How theological issues are discussed is often thought of as a matter of cool academic consideration among peers, but frequently the tone of the discussion is a matter of temperament.
Irenic – a discussion conducted without attacking the other person or their beliefs in a personal sense. Call it cool, rational discussion. Also, each conflicting point of view is given a fair airing.
Polemic – Arguing a point by attacking the other person or their point of view personal. No attempt to made to put their case equally for them, nor to be cool and rational.
Of course both of these are extremes, with most discussions falling in the middle ground.
Michael Patton of Reclaiming the Mind Ministries suggests that these are the two approaches that one sees in theological discussions, with the polemic being sadly (in his view) the most common. His preference leans very strongly to the irenic, and he feels that this must be cultivated if fruitful discussion is to occur.
When it comes to significant theology discussions, I tend to be something of a ‘take no prisoners’ guy, particularly if I am passionate about a topic (and I am always passionate about Reformed issues). That would make me somewhat polemic.
Discussions in the world, particularly those involving closely held beliefs or attitudes, tend to often be polemic to the degree that people become personally and emotionally involved. Though people will often rationally see the value of a more disciplined irenic approach, once emotionally engaged in the discussion an irenic attitude is very difficult to maintain. The more personal the point being made or the challenged becomes, the more polemic the likely path of the discussion.
But why is that?
We have a tendency to take opposing views about personally significant topics (faith being about the most significant that there is) as a challenge not only to the position but to our right to hold that point of view, irrespective of whether that is the intent. Or conversely, we present our views in a way that not only challenges the other viewpoint but but also assaults the holder’s audacity for holding that view.
The appropriate question then is: why we react that way and perceive a threat in an opposing point of view – even if we consider the view to be in error? Why are we reacting as if the opposing view must be changed and our view justified in the opposing person’s eyes, before we are secure in our view?
The root of quandary centers on who we are actually answerable to for our views?
In 2 Corinthians 2:10-11 Paul addresses this fairly directly. “But one whom you forgive anything, I forgive also; for indeed what I have forgiven, if I have forgiven anything, I did it for your sakes in the presence of Christ, so that no advantage would be taken of us by Satan, for we are not ignorant of his schemes.“ Paul forgives offenses, offering grace, in the same spirit of grace by which he has been forgiven, that it might reflect well on Christ and not be used by Satan. Surely the application of this forgiveness applies just as much to an offense given in a discussion, irrespective of whether the offense is real or perceived.
Frustrating though we may find a disagreement or a differing view, who in the end do we answer to for the theology that we hold? And who holds the other person accountable for their view? And behond that, who is the architect of any change in viewpoint on either side? The answer in all case is the Lord and only the Lord. Judgment is not ours. Vengeance is not ours. The responsibility to force a change in position or justify it to the satisfaction of another (or for that matter to that of society) is not ours. Ours is only to speak the Truth in faith.
This being so, agreeing to disagree or having irreconcilable differences does not reflect upon us if we are rooted in the Truth. If our honest appraisal is that we are correct Scripturally, then we can disagree without the need to defend emotionally, since nothing real is threatened.
In the only court of opinion that counts (that of our Lord), judgment is of the Lord, by His standards, and the views of the opposing individual are completely moot. Only our reflection of Christ’s attributes and precepts carries weight.
Our only concern, then, is the validity of our view before the Lord and that is determined by means of the Scriptural revelation that he provided – the Bible – and it alone (Sola Scriptura). This also, of course, presumes the presence and assistance of the Spirit (always the case for believers).
With assurance based in the Word, the opinions of the world are not relevant. In fact, as our Lord states, since he was persecuted for the truth, we should not expect less.
The opinion of our brethren in the family of God does matter, of course, but even there theological discussion is to seek truth alone, before God. In that search, there is no threat from differing opinions among men. The opinions that count are of the Lord.
Notice that I did not say easy in this regard. But a correct mind set concerning the sovereignty of God and relevancy of Scripture in these situations can hopefully help a lot in bringing clarity to our reactions and diminish them somewhat Even if we react imperfectly, it should help.
An appropriate Polemic or Irenic reaction is at least partially based upon our acceptance and actualization of our place as men and women before our Lord. Both approaches are appropriate in some situations IMO, but only one mind set is appropriate. And once again, as long as we remain alive on earth, I never said easy…