I believe that God made us to be filled with what some call "virtue", and what St. Paul calls "the fruit of the Spirit" (cf. Gal. 5:16-25) or even "the spiritual gifts" (cf. 1Co. ch. 12-13). In all of these lists "Love" comes up as the first and foremost gift / fruit slice / virtue. Love may look very different at different times, depending on the need. Love sometimes comforts and consoles. Love other times disciplines and rebukes. The first and foremost thing that Love ALWAYS does is that it always puts the needs and the welfare of others before itself. Second, it never lies about, curses, or belittles the person it loves, even if it may need to destroy a false idea or rebuke an evil action done by the beloved.
From this central virtue of love then flows various "academic virtues" which should be held to if one is going to participate in a debate on Christ's behalf, and if one does not use these virtues, they are not honoring Christ even if they utter true statements.
First, there is truth-telling: One should tell the truth about one's opponents, and not erect a "straw man" which only tells a half-truth about someone and then proceeds to knock that false person down. A half-truth is a complete lie, because it is based on only selecting those portions of a person you do not like and presenting that as the whole person.
Better than that, debate should not focus on a person at all, but solely on ideas. And we should not lie about another's ideas, even if we dislike them. We should seek to understand the ideas (preferably by reading them in their own words and not merely trusting someone you like to critique them for you), and then after fully wrestling with the ideas can we critique them.
Second, there is integrity: You should honestly present your own ideas as well, and do it in such a way that you point out not only your strengths, but also your own weaknesses. If you cannot see the weaknesses of your own argument, then have the integrity to honestly ask for critique.
Don't merely "sloganeer" things, either by putting them out as catchy one-liners, or by "proof texting" your favorite five word Scripture phrase, but honestly engage the issues. Don't try and spin things so that you do not admit where your own weak points are. This leads to pride, and we all know where pride leads to...
Third, there is reason: This goes with the point above. Show evidence. Show why something makes sense. If you quote a Scripture passage, have the rational sense and the intellectual honesty to defend why that passage(s) should not be interpreted in another way.
Fourth, there is comprehensiveness: If something is worth commenting on, it is worth commenting well. One liners are just useless, unless, of course, they are to ask a question. If your comment is a critique, then comment in such a way that you defend your point to the best of your ability and are not just throwing out slogans.
Fifth, there is charity: First, if you are in a debate, believe the best about someone but defend against the worst. Don't take it for granted that you are "God's chosen messenger" and that they do not love God too. This has been my bad habit on more than one occasion, and since it drives me nuts when it is done to me, and since I get convicted about it when I pray and read Scripture, I figure I better not do it anymore. We should assume, unless stated otherwise, that a person loves Christ and is trying their best to serve Him, even if they (or we) may be mistaken.
Along with believing the best about someone comes wanting the best for someone. The ONLY reason for debate is to bring people closer to Christ. NOT to win. NOT to show how smart you are. NOT to demonstrate your Bible knowledge. NOT to give someone what they deserve. The ONLY reason for rebuke is to warn someone away from sin and toward the Savior. Again, I acknowledge and repent from all of the times I have done this myself.
These intellectual virtues DO NOT preclude using hard words, challenging words, rebuke, irony, or sarcasm. Jesus used all of these things. What it does preclude is using these tools in the wrong way for the wrong motives.
Why do I say all of this? Well, recently some comments have come across my blog. On my blog about whether or not I will turn Catholic, Jason Robertson made the ever-so-intriguing comment "What?". Yep, that's right, one word. Why leave a comment if you don’t actually mean to comment?
So, I went to his blog, and evidently he is part of a blog-ring called "Fide-O" (http://fide-o.blogspot.com/). It seems that most members of the blog are also members of the same Southern Baptist Church in Murietta California, and they are self described as "Baptistic, Calvinistic". The blog features a silver-spiked dog collar embossed with all the great slogans of the Reformation: "Sola Gratia" (By grace alone), "Sola Scriptura" (By Scripture Alone), "Sola Fide" (By faith alone), and "Sola Christi" (By Christ Alone). They flat-out forgot the Reformation slogan "Sola Dei Gloria" (Glory to God alone), and I wonder if this is indicative of their deeper motivation... but I shall believe charitably about my neighbor.
Apparently Fide-O is an attempt to merge "Fide" (Faith), with "Fido" (A large, mean looking Rotweiler). The whole visual picture of the blog is very aggressive, as if they are the tenacious defenders of the true faith who will literally rip the heads off of those who disagree with them, like a Rotweiler ripping off the head of a Poodle. Their first English slogan is "Guarding what has been entrusted to us. 1st Timothy 6:20-21".
Yet, this is not what this Scripture says. For a blog presenting itself as a defender of the Biblical text and true Biblical orthodoxy, it is somewhat perplexing that they re-word a Biblical text to fit their own needs and supply no warrant for doing so (at least if they do, I cannot find it). On deeper inspection, the text actually reads: 1 Timothy 6:20-21 "O Timothy, guard what has been entrusted to you, avoiding worldly and empty chatter and the opposing arguments of what is falsely called knowledge which some have professed and thus gone astray from the faith. Grace be with you." (NASB) Timothy was an overseer and pastor of a whole region of Churches, and apparently such a reference means that Fide-O has appointed themselves to take up such a calling. On what basis of authority is this done? One wonders.
I suppose they see themselves as guarding the true faithful against "worldly and empty chatter and the opposing arguments". "Worldly" chatter is "Bebelois", which appears to mean irreligious myths (1Ti 4:7), as well as immoral activity. "Empty" chatter is "kenophoria", and is literally "empty sounds". It seems to apply to heretical teachings as well as useless talk. Yet, it is not only issues of doctrine and morals that Paul is writing against here. He is also speaking of empty ways of speaking about things that do not matter. Using similar wording, Paul also says "Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking, which are out of place, but rather thanksgiving. For of this you can be sure: No immoral, impure or greedy person-- such a man is an idolater-- has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God. Let no one deceive you with empty words [Greek: kenoi logoi], for because of such things God's wrath comes on those who are disobedient." (Ephesians 5:4-6)
Thus, foolish talk, course joking, and a lack of thankfulness are all out of place, along with moral and doctrinal heresies. Yet, does the very blog that purports to defend against "empty talk" not also engage in it by sloganeering, proof-texting without citing warrant, name calling, and erecting straw men out of their opponents? On one hand, this blog seems to have quite a few witty, informed articles written from a very staunch southern Baptist perspective (the doctrinal statement of their Church is from the FBC's "Baptist Faith and Message"). One great recent example of good blog writing is this one written to defend the acceptability of Christians playing video games for recreation.
On the other hand, their blog also includes a bunch of sloganeering and demeaning other people's positions (not to mention flat out demeaning other people) without citing support for their rhetoric. A great example is this one, where they quote a person who has a dissenting vision of God's will, and ALL they can say is: "Heresy alert! Be warned, the following may make you angry, depressed, or even confused. But we must stay alert and prepared to defend the Scriptures... Typical postmodern heresy: false/non exegesis, inclusivism, sycretism, feminism, mysticism, and disregard for authority of God or His Word. . . just to name a few."
Did they actually defend any Scriptures? Or did I miss it? Parroting off a string of polysyllabic pseudo-philosophical words does not constitute a proof of one's point, and neither does it defend Scriptural orthodoxy.
One of their favorite people and movements to criticize is the emergent Church movement, headed by people such as Brian McLaren (see http://www.anewkindofchristian.com/). On one of their posts, they manipulate a comic book to make fun of the emergent Church movement, and put a huge, grotesque brain on a character they name "Emergent Man", with the ironic assumption that emergent Christians think too much and have no true faith in Christ.
After the ever-so-insightful "What?" comment they put on my blog, I responded with the sarcastic comment:
"Wow! Look at the size of the brain on tht guy! If that is what happens to people who disagree with you, then you have sure taught me a lesson. I don't want a big brain like that. I want a small brain, because it is only people with small brains who sit down and shut up who can really love Jesus. Thanks for showing us all the error of our ways with your super-cool comic book cover. Or, maybe I should just quote the comment you left on my blog: "What???"
To which, Scott Hill of Fide-O fame replied:
"Nate I would say if the comment you left on Fide-O is the best you got, then you will do well to stay right where you are. I am glad to know you are schooled in Post-modern theology, because you really let it fly on that comment."
Stay right where I am? Is that some kind of threat? Will you let the Fide-O Rotweiler pounce on me? Do you want to meet out in the schoolyard after school is over to rumble? Are you going to beat me up?
And still, no substantive comment. With all the bravado and machismo given off by Fide-O, there does not seem to be much substance, just a bunch of sloganeering. You might say that Fide-O's bark is much worse than his bite. It seems that a blog composed of Jesus-loving folk, who seem to have critical thinking capabilities, should be able to come up with better comments. In fact, they claim to be able to. On this post they clearly state "This blog is for us to become better men and to be on the front lines of theological thought... To those who are not our peers, we welcome your input as well. It is about iron sharpening iron, so jump in here and break out the whet rock. Remember though, for iron to sharpen iron there is going to be friction."
How then will they become "better men" if so much of what they do seems like sloganeering and name calling, and so little is substantive? I do not have a problem per se with what they are critiquing, but what they do, does not so much seem like critique, as straw-man name-calling. If their critiques were truthful, well defended, rational, comprehensive, and charitable, that would be one thing. But, looking at the replies I have gotten and the blogs I have read, this is largely not the case.
They also state that they "need to protect our congregation from the wolves that arise from our own camp. The men who have known the truth and rejected it; this is what we are fighting against. These are the men who are leading millions of “truth seekers” into their heresy. Their motives may be pure. Church history will verify that most of the heresies were begun with pure motives; but motives do not matter where the truth is involved. This blog gives us an opportunity to hone our skills in this battle."
Why fight against individual "men" (I suppose they actually mean people, and not just males, since they rage against women too)? Why not fight against ideas? Should we demonize people, or the ideas they hold? Does not St. Paul say: "Our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places." (Eph 6.12) The very writers of Fide-O agree with this implicitly because when they speak of Church history, they speak of the "heresies" (i.e. the ideas) as the problem, not necessarily the "heretics" (i.e. the people who held the heresies).
It is not demonic people we fight, it is demons. It is not people we curse, it is the cursed ideas, the "doctrine of demons" (1Ti 4:1) that we fight against. Yes, sometimes when people will not cease and desist teaching heresy and living in sin, we must disfellowship them, but that is ONLY if they are part of OUR fellowship. Who are we to judge another man's servant (Rom 14:4)? Judge his ideas? Yes. Decry her actions? Yes. Judge their souls, call them names, and make straw-men out of them? No. That is God's business. We hate demons and their doctrines. We heal the demon possessed.
Furthermore, it seems very, very odd that this group of Baptists should devote as much energy as they do to critiquing the emergent Church movement, especially in light of their denomination's past. The genesis of the Baptist movement was a rejection of traditional forms of Christianity (namely Scottish Presbyterianism and the State Church of England), and a decision to become more relevant to the emerging Enlightenment culture of the 17th and 18th centuries. The Anabaptist movement of the late 1500's was the first movement in 1300 years of Church history to insist on baptism of adults, but it was decidedly anti-society, and it was not reformed in theology. So the Baptist movement took up three strands: 1. The emerging individualistic and democratic sympathies of the Enlightenment; 2. The Anabaptist insistence on personal choice and adult Baptism; and 3. The Reformed / Presbyterian insistence of God's grace and positive engagement with culture.
Out of these three strands, they formed a radically new vision of Christianity that was radically democratic, individualistic, and radically heterodox for its time. Now it has fossilized into a type of orthodoxy, that takes for granted that "this is the way we have always done it". They have done some radically creative engagement with emerging culture in the past, such as spearheading the "Sunday School Movement" and the "Social Gospel" movement in the last century (both movements were radically criticized by fellow Baptists in their time, but now are taken for granted or even seen as old fashioned). But, many Baptists have been dramatically on the wrong side of other social issues, such as slavery and women's suffrage.
It does not seem that Fide-O takes into account this historical development, and instead sit in an a-historical bubble telling themselves that the way they do it now is the way it has always been done and always should be done. Thus they take it for granted that the emergent Church must be wrong for even questioning this, or for even questioning certain aspects of the "Baptist Faith and Message". This a-historical critique seems very shallowly and superficially done on their site. They do not even seem to honestly take into account how their own "faith and message" has adapted to emerging culture over the last 400 years.
The Baptists have a very short history, and are still a movement in their adolescent years, and as adolescents, have much to learn from their elder brothers in the faith such as the Eastern Orthodox and the Roman Catholics. If the authors of Fide-O would have paid attention to the article they replied on the first time, they would realize that while I hold emergent sympathies, I am not fully on board with the emergent movement. Some of my views and critiques of the emergent movement are found here and here. I am actually much closer to Catholicism or Orthodoxy than I am to the emergent movement. Perhaps Fide-O will learn to have a more creative engagement with these other traditions than shutting one's ears and hurling anathemas.
What is quite sad to me is that the pundits who seem to do the most sloganeering are the ones that most firmly believe in the inspiration, reliability, and authority of Scripture. Another example of this is my debate with Steve Rudd, a very conservative Church of Christ elder, found here. I firmly believe that the Bible is true from cover to cover and it is the only reliable, God-given source of data about the Divine-human relationship. It is the best source of information to talk about what God is, how we know God through Christ, and how to live by the Spirit's power. Yet, the people who seem to believe this the MOST are the ones who present it in the WORST way, by sloganeering, proof texting, and non-rational argument. It is like sitting on a mine full of diamonds and choosing to throw them at people we don't like rather than build something beautiful out of them.
It is my sincere hope that all people involved in theological blogging in Christ's Name (my self included) will raise the bar of debate and re-discover the intellectual virtues of being truthful, well defended, rational, comprehensive, and charitable.