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Polemic Irenics

Brad Littlejohn has a helpful follow-up post to the discussion of intellectual empathy, much of which intersects with our recent post on the mechanics and motivations of polemics. It is full of excellent observations, including our favorite topic, the definition of words. Mr. Littlejohn points out that “irenic” and “polemic” are not actually opposite terms, but can in fact work together towards a shared purpose:

But in fact, it is perfectly possible to be irenically polemic, or polemically irenic, as should be quite obvious when we consult a dictionary. The adjective “irenic” means “tending to promote peace or reconciliation” whereas the noun “polemic” means “a controversial argument, as one against some opinion, doctrine, etc.” Irenicism is thus a description of ends, polemics a description of means. It should be equally obvious, upon looking at this definition, that all Christian discourse should be in a sense irenic in respect of its ends: it should have as its goal peace and reconciliation.

This refreshing example of distinguere is actually the sort of business that one used to find on the opening pages of an introductory logic textbook. I say “used to,” because, as we all know, the American learning system has long discarded logic as something to be intentionally imparted. Mr. Littlejohn has thus done us all a great service and answered a criticism that we, promoters of “Reformed Irenicism,” encounter with some frequency. Being irenic in no way inhibits spirited and even decisive criticism of false positions.

There’s a history of irenic Protestant writers delivering devastating critique. Richard Hooker, whom Mr. Littlejohn mentions, consistently reduces his opponent’s position to absurdity. This was actually a concentrated effort, planned by Hooker from the start. C.S. Lewis explains:

In the first place the Polity marks a revolution in the art of controversy. Hitherto, in England, that art had involved only tactics; Hooker added strategy. Long before the close fighting in Book III begins, the puritan position has been rendered desperate by the great flanking movements in Books I and II. Hooker has already asked and answered questions which Cartwright and Travers had never considered and which are fatal to their narrow scripturalism. He has also provided a model for all who in any age have to answer similar ready-made recipes for setting the world right in five weeks. (Travers is dead: the type is perennial.) And all this, though excellent strategy, never strikes us as merely strategical. Truths unfold themselves, quietly and in due order, as if Hooker were developing – nay, we are sure that he is developing – his own philosophy for its own sake, because ‘the mind of man’ is ‘by nature speculative and delighted with contemplation … for mere knowledge and understanding’s sake’ (I.viii.5). Thus the refutation of the enemy comes in the end to seem a very small thing, a by-product. (English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, Oxford Paperback [1973], 459)

Hooker is not above calling his opponents “mad” or giving sarcastic anecdotes about their women harassing the local vicar. Still, his driving method, an irenic polemic to be sure, is to consistently answer the various questions of the dispute in a logical order, showing how his Puritan opponents give answers which, if taken consistently, would lead to confusion, chaos, and incoherence. At no point is Hooker looking for compromise. And as Professor Lewis subtly points out, the value of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity is that “the type is perennial.” We can still learn from the example today. Interestingly, a few pages earlier in Lewis’s book, he calls the Puritan position a sort of Barthianism (453). This is because of their rejection of natural revelation and even a sort of natural theology and natural politics, and this “type” is very much with us still, beyond even the limits of Barthianism. Eric Voegelin saw it in the totalitarians of the 20th century. We recently saw it in Bishop Wright.

And of course, Professor Lewis himself was a good Hookerian, as is evidenced in his work The Abolition of Man. Those who are familiar with that little book know that his opponents, technocratic positivists (members of the same genus as Barthianism, perhaps) come out looking rather absurd. And yet Lewis manages to do this without looking too nasty himself. It’s not simply because of his mannerism. It is because he lets the reasoning deliver the blows. Irenic polemics are all about fighting, fiercely if necessary, with the tools of reason.

I would add one more layer to this discussion which Mr. Littlejohn doesn’t address. While the ideal would be total persuasion of all, one’s opponent included, this is rarely possible. Hooker certainly didn’t persuade the Puritans, nor did Lewis the technocrats. And so, in such case, the goal actually is to defeat the opponent. Perhaps it is not to conquer them, but it certainly is to conquer their argument, and it is to do so publicly.

Why such violence, you might ask? Shouldn’t an “irenic” approach want to settle all differences quietly? Not necessarily. Once an argument, even a critique, has been made public, it has a very public effect. All non-pacifists understand the need to prevent violence through the violent subjugation of violence, and a very similar sort of thing occurs, and is necessary, in debate. The parameters are those of justice.

We can even employ the two kingdoms in this regard. While internal persuasion is a goal, the creation and preservation of the external conditions necessary for peace always accompanies this goal. This is the first use of the law. So too, with polemic, a peaceful arena can only be created and maintained if the rhetorically and intellectually violent is subdued. Absolute intolerance cannot be absolutely tolerated. The confines of logic will not allow it. And so, too, the consistently evasive cannot coexist alongside the intelligible.

Mr. Littlejohn’s explanation of means and ends is again helpful here. If the end is peace, then there are times when the means of controversial argument, even strong criticism, are appropriate. They are the tools for crafting lasting peace. This is not an argument against “intellectual empathy.” It is an affirmation and extension. For, after all, we must empathize as well with the audience as with the interlocutor.

By Steven Wedgeworth

Steven Wedgeworth is the associate pastor of Faith Presbyterian Church in Vancouver, British Columbia. He writes about theology, history, and political theory, and he has taught Jr. High and High School. He is the founder and general editor of The Calvinist International, an online journal of Christian Humanism and political theology, and a Director for the Davenant Institute.