Sep 13, 2016
If a theological debate has been infected with personal animosity and filled with over the top accusations and charges, then you will mostly likely find a party spirit, which will only further enflame the controversy. Like everyone else, theologians do not tend to denounce their friends in public even if they disagree with them, and they tend to support them publicly when they are charged with serious error or called heretics. This is true, not only for our personal friends, but also for our theological, institutional and ecclesiastical friends. We naturally circle the wagons when someone on our side of the aisle comes under heavy fire. By the same token, we do not hesitate to go after someone who is not a personal friend or part of our group. While we may like to think that we are solely motivated by a holy zeal for the truth, our actions often reveal otherwise. We are not so different from the saints in Corinth as we would like to believe (1 Cor. 1:10-17; 3:1-ff). The antinomian-neonomian debate of the 1690’s (see parts 1, 2, 3) is an example of a theological controversy mired down by a party spirit, and so it provides us with another lesson of how not to engage in debate. This old controversy is a gift that keeps on giving.
Sixteen Presbyterians endorsed the first edition of Daniel Williams’ controversial book Gospel-Truth. Williams attempted to get some Congregationalists to endorse it but they all declined, including Matthew Mead who had originally expressed his agreement with it. Incidentally, one of the reasons that Williams gave for seeking endorsements was that “People do oft value Names more than Arguments.” Judging from the endless book endorsements that we find today on the cover and the inside pages, it doesn’t seem that much has changed. Nevertheless, that only the Presbyterians endorsed Williams’ book was a sign of things to come and evidence that people were already sticking together along party lines.
Once the controversy exploded with the publication of Gospel-Truth, the Presbyterians rallied around Williams. The second edition contained forty-nine signatures, an increase of thirty-three. Encouraged by a number of ministers, William Lorimer wrote an entire book to vindicate Williams and the Presbyterians who had signed his book. Several other books and pamphlets were published in defense of Williams. After Williams was ousted from the lectureship at Pinners’ Hall, the remaining Presbyterian lecturers walked out with Williams and started a rival lectureship at Salters’ Hall even though the Congregationalists pleaded with them to stay. There they were joined by Samuel Annesley and Richard Mayo. It is noteworthy that Annesley joined Williams at Salters’ Hall because he had not endorsed Williams’ book and is considered to be a high Calvinist. Undoubtedly, Annesley differed with Williams on some things, yet he chose to side with his fellow Presbyterian over against the Congregationalists. Indeed, Annesley was not the only Presbyterian who would have differed from Williams on some matters. Yet, they all stood with him even when it meant they had to sacrifice reunion with the Congregationalists.
The Congregationalists also supported one another. After Chauncy and some other Congregationalists expressed their displeasure with Williams to the United Ministers, an attempt at reconciliation was made. A doctrinal statement focusing on the controversial issues was put together and subscribed to by both Chauncy and Williams. Unity, however, was not forthcoming because a further statement was accepted, which indicated that the United Ministers had not endorsed everything in Williams’ book as well as Chauncy’s writings on this controversy. Some Congregationalists saw this as a rebuke to Chauncy, leading them to believe that it was the “firm purpose of the Governing Party of the United Ministers, to Uphold and Justifie Mr. Williams in his Errors.” The Congregationalists thus rallied around Chauncy even as they believed the Presbyterians were rallying around Williams.
The party spirit may also be seen in the way they treated one another. Like Thomas Manton, and many others, Daniel Williams knew and consequently greatly appreciated Richard Baxter. So when Chauncy cited a passage from Baxter’s writings in order to question Williams’ own orthodoxy, Williams unsurprisingly read Baxter in a positive light, even though he admitted that Baxter didn’t always express his views well and that he didn’t always agree with Baxter. Williams, however, did not treat Crisp in the same way. He wrote an entire book on Crisp’s errors and tore to shreds every infelicitous phrase. What Williams gave, he received in abundance from Chauncy and Traill. They defended Crisp and recommended his writings without embracing all of his expressions; and they (mostly Chauncy) wrote voluminous material against Williams, wherein they interpreted his statements in the worst possible light.
The party spirit that reared its ugly head in the 1690’s is sometimes seen today and one problem with it is that it clouds our judgment. Our admiration for our friends and mentors keeps us from seeing or at least being willing to properly address and if necessary, publicly reject their errors. We can go to great and complex lengths in order to keep our mentor and friends within the bounds of confessional orthodoxy; and we can become eerily silent when they make outlandish statements that ought to be unequivocally rejected.
Another closely related problem is partiality. We go soft on those in our group and harsh with those who are not. We overlook a multitude of sins for our friends and shine the light on the tiniest of infractions on our opponents. We don’t utter a word about the tone and temper of those on our side, even though everyone else notices how bad it is, but then we are quick to rebuke our opponents for their sinful tone and temper. We trust and think the best of those who are in our camp, even when they make questionable theological moves; but we are suspicious and think the worst of those who are not, especially when they refuse to throw their controversial friends and mentors under the bus.
How then are we to deal with a party spirit in theological controversy? Well, it is probably worth pointing out the obvious that it is not wrong to have friends and to treat them in a friendly manner. Fellowship with people of like mind and heart is indeed sweet. Nor is it wrong for people to align with one side or another of a controversy because of shared beliefs. The problem is not parties per se, but a party spirit. And the way to deal with that is the same way we need to deal with personal animosity. We need to love our theological opponents.
As I have reflected upon this old controversy and as I observe current ones, I have often wondered what would happen if people treated their theological opponents in the same way they treated their theological friends. I dare say that most theological debates would disappear, at least from the public sphere. Certainly the rush to publish a critique on Facebook, Twitter or a blog would slow down since we don’t normally do that sort of thing to our friends. But even if we did continue to debate publicly, our conversations would be more edifying because we would go out of our way to understand one another, and we would be careful not to go overboard. Perhaps we need to treat our friends more like our opponents and our opponents more like our friends. Regardless, we need to truly love friend and foe alike.
Love speaks the truth in love. It does not flatter or tear down. Love is also universal and impartial. It isn’t kind to one group of people and ruthless to another. Love loves all. It, therefore, is not only a powerful antidote to personal animosity, it is also strong enough to wipe out the nefarious effects of a party spirit.