My job allows me to do some very interesting things. I get to talk to non-believers about Jesus Christ. That’s part of my job. I get to spend my days considering God and the wonders of providence throughout history. That’s very uplifting. And, I get to defend heretics and lunatics. That’s … different.
My students must think I’m schizophrenic. Dr Beck, they say, is the guy with an axe to grind about history. “He calls it like he sees it.” Students love it when you’re transparent with them. But, on the other hand, they sometimes see me in a different light. “He stands up there and tries to defend Friedrich Nietzsche. What’s up with that?” One professor. Two personalities. If nothing else, it must be amusing.
What my students don’t always see is that I’m not defending those with opposing views and I’m not defending their views. I’m defending their right to have their view rightly understood.
In many ways, students are like Christians. All too often both groups are quick to criticize, ostracize, and demoralize their political, philosophical, and metaphysical opponents. Both groups need to learn to temper (read: tone down) their enthusiasm for the ideological kill and temper (read: strengthen) their arguments with something other than sensationalism.
Consider two reasons why this is so:
1 - We owe it to our opponents. Christians are often the first to cry “foul” when those who disagree with us portray our views in ridiculous ways, painting our beliefs with broad strokes and intentional misstatements. Yet Christians do it all the time to others.
Consider the example of the current debate in some corners over Calvinism. Arminians, or those with Arminian leanings, make their case and often appeal to their fan base by labeling all Calvinists as unevangelistic. While that may be true of individual Calvinists, it’s not true of all. Moreover, the same complaint is often true of many Arminians. The issue here is not Calvinism or Arminianism but sinful disobedience on the part of the so-called believer.
On the other side of the aisle, Calvinists aren’t guilt-free, either. They frequently describe their Christian brethren and theological adversaries in equally unflattering and untrue ways. Many a time an Arminian has been accused of being atheological and unbiblical, of not honoring the sovereignty of God just because he doesn’t agree with his opponent. That may be true of some individuals but it’s not necessarily true of the movement.
Both sides of the Arminian-Calvinist divide are frequently guilty of wrongly presenting their opponent’s views. And, both sides are rightly offended when their own views are so handled.
Thus, if we are so bothered by the mishandling of our beliefs, don’t we owe it to those who disagree with us to handle their beliefs with care? Shouldn’t we treat them with the same respect that we so indignantly demand from them? Can anyone say, “Golden Rule”?
2 - We owe it to ourselves. Another reason that we should treat the views of those who disagree with us carefully and charitably is that we need to really understand what they believe in opposition to what we believe.
To confront error, we must know what the error is not just what we think it is. If I’m going to dissect and reject theistic evolution or Kierkegaard’s subjective existentialism, both errors held in many churches, I must know what the arguments are before I can reject them for myself and argue against them for others.
That means I’ve got to study their views objectively, making sure that I understand their position as they understand it. Otherwise, I might be making a case against a philosophical phantasm, an idea that doesn’t really exist, or against a view that my opponent might also find objectionable. In either case, I’ve solved nothing and helped no one.
If I want to refute and evangelize another being created in the image of God, I have to know what he/she believes and work from there. Anyone remember Paul’s example on Mars Hill (Acts 17)? He started his evangelistic efforts by engaging his audience philosophically on their ground and then provided the Christian rebuttal. If we can’t learn from Paul how to evangelize, from whom will we learn?
You don’t have to agree with someone to treat them rightly. You do have to know what they believe to prove to them that they believe wrongly. So, the next time you find yourself confronting error in the marketplace of ideas, be sure that you handle people and their ideas with care. It’s the right thing to do.
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About Peter Beck
Peter serves as assistant professor of religion at Charleston Southern University where he teaches church history and theology. While serving as senior pastor in Louisville, Ky., he completed his PhD in historic theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. His dissertation, The Voice of Faith: Jonathan Edwards's Theology of Prayer, is soon to be published. He, his wife Melanie, and their two kids, Alex (12) and Karis (7), live near Charleston, SC. Peter's goal for his teaching and writing ministries is "love from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith" (1 Tim 1:5).
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