It seems strange that one should desire to speak at all about Polemic Theology since we are now in an age when folks are more interested in ecumenism and irenics than in polemics. – Roger Nicole, Founders.org
A Comparison of Views
Roger Nicole, who I have previously written about here, is one of my favorite 20th Century scholars. Like his friend, Cornelius Van Til, Nicole was also a presuppositional apologist and – also like Van Til – disavowed theonomy. Nicole, who was also in some small part a personal mentor to Mark Dever, wrote about the positives and negatives of polemic theology. Nicole’s argument was not that polemic theology should not be done, but that it should be done well.
Likewise, DA Carson’s words are published by The G̷o̷s̷p̷e̷l̷ ̷ Coalition™ in which he says some similar things as Nicole on the topic of polemic theology. While pointing out certain “dangers” of polemic theology, including the possibility of polemics becoming one’s theological identity and those who make it their “specialty,” Carson acknowledges that polemic theology is a reluctant necessity…
In a world of finite human beings who are absorbed in themselves and characterized by rebellion against God, polemical theology is an unavoidable component of any serious theological stance, as the Bible itself makes clear (source link)
Carson provides good advice, while begrudgingly (and it seems reluctantly) acknowledging the necessity of polemics, including the caveat that “a mature grasp of the potential of polemical theology wants to win and protect people, not merely win arguments.” And yet, while acknowledging the polemics mandate, Carson warns against “websites and ministries whose sole aim is to confute error” which is to “make every affirmation of truth sound angry, supercilious, self-righteous – in a word, polemical.”
Carson seems to have taken a different tone regarding polemics than Nicole. While Nicole also spoke of the pitfalls of polemics, and gave good advice for how it might be done well, Carson’s attitude toward polemics seemed disjointed. While acknowledging polemics’ necessity, Carson bemoaned that anyone was doing it unless it was a minor focus or side-ambition of their overall ministry. Also paradoxical, Carson – again, while begrudgingly acknowledging the necessity of polemics – uses polemical as a pejorative. Carson’s apparent cognitive dissonance really is noticeable in his use of an altogether necessary and godly aspect of theology as a deprecatory adjective.
The views of Nicole and Carson regarding polemical theology are the same in at least one way – they both claim polemics is necessary, while warning of dangers. Whereas Nicole focuses on it being done well in regards to quality, Carson seems to desire it be done well in quantity, IE not much.
Apologetics vs Polemics
The position of Apologist is a revered one in modern evangelicalism. And surely, it ought to be. Most of us are familiar with apologetics and we can opine for hours about our favorite apologists. And in recent years, what I’ve come to call “arm chair apologetics” has become immensely popular with the rise in popularity of presuppositional apologetics (and even as a Reformed epistemologist, I say praise God for that). When small church pastors are teaching apologetics to their youth groups, you know it’s caught on. Yes, apologetics has always been taught as a part of vibrant Christian ministry, but not necessarily by that name, and not academically. Even my youth have learned from Sye Ten Bruggencate, Matt Slick, James White, Andrew Rappaport and other apologists while we watch their videos and occasionally beam them in via skype. Heck, many in my own church can define the difference between classical, evidentialist, and presuppositional apologetics. This is a growing trend and it’s a good thing.
Apologetics, of course, comes from the Greek απολογíα and carries the connotation of providing a defense for why what you believe is true. We see the concept in places like 1 Peter 3:15…
but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect…
Apologetics is what one does to defend their own Christian beliefs. Any time one provides a defense for their beliefs – the resurrection of Christ, for example – they are doing apologetics.
Polemics, however, is a different beast. Whereas apologetics defend ones’ own truth claims, polemics is the arguing against the truth claims of another. Polemics negate or disaffirm the false teachings of those inside or outside Christianity. We see this as a command of Scripture in 2 Corinthians 10…
 For though we walk in the flesh, we are not waging war according to the flesh.  For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds.  We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ,  being ready to punish every disobedience, when your obedience is complete.
Sometimes it is not merely enough to defend your own beliefs, but to explain why the belief of others is incorrect. Both are Biblical. Both are necessary.
Why the Disparity in Popularity?
Apologists, as previously stated, are pretty popular these days (and again, praise God). Polemicists, on the other hand, well…not so much. Even though the two are opposite sides of the same coin and go together like peanut butter and jam, one is certainly considered the evil twin on the other. There are a few plausible explanations.
- Polemics has a tendency to be inward focused, whereas Apologetics has a tendency to be outward focused. We can all cheer the apologist debating a Muslim in order to defend Trinitarianism or the apologist debating a Jehovah’s Witness to defend the resurrection, but we start having reservations when the polemicist “attacks” the prosperity Gospel of Kenneth Copeland, the antinomianism of Joseph Prince or the evangelical feminism of Rachel Held Evans. We start getting all queasy when it comes to pointing out the error among those who profess Christ. Even though we know that these people are not “on our team,” it certainly feels like they’re on our team because their books are all sold at the local Christian bookstore.
- Polemics is negative. Yes, it is. It’s refuting error. That’s a negative business. So is Law Enforcement, of course, at least until the local Police Department begins passing out ‘good job’ citations. Things that are negative are also often necessary.
- Polemicists have allowed others to make us into second-class theologians. Personally, I would dare any theologian to sharpen their iron against who may very well be the chief polemicist in all of American Christianity, Chris Rosebrough. If you know Chris, as I do, you’ll figure out quickly that he’s no basement-living-opinion-giver with a Cheetos addiction in his mother’s house. Rosebrough is an astute student of the Biblical languages, devout pastor, stellar exegete, and true scholar. And yet, Rosebrough is often referred to as a “discernment blogger” (which I never got, because he hardly ever blogs). We’ve allowed the spiritual gift of discernment – a gift of the Holy Spirit, thank you very much – to be turned into a pejorative insult. We say, “Discernment blogger” with the same disgust that we say, “used car salesman” or “tax collector.” Rosebrough is a polemicist, and he’s as good at his job as celebrated apologists like William Lane Craig or Ravi Zacharias are at theirs (apologies to all the polemicists who recognize the problems with those two names, but I’m trying to make a point). Of course, Rosebrough is also an apologist, because he not only examines the errors of others, but provides a defense for his own beliefs. In the same way, Dr. James White, every single time he does a debate and engages in both affirmations of his own beliefs and rebuttals against others’, is serving as both apologist and polemicist. If there’s anything I’ve learned in all my time writing and speaking, it’s that words make a difference. I would call on all “discernment ministers” to start calling themselves polemicists, to point out that the work being done is vital to the health of the local church. If apologists are to be appreciated, so should the yin to their yang, their polemicist brethren.
I believe that polemics, as opposed to apologetics, is the greatest need of the church today. Many would argue with my assertion, and that’s alright (try doing it without using polemics, though). Does the greatest threat to Christ’s church come from those outside the church or those inside the church? Does Shabir Ally or Joel Osteen present a clearer and more present danger to the flock of God? Who is the more dangerous wolf – the one branded as wolf or the one in sheep’s clothing? The fact is, apologetics is a necessary and wonderful gift to be utilized to reach the professed lost. I would remind you as we learn different apologetic methods to reach everyone from atheists to Muslims, however, that we are losing our children to theological pied pipers when they leave our home (if not before). While we’re trying to win our friend Muhammad What’s-His-Name to Christ via classical apologetics, our children are hooking up with Hillsong, IHOP and Elevation Church.
This is not, thankfully, an either-or situation. One does not have to be all apologist or all polemicist (and as discussed, that’s impossible because the two are so inner-twined). This isn’t a zero-sum game. A robust theology that responds to the world takes both apologetics and polemics. But let’s not forget that both are valued and necessary. Chocking up polemics as mere “discernment” is like chocking up apologetics as mere “arguing.”
[Contributed by JD Hall]