Three Rules for Engaging in Theological Polemics

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William Perkins (1558–1602) grew up in the aftermath of the Council of Trent, becoming a puritan and Cambridge theologian. Due to these roles, he had both a convictional and public ministry. One example of his public ministry appears in his polemical treatise called A Reformed Catholic which he published in 1597. In this literary treasure, he outlined how Reformed Catholics and the Roman Catholics differed in faith. 

And in his preface, Perkins lays out his reasons for why he wrote the treatise. And although he wrote over 400 years ago, he offers us wisdom in an era that sustains polemics, controversy, and discernment blogging. By listening to this great divine, we can discern three contemporary rules for engaging in theological polemics. 

First, state the truth and desire peace

Conviction of truth does not preclude the desire to make peace. But political norms of left vs. right have created a cultural milieu in which two sides fight an eternal battle for domination. Yet Christian culture does not work like that. We speak the truth in love in order to persuade others of something more beautiful than political domination, more trust-worthy than the daily galvanizing of political parties, and more lasting than the fleeting news cycle.

To make the point, consider how Perkins defines his first goal in writing: “My purpose of penning this small discourse is threefold. The first is to confute all such politics as hold and maintain that our religion and that of the Roman Church differ not in substance and consequently that they may be reconciled: yet my meaning is not here to condemn and pacification [peace-making] that tends to persuade the Roman Church to our religion” (A Reformed Catholic, 905).

Perkins does not engage in theological subterfuge. He states upfront his view. He wants to clarify how protestant theology differs from the Roman Church. Because, as he notes, protestants and Romanists can not be reconciled while these differences exist. He does not smooth over real causes for the division. Nor does he pull punches. He seeks to define exactly where Rome taught falsely.

Yet he also desires “pacification.” And throughout his polemical work, his desire to win over his opponents through clear argumentation and a fair reading of his opponents resound clearly. And small wonder, Jesus did say, “Blessed are the peacemakers.” Yet that did not prevent the Lord from calling out blind leaders who lead even blinder disciples into destruction. Peacemaking and truth go hand and hand. 

Second, don’t win an argument; persuade your opponent of the truth

Perkins desired to persuade those in the church of Rome rather than simply “win” an argument. He wrote, “The second is that the Papists which think so basely of our religion may be won to a better liking of it: when they shall see how near we come unto them in sundry points” (A Reformed Catholic, 905). He wanted them to come to a knowledge of the truth. 

Even in his article on justification (an obviously divisive issue), he goes to great lengths to compare how both protestants and Romans agree on many matters. He cites the best of the Roman argument instead of finding the worst presentation of it and so straw-manning his opponents. 

For example, Perkins concedes, “The most learned among them say that Christ’s satisfaction made by Christ in his death and obedience to the law is imputed to us and becomes our righteousness” (927; citing Bellarmine, de iusisif. lib.2. cap.7).” 

His citation of Bellarmine and concession of a near agreement demonstrates that (1) he knows what he is talking about, (2) he actually knows the arguments of his opponents, and (3) he can, therefore, distinguish clearly where the substantive disagreements are. 

He wants to truly persuade by making accurate and fair judgments—not dunk on his opponents. 

Third, build others up by arguing for the sake of others, not your pride

Knowledge puffs up. Love builds up. But when love unites to knowledge, then faith working through love builds up. It is love that makes knowledge edifying since knowledge without love leads to pride, the source of a panoply of sin. 

Write to help others see the truth, gain assurance, and grow. Grandstanding online, proving others wrong, or winning an argument puffs up. It is a failure of Christian character and makes one useless for Christian ministry. 

Perkins, I think, understood something of this. So he explains, “The third [reason is] that the common protestant might in some part see and conceive the point of difference between us and the Church of Rome and know in what manner and how far forth we condemn the opinions of said church” (A Reformed Catholic, 905).

Put simply, Perkins wrote for the common protestant. He wanted them to see and know the truth. He had no platform to build, no Instagram account to grow, nor controversy to stoke for the sake of recognition. He wrote simply to help common protestants know the truth. 

Our online and corporeal presence should communicate the same. We write to help, not hurt. We speak to build up others, not build up our reputation.

Conclusion 

Perkins wrote his A Reformed Catholic to affirm truth against falsehood, to win over his opponents, and to build up the faith of the church. I am not sure we can create better guidelines than these when it comes to our online or personal interactions with others. 

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