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I became convinced of the truth of Reformed theology while attending Dallas Theological Seminary—the flagship institution of dispensational theology. Some of my fellow students accused me of being apostate when they discovered that I had rejected dispensationalism. Having donned my new five-point Calvinist uniform, I assumed an attitude that was patronizing and condescending toward those who remained committed to dispensationalism. Mockery became a chief weapon in my arsenal. Upon my arrival at Reformed Theological Seminary, I landed right in the middle of debates between students on topics that were unfamiliar to me—debates about theonomy, apologetic methodology, and more—and not frequent at Dallas. I was not able to contribute much to those discussions, but I did continue my mockery of dispensationalists.
I was in what Michael Horton refers to as the “cage stage”—that period of time during which a new convert to Reformed theology should be locked up in a cage for his own good and the good of others around him. During the cage stage, the novice Reformed convert is often angry that the doctrines of grace were not taught to him sooner. He can be particularly vitriolic toward the tradition from which he came, and woe to those who remain in that tradition (whether dispensationalism or something else). They are often viewed as intellectually inferior for not being able to see the plain truth of Scripture that the mega-mind Calvinist sees. They become the butt of jokes and the target of sarcasm and derision. The level of arrogance and pride that one can reach during the cage stage is mind-boggling to comprehend and ugly to behold.
I do not know whether John Newton went through anything comparable to a “cage stage” after he came to Christ. I do know that his letter “On Controversy” helped me to see what I had been doing. Newton wrote this letter to a fellow minister who was planning to take up the pen against another minister he believed to be in error. This is sometimes necessary, but Newton offers some wise advice on how to do it. In his letter, he advises his friend to think about three things: his opponent, his audience, and himself. In this article, we will consider how we are to think about our opponents in controversy.
Newton begins this section of his letter with some very wise advice. He writes:
As to your opponent, I wish that before you set pen to paper against him, and during the whole time you are preparing your answer, you may commend him by earnest prayer to the Lord’s teaching and blessing. This practice will have a direct tendency to conciliate your heart to love and pity him; and such a disposition will have a good influence upon every page you write.
Have you ever thought about praying for those with whom you are engaged in any kind of controversy? It seems obvious, but we tend to get so caught up in the heat of battle that we easily forget to do this. We view our theological opponent the way a soldier views an enemy combatant—as someone to be destroyed before he destroys us. Thus, theological debate in Calvinist circles sometimes degenerates into the verbal equivalent of the World Wrestling Federation. Were we to pray for those with whom we engage in controversy, we would be less inclined to anger and malice toward them.
Newton then explains that we need to think about whether our opponent in controversy is a believer or not.
If you account him a believer, though greatly mistaken in the subject of debate between you, the words of David to Joab concerning Absalom, are very applicable: “Deal gently with him for my sake.” The Lord loves him and bears with him; therefore you must not despise him, or treat him harshly. The Lord bears with you likewise, and expects that you should show tenderness to others, from a sense of the much forgiveness you need yourself. In a little while you will meet in heaven; he will then be dearer to you than the nearest friend you have upon earth is to you now. Anticipate that period in your thoughts; and though you may find it necessary to oppose his errors, view him personally as a kindred soul, with whom you are to be happy in Christ forever.
How often we forget this. How often we forget to treat brothers in Christ as brothers in Christ—those whom the Father loves and those with whom we will share eternity in the new heaven and earth.
On the other hand, if we view our opponent as an unbeliever, we should be reminded that “there but for the grace of God go I.” God could have opened his eyes rather than ours. We must remain humble. We must remember that we, too, were alienated from God. We, too, were enemies of the Lord. Our prayer in this case should be for his conversion, and we have to be careful that we do not do anything that places unnecessary stumbling blocks in his way. We should speak or act in the hope that our words will be used by God to bring this person to faith and repentance.
Newton’s letter encourages us to treat our opponents in controversy as we would wish to be treated, and if there is one thing we all dislike, it is being misrepresented or slandered. We must, therefore, make every effort to represent accurately the views of our opponents. While Newton does not explicitly deal with this issue, it is implied in his words.
The ninth commandment forbids us to harm our neighbor through lies (Ex. 20:16). Those who follow Christ are not to bear false witness against other people—theological opponents or otherwise (Ex. 23:1, 7; Lev. 19:11, 14, 16). To misrepresent an opponent’s position in the midst of theological controversy is to slander that person, and slander is an example of the evil use of words and language (James 4:11).
To misrepresent the views of those with whom we disagree is not only dishonest, it is pointless. We must strive to represent the views of our opponents honestly. Beating up a straw man is a pointless exercise and makes us look rather silly in the process. One cannot convince an opponent of the error of his view if one is arguing against a view this opponent does not hold.
Let us strive, then, in controversy to remember our opponent. Let us remember to pray for him, to deal with him gently, and to deal with him with the highest standards of honesty.