18 May 2009

On the distasteful necessity of theological controversy

by Phil Johnson

nthony Trollope was a Victorian novelist whose output and popularity rivaled Dickens. His books aren't as well known today as the Dickens classics, but they are still easily available and Trollope still has a passionate following.

Trollope grew up in a poor but aristocratic family. His father, though related to the landed gentry, failed at practically everything he ever attempted. In later years Anthony's mother, Frances Trollope, scored some remarkable successes as a writer (achieving fame but not much critical acclaim with Domestic Manners of the Americans [1832] and several novels). But her earnings were not enough to overcome her husband's failures, and the family ultimately fled to Belgium so that Anthony's father could avoid debtors' prison.

The incongruity between his family's rank in society and their standard of living contributed much to the themes of Anthony Trollope's novels.

Many of those novels (most notably his best-known series, The Chronicles of Barsetshire) focused on the internal politics and doctrinal disparity within the Anglian church—high vs. low churchmen; evangelicals vs. Puseyites; and youth vs. experience. Trollope's sympathies clearly lay with the high church, anti-evangelical, traditionalist parties. (He was plainly no fan of Charles Spurgeon. He loved to lampoon evangelicals, including those within the established church as well as the nonconformists.) So in all candor I don't share Trollope's theological perspective and rarely appreciate his satirical commentary on ecclesiastical matters. Unfortunately for me, his novels are full of those themes.

But I admire his style of writing and his ability to make even his most outlandish caricatures seem real and living. He also had an uncanny knack for bringing common sense to bear against popular opinion, and at times—even while disagreeing with his fundamental perspective—I find myself in awe of his logic.

Here's a passage I especially resonated with from Barchester Towers. Eleanor Bold is conversing with Mr. Arabin, a vicar:

"I never saw anything like you clergymen," said Eleanor; "You are always thinking of fighting each other."

"Either that," said he, "or else supporting each other. The pity is that we cannot do the one without the other. But are we not here to fight? Is not ours a church militant? What is all our work but fighting, and hard fighting, if it be well done?"

"But not with each other."

"That's as it may be. The same complaint which you make of me for battling with another clergyman of our own church, the Mohammedan would make against me for battling with the error of a priest of Rome. Yet, surely, you would not be inclined to say that I should be wrong to do battle with such as him. A pagan, too, with his multiplicity of gods, would think it equally odd that the Christian and the Mohammedan should disagree."

"Ah! But you wage your wars about trifles so bitterly."

"Wars about trifles," said he, "are always bitter, especially among neighbours. When the differences are great, and the parties comparative strangers, men quarrel with courtesy. What combatants are ever so eager as two brothers?"

"But do not such contentions bring scandal on the church?"

"More scandal would fall on the church if there were no such contentions. . . ."

Then he continued: "What you say is partly true: our contentions do bring on us some scandal. The outer world, though it constantly reviles us for our human infirmities and throws in our teeth the fact that being clergymen we are still no more than men, demands of us that we should do our work with godlike perfection. There is nothing god-like about us: we differ from each other with the acerbity common to man; we triumph over each other with human frailty; we allow differences on subjects of divine origin to produce among us antipathies and enmities which are anything but divine. This is all true. But what would you have in place of it? There is no infallible head for a church on earth. This dream of believing man has been tried, and we see in Italy and in Spain what has come of it. Grant that there are and have been no bickerings within the pale of the Pope's Church. Such an assumption would be utterly untrue, but let us grant it, and then let us say which church has incurred the heavier scandals."

. . . . . . . . . .

"It is so easy to condemn," said he, continuing the thread of his thoughts. "I know no life that must be so delicious as that of a writer for newspapers, or a leading member of the opposition—to thunder forth accusations against men in power; to show up the worst side of everything that is produced; to pick holes in every coat; to be indignant, sarcastic, jocose, moral, or supercilious; to damn with faint praise, or crush with open calumny! What can be so easy as this when the critic has to be responsible for nothing? You condemn what I do, but put yourself in my position and do the reverse, and then see if I cannot condemn you."

"Oh, Mr. Arabin, I do not condemn you."

"Pardon me, you do, Mrs. Bold—you as one of the world; you are now the opposition member; you are now composing your leading article, and well and bitterly you do it. 'Let dogs delight to bark and bite'—you fitly begin with an elegant quotation—'but if we are to have a church at all, in heaven's name let the pastors who preside over it keep their hands from each other's throats. Lawyers can live without befouling each other's names; doctors do not fight duels. Why is it that clergymen alone should indulge themselves in such unrestrained liberty of abuse against each other?' and so you go on reviling us for our ungodly quarrels, our sectarian propensities, and scandalous differences. It will, however, give you no trouble to write another article next week in which we, or some of us, shall be twitted with an unseemly apathy in matters of our vocation. It will not fall on you to reconcile the discrepancy; your readers will never ask you how the poor parson is to be urgent in season and out of season and yet never come in contact with men who think widely differently from him. You, when you condemn this foreign treaty, or that official arrangement, will have to incur no blame for the graver faults of any different measure. It is so easy to condemn—and so pleasant too, for eulogy charms no listeners as detraction does."

Phil's signature


Sir Brass said...

Amen! Though, it has to be frustrating to see such clear, LOGICAL reason from anti-spurgeonite. Interesting.

Rick Frueh said...

"to be indignant, sarcastic, jocose, moral, or supercilious; to damn with faint praise, or crush with open calumny!"

A prophetic utterance pertaining to a coming phenomenon called "blogs". I would suggest that our interactive standards as believers should, but most times are not, observably different than are the secular discourse marketplace.

The iron sharpening iron principle is always beneficial, except when the axe head aims for flesh instead of iron.

Boerseuntjie said...

By the Authority of Scripture as the clear command of God:

1 Timothy 5:19-21
"Do not receive an accusation against an elder except from two or three witnesses. THOSE WHO ARE SINNING REBUKE IN THE PRESENCE OF ALL, that the rest also may fear.
I charge you before God and the Lord Jesus Christ and the elect angels that you observe these things without prejudice, doing nothing with partiality."

2 Peter 2:1-10
"But there were also false prophets among the people, even as THERE WILL BE FALSE TEACHERS AMONG YOU, who WILL SECRETLY bring in DESTRUCTIVE HERESIES, even denying the Lord who bought them, and bring on themselves swift destruction. And many will follow their destructive ways, because of whom the way of truth will be blasphemed. By covetousness they will exploit you with deceptive words; for a long time their judgment has not been idle, and their destruction doesnot slumber.

For if God did not spare the angels who sinned, but cast them down to hell and delivered them into chains of darkness, to be reserved for judgment; and did not spare the ancient world, but saved Noah, one of eight people, a preacher of righteousness, bringing in the flood on the world of the ungodly; and turning the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah into ashes, condemned them to destruction, making them an example to those who afterward would live ungodly; and delivered righteous Lot, who was oppressed by the filthy conduct of the wicked (for that righteous man, dwelling among them, tormented his righteous soul from day to day by seeing and hearing their lawless deeds)— then the Lord knows how to deliver the godly out of temptations and to reserve the unjust under punishment for the day of judgment, and especially those who walk according to the flesh in the lust of uncleanness and despise authority. They are presumptuous, self-willed."

Let us stand as Watchmen with the Standard of Divine Counsel in the Scriptures Alone to discernment and holding others to account, as faithful servants entrusted with a great Treasure of grace.

Your fellow bondslave for the glory of God Alone,

Solameanie said...

I wonder if they read Trollope at the Village?

Steve B said...

I absolutely LOVE the "Olde Enlisch" language in such writing. It puts to such shame the plebian twitterings and MySpace hiccuppings we present as "writing" today. Our definition of literature has suffered in the past decades.

Writing like this fill your mouth like a fragrant and delicious oatmeal.

Roscoe Washington said...

When criticism is directed at a specific person within the body of Christ, I wonder sometimes if the courtesy of a face to face conversation or in the least a phone call precedes it. I feel that is the manly thing to do. I would think that for some public figures withing the church, such a conversation might be difficult to arrange, but I think the effort is worth it.

Boerseuntjie said...


I have had one such e-mail correspondance with a Disqualified Elder, who was convicted by the US Courts of acting fraudulently.

I was concerned that a disqualified Elder continued to stay in that offie of responsibility and contacted him directly with my concern for him, his Congregation, The Body of Christ at large and the LORD Himself who had been dishonored by unbelievers as a consequence.

He was very kind, responsife and gave me some helpful insights; despite us being at variance about his disqualification as an Elder.

What I want to say is:
It is possible to have PRIVATE and SENSITIVE conversation about difficult matters via communication technologies we now possess. But both arties should act with compassion, care and in the love and fear of the LORD Himself, correcting with the Scriptures Alone.

The question is more about our capability to balance truth with love, and we ought to pray the Spirit of grace and truth to enable us in our weaknesses herein to be couragious and compassionate.

Your bondslave for the glory of Christ our King,

Truth Unites... and Divides said...

PJ: "He also had an uncanny knack for bringing common sense to bear against popular opinion, and at times—even while disagreeing with his fundamental perspective—I find myself in awe of his logic."

I'm in awe of his logic too.

Funny that you're previous post on the weekly Spurgeon excerpt was titled "Against Eloquence".

David Rudd said...

Rick's comment:

The iron sharpening iron principle is always beneficial, except when the axe head aims for flesh instead of iron.

was well worth reading that entire post for.

Thanks, Rick!

Gary said...

"The iron sharpening iron principle is always beneficial, except when the axe head aims for flesh instead of iron."

That is precisely when the "iron sharpening iron" principle is MOST beneficial. The purpose of the sharpening is to be ready when it is appropriate to cut, not to just sharpen for the sake of sharpening. The question isn't about whether to cut or not, it's about making sure we are cutting the right things.

mike said...

the struggle i am having right now, is that it seems that open heresy is better recieved from anyone who appears humble and kind, where absolute Biblical fruth is dismissed from a messenger who may be labelled proud or arrogent.

the messenger has become MORE important that the message, and i have to wonder if that isn't because we are attempting to appeal to the mortal man, instead of to a reborn son of God within whom the Spirit lives to bear witness.

Roberto G said...

When emotions get high, though, that often signals a weakness in argument. This takes the form of being overly sensitive, ignoring the substance of a position, or hastily mis-labeling before one's own case is fleshed out. Many may have heard of the story told of the preacher who supports a point of his sermon by simply raising his voice louder when he actually didn't arrive at strong support for it in his studies.
Although blogs are not an educational forum, learning can take place here. And the same patience required with those in other contexts, should be exercised a little more in Christian blogs. Or else, they will merely resemble the interactions that take place on political blogs.

Rick Frueh said...

"the struggle i am having right now, is that it seems that open heresy is better recieved from anyone who appears humble and kind, where absolute Biblical fruth is dismissed from a messenger who may be labelled proud or arrogent."

It is not either/or.

DJP said...

Roberto — When emotions get high, though, that often signals a weakness in argument.

Wow. Really? Categorically, and in the indicative mood? Hunh.

So, if you become really, really upset when someone tells a slanderous, scurrilous, vile lie about your wife, then that signals that you really think all those things are true of her?

And if someone drags her good name through a sewer, and you shrug and discuss it as if it were a faculty tea, that means you just really trust her?


Roberto G said...

I appreciate the analogy. I would simply elaborate that the context I was referring to was more along the lines of a blog such as this that may touch on theological controversies. Assertions are easier to produce than arguments. And between brothers and sisters in the faith, I simply question the contribution of emotions such as frustration or exasperation, for example, to commending any truth concerning the faith we hold dear.

mike said...

exactly what i thought, and if it is true, and it makes me mad, then i have some work to do.

school teacher calls you at home to tell you what a pleasure it is to have your daughter in class. she is bright and positive, however she is not much to look at. it is possible that due to the feelings that you have for your daughter, this compliment may not be recieved as such.

often, the reason discussions regarding the things of God are heated, is that many of us really do believe that God is to be feared and revered above man.

mike said...

sorry if i initially misread your response.

Bill Lonas said...

"Roberto — When emotions get high, though, that often signals a weakness in argument."

OR it simply signals a passion for the truth..

..as Jesus displayed in the Temple...twice

Roberto G said...

Yes, indeed! And my mis-use of the categorical and indicative mood illustrates how the main thrust of one's position can be hampered by such erroneous, unnecessary usage. Similar to when the truth of an argued position may be hampered by the sarcasm, ridicule, and ad hominems tossed out, presumably, from the righteous feelings within us to defend His truth. God will continue to ordain that I make logical and moral blunders. And I pray He grant repentence for those each time.

Sir Brass said...

Roberto, where have the blog writers on this blog used ad hom against their opponents? I posit that this is not the case. Any less-than-nice comments from Phil, DJP, or Frank have been correct, not ad hom. That the targets didn't take it well is not the fault of the authors of this blog.

Sarcasm has its place (as we see in Paul's writings), as does ridicule (read Job....God absolutely ridicules Job for Job's impudence). Their proper use is just fine. True, some people are more diplomatic than others, but simply b/c someone isn't "more diplomatic than thou" doesn't mean they're hampering their message.

Rick Frueh said...

Ridicule is a divinely approved way of New Testament communication. Who knew?

So how does that mesh with seasoned with salt, always with grace, so that we might know how to answer every man. The how is not the knowledge here, it is dealing with means.

How we communicate truth must never be a hinderance to that same truth. It is always God's truth, and even when we are defending and speaking His truth, we are still His servants and under the obedience of all He commands.

When challenging and rebuking the disobedient, we should not be found being disobedient to another facet of the truth we are defending.

Roberto G said...

I agree with your points, Sir. My statements weren't meant to imply the gracious hosts of this site are guilty of such things. Just happy to use my logical blunder, after it was pointed out, as an illustration that some things may interfere with the goal of Christian communication among brothers, whether online or in our other interactions with the brethren. May God continue to grant me repentence for any unnecessary offense I may be guilty of in standing up for truth and defending it in theological controversy.

Spike said...

Few of the New Testament writers, or our Lord for that matter, were kind and gentle in the face of erroneous thinking. I believe sarcasm, irony, anger, etc., is all that might get the beam of denial out of someone's eye, though even then... Paul didn't suffer fools, and we made it this far because of it?

A.M. Mallett said...

Mr Patton has dealt with this kind of "God's work" recently.


DJP said...

"This kind"? What kind?

farmboy said...

George Patton, the general? Careful study of his life's work teaches us about one method for dealing with controversy, or at least for dispatching the opposition. However, I didn't know that the general wrote much in the area of theology. Maybe, implicitly, there's something we can learn about how to dispatch heretical theological ideas produced by German theologians.

Steve B said...

An oft-effective tool of quelling dissent and stifling legitimate discourse is to insist that we all "just get along." You see this in a lot of the lefty "diversity" talk, such that the only approved language is that which soothes, or does not confront.

Paul's letters to the churches often exhort them to contend for the faith, to oppose false teaching, and to adhere to church discipline.

That said, I would propose that a great deal of what consitutes legitimate church discipline, reproof, etc., should take place within the Body, within the church membership. There are levels of discipline described, both public and private remonstrance.

But that deals with church discipline. The expressing of conflicting ideas and debates about various theological underpinnings often takes place between members of the church, or various pastors. In this Internet age, many of those discussions take place in the public arena, due to the accessiblity of blogs, websites, and message boards.

Does this mean that because "seekers" might stumble across our acrimony or empassioned exegesis that we shouldn't have such discussions? I would say no.

But what good master Spurgeon seems to be saying is that we not let our love of flowerly prose lead us to try and bury the other's arguments beneath a cloud of incomprehensible or excessive verbiage. Much like my comment here.

Speak the plain truth, ensure that it is Biblically sound, and conduct your conversations with as much decorum and restraint as possible. But we can't let corrupt or misguided theology take root because of some misapplied idea that we have to present some sort of plastic stewardess-smile to any potential viewer, and so ultimately say nothing of actual consequence out of concern about seeming to "divisive."

Kirby L. Wallace said...

Sorry for being off topic, but what is a "meta" and the one being talked about that happened lately: where can I read it?

danny2 said...

you gotta be kidding me!

i just started reading "between two worlds" today, and he speaks of trollope in chapter two!

how do you guys do that? are you monitoring my amazon purchases?