In my very brief and never altogether promising time as a Soccer player, I was taught that physical contact with the opponent was allowed so long as one was “playing the ball.” Shoulder bumps and even slide tackles were permitted, as long as contact was made with the ball. “Playing the man,” by contrast, was when a player simply pushed, kicked, or otherwise roughed up the opposing player, and it was always a foul. This same distinction appears often enough in polemics. Just as a contact-free version of soccer would be painfully boring, academic critique which only used delicacies along the lines of “The author may have perhaps been assisted in his task by considering more carefully…” would actually be detrimental towards reasonable discourse. The well-meaning dictum “never criticize your friends” can actually have the harmful ramification of disallowing disagreement unless one is willing to also defriend the person with whom they are disagreeing. This creates a very false unity and weaker rather than stronger appreciation of truth.
And yet, with all of that being said, there is still such a thing as foul play, and Christian theologians ought to feel themselves morally bound to avoid it. Hatchet jobs and character smears are not actually manly debate but instead ways to prevent it. In addition to being sins against the law of charity, they also have the predictable side-effect of blowback, creating a reaction of disgust or alienation which often drives a previously unaffiliated audience towards the object of the critique. In addition to being immoral, intellectually playing the man is ineffective.
I was reminded of this distinction when reading the most recent installments of Federal Vision critique by Tim Bayly. Pastor Bayly has been rather relentlessly going after Peter Leithart for some time, adding him to a sort of axis of evil along with, oddly, NT Wright, Tim Keller, and Darryl Hart. Some of Pr. Bayly’s various observations seem to be accurate, but laced throughout them are very much unfair criticisms, cluster-bomb attacks which lack careful discrimination. I understand how frustrating it can be to receive a knee-jerk reaction of “not fair,” “mean,” or worse moral suggestions when criticizing someone. Not long ago I wrote what I thought was a short observational or descriptive piece on the Federal Vision and received a variety of feedback, some fair and helpful but some amounting to little more than hysteria, speculating on what dark demons must be at work to cause me to search for independent thoughts. It is obviously a subject which past battles have rendered infertile ground for honest and imaginative discussion, at least among the more stringent adherents and critics. But this is all the more reason why “fair” critique and commentary is necessary rather than continued unfairness or nervous avoidance.
For instance, it was most disappointing to see my friend Richard Bledsoe described as a promoter of “Oatmeal Stout Federal Vision sacramentalism which… greases the path [to Roman Catholicism].” My understanding of Pastor Bledsoe is that while he is indeed a close friend of many of the more stringent Federal Vision advocates, he is himself not so easily classifiable. I have known Pr. Bledsoe to be very open towards forms of pietism and even personal experiential spirituality, often citing various English Puritans with great sympathy. While I do have some criticisms of Pr. Bledsoe’s historicizing tendencies, I have always found him to insist on personal spiritual transformation, a vibrant personal prayer life, and a general ambivalence towards external ecclesiastical forms. One would not get this impression from the Bayly blog.
Last year another particularly egregious misrepresentation was offered in response to the “Future of Protestantism,” an event cosponsered by Biola, First Things, and The Davenant Trust, with which I had some insider involvement. Pastor Bayly described the event this way:
Sure, I get why BIOLA paid him to come. Chesterton spoke about the Academy’s penchant for the hip and chic. He pointed out that all scholars’ talk about what is latest and best is “merely a giggling excitement over fashion.” There’s no denying that, among Baptists-gone-to-seed, Peter Leithart is the focus of a certain degree of giggling excitement.
And yet this was most certainly not the case. Every other participant in the discussion was critical of Dr. Leithart’s presentation, and no one present understood the event as a merely a platform for his views to be transmitted without critical engagement. To the contrary, the whole event seemed to be a true example of cordial but spirited disagreement. One can still be forcibly opposed to Dr. Leithart’s theology without needing to paint him as an intellectual PT Barnum.
It seems a few simple rules here would be helpful. First, critical assertions ought to be along objective lines. Motives and internal motivations are simply not demonstrable in typical academic debate. Pastoral and local-political situations ought certainly to attempt to discover these more subjective realities, but theological writing from a distance is quite a different thing. Additionally, such concrete objective statements ought to be correct, as demonstrated by both evidence and reasoned arguments. One can be incredibly devastating simply by pointing to what is and what is not the case. But unsuccessfully attempting to smoke out the scoundrel is actually not devastating at all. It is, rather, easily ignorable. Thirdly, even spirited opponents ought to engage in debates with the desire to locate honest agreement, even if it is only an agreement over where the disagreement is to be found. This does not mean that one’s opponent must “recognize his views” as you present them, since he may well have motivation not to so recognize them. But it ought to at least mean that participants can grant where ideas are legitimately coming into conflict, and well-intentioned debaters ought to have some intellectual empathy along these lines.
Otherwise we really are just roughhousing, either for entertainment or mischief.