Who is wise and understanding among you? Let him show by good conduct that his works are done in the meekness of wisdom. (James 3:13, NKJV)
Therefore, as the elect of God, holy and beloved, put on tender mercies, kindness, humility, meekness, longsuffering; bearing with one another, and forgiving one another, if anyone has a complaint against another; even as Christ forgave you, so you also must do. But above all these things put on love, which is the bond of perfection. (Colossians 3:12-14, NKJV)
Recently, I have been reading Stephen J. Casselli’s Divine Rule Maintained on Westminster Divine Anthony Burgress and his contributions to Westminster 19.
He begins the book with an extended discussion of Burgess’s education in the English Grammar School system (with its rigor, training in classic literature, and Latin) and later at Cambridge. During the course of this, he said something about how students learned in the academy that struck me as I thought about how we interact with one another as Reformed Christians:
The heart of the scholastic method of instruction, however, was not the lecture (as it tends to be today), but the disputation…a highly stylized duel requiring the mastery of numerous technical skills, a quick wit, steely nerves, and oratorical flair – all to be put on display with one’s future academic opportunities or career at stake in the outcome.(p.22)
Casselli notes that this method of instruction was employed for the purpose of training men for the academy or ministry, men who could demonstrate rhetorical prowess for the sake of the public good.
I thought about the works by the Puritans and Reformed that I have read in the past and continue to read now. What struck me is that many times they would appear to be vanquishing their enemy with their words, using them like a battering ram to break down the walls of their opponents’ arguments. This isn’t as common in Puritan sermons, which typically have an exhortative and/or gentle approach to the congregation. Yet, if one were to read the theological and polemical writings of many 17th century theologians, one would be ingesting a steady diet of some very intense rhetoric.
Was this the way these men commonly communicated? My guess is no. These works represent a form of interaction that was made for systematicians, academics, and as part of an ongoing conversation between a class of men for whom these debates were vitally important. If we were to consider how these men wrote we would note that they wrote with their audience in mind.
Consider these two extracts from the works of Samuel Rutherford.
It is in some respect commendable that heretics be candid and ingenuous to declare, even, what their heretical judgment and indictment of conscience leads them to believe, but a full liberty to question, in the Synod, whether there be a God, or no, or whether Christ died for sinners, ought not to be, for that is license, and heretical license: a point controverted any may question: and these, that Act. 15. held necessity of circumcision, might seek resolution of their arguments and doubts, but under pretext of liberty free of fear and danger, they have not liberty to sin; that is, after they are or may be, (if willfulness stood not in their way) inwardly convinced, they have not liberty obstinately to press sophisms against the truth, for this is an undeniable principle, liberty to sin is fleshly license not liberty.
In the above, which Rutherford identifies as a disputation, thus invoking the style of rhetoric common in the academies of the time. It is strongly worded, meant to persuade some and break down the arguments of others. This represents the tone of many of Rutherford’s polemical works.
Consider now his letter to a widow, exhorting her to remember Christ in her sufferings:
Consider, that of all the crosses spoken of in our Lord’s Word, this one gives you a special right to make God your Husband (which was not so yours while your husband was alive). Therefore try to read God’s mercy out of this visitation; however I must say from the depths of my own suffering that the mourning for the husband of your youth is, as God’ says Himself, the heaviest worldly sorrow (Joel 1:8). But though this be the heaviest burden that ever lay upon your back, yet you know that if we will wait upon Him who hides His face for a while, it lies upon God’s honour and truth to be a Husband to the widow. See and consider then what you have lost, in proportion to eternity. Madam, let me implore you, in the bowels of Christ Jesus, and by the comforts of His Spirit, and because you know that in the future you will appear before him: let God, and men, and angels now see what is in you. The Lord has pierced the vessel; it will be known whether there be in it wine or water. Let your faith and patience be seen, that it may be known your only beloved first and last has been Christ.
Here, we see the heart of a pastor trying to build up a wounded sister in Christ. What characterizes this kind of speech is gentleness and meekness. He shares his own brokenness and need or Christ. The audience of his words is the common Christian not an academic.
My concern in all of this is that charitable discourse, wherein one gently pushes others on theological topics, can quickly turn to polemics and I fear it is because of not understanding the context of the words of our Reformed forefathers in the faith. We reify their writings into a kind of holy standard for Christian discourse. Unfortunately, I think this alienates our common brothers and sisters in the faith who are just trying to understand their faith more deeply and may not hold objections as strongly as a polemicist.
If what you are reading of the Reformed is primarily systematic and polemic, considering adding sermons and/or letters (like Rutherford’s) to your reading schedule. Let gentle words dwell amidst the bombastic style of Reformation debates.
Most importantly, may we not, in our zeal for God’s Word and the Reformation of the church, neglect the scriptural command to put on gentleness and meekness. May we season our speech with salt and have our aim be the building up of one another and not breaking down. I have been guilty of this myself too many times and I pray that the Spirit of Christ would guide my heart and words for the sake of the church rather than the sake of being right.