when it’s Christian vs Christian

A few weeks ago there was some confusion in the Briefing as to how Christians should debate when we disagree. First was an article on playing the man and not the ball arguing against ad hominems. Then a couple of days later on second thoughts seemed to endorse personal attacks, stating that ‘it is impossible to tackle an argument without tackling the person putting it forward, with the all consequences that flow from that.’

I was quite surprised by the whole thing. In the gospels, the ad hominem attack seemed to be the Pharisee’s favourite way of avoiding something they didn’t want to hear (‘you were steeped in sin at birth!’ ‘are you from Galilee too?’ ‘you are a Samaritan and demon-possessed!’). It’s not presented as great way of listening or responding. I was thinking of writing a response to the Briefing but hardly knew where to start.

So instead I found an example of disagreement done well.

Against and For Calvinism

Roger Olson is an Arminian. Michael Horton is a Calvinist. They’ve gone head to head in their books For Calvinism and Against Calvinism. But interestingly, each wrote the foreword to each other’s book.

Here’s an excerpt of Olson’s forward to Horton’s For Calvinism

High, federal Calvinism, the theology expressed in this book, necessarily makes God the author of sin and evil… I worry that this theology undermines the goodness of God’s character.

So you think he’s banging the heresy gong. You’d think he and Horton could never be reconciled. ‘Farewell Michael Horton’ would be the tweet.They’re probably enemies. But no, he recommends the book.

Anyone interested in reading the best case possible for Calvinism must read this book… After reading the book I can recommend it whole-heartedly with the reservation that I strongly disagree with its central claims. In today’s climate of theological controversy many people with think that inconsistent. Well they’re simply wrong. It is possible to be committed and fair, critical and generous.

Far from insinuating that their disagreement arises from some terrible flaw in Horton’s character, causing him to distort the truth, Olson has only praise for Horton’s character, calling him ‘one of the kindest, gentlest true Calvinists around’, someone who writes ‘without arrogance or hostility’ towards those who disagree.

Horton doesn’t hold back either. In his view, Olson’s position denies the sufficiency of Jesus’ death for our salvation.

If Roger followed Arminiamism to its logical conclusion, he should go on to deny that salvation is entirely of God’s grace; that Arminianism leads inevitably to human-centred rather than God-centred convictions.

Ouch! You’d think he’d be about to declare an anathema!

Yet Horton takes care to mention that he and Olson agree on some very important things.

At the end of the day, Roger and I share the most important agreement: namely, that the crucial questions involved in this debate must be brought to the bar of Scripture. We both believe that Scripture is clear and sufficient, even if we are confused and weak. We are all pilgrims on the way, not yet those who have arrived at our glorious destination. Only by endeavoring more and more to talk to each others as coheirs with Christ instead of about each other and past each other as adversaries can we engage with serious disagreements – and with the hope that we may also be surprised by felicitous agreements along the way.

Horton and Olson debate in a way which aims to build up, not to tear down. They value humility, gentleness and generosity in the way they debate. They correct each other, but do so in love and without denying that Jesus has made them brothers.

The whole sports metaphor of ‘playing the man or the ball’ misses the point. Actually, it’s unhelpful to understand debate among Christians in terms of a potentially violent competition. Watch out if you don’t want to get hurt – only the toughest guys play this game! As Horton puts it, we’re all pilgrims. We’re not in competition. We’re on the same team. It’s possible to disagree in a way which values truth but which honours our underlying unity.


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