I am going to offer advice to a field of ministry that I am both a part of and respect very much. This advice is to apologists of all Christian traditions (Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox). It first takes the form of a criticism that is very hard to articulate, but is vital to understanding the advice. I pray that my thoughts are clear and that my advice is given in a spirit of respect realizing that I need this advice more than any other.
My Criticism: As apologists (those who defend the faith), we can often produce more difficulties than we solve due to harsh and imbalanced polemics.
All systems of thought have an inherent weakness that is common to all areas where beliefs are passionately held.Â All traditions characteristicallyÂ misunderstand what the other side is saying and cement the opposing view in categories that are nuanced according to traditionally held polemics and apologetics. It seems that we do this because we feel that we have to justify our separation, schism, and/or lack of compromise. This causes a hardening of the categories of our beliefs and produces ill-will that is almost impossible to overcome. Once this is done, the difficulty multiplies as ones own position becomes defined only by what it is not. In other words, people begin to define themselves according to the emphasis and abuses of the opposition.
Apologetics and polemics must be introduced to a time of rest and relief so that a new perspective can be gained. My wife and I often have arguments. These argument have from time to time been severe to the point of us saying to ourselves “Who is this person I married?” Even minor petty, stupid arguments can become something ridiculously traumatic.
I remember one time in 2001Â my wife and I wereÂ driving from Dallas to Colorado Springs for the ETS conference. There was a sign that said “50 Miles to Colorado Springs.” She said that we were almost there. I said, “No, not really. The sign does not refer to the city limits, but to the central office within the city.” She said with a surprise and smirk on her face, “No it doesn’t.” I don’t know why, it was just one of those days, but we argued for the next hour about this. The argument became so severe that we did not talk to each other for quite some time (seriously). And you know what? I did not really know if I was right. But her reaction and distrust to my “knowledge” on this issueÂ caused me to defend something that I was not even sure about. Her persistent argumentation gave me resolve to prove my caseÂ and somehow turned my uncertainty into absolute certainty.Â I now had a certain emotionally based belief that I did not have before the argument took place.
Now, as childish and worthless as this argument was, every time we see one of those signs on the road, there is a distinct feeling that resurfaces of an old bitter debate. To this day, I don’t really know who was right or who was wrong.Â ButÂ I could very easily, based upon a commitment of myÂ emotions and time given to this argument that day in 2001, pridefully continue in the same vainÂ without either thinking about theÂ non-importance of the issue or whether I am actually right.
Why do we do this? Because weÂ feel obligated to defend our positions once taken. We don’t like to change. Not only this, but we must defend themÂ in the exact way of the past or we feel that our argumentation then has now been conceded and our belief compromised.Â The fact is thatÂ this argument between my wife and I–this polemic and apologetic–needed time to rest.Â We needed time to reassess the relative importance of the issue and time to reflect upon our argument, thinking through the issues with balance and humility.
Now let’s up the move to something more significant. My wife and I have also had arguments about more serious matters. We have argued about particulars onÂ how to raise the children, finances, and issues with in-laws. We have even had some fairly severe theological disagreements. We could and–I am ashamed to say, often do–have ongoing disagreements that have not had a chance to rest,Â mentally and emotionally,Â from our personal polemics and apologetics concerning the issue. When these things surface, it is like an old wound that is opened and the injury that took place so long ago has not healed in the least. If this occurs, we are less prepared to confront the issues because we have not reflected upon it in a self-critical manner. In fact, we usually harden with regards to the issue.
Hardening is something that has serious consequences. This is trueÂ whether it be in marriage or theology. By hardening, we often force the opposing party (who is usually hardened as well) to defend their position in a way that is imbalanced. The opposition’s view becomes defined by your polemic against them and they feel forced to defend their positionÂ in aÂ very subjective manner.Â Did you get that? Let me say it again: The opposition’s view becomes defined by your polemic against them and they feel forced to defend their positionÂ in aÂ very subjective manner. They find themselves representing an interpretation of their position that you have provided and into which you have forced them to harden.
Now, lets apply this directly to the current issue on our blog: Catholics and Evangelicals. (And please know that I am not arguing that all the differences between Catholics and Evangelicals are misrepresented or unimportant).Â Catholics elevated tradition to the point of ultimate authority. Protestants, seeing the abuse of this authority, rejected its elevated status and replaced it with Scripture. Catholics responded and said that if you do this, people will interpret the Scripture in a way that is outside the tradition of the historic Christian faith. Protestants said better this than being forced to hold to distortions propagated by an abusive authority. As this debate between Tradition and private interpretation raged, imbalance and misrepresentation became the norm. Hardening began to set in. Protestants became more and more defined, from the inside and out,Â as those who only rely upon and submit toÂ their “personal relationship with Christ.” Why? Because Catholics set the agenda for us. We were backed into a corner and let the opposition define what we were all about and began defending a position that we did not actually hold. Therefore, we defended this imbalanced representation and passed it on to those after us. Catholics on the other hand were defined asÂ those who submit only to an outside authority, and this outside authority was not Jesus Christ, but Jesus Christ as represented by the visible Church headed by the bishop of Rome. Protestants said Catholics are against personal Bible interpretation and a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Therefore, Catholics picked up this ball, shaped by the polemics of the day, and began to defend it and pass it on to those after them.
The problem is that Protestants, historically,Â are not against outside authorities that shape and guide their theological accountability. They are just against these being the ultimate authority. As well, Catholics, historically,Â are not against personal Bible interpretation or a personal relationship with Christ, they just seek to balance these with aspects of community and accountability in the visible Body of Christ. Notice, therefore, that it is not the positions themselves that were defined by the opposing side, but the particular imbalanced nuance of the position.
Since we don’t like to allow rest in these issues, since each side’s apologistsÂ already have all the answers, since there has been so much time and energy put into this debate, we are now obligated to make the other side focus on a polemic which is imbalanced, misrepresented,Â and completely dismissive of the other side. We have now hardened into a particular nuance of something we are not. And old wounds like this cannot heal this way.
The point is that sometimes the better theÂ apologist we are–the moreÂ we “win” a debate, the moreÂ we “fight” for the cause–the moreÂ we actually lose becauseÂ weÂ make the situation worse than before.
Does this meanÂ apologists make things worse in Christianity? No, not necessarily. I am an apologist. This blog post is apologetic and polemical.Â Apologists are greatly needed in the Church. But we need to be wise apologists with great humility, giving time for rest and reflection. Does this mean that given time, rest, and reflection to issues that all issues will all be solved? Of course not, but at least we will have then acted with humility, gained a fresh perspective, have a better understanding about when compromise can occur, and, therefore,Â begin to only fight the battles that are truly worth fighting. We will be apologists with tact, humility, and wisdom.
What does this mean? It means that our first goal is to be intellectually honest. We have to represent the opposing side well. But this is not enough. We have to look out for them, knowing that argumentation and debate has the tendency to cause the other side to represent themselves in a imbalanced manner.
We also have to be willing to concede. We have to be willing to change our opinion. This is not easy as we may have to disavow a commitment to our previous blogs, papers, books, debates, and thoughts.
We also have to be willing to let the other side change without requiring them to admit their wrong. It means we don’t get to say “I told you so,” but we humbly accept their change without a conceded attitude of personal victory.
My advice to Christian Apologists isÂ this: We need to be careful that we are not actually making the situation worse, hardening the opposition, causing them to define and defend a position that does not really represent who they are. We need to make sureÂ we are giving the issue time to rest and the wound time to define and heal itself. Only then can we be true defenders of the faith.
Although I am wrestling with this idea right now, do you think it is possible that the Catholic/Evangelical/Orthodox debates have caused us allÂ to defend a nuanced version ofÂ our traditionÂ in an unbalanced and misrepresented way?