Polemics – defined by Merriam-Webster as, alternatively, “ an aggressive attack on or refutation of the opinions or principles of another,” or, “the art or practice of disputation or controversy . . .” – is sometimes required in theology. There have been, since the Garden, theological opinions that deserve strong rebuke. When required, we should not shy away from that particular task, however reticent we may be to engage in it.
But there are plenty of examples today of self-styled theologians – many of whom you can find practicing their “craft” on Twitter threads or long Facebook comments or various corners of the blogosphere – who engage in nothing but refutation. For them, the theological task is nothing more or less than telling others why they are clearly and dangerously wrong. Theology is take down. To say it a bit more charitably, there are those who remember their task to “guard sound doctrine” but forget the more constructive instruction to “pass on to faithful men what you have learned also.”
This kind of theological engagement suffers in at least two ways. First, it produces theologies that are completely reactionary to whatever is happening in our current cultural moment. Rather than theology being a pillar and buttress of truth, it becomes shifting sand – ironically, sand that shifts in exactly the same direction that the supposedly dangerous culture does, even if it comes to different conclusions than that culture. Theology in Scripture is firm, sound, a trustworthy deposit. *Exclusively* polemical theology is, on the other hand, tossed about by the winds, even while it intends to straighten everyone else’s sails. It sniffs around for silly myths rather than avoiding them.
The other way that this theology-as-polemics suffers is by producing pugilists rather than peaceable ministers of sound doctrine. In 1 Tim. 3:3, Paul gives instructions regarding the qualification for an overseer (elder, pastor, bishop…). The penultimate characteristic listed in the first group (vv. 2-3) is “not quarrelsome.” In the KJV, it’s translated as “not a brawler.” Whether or not this particular qualification has physical confrontation or an intellectual disposition in mind (and, given the mention of “violence” in the immediately previous characteristic, one could choose either option, I think), the latter plausibly can be considered under it in terms of general application. A minister of the gospel should not be one disposed to quarreling, physically or intellectually. But theology-as-polemics produces bulldogs, not shepherds. It produces pugilism, not discernment. It produces violence, not love. And this pugilistic attitude leads, in turn, to viewing one’s interlocutor as an argument to be destroyed rather than a neighbor (and, often, a Christian sister or brother) to be loved.