The Art of Disagreement

The recent debates on the appropriate response to the women’s ordination controversy threw into sharper relief a set of issues that have regularly cropped up on this blog and others with which I find myself in conversation, and particularly so during the hullaballoo about the US election: how are we to disagree?  How can we resolutely oppose error where we are convinced it is error, while making charitable allowances for others who hold these errors in good faith?  How are we to resort to the forceful polemic that defense of the truth often requires without indulging in mere verbal brawling and power-plays?  In my historical research, I have become convinced that our inability to satisfactorily reconcile the needs of polemics and irenics in contemporary discourse undermines our ability to intelligently read and interpret the controversies of earlier ages, in which interlocutors rarely shared our commitments to “fair play” and objective detachment.  

Accordingly, although the recent discussions highlighted the importance of a more systematic inquiry into the women’s ordination question, from the standpoint of historic Protestantism, I have postponed my promised provision of such for a spell (though in the meantime, one can find some helpful hints, along with, obviously, some points I would disagree with, here), to first address more carefully the question of how to disagree—how to be simultaneously polemical irenicists and irenical polemicists.  As this is a question that has cropped up quite frequently in posts and comments here, this might be the obvious place to post it.  But Matthew Anderson has suggested that, as a natural follow-up to my earlier post at Mere Orthodoxy, and an elaboration of his notion of “intellectual empathy,” its proper home is there.  So, with little attempt at modesty, I invite you to go check it out.  Or, for those of you indisposed to wade through the great sea of words there disgorged, here’s a quick precís:

We must not conceive our task as one of determining when polemics (understood as resort to rhetorical violence) are necessary, versus when irenics (understood as commitment to peaceful dialogue) is necessary, but must recognize that our task, as one of justice oriented toward both truth and effectiveness, is one in which the end is always irenic, and the means will usually involve some degree of polemic.

As a potential child of God, we must perceive every opponent as someone not to be triumphed over, but to be won over; to be persuaded, not subjugated.  The end of all our discourse should be reconciliation and peace.  The Christian, accordingly, must reject any idea of polemics that is self-justifying, that has been unmoored from the objective of seeking peace.  Equally, however, the Christian must reject any irenicism that has been unmoored from the objective of truth, for any reconciliation that terminates in anything but truth will be illusory and destructive.”

In discerning what will be effective in winning over the opponent, the principles of charity, as described in 1 Cor. 13, are always relevant, and none more so than patience, which is where “intellectual empathy” comes in.  This empathy does not necessarily mean sympathy, but rather an imaginative act of seeing the world through the opponent’s eyes.  The result may be sympathy, or may be greater awareness of the nature of his error, and better insight into how to detach him from it.  

If committed to irenically-oriented polemics, and a disciplined practice of intellectual empathy, what rules may guide us in the appropriate way to respond to particular errors.  Rather than providing rules, I suggest a list of questions we might ask ourselves, questions that will include: How serious is the error in question?  What is at stake?  How much harm will this error do to my opponent, and to others whom she is persuading or influencing?  Does this argument deserve respectful consideration?  Does the person I am critiquing deserve respect?  Where is this person coming from?  Why is this argument being advanced? and How will my critique be perceived/received?

Of course, the answers to any of these questions may be far from clear; this does not mean we should be afraid to even attempt the task of irenical polemics, but that we must recognize that our attempts to do so must always be subject to judgment at the bar of truth as well as love.

Controversy and Homosexuality

This is the final post about the Controversy Conference in Aberdeen last month, summarizing Vigen Guroian’s lecture on same-sex marriages and the roundtable discussion at the end on how the Church should deal with the homosexuality issue.

Guroian, a pugnacious Armenian Orthodox priest, offered a provocative lecture that, unlike the others, explored a contemporary manifestation of controversy in the Church–in particular, the conflict over same-sex marriage.  He confined himself narrowly to the question of same-sex marriage, rather than venturing into related questions about homosexuality.  He argued, fascinatingly, that on a Protestant view of marriage, it was impossible to continue to hold the ground against homosexual marriage, since Protestantism had desacralized marriage, made it essentially a civil, rather than an ecclesial, matter, and had taught that a marriage is constituted by the consenting wills of the two parties.  Indeed, he pointed out that the notion of consent as the essential constituent of a marriage infected the entire Western tradition, including the Catholic Church, deriving as it did from Roman law.  

Once this becomes the defining element, he suggested, why couldn’t we reach the point where two non-sexually-involved cohabiting individuals, of whatever sex, requested a “marriage” for economic reasons?  In response to the arguments for same-sex marriage, we should not try to fight out the battle on legal grounds, but should re-assert marriage as an institution of the Church, and the Church’s definition of marriage as the true one.  This means retrieving the sacramental character of marriage, and insisting that it is the sacramental union, rather than the consent of wills, that constitutes a marriage.  Practically, this means that ministers should stop signing civil marriage licenses, pretending that when they perform a marriage it is at all the same thing as the now-meaningless civil institution, and it means that we should liturgically re-situate marriage ceremonies within Eucharistic celebrations, as was originally the Church’s practice.

When asked in the Q&A what resources there might be in the Protestant tradition for making these same sorts of points that Guroian was making from an Orthodox perspective, Guroian unapologetically replied that there were none–that was the problem.  Protestantism, he suggested, had attempted to keep the soul of the Church without its body, and it was able to do this for four centuries because Christendom provided the body for Protestantism, the outward form and support and cultural presence, but now that Christendom was collapsing, Protestantism was being left naked and floundering.  

Of course, all this was quite provocative and much could be said in argument over the details; nonetheless, the central claims intrigued me and I confess that I am very sympathetic with them.  I have for some time now been unable to understand how we can have a properly Christian understanding of marriage without a sacramental understanding, and I agree with Guroian that Protestantism’s theology of marriage is much too anemic to offer a real bulwark against its militant secular offspring.  


Finally, I wanted to say a few words about the roundtable discussion at the end, which, after a fascinating exchange between Leithart and Webster on theological method, zeroed in on the controversy over homosexuality, particularly in view of recent events in the Church of Scotland.  Asked how he would respond if he were a Church of Scotland minister, John Webster made some hesitant stabs before throwing the hot potato to Dr. Leithart, who answered unabashedly that, once the Church of Scotland made its decision clear that it was going to tolerate actively homosexual ministers, he would feel the need to lead his congregation out of the denomination–not out of all Christian communion with them, to be sure, but out of the denomination.  This prompted an irrepressible flurry of discussion and protest, aimed primarily at Leithart, though it was more questioning than attacking.  Webster wanted to emphasize the need to be patient and not to break fellowship short of heresy–ultimately, he believed, the homosexuality issue was a heresy issue, a question of the authority and thus deity of Christ, but we had to stay and push back and force the discussion to the point where that was admitted, before we could think about breaking fellowship.  Brian Brock wanted to emphasize, likewise, our duty to be a faithful witness, a witness that would be taken away if we were simply to leg it to the next denomination.  I asked why we had to talk about leaving a denomination, when, if we were faithfully protesting against high-handed sin, we would be kicked out in due course anyway, and shouldn’t we wait for that to happen, rather than initiating the separation?  Leithart accepted to some extent all these caveats, and in the end, he and Webster weren’t too far apart, it seemed.  Most interestingly, several younger evangelical students voiced very strongly the objection that it seemed very hypocritical for conservative Christians to take such a hard-line disciplinary stance on this issue, when for decades there had been almost no concern or exercise of discipline in conservative churches over equally blatant violations of the Christian economic ethics (more important in the NT than sexual issues).  Naturally, I was sympathetic to this line of criticism, but ultimately, I concurred with Leithart’s rebuttal that it wasn’t that simple, because most the economic sins being critiqued, however serious, were harder to pin down for church discipline than was open homosexuality; and I also countered that just because we’d been too soft on one sin didn’t mean the best thing to make things right was to start being soft on other sins as well.  Nonetheless, I do think that conservative Christians need to remove the log from their own eye first before they get all high and mighty about issues of sexual morality, as I have suggested in previous blog posts, and it was fascinating to hear a lot of other guys my age who shared the same concern.


The Church and Controversy: Provocations and Consensus

I’ve finally had the opportunity to go back and finish my review of the Aberdeen conference on Controversy and the Church, though I was forced to end much more concisely than I began.  Four short posts will follow on some remaining highlights–Robert Jenson’s lecture “On Creative and Destructive Provocations,” Markus Muhling on “The Church’s Unity without Consensus,” Vigen Guroian on “Debating the Status of Same-Sex Marriages,” and then the roundtable discussion about the controversy over homosexuality.

Jenson, as one might imagine, was a joy to listen to–he, like Hart, had to join us via videoconference, but he still exuded a powerful presence.  In his lecture, he sought to sketch two examples of provocations that were destructive, but which God turned to the good, two that were just plain destructive, and always have been, and two that proved creative and edifying for the Church. 

As examples of the first two, he gave the classic case of Arianism, in which a harmful teaching that came into the Church proved creative of a robust theological response which led to greater maturity, and the rather less classic case of Luther’s marriage to Katarina von Bora, which was a scandal in its day, even among many of Luther’s followers, but has given us the rich benefits (acknowledged even by many Catholics) of married clergy. 

As examples of purely destructive provocations, he gave the case of Gene Robinson and the case of Marcion, and here some of his remarks were memorable.  What Marcion effected, he said, was to make the presence of the Old Testament a question for the Church, something that the Church had to work out and justify, and the Church has never recovered from that.  We take it for granted that the NT is authoritative, as if it anteceded and funded the Church, which it did not, and then we ask to what extent the OT is authoritative, as if it did not antecede and fund the Church, which it did. “The true question is not whether the Church needs OT Scripture, but whether Israel’s Scripture needs the Church,” he concluded, to an outburst of applause.

Then there are, of course, some provocations that are clearly constructive, although in a fallen world, even these will include unwanted painful side-effects.  As an example of such a creative provocation, he offered the preaching of black-white equality in the 1960s, which was deeply provocative, but deeply needed and something for which we are all now thankful.  A constructive provocation, he suggested, will usually challenge something that we want to keep, but about which we have a perennially bad conscience, and therefore tend to protest too much.

In conclusion, he turned to the recurring question, why are provocations such a central part of the Church’s life?  Here, unsurprisingly, his answer was somewhat different from Webster.  Perhaps we should recognize provocation as a fundamental ontological category. God’s dealing with his people are structured in terms of conversation, and perhaps provocation is God’s only way of continuing the conversation with his fallen yet beloved creation.  We recognize that God speaks to us in terms of law and gospel–God’s demand and God’s promise.  We must not synthesize the two, and yet we must hold on to both.  And if this is so, there will always be provocations, and perhaps the more provocation, the better.


In a lecture the next day, Markus Muhling explored the idea of church unity without consensus.  His argument was in fact that this is what we should expect and seek, because consensus does not emerge spontaneously and attempts both to perceive it and to bring it about are always forced.  Indeed, a unity based on consensus is ethically inferior to one based not on consensus, but on tolerance.  Tolerance, he argued, was not of course a holding of all viewpoints to be equally valid, but rather presupposes that I think I’m right and you’re wrong, and thus your error is something that I have to learn to tolerate.  Learning to show such tolerance is learning, like Christ, to suffer on behalf of the other; to accept the insecurity that his opposition brings.  Whereas consensus provides cozy feelings that make us feel safe in our personal identity, tolerance forces us to feel threatened.  

This I found to be compelling and challenging.  Nevertheless, I would want to maintain that there is an eschatological progression, so that the Church does grow toward consensus, at least if this is understood as a polyphonic harmony, though certainly not a bland and static unity.  We must and should learn to tolerate alternative viewpoints, but that does not mean that we do not press on in the hope of resolving these differences.  Muhling’s starkly amillenialist eschatology, however, prevented him from drawing such a conclusion.  He viewed the difference between in via and in patria, the eschatological difference, as a categorical rather than a gradual difference.  Anyone, he said, who wants to see consensus as essential to the Church mistakes this categorical difference for a gradual difference, and such millenarianism results in totalitarianism.  

An overhasty millenarianism results in totalitarianism to be sure, but it is possible to be a patient postmillenialist rather than a triumphalistic one, even if history warns us how easy it is to fall into such triumphalism.  Eschatology, this conference suggested to me, is key to how we view controversy in the Church.  The first lecture examined Luther’s anti-Jewish polemics, and concluded that much of his harshness emerged later in life when his hopes of the imminent Christianization of the world and return of Christ seemed to be in vain.  It was as if he sought to forcibly bring about the eschaton by increasingly forceful rhetoric, and it proved sadly divisive.  Leithart suggested that this was a common theme of conflicts in Church history–over-optimistic millenarian expectations collapsing into pessimism, and generating in both cases an urgency and anger that led to intense conflict (this, perhaps, relates in interesting ways to David Bentley Hart’s thesis about the cause of controversy).  If both apocalyptic premillenialism and triumphalistic postmillenialism generate divisive angry conflict, then, it would seem, the solution is to be found in patient amillenialism.  But I would suggest that the postmillenial element is still necessary, emphasizing, like Webster’s lecture, that God is already resolving conflict and gaining the victory and will continue to do so, a faith that gives us the confidence to approach conflict with patience and reliance on the power of God.