Oliver Cromwell is reputed to have exclaimed during a dispute, “I beseech thee, in Christ’s bowels, think it possible you may be mistaken!” ‘Bowels’ is a great word.
I took away a lot of insights from my undergrad in philosophy, but one of the most important for the intellectual life was a distaste for caricature. Professor after professor beat into our heads that in critiquing another viewpoint, you must first present their argument fairly, and in a form they would recognize, before proceeding criticize it. In fact, you should go about trying to find the best, strongest version of that viewpoint in order to argue against it, otherwise you run the risk of an uncharitable caricature that is unjust and only weakens your own, possibly valid criticism.
Since my time in college, caricature has therefore become a pet peeve of mine, as well as a particular area of struggle. I hate caricatures when I see them, even to the point where I’ve been found arguing with a friend on behalf of a view I don’t hold, simply because I don’t think is being fairly represented. While I was constantly defending my faith to my non-Christian friends in college, I’d find myself re-articulating their arguments to my Christian friends who might sneer when I was recounting the story. I may be Reformed right now because I attended a seminary with a Wesleyan-Holiness background.
At the same time, I must confess I have a love for strong polemics. I’ve mentioned this before. Kierkegaard, Pascal, Calvin, Athanasius, are among my favorite authors precisely because of their forthright polemical engagement. Biblical writers such as Paul himself engaged quite forthrightly in polemics, and like the prophets, he wasn’t always the most careful in his sensitivities towards hurt feelings or the niceties of academic dialogue. I struggle with this because when I’m about to engage in critique, I remember this strain of thought. The critique is just “honest.” But what about my own tradition and positions I hold dear? Do I see similar criticisms as simply “honest?” Am I quick to cry foul and “caricature?” Maybe.
I’m wrestling through this because I recently got involved in a little imbroglio over a post that I felt was linking a caricatured version of Calvinism with abuse or spiritual abuse. Now, newly-excited about the Reformed tradition as I am, I wasn’t particularly pleased with it and called it out as such. The initial post was quite forceful, and since I was sans coffee when I read it, I replied in kind. In the ensuing conversation I started to think about the way I approach criticism of my own tradition. See, while it’s entirely right to expect a fair, charitable, nuanced criticism that cites the best sources and arguments when engaging in an academic debate about a position, real life presents us with people and situations that aren’t the ideal.
For instance, not every Calvinistic or Reformed pastor reads Kevin Vanhoozer, or preaches like Tim Keller, or articulates doctrine with the care and sensitivity of a Michael Horton. My own experience of the Reformed world has taken place in the context of a gently conservative Presbyterian church with caring, faithful, and sensitive pastors, but much as I hate to admit it, the reality is that some Reformed bodies are real-life, walking caricatures of the tradition I hold dear. Just as Wesleyan or Baptistic theologies can go off the rails in serious ways, so can churches and theologies with putatively Reformed roots. When that is the only expression of Reformed faith someone encounters, distaste for the whole stream is quite understandable. Sometimes the caricatures have human faces.
A few thoughts, then:
When someone within your fold goes off the rails, they need to get criticized and corrected by those within first. If not, it will probably be done by those with no sympathies for your tradition as a whole, likely imputing their failures to the broader structure of thought. It’s no harm to gently (or less-gently) call out failures or unhelpful distortions within the tradition. In fact, that’s what traditions are: ongoing conversations centered around various shared convictions as well as disagreements.
When criticizing those outside of your own tradition, especially one for which you feel less intellectual sympathy, it’s important to acknowledge distinctions and add caveats. For instance, I’m not a dispensationalist and I’ve seen the pop-dispensationalism I’ve grown up with go into some pretty unhelpful places when it comes to biases against Arabs. That said, not all dispensationalism is guilty, and the best advocates would avoid this problem. While Paul didn’t dance around issues, and I don’t think we should either, it’s important for those of us who aren’t authors of Scripture to be careful with our words about traditions with which we disagree. I fail at this all the time, but my conversations with faithful friends, with whom I have some real disagreements, drive me to strive to temper my critical words.
For the Reformed, we should be particularly quick to be Reformed and always Reforming under the Word of God. We should know we’re not justified by being right, but by being righteous in Christ, so that should give us some space to be quick to admit our faults in the freedom of the Gospel. I’ll admit, there is some irony in asking the Reformed to engage in self-criticism; it easily one of the most argumentative traditions in Western theology in terms of inter-tradition dispute. I’m not calling for more arguments about infralapsarianism or supralapsarianism, though. Instead, it’s the willingness to acknowledge the way certain strains and tendencies, even when not necessarily a corollary of Reformed theology, have been present and harmful in our churches at times. In other words, just as people have besetting sins, so do traditions. This isn’t a call to stop engaging real caricatures or defending the faith, etc. By no means! Instead, it’s more of a, “Slow down. Think about it.” This side of the Second Coming it is possible for us to get things wrong sometimes.
Soli Deo Gloria