Polemics is the calling of the Reformed believer. The English word polemics comes from the Greek word poleméw, which means to wage war. That word describes what is meant in the church by polemics. Polemics is the church’s warfare waged for the truth over against the lie in which war the lie is defeated and the truth is victorious. In this warfare the lie is exposed as lie and refuted with the word of God. In this warfare the church contends earnestly for the truth.
This spiritual warfare of the church is not the church’s warfare first of all, but Christ’s. Christ is a warring Christ. This is the revelation of the exalted Christ in Revelation 19:11, “And I saw heaven opened, and behold a white horse; and he that sat upon him was called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he doth judge and make war”. Such also is the revelation of the stirring vision of Christ in Isaiah 63:1-3, “Who is this that cometh from Edom, with dyed garments from Bozrah? this that is glorious in his apparel, travelling in the greatness of his strength? I that speak in righteousness, mighty to save. Wherefore art thou red in thine apparel, and thy garments like him that treadeth in the winefat? I have trodden the winepress alone; and of the people there was none with me: for I will tread them in mine anger, and trample them in my fury; and their blood shall be sprinkled upon my garments, and I will stain all my raiment”. Christ himself said about his own work in the world in Matthew 10:34, “Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword”. This warfare of Christ was carried on in the Old Testament through His church. He personally came in the incarnation to wage this warfare and in prosecuting this war suffered on the cross in order to crush the head of the Serpent and to destroy Satan, sin, death, hell, and the grave for His people. He continues this war after His ascension through His church.
The church must be a warring church because Christ is a warring Christ. Christ is not at peace with Satan, but came to destroy all the works of the devil.
Scripture everywhere demands this activity of the church, but nowhere more plainly or emphatically than in Jude 1:3: “Beloved, when I gave all diligence to write unto you of the common salvation, it was needful for me to write unto you, and exhort you that ye should earnestly contend for the faith which was once delivered unto the saints”. Here the Holy Ghost binds on the church the calling to oppose the heresies and false doctrines that aim to corrupt the pure faith of the church. She is called to oppose those false doctrines with all the strength that she can muster and at all times in order to keep the faith pure and undefiled.
Polemics is a special application of the antithesis. In Genesis 3:15, God promised to put enmity between the seed of the serpent and the seed of the woman. This hatred and warfare between the seed of the serpent and the seed of the woman in the sphere of doctrine is polemics. Polemics is directed especially against false and deceptive doctrines and heresies directed by Satan against the truth. Satan on his part introduces lies, false doctrines, and wicked thinking into the church. The church on her part is called to expose and refute these lies, false doctrines, and wicked thinking.
The reality of the devil’s relentless attacks upon the truth demands polemics by the church. In one of his fullest treatments of the subject of polemics in, That These Words of Christ, “This is My Body” Still Stand Firm Against The Fanatics, Martin Luther gives a compelling survey of Satan’s efforts throughout history to destroy the truth of Scripture and Scripture itself as the source of all truth. He concludes with this observation, “He [the Devil] must be an adversary and cause misfortune; he cannot do otherwise. Moreover he is the prince and god of this world, so that he has sufficient power to so. Since he is able and determined to do all this, we should not think that we will have peace from him. He takes no vacation and he does not sleep. Choose, then, whether you would rather wrestle with the devil or else belong to him. If you refuse to be his, then grab him by the hair! He won’t fail you but will create such dissension and factions over Scripture that you will not know where Scripture, faith, Christ and you yourself stand.”1 Here Luther makes plain first of all that warfare is an abiding reality for the church. While in this earth she must be the church militant for the simple reason that she is constantly attacked by Satan. He also makes plain that because of this activity of Satan there are two choices for the church: she can contend with him or belong to him. That makes sharp the necessity of polemics. The church that will not engage in polemics loses the truth and becomes the habitation of Satan.
The activity of polemics by the church is the manifestation of her love for Christ and God. Marin Luther, perhaps the greatest polemicist that has lived since the apostles, wrote concerning this reality of polemics when he was sharply criticized for his polemics. He mentions the criticism of his opponents: “We begin at the point where they write, produce books, and admonish that these subjects ought not be the occasion for rending Christian unity, love, and peace. It is a minor matter, say they, and an insignificant quarrel, for the sake of which Christian love should not be obstructed. They chide us for being so stubborn and obstinate about it and creating disunity”. To this Luther responded, “No, dear sirs, none of this peace and unity for me! If I were to strangle someone’s father, mother, wife and child, and try to choke him too, and then say, “Keep the peace, dear friend, we wish to love one another; the matter is not so important that we should be divided over it!”…Thus the fanatics strangle Christ my Lord, and God the Father in his words, and my mother the church, too, along with my brethren. Moreover, they would have me dead too, and they would say I should be at peace, for they would like to cultivate love in their relations with me”.2 Here Luther makes the issue of polemics as an act of love for Christ stark. An attack on the truth is an attack on the family of the believer inasmuch as the false teacher attacks the believer’s Father and mother and brethren. It would be a thing incredible if someone would attack a man’s family and he would not defend his family. But this is exactly the kind of wicked counsel that many give with regard to the defence of the truth. Luther’s analogy exposes the total lack of love for God, Christ, the church, and the truth apparent in the attitude of those that will not contend earnestly for the faith. Luther said about just such a man, Erasmus, “He was far from the knowledge of grace, since in all his writings he is not concerned for the cross, but for peace”.
The activity of polemics serves several purposes in the history of Christ’s kingdom. First, polemics exposes false doctrines and the false teachers. They come in as angels of light, as wolves in sheep’s clothing, and as caretakers seemingly concerned for the sheep. These masks must be torn off to reveal the devil, wolves, and hireling hiding beneath. Second, polemics delivers Christ’s sheep from those false doctrines and delivers them into the light and liberty of the truth. The sheep are scattered and oppressed by these false teachers and must be gathered again not only with a positive presentation of the truth, but also by a refutation of the errors holding them captive. Paul wrote about this function of polemics in 2 Corinthians 10:5, “Casting down imaginations, and every high thing that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God, and bringing into captivity every thought to obedience to Christ”. Here the scripture makes plain that only in the way of tearing down Satan’s strongholds of false doctrine are thoughts also brought into subjection to Christ and the truth. Third, polemics serves the development of the truth. The truth of God once delivered to the saints does not develop ordinarily in the ivory tower of the theologian isolated from the day to day struggles of the church of Christ in the world, but the truth develops in controversy. The history of the church gives abundant evidence of this truth. It was in confrontation with those that denied Christ’s divinity that the church in the first three centuries of the New Testament developed the doctrine that Christ is true Man and true God. It was in Augustine’s confrontation with Pelagius that the doctrines of grace were developed. At the time of the Reformation Luther was pushed by his Roman Catholic opponents to take positions that he was not inclined to take. For instance, in his confrontation with Roman Catholic theologian John Eck, Luther saw that the church is the company of the predestinated, and aligned himself with the much maligned John Hus who had been burned at the stake for that position by the Council of Constance prior to the Reformation. The development of the truth through controversy is not only a principle established by history, but scripture reveals this as one of the purposes of heresy in 1 Corinthians 11:19, “For there must be also heresies among you, that they which are approved may be made manifest among you”. Here the apostle says that heresies are necessary in order that the elect of God be made manifest. The heresies are of Satan, but as all evil, serve the good purpose of the salvation of the elect by making them manifest, especially in their rejection of those heresies, the development of their faith, and by the exposure of those that are unbelievers through their adoption of those heresies.
The whole church and not merely one section or group in the church is called to doctrinal warfare. It is the calling of every officebearer according to the Reformed Formula of Subscription: “We declare, moreover, that we not only reject all errors that militate against this doctrine…but that we are disposed to refute and contradict these, and to exert ourselves in keeping the church free from such errors”. It is especially the calling of professors of theology according to the Church Order, Article 18: “The office of professors of theology is to expound the Holy Scriptures and to vindicate sound doctrine against heresies and errors”. Professors especially are to give themselves to the study of false doctrine and to warring against those heresies that oppose the truth. Polemics is also the calling of the believer according to the Reformed Form for Confession of Faith: “Have you resolved by the grace of God to adhere to this doctrine; to reject all heresies repugnant thereto; and to lead a new, godly life?”
The believer may not be surprised that this warfare comes very close to home. Jesus warned in Matthew 10:35-26 that when he brings the sword, “I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter in law against her mother in law. And a man’s foes shall be they of his own household”. The Apostle Paul warned the church in Acts 20:29-30: “For I know this, that after my departing shall grievous wolves enter in among you, not sparing the flock. Also of your own selves shall men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them”. Polemics, being warfare, is a spiritually painful and bloody affair. Inasmuch as this warfare comes into the very family, relationships, and churches of believers it partakes of the nature of the bloodiest and most terrible of all warfare, the civil war. The antithesis of which this warfare is a part cuts along the lines of sovereign grace; election and reprobation run through the sphere of the covenant, and they are not all Israel that are of Israel.
Because of the reality that polemics is hard, flesh-denying work, and often involves the believer in bloody spiritual warfare with his own acquaintances, scripture also warns against a mere appearance of polemics by one who in reality does not do polemics. In Jeremiah 48:10 God warns, “Cursed be he that doeth the work of the LORD deceitfully, and cursed be he that keepeth back his sword from blood”. The work of the Lord is the work of the sword, the work of polemics against the enemies of God. The word translated deceitfully means lackadaisically. It is defined later in the verse as keeping his sword back from blood. The man warned in the text will not do the hard and spiritually bloody work of polemics. He will not point out the heresies that threaten the church, name the names of those that teach it, threaten his friendships, or give up his personal agenda of peace and unity with those that teach false doctrine. The translation deceitfully to describe the activity of this man on the field of polemics is also exactly correct. His polemics are a vile deceit. The man cursed in the verse is not merely the one who does not do the work of polemics, but one who makes a great show of bearing the sword. He bears the sword, but he does not use it to shed spiritual blood. He is a man who merely speaks about polemics, defines polemics, and makes a grand show with his polished sword of doing polemics, perhaps even making his way onto the field of battle, but his sword remains unstained in the battle. For all his words about polemics, he does not actually do polemics at all. Luther described such men: “Their writings accomplish nothing because they refrain from chiding, biting, and giving offense”. Such men in their deceitful laziness with the sword of God are cursed by God. Their writings and work will accomplish nothing because God does not bless such a use of his word, but curses it and turns it to nothing. He gave his word in part to destroy the lies of the devil, to defend the truth, and to expose false doctrine. Jehovah Himself sets Himself against all those that oppose Him and His truth as Moses and the children of Israel sang in Exodus 15:3, “The LORD is a man of war: the LORD is his name”. So must the church and every believer do—not merely speak about—polemics.
1 Martin Luther, That These Words of Christ…Still Stand Firm, The Annotated Luther, vol. 3, ed. Paul W. Robinson (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2016), 174.
2 Ibid, 180.
Written by: Rev. Nathan Langerak | Issue 47