5. Gillespie’s Rule B
The fifth rule also belongs to Gillespie and states: Represent and engage your opponents’ position in its very strongest form, not in a weak ‘straw man’ form. “Do all the work necessary until you can articulate the views of your opponent with such strength that he says, ‘I couldn’t have said it better myself.’ Then and only then will your polemics not misrepresent him, take his views in toto, and actually have the possibility of being persuasive.” I think we come to appreciate the importance of this rule when we see another person unfairly caricature our own beliefs. Never allow your opponent to say, “He completely misunderstood me.”
6. Calvin’s Rule
The sixth rule is Calvin’s and states: Seek to persuade, not antagonize, but watch your motives! “It is possible to seek to be winsome and persuasive out of a self-centeredness, rather than a God-centeredness. We may do it to be popular. On the other hand, it is just as possible to be bold and strongly polemical out of self-centeredness rather than God-centeredness. And therefore, looking very closely at our motives, we should be sure our polemics do not unnecessarily harden and antagonize our opponents. We should seek to win them, as Paul did Peter, not to be rid of them.” The goal is not to vanquish an opponent or the people who have been led astray by him, but to win them all to the truth.
7. Everybody’s Rule
The seventh and final rule belongs to each of the previous six theologians and states Only God sees the heart—so remember the gospel and stick to criticizing the theology. Keller goes to John Newton and says, “No one has written more eloquently about this rule than John Newton, in his well-known ‘Letter on Controversy.’ Newton says that first, before you begin to write a single word against an opponent, ‘and during the whole time you are preparing your answer, you may commend him by earnest prayer to the Lord’s teaching and blessing.’ This practice will stir up love for him and ‘such a disposition will have a good influence upon every page you write.’ Later in the letter Newton says, ‘Be upon your guard against admitting anything personal into the debate. If you think you have been ill treated, you will have an opportunity of showing that you are a disciple of Jesus, who ‘when he was reviled, reviled not again; when he suffered, he threatened not.’ ‘It is a great danger to aim to ‘gain the laugh on your side,’ to make your opponent look evil and ridiculous instead of engaging their views with ‘the compassion due to the souls of men.’”
I commend these seven rules to my fellow bloggers and to all of us who engage in online discussion. I share them today out of the conviction that I need to do far better in each of these ways, that I need to keep these rules before me. May we, may I, exemplify God-glorifying polemics.