor written attack on someone or something: his polemic against the culturalrelativism of the sixties; a writer of feminist polemic. Or:
  2. The art or practice of engagingin controversialdebate or dispute: the history of science has become embroiled in religious polemics.

Polemics of kinds (1) and (2) often light up the pages of Holy Writ. God, through his prophets or directly, often calls rebels to account for this rebellion. Listen to the prophet Amos, who was no diplomat at this point of his ministry.

Hear this word, you cows of Bashan on Mount Samaria, you women who oppress the poor and crush the needy and say to your husbands, “Bring us some drinks!” (Amos 4:1).

How rude—but how true and how apt coming from the mouth of the God-inspired prophet! Another kind of polemic has pertinence to apologetics.

When targeting someone’s lack of intellectual rectitude (or more strongly, someone’s intellectual sloppiness or even dishonesty), a polemical approach complements apologetics. Dishonesty is rampant in our era. Polemics will pinpoint the nub of duplicity ensconced in the cynic, calling it out for what it is. Much is at stake, and true, biblical love knows this.

Consider Jesus’ forceful polemic against the religious professionals of his day. “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you devour widows’ houses, and for a pretense make long prayers. Therefore you will receive greater condemnation” (Mark 12:40). Christ pulled no punches, and his audience heard the undiluted Word of the Lord.

Yet a word of caution is in order here. Jesus was not given to fleshly displays of egotism. These have no place in Christian discourse. Rants are as apparent as they are abhorrent. When our Lord rebuked, he did so in defense of the Truth. Those who would incorporate polemics with their apologetics may need to be straight and stern, but they never need to let flesh have free reign. The fruit of the Spirit is always in order.

Most apologetics argues for Christianity and against non-Christian worldviews. Apologists should shun the ad hominem fallacy when critiquing a non-Christians position. Ponder this exchange:

John: I think that morality is relative to the individual. No one has a right to impose their morality on anyone else.

Jim: You say that because you are an immoral person who wants to sleep with as many women as you can.

John: You Christian creep…

Jim’s ad hominem provokes John’s ad hominem. This is less than exemplary apologetics; and John is right: Jim is a creep (even if his judgment of John is correct). Now consider the polemics of the perfect apologist.

You search the Scriptures because you think they give you eternal life. But the Scriptures point to me! (John 5:39, NLT).

Jesus charges the religious leaders of intellectual irresponsibility, without committing the ad hominem fallacy. Matthew Henry’s classic Bible commentary elucidates this:

The Jews considered that eternal life was revealed to them in their Scriptures, and that they had it, because they had the word of God in their hands. Jesus urged them to search those Scriptures with more diligence and attention. Ye do search the Scriptures, and ye do well to do so. They did indeed search the Scriptures, but it was with a view to their own glory. It is possible for men to be very studious in the letter of the Scriptures, yet to be strangers to its power.

Listen to Jesus again:

He said to them, “How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken!” (Luke 24:25, NIV).

In both cases, Jesus criticizes his benighted interlocutors. However, unlike our apologist John, he is not merely belittling them. He is, rather, calling them to account for their lack of intellectual virtue. They ought to know better. To put it philosophically, they have not discharged their intellectual duties in a serious and responsible matter. They are noetic slackers. They are not inveighed against as people, but as underachieving knowers.

Apologetics, no matter how well delivered, will fail if the arguments are not received by people willing to think hard about tough issues. Jesus again strikes to the heart, this time with a question.

How can you believe, when you receive glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the only God? Do not think that I will accuse you to the Father. There is one who accuses you: Moses, on whom you have set your hope. For if you believed Moses, you would believe me; for he wrote of me. But if you do not believe his writings, how will you believe my words? (John 5:44-47).

Polemic presses deep against the religious teachers for two reasons. First, they seek peer approval rather than the glory of God. Their self-image trumps God’s truth. This is no small error. Second, the teachers should know about the identity of Jesus, because they believed and studied the words of Moses, for Moses wrote of Jesus.

Apologetics needs polemics of a well-defined kind. There is no room for hatred or pointless personal attacks. William Lane Craig has this down to an art. Those he debates often fall into the ad hominem polemical pit. If any criticism of another’s intellectual honesty is leveled, the apologist must look to himself first to find if he shares the same (or worse) tendencies. As Jesus warned:

Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye (Matthew 7:3-5).

Sensitivity to the Spirit of Truth will help the apologist be person-sensitive when employing polemic. Let us come back to apologist Jim and skeptical John.

Jim: John, having thought about it, I was wrong to attack your character in our conversation about sexual ethics. I apologize.

John: Yeah, that did tick me off. But I accept your apology.

Jim: Thank you. Maybe we can talk about it more calmly.

John: I think so. Where do you want to start?

Jim: John, have you read the passages in the Bible that speak of sexual morality?

John: I have heard a few quoted. That’s enough for me. Why should I submit to anyone else’s view of my own sexuality?

Jim: The matter is really truth, the way things are whether we like them or not.

John: I’m not buying it.

Jim: If there is a God, would he have the right to tell us how to live in a way that pleases him and is best for ourselves and society?

John: I suppose.

Jim: If you agree, then the intellectually responsible course of action is to read the biblical passages on sexuality. I can give you a list and other resources if you’d like. If you don’t even believe in God, I encourage you to investigate that. I believe there are good answers to honest questions, but you have to pursue the answers.

John: Why should I take the time to do that?

Jim: You are a thinker and a reader. Don’t you think you should apply those abilities to such a significant matter? Let me be more pointed: If you refuse to look into this, you would be intellectually irresponsible.

John: Now you are back to insulting me!

Jim: Not really. I am challenging you to stay true to your intellect and not take lightly something of this much importance.

John: Ok. I see the distinction.

Jim: Would you like to meet a few times to read a book together? There will be no grades.

John: Maybe so. Let’s talk about it.

This conversation, as opposed to the earlier one, is longer and is hiking up the mountain toward a hearty engagement of eternal matters. This polemic is productive.

Savvy apologists will wield their polemics politely. This is not a contradiction. Polemics may mean a mere bludgeoning of another person’s character, but there is a subtler sense of the word. Godly apologists use polemic to uncover the intellectual evasions and glibness that keep people from considering arguments for the God of the Bible. The adept apologist, Blaise Pascal, knew that Christian persuasion had many elements. He writes in Pensées:

We think playing upon man is like playing upon an ordinary organ. It is indeed an organ, but strange, shifting and changeable. Those who only know how to play an ordinary organ would never be in tune on this one. You have to know where the keys are.

Being sensitive to the Holy Spirit means discerning intellectual evasions and responding in love. By shunning ad hominem rejoinders, skillful apologists are productive polemicists. They shed light on the darkness by aiming at the error rather than the one who errs.

Author: Douglas Groothuis

Author of Christian Apologetics, Truth Decay, On Jesus, On Pascal, and others. Professor of Philosophy, Denver Seminary since 1993. Head of The Apologetics and Ethics Masters Degree Program and Co-Director of The Gordon Lewis Center for Christian Thought and Culture. Senior Fellow for Apologetics.com.

6 thoughts

  1. Lovely article. I liken Ephesians 4:15 to a 3-part dance. Speak. The Truth. In love. We are commanded to speak and not be silent. Nothing is healed by silence. Then to speaking the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Anything less will postpone and undermine any efforts of reconciliation. Untruth or disguised self-protection will never conduct light-waves. And then do it all in love that is not seeking to win, but the good of the whole, and the glory of the Kingdom. Anything less will cause more harm, instead of heal. Truth will not always make someone feel all warm and fuzzy, but when following this pattern, it will always do the most good. It may feel cutting, but it will be the lancet to bring infection out into the Light, so that what has been hidden and covered may be exposed in order that it might heal. Every word spoken in obedience to God will promote healing, whether appreciated or no. I cannot say I have ever once done it correctly. I hope someday to grow up in Him, as this passage suggests, and learn to communicate in such a way. I appreciate this article very much. Oh to be brave. .. to stay in the battle. ..keep my cheek in the game, and seek the bigger purpose for conflict. Thanks- I will read this several times.

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  3. I really love this statement: “Christians are called to be a light in a dark place, rather than fiery furnaces in an already over-heated world.” Good article!

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