Me with my lovely wife, Kathy:

Wednesday, October 19, 2011



If the word looks utterly strange to you, let me encourage you to stay with me for a few minutes.  I think you might find this interesting and useful.

Polemics has nothing to do with a long piece of wood or a basic system for erecting a building.  It is, according to Mirriam Webster: "an aggressive attack on or refutation of the opinions or principles of another." or "the art or practice of disputation or controversy."

If I am engaged in trying to prove myself right, and therefore someone who holds a differing view wrong, especially if I do so with some enthusiasm, I am involved in polemics.

For a guy like me, who grew up as a Fundamentalist, polemics is almost second nature, though for a long time I was totally unfamiliar with the term, and even yet almost never use the word.

My message this Sunday morning will be somewhat of a polemic--as is the book from which I draw my text.  Paul wants to show that the Gospel he shared with the Galatians is true, worth holding onto, and in every way superior to the works-oriented, wrongly Old-Testament tainted version that was being offered to these churches in Turkey.  He is arguing his case.  Since teachers that I regard as false are still offering a similar substitute gospel, I will argue mine.

It is one thing to engage opponents who have been dead for two millennia in argument.  It becomes much more difficult and fraught with danger when our opponents are alive, well, and someone's brother-in-law.  Many today identify with Rodney King who pleaded, "Can't we just get along?"  To which I answer, "No. sometimes we can't."  Ideas have consequences.  Truth needs to be argued for and defended, but--and this is a big "BUT"--it needs to be defended in the most winsome way possible.

Here is where a fellow preacher/pastor Tim Keller helps us out.
He recently published a three-part series he called Gospel Polemics.  (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3)  I encourage you to read Pastor Keller's thoughts.  Some of you, however, may find the New York preacher's article a bit long or challenging, so I hope you will at least stay with me to the end of my much shorter, simpler summary and thoughts.

Another online distiller captured Keller's six rules of engagement here.  You could fit his summary on a business card, and it would be good to remember these six guidelines before we give somebody the business.

I would simply summarize Keller's counsel as, Fight Fair.

The first part of my statement is is simply to fight.  As I have already said, truth has consequences and so does error.  If we believe that God is a God of truth, then we have to believe that we are better off living lives based on truth than on falsehood.  I fear that in this post-whatever-is-the-current-thing-we-are-supposed-to-be-coming-after world we have gotten too comfortable with the idea that truth doesn't matter or that it needs to be redefined, and often after the redefinition process we find ourselves sincerely, and pathetically asking Pilate's question, "What is truth?" or we become so humble in our hermeneutic that we end up vigorously defending a truth-claim that we just as vigorously claim we can't be sure about.  Listen it is incontrovertibly true that what I just wrote is a horrible example of a run-on sentence.  English teachers everywhere ought to engage in polemics against that kind of writing.  By the way shop-teachers, if there are any left, ought to vigorously argue that following safety rules when using power tools is the way to go.  I'll send a picture of my thumb on request.  It can serve as exhibit A.  There is truth.  It is consequential.  It ought to be argued for, but it ought to be done fairly.

Don't misrepresent your opponent.
  • I see this most often when people assign motives.  I saw it not long ago in a letter to the editor.  The writer fairly accurately described what his opponents wanted to do.  When he began to tell why they wanted to do it one could hear the thin-ice cracking.
    If I listen to you carefully, I may--notice I leave the clear possibility that I may not--understand what you want to do.  However, when I get to the level of your motives I am generally without any real data with which to work.  I offer as evidence the fact that I frequently can't even clearly identify my own motives.  I'm often left with this lame answer when asked why I did something or the other: "At the time, it seemed like the thing to do."  If that is the best I can do when explaining my own actions--and often it is--then I better be a whole lot more humble in my claims to know why you are doing what you do.
    This is a caution that is found in 1 Corinthians 4:5.  BTW, just because Jesus addressed motives doesn't give me license.  See John 2:24-25.   
  • I also see this when one person saddles another with his logical conclusions.  Let me see if I can explain it like this:
    Mr. A says "I believe X." or, "I have concluded that X is true."
    Mrs. B says, "It is impossible to hold that X is true without also believing Y"
    Y is a much more damning, more easily argued against position than X so Mrs. B jumps on Y when arguing against X.
    She may very well be right.  It may be logically impossible to hold to X without therefore upholding the truth of Y.  However,
    Mr. A says I believe X.  I reject Y.
    If the opportunity is right it is perfectly OK to point out the logical fallacy of holding to X while denying Y.  However, illogical though it may be, I can't blame poor illogical Mr. A for promoting whatever wrong is represented by Y.  I can, and often should, point out that one leads to the other, but in my argument I need to honor what Mr. A is saying.  "My friends, Mr. A, here, has said that he holds to X.  I believe and think I can conclusively demonstrate that X leads inevitably to Y, but, in fairness, I must say that Mr. A does not hold to Y.
    Again I offer my own thinking as evidence.  It is a swamp of contradictions.
    And, using myself as exhibit A, again, following this guideline can save embarrassment.  I may be sure that X leads to Y until someone points out the exception.  It might be just the exception that applies.
Be nice:
  • Maybe my opponent is wrong, but she or he (not to mention the other folk listening) is a child of God and ought to be treated as such.  (James 3:9-10)
  •  Everyone says dumb, stupid, or wrong stuff.  It is wrong and unkind to jump on that, while ignoring the general tenor of this person's life and work.  It is one of the reasons so many people hate political campaigns.
Keep the goal straight:
It is to establish truth, not to win an argument.  Read First and Second Timothy and I think you'll see people hanging around who were taking shots at the wrong goal.

I'd like to hear from you.  Especially those who read Keller's articles.

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