The Personal Side of Polemics

One of the striking yet sad features of the Antinomian-Neonomian debate of the 1690’s (see parts 1, 2) was the evident personal animosity towards Daniel Williams. Although John Flavel also wrote against Antinomianism, including some of the views of Tobias Crisp, he and his book did not become the center of a decade long controversy. That honor belonged to Williams. Ostensibly, the reason the Congregationalists lashed out at Williams was that he went beyond refuting antinomian doctrines and added his own unbiblical ones. To borrow the words of Robert Traill, they were motived by a “zeal for truth.” While there is no reason to doubt this, I do think it is fair to say that this debate was not just about truth. It was personal. People didn’t merely dislike Williams’ views, they disliked him. The debate wouldn’t have lasted as long as it did; it wouldn’t have been focused on Williams; and it wouldn’t have been so acrimonious if it had been simply about defending truth in the midst of error. Personal animosity infected the controversy from the beginning. The details of this episode will bear this out.
Daniel Williams’ views on the controverted subjects were well known before the Presbyterians and Congregationalists joyfully joined together and the publication of his book Gospel-Truth. Furthermore, Williams was for the most part successful in his stated purpose of avoiding contentious aspects of his teachings, or those of his fellow Presbyterians, in his book. Yet, it sparked a firestorm. If zeal for the truth were the whole matter, then Chauncy and company would not have joined the Union in the first place and Williams’ book wouldn’t have set them off. But it did and they continued to go after Williams in a vindictive manner  Chauncy published a caustic and protracted critique wherein he accused Williams of dishonesty among other things. New members were enrolled at Pinners-Hall for the sole purpose of ousting Williams from the lectureship. Two months after his dismissal, Williams had to endure a smear campaign as he was accused of sexual immorality by some of his most ardent detractors. After an eight-week inquiry he was fully vindicated.
By no means was Williams alone in his views. Other moderate and leading Presbyterians such as John Howe and William Bates were basically on the same page theologically. Nonetheless, Williams took all the heat. An early attempt at reunion was very short-lived in part because the Congregationalists believed that the Presbyterians were determined to support Williams “in his errors,” despite the fact that Williams had subscribed to a document that was a compilation of confessional passages addressing the controverted subjects. In another attempt at reunion, the Presbyterians asked and received from the Congregationalists a list of errors that needed to be renounced. They then added to it a number of errors concerning Antinomianism. The combined list was unanimously accepted by the Presbyterians, including Williams, and sent to the Congregationalists. This effort to bring both parties back together was disregarded in part because it did not contain a renunciation of Williams. Affirming confessional orthodoxy and repudiating heterodoxy and heresy were insufficient. A person, not just error, had to be denounced. This continued to be the case throughout the controversy. Williams was the sticking point at every turn and attempt at reunion. The debate was not just about defending the truth. It was deeply personal.
Divisive personalities are not foreign to heated and protracted public disputes. But why Williams, and not Howe or Bates, generated so much animosity is hard to tell with any degree of certainty. Perhaps it was his ardent zeal to combat anything that smelled of antinomianism, a trait acknowledged by his friends; or his role as a leader among the Dissenters; or his Presbyterianism; or his personality; or a combination of these and other factors. Regardless, the hostility directed towards Williams was sinful and destructive in many ways. Besides the hurt it inflicted upon Williams personally, the hatred his opponents had for him was a major stumbling block to reconciliation. This is so because hatred produces an inability to see the truth clearly. Unsurprisingly, Williams’ opponents continued to misrepresent his beliefs even after his many clarifications and explanations. Commenting upon 1 John 2:11, John Stott wrote: “Hatred distorts our perspective. We do not first misjudge people and then hate them as a result; our view of them is already jaundiced by our hatred.” This is the problem with the personal side of polemics. Disdain for a particular individual will make you see heresy where there is no heresy; and it will keep you from seeing your own erroneous judgments.
Another lesson then that we need to learn from this controversy is to be on our guard for hatred in our hearts toward our brethren with whom we vigorously disagree. Traill was correct to note that theologians engage in debate out of zeal for truth but also “sometimes from worse principles.” How can we know if we are acting out of “worse principles?” Well, wise friends should be able to give us an honest evaluation. Also, we could check for possible signs of hatred such as overreaching and a constant need to critique a particular person. Unfortunately, if hatred is our problem then we will probably be deaf to our friends and blind to any signs. So perhaps the best thing to do is to do what we are already commanded to do, namely, love. Focus on loving your opponent. Love will dissipate any hatred you might have in your heart. It will also enable you to see clearly and so become a good controversialist. As Stott has written, “It is love which sees straight, thinks clearly and makes us balanced in our outlook, judgments and conduct.”
Thus, the way to combat the personal side of polemics is to get personal. Don’t merely spend time getting to know the views of your opponent, get to know your opponent. If possible, spend time with him. Pray for him and his family. Serve him. Love him. During the 1540’s John Calvin and Heinrich Bullinger exchanged some heated letters debating the meaning of the Lord’s Supper. However, they were able to unite together rather quickly around a joint statement (Consensus Tigurinus) in 1549. According to Diarmaid MacCulloch, what helped bring them together was Bullinger’s gentle and pastoral ministry to Calvin after his wife had died. A concrete and meaningful act of love changed the dynamic in their relationship and enabled them to constructively work out their theological differences. More recently, I heard about two Reformed churches that were at odds with one another theologically, which in turn created tension in the Presbytery. One of the churches noticed that the other church had a need and decided to meet it with a generous gift of a beautiful piano. That act of kindness went a long way in reconciling the two parties. Love, indeed, is a powerful antidote to the acrimony generated from a theological controversy.
The danger of personal animosity tainting theological debate is ever present. The line between zeal for truth and hostility towards a brother or sister in Christ is not always easily detected. So watch and pray, and put on love, being eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.
Patrick Ramsey