The first time I attended the national meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society, I was an aspiring-but-not-yet PhD student. A classmate and I made the journey to Colorado Springs to hear scholars we had only read but never seen or met. In those days, scholastic luminaries were debating the nature of God in the ornate ballrooms of The Broadmoor Hotel. Due to the financial limits of seminary students, we spent our evenings in more modest accommodations, and yet, in our three-star hotel we encountered another kind of scholar. There we met two of what church historian E. Brooks Holifield called “Gentlemen Theologians.”
Holifield documented how a segment of clergy in antebellum America were “proponents of clerical gentility.” Spread throughout all denominations, and though often disagreeing among themselves over major and minor issues, these Gentlemen Theologians were the ones who made the decisions that shaped churches. In short, these were the ministers who gave a voice to “orthodox religious thought” (24).
Staying with us in that hotel were the now late Roger Nicole (1915-2010) and a colleague of his from Reformed Theological Seminary. While not chronologically of the class of Holifield’s gentlemen, they carried their same spirit. To come to this assessment, my classmate and I did not spend the evening asking them questions or embarking on a formal mentoring relationship. Rather, we simply observed them at breakfast and that made all the difference.
One morning, as is universal with the hotel complimentary breakfast scene, chaos was in full force as families and other guests were nosily consuming eggs and pastries while waiting in line at the waffle station. In their midst, I noticed Dr. Nicole holding a table while his colleague patiently waited his turn at the toaster, though with a puzzled look on his face.
Someone had left their toast unattended and the professor was at a loss how to maneuver so he could have his turn. Rather than shuffle aside the abandoned and browned slices, he lifted them to a clean plate and proceeded among the grazing throng asking all if this toast might be theirs. Given that most were talking past him and his own aged meekness, not all could hear him, but some did, and soon he was relieved and carried on with his own meal.
While this might not appear that remarkable, how he went about that simple matter with unpretentious care and concern for a stranger’s food, made a lasting impression on a young seminarian. For here were two academics, in town for a meeting at which they were well-known and highly regarded, lodging at a basic hotel and taking the time amid the tumult of the free breakfast to honor and care for those with whom they were eating. It was gentlemanly and spoke volumes.
Polemic Theology and the Trinity Debate
When a pastor friend of mine would later give me a copy of Roger Nicole’s essay, “Polemic Theology: How to Deal with Those Who Differ from Us,” I took notice, recalling that breakfast experience. How fitting it was for a scholar of his stature to write a piece like this, for I had seen a glimpse of how he might model care for another’s words and thoughts in the same gentlemanly fashion his colleague cared for a stranger’s abandoned breakfast. This, I suspected, was a Gentlemen Theologian, and as I have read and learned more, the testimony of Roger Nicole is that he was representative of a generation of such scholars.
Observing evangelicals debate the doctrine of the Trinity over the last few months, I’ve thought about that breakfast room and the essay on polemic theology and wondered what would Roger Nicole think?
Certainly there has been substantive discussion over vital issues of non-negotiable importance. Yet, there has also been a great deal of unhelpful polemics as we have seen a blurring of the distinction between healthy intra-evangelical debate and the attribution of heterodoxy. As I’ve watched and read, I have been hoping for more Gentlemen Theologians to help us know how to proceed. For one can contend in public as a gentleman without having also to condemn.
Contending as Gentlemen without Public Condemnation
Gentlemen Theologians need not hide from controversy or gloss over such with thin platitudes. No, as Nicole made clear:
“We are called upon by the Lord to contend earnestly for the faith (Jude 3). That does not necessarily involve being contentious; but it involves avoiding compromise, standing forth for what we believe, standing forth for the truth of God–without welching at any particular moment. Thus we are bound to meet, at various points and on various levels, people with whom we disagree.”
However, care should also be given to how one engages. Another observation Holifield made about his nineteenth century Gentlemen Theologians related not just to what they believed, but how they wielded their theology and how their actions were received in their culture. He explained,
“The theology was used, among other purposes, to attract and reassure men and women … that ‘reasonable’ behavior—restraint, order, refinement, self-control, self-improvement, and similar virtues that sometimes seemed alien in [their] culture—was congruent with the deepest nature of things” (206).
Holifield described men who exercised self-control with their thoughts and words in service of others. This restraint sometimes seemed alien to the watching world, but it was consistent, not inconsistent, with what they say they believed.
Along these lines, Nicole also offered,
“One method that I have found helpful in making sure that I have dealt fairly with a position that I could not espouse was to assume that a person endorsing that view was present in my audience (or was reading what I had written). Then my aim is to represent the view faithfully and fully without mingling the criticism with factual statements. In fact, I try to represent them so faithfully and fully that an adherent to that position might comment, “This man certainly does understand our view!” It would be a special boon if one could say, “I never heard it stated better!” Thus I have earned the right to criticize. But before I proceed to do this, it is only proper that I should have demonstrated that I have a correct understanding of the position I desire to contest.”
Earning the right to criticize seems like it should be a vital mark of a Gentlemen Theologian and is one that many in the current Trinity debate have labored to honor. However, some have gone further than criticism to question publicly a brother’s orthodoxy without significant care or personal interaction.
Civil Kindness as a Virtue
If one truly feels that their brother or sister in Christ has moved beyond substantive difference of opinion to a place of heterodoxy, then I question the wisdom of addressing that first in an instantaneous, public, and non-peer reviewed environment.
The issue for me is not necessarily one of accuracy or need, for heterodoxy should always be addressed. The issue for me in this debate is one of public civility and kindness.
Richard Mouw, in his 1992 book, Uncommon Decency: Christian Civility in and Uncivil World, affirmed that God has a concern for public righteousness, necessitating that Christians are to be agents of God’s righteousness. Yet, he argued that “our efforts at public righteousness must be modest ones” for the “world has already been visited by one overwhelmingly adequate Messiah” (37-38).
While it is helpful to frame what I am thinking through in terms of Mouw’s modest civility—for we know we do need more of this—I think that Russell Moore’s term “convictional kindness” put forward in his recent book Onward: Engaging the Culture Without Losing the Gospel is a more helpful descriptor. Moore says, “Civility is passive; kindness is active and strategic” (194). Moore points us to the example of Christ, referring to Jesus as a “gentle steamroller” who not only “rebukes and exposes” but also “seeks to save, not condemn” (196).
If we consider someone a brother in Christ, and come to think what they’ve written or said denies a major standard of Christian orthodoxy, then, in the spirit of civil kindness, I think first a face-to-face meeting or phone call is advisable instead of a citation of condemnation in one’s public musings. Here are two reasons why:
First, to post online such a weighty conclusion about a brother seems to under-dignify the seriousness of the claim. I have to think that the Gentlemen Theologians of Nicole’s generation would have a hard time watching such take place as it has in our public venues.
How much better would it be for such weighty claims first to be expressed in private and in person. There are more biblical and churchly ways of handling such matters rather than laying them before a watching world (1 Cor 6:4).
Second, I think Nicole’s “earning the right to criticize” is a most appropriate point of slowness in this recent debate that has seemed to rush to draw up Axis and Allies of digital articles in this crowded theological theater.
Personally, I agree with Albert Mohler that much of the citations against Wayne Grudem, Bruce Ware, and also Denny Burk and Owen Strachan are nonsense, not just for what those concerned claim, but especially for how they claim it. I can’t help but wonder that if those convinced of their brother’s heterodoxy were slow to speak and sought to earn the right to criticize in private, much of the negative impact of this debate could have been avoided.
As I mentioned, I am not implying that essence of these discussions are not extremely important or not worth addressing at length. Yet, I am questioning some of the chosen polemical paths with regard to how one brother attributes heresy to another.
Hoping for More Gentlemen Theologians
When it comes to ongoing theological discussion and the right assessment of orthodoxy, whether in this debate or the next one, the present generation has an opportunity to see Gentlemen Theologians arise from their ranks and lead with kindness and civility—to show us what careful scholarship looks like and to model slowness of speech (James 1:19). To be sure, there are many who model this way of evangelical scholarship and care for fellow brothers and sisters. I am merely hoping their tribe will increase.
In the meantime, the present Trinity debate feels a lot like that crowded breakfast room in a three-star hotel with family members and strangers talking past one another or at one another—but worse when we consider the public claims of heresy. Where are the Gentlemen Theologians who will lead us with care, civility, and kindness amid the chaos?
E. Brooks Holifield, The Gentlemen Theologians: American Theology in Southern Culture, 1795-1860 (Duke University Press, 1978).
Russell D. Moore, Onward: Engaging the Culture Without Losing the Gospel (B&H, 2015).
Richard J. Mouw, Uncommon Decency: Christian Civility in an Uncivil World (IVP, 1992).
Roger R. Nicole, “Polemical Theology: How to Deal with Those Who Differ from Us,” Founders Journal 33 (Summer 1998), 24-35.