The blogosphere in general and the Christian blogosphere in particular has had its share of successes, but also its share of failures. Many of its most egregious and public failures have been in the realm of polemics—discussing or debating controversial topics. Many bloggers have mastered all the practical rules of blogging, the short paragraphs, the use of subheadings, the best times and dates to post their articles. But these same bloggers, myself included, would do well to work toward mastering the spiritual rules of blogging.
I recently found help in an unusual place, Robert R. Booth’s Children of the Promise, a book on the always-controversial subject of baptism. He says
We know we understand an opposing view only when we are able to articulate it and receive the affirmation of our opponent that we have accurately represented his position. Only then can we proceed to argue against it. It does not take a big man to push over a straw man—little men are up to this simple task. Nor is it enough to say that our brother is wrong, or silly, or that his arguments make no sense; we must be prepared to demonstrate such claims. Some argue that they do not need to demonstrate such claims. Some argue they do not need to understand opposing views. But they cannot expect to engage people who disagree with them.
Indeed, and this applies to discussions far beyond baptism. In a recent article Tony Payne turns to football (soccer) to provide the helpful illustration of playing the ball rather than the man. “As in football, so in debates and arguments, we should strive to play the ball not the man; to discuss the issue itself rather than attack the person presenting the issue. This is not easy. It requires the ability to separate the pros and cons of a particular argument or issue from the personality who is presenting them, and to subject your own arguments to the same honest scrutiny that you bring to bear on the alternative view.”
You know you’re dealing with someone who is playing the man not the ball when he makes a straw man of your view; that is, when he presents your side of things in an extreme or ugly light, or describes or illustrates it in such a way as to make it unattractive. By contrast, a ball-player endeavours to describe and present the opposing view as fairly and reasonably as he would like someone to present his own view.
Ball-players also freely and honestly acknowledge what is good and right in the opposing view, and avoid intemperately damning the whole because of a defect in the parts. They seek to stick to the issue at hand, and not broaden or generalize the disagreement into a questioning of character or bona fides.
Playing the ball also means seeking to remain in good relationship with the person you’re disagreeing with, so that you can hopefully shake hands and share a coffee after your debate, or continue to work together on other projects or platforms. This is the ideal, and we should strive for it—to avoid targetting the person, and to deal instead with the issue, in the hope of coming to a common mind.
A very helpful and extensive word on gospel polemics comes from Tim Keller. It bears regular and repeated readings. Keller looks to D.A. Carson and several other theologians and arrives at seven rules that should guide our discussions, our polemics, our controveries, our words.
#1. Carson’s Rule
The first rule comes from D.A. Carson and states You don’t have to follow Matthew 18 before publishing polemics. ”[I]f someone is publicly presenting theological views that are opposed to sound doctrine, and you are not in the same ecclesiastical body with this person (that is, there is no body of elders over you both, as when, for example, both of you are ministers in the same denomination,) then you may indeed publicly oppose those without going privately to the author of them. Carson does add a qualifier, but that comes under the next rule.”