I’ve written about intellectual honesty in polemics before over at Mere Orthodoxy where I argued that as Christians we ought to be principled in our engagement with positions with which we disagree:
We should strive to deal honorably, speak honestly, and actively avoid unfair caricatures and cheap shots in our polemical engagements. Whenever arguing against a position we ought to represent our interlocutors accurately, fairly, and charitably. In other words, don’t purposely take the dumbest interpretation of any statement they make and argue against that. That’s just dishonest.
Later, in a post on the issue of self-criticism within the Reformed tradition, I noted the sad fact that sometimes you will find pastors and theologians who actually fit the caricatures that are often criticized. When that happens, the distorted, unfaithful, sub-biblical versions of doctrines and teachings need to be corrected directly and forthrightly:
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.
That said, I wanted to briefly return to the issue of polemics and caricatures formalize a couple of suggestions on how to criticize in a careful, intellectually-honest fashion. In essences, it’s a matter of establishing what you’re trying to do:
Inherently Bad Doctrines – There will be those instances when you undertake the task of criticizing a doctrine which you find inherently bad and utterly irredeemable in all its forms. In that case, your job is not to simply find the easiest, dumbest version of the doctrine to criticize, but the best, most nuanced, and persuasive version that doctrine that you can. When I read Thomas Weinandy’s defense of impassibility in Does God Suffer? I was impressed by his early chapter laying out the arguments against impassibility. By the end of it, I was wondering how he was going to dig himself out because he’d presented the case of his opponents better than most of them had (he did, though.) In the same way, strive to present the arguments of your opponents in terms they would be prepared to recognize and own, before you proceed to criticize it.
Distorted Versions – In the second case, there will be times when you’re not attempting to take down a doctrine wholesale, but particular versions, possibly popular and prevalent understandings, that you find inadequate. In those cases, as I noted above, add some caveats such as “in some versions”, “in this rendering”, “in it’s popular form”, “while not all proponents would frame it this way”, and then criticize away. If I launch off on “pacifists” in general, or “dispensationalists”, or “atheists”, (not that these are at all in the same category) when in fact it is only some, or the worst forms, that are guilty of whatever mistake I’m talking about, I’ve been deeply uncharitable towards those who are not. In other words, Richard Dawkins is not the only atheist out there. While it’s fine and important to criticize him, especially given the weight so many pop atheist fanboys give him, it’s unfair to all the very thoughtful, intellectually serious ones out there.
This may all seem a bit nit-picky, but honesty and charity in our criticisms is a practical way we can work towards unity in the body, as well as put into practice Jesus’ commands to love our neighbors as ourselves.
Soli Deo Gloria