Ministers of the gospel have many responsibilities as part of their calling. Among other things, we must stand, watch, preach, shepherd, and when the time comes, warn. Our responsibility is not that the hearer listens, but that we speak. Therefore, if we see calamity coming and do not blow the trumpet, blood is on our hands. Yet in our politically correct age, how does a watchman warn? This brings us to the topic and task of polemics, something often necessary and always controversial.
I would like to attempt to find the thin red line between legitimate polemic argumentation and what often accompanies it, namely, the illegitimate ad hominem attack. Allow me to begin with definitions. In the 1828 edition of his masterful—and at times devotional—dictionary, Noah Webster defined polemic as “Controversial; disputative; intended to maintain an opinion or system in opposition to others; as a polemic treatise, discourse, essay or book; polemic divinity.” The Latin term ad hominem literally means “to the man.” In A Rulebook for Arguments, Anthony Weston defines this common logical fallacy as “attacking the person of a source rather than his or her qualifications or reliability, or the actual argument he or she makes.” He provides a helpful summary rule to avoid the ad hominem error: “Look to the argument, not ‘the man’” (73). Using these definitions, I have laid out an analysis to help us gain an understanding of the distinctions between the concepts. For clarity I have repeated the definitions below and then laid out my own analysis.
Definition: Controversial; disputative; intended to maintain an opinion or system in opposition to others; as a polemic treatise, discourse, essay or book; polemic divinity.
Occasion: Polemics necessarily occur during controversy and opposition; are essential to substantial argumentation.
Focus: Polemics legitimately focus on the issue(s) or principle(s) in dispute, which is acceptable and necessary.
Effect: Quality polemics effect the vindication of the truth in question or under attack; this clarifies the issue.
Personal Element: Polemics rightly identify, challenge, refute, rebuke, and correct both the issue and, when necessary, those involved with it.
Morality: Good polemics that uphold both truth and love, especially in matters of theology and doctrine, are righteous, necessary, and honoring to the Lord. Bad polemics are unrighteous, and though they may be necessary in themselves, are dishonoring to the Lord.
Response: The correct response to legitimate polemics is to focus humbly on the weight of truth, especially if that weight is stacked against something/someone you believe. An incorrect response would be to label such polemics as ad hominem simply because you do not like the conclusions.
Definition: Attacking the person of a source rather than his or her qualifications or reliability, or the actual argument he or she makes.
Occasion: Ad hominems usually arise during controversy and opposition; are both non-essential and detrimental to substantial argumentation.
Focus: Ad hominems illegitimately focus on a person with whom you dispute, which is unacceptable and unnecessary.
Effect: The effect of ad hominems is to put the person with whom you disagree under attack; this distracts from the issue.
Personal Element: Ad hominems sinfully insult and denigrate a person and almost never resolve the issue involved.
Morality: Ad hominems,by definition, cannot be loving, are often not truthful, and are therefore always sinful and dishonoring to the Lord.
Response: Ad hominem attacks ought to be identified, corrected, repented of, and rejected.
We live in an age that makes engaging in polemics exceedingly tricky business. On the one hand, there are countless keyboard warriors who have very bold fingers covered by very thin skin. The impersonal barrier created by social media facilitates digital boldness and provides the platform for endless torrents of largely unhelpful opinions and geysers of ad hominems. I believe that this is true of almost any debate in our age, regardless of the side taken. Relatedly, one of the cardinal sins of our age—if not the cardinal sin—is to say that someone is wrong. This is problematic. To prove something and/or someone right or wrong used to be one of the most basic and accepted elements of argumentation. Today in our hyper-polarized age, there seems to be precious little capacity and even willingness to think critically about opposing viewpoints. Despite this generation’s present obstacles, or maybe because of them, we still desperately need polemics.
How then do we engage in the necessary war of words? Proverbs 12:17-18 says, “Whoever speaks the truth gives honest evidence, but a false witness utters deceit. There is one whose rash words are like sword thrusts, but the tongue of the wise brings healing.” Note the nuances here. The contrasts are between truth and falsehood and rashness and wisdom. Yet there are times when bearing honest witness in truth can be very offensive and cause necessary wounds (Prov 27:6). The offense caused by the truth does not detract from the necessity of the truth. On the other hand, rash words can devastate. Sadly, I have at times wielded the sword of truth gruffly and caused unnecessary wounds. Nevertheless, that does not make wielding the sword of truth wrong, but calls me to a wiser handling of it. Commenting on Proverbs 12:18, Charles Bridges wrote, “Wisdom is the guiding principle; not a loose loquacity [talkativeness], but a delicate discriminating tact, directing us, how, when, what, [and] to whom to speak; sometimes repressing; sometimes quickening.”
Throughout the Word of God we find the Christian life and the Christian Church described in distinctly militaristic terms. Both Christ and Satan rule over kingdoms, though they are by no means equal (Mk 1:14, Matt 12:26, Rev 11:15). The Church has received spiritual weapons to equip her for spiritual war (Eph 6:10-20). Not only must God’s people contend earnestly for the faith (Jude 3), but we must also fight the good fight of faith (1 Tim 6:12). Paul urged his protégé Timothy to endure suffering as a good soldier of Christ Jesus (2 Tim 2:3-4). That the Christian life and Church has a spiritually militant mandate is unmistakable; yet Christians must be very careful, faithful, and wise in how we wage that war.
God’s Word says, “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” (2 Cor 10:3-6). If there is any biblical mandate for polemics, this is it. On the one hand this forbids us from quickly labeling opposing viewpoints as ad hominem. On the other hand, we who engage in necessary polemics must remember that if we cause offense, if our words scandalize the heart, the cause must be the truth, the goal holiness, and the result Christ’s glory and the good of the Church.