Charity in Controversy

We know that some will view the very existence of this volume—with its title, its argument, and its conclusions—as incompatible with Christian charity and humility. Some will even brand it as an example of theological bigotry. Those who believe open theism is beyond the bounds of biblical Christianity can expect to be viewed as members of an "evangelical Taliban" that would "highjack the evangelical movement."10 A full-scale response to this criticism lies outside the scope of this introduction. However, at least five principles justify and necessitate our engagement in this polemical theology.

1. Controversy is required when essential truths are called into question. Every significant doctrinal teaching in the church has been refined in the furnace of controversy. This work argues that open theism undermines the heart of biblical Christianity: the inerrancy of Scripture, the trustworthiness of God, and the gospel of Christ. What are we to do when such serious disagreements arise? John Stott provides the answer: "The proper activity of professing Christians who disagree with one another is neither to ignore, nor to conceal, nor even to minimize their differences, but to debate them."11 Christ himself was a controversialist,12 and the early church followed his lead. The church today must follow in these steps. Stott writes:

We seem in our generation to have moved a long way from this vehement zeal for the truth which Christ and his apostles displayed. But if we loved the glory of God more, and if we cared more for the eternal good

9 For example, this work contains neither an exegetical defense of exhaustive definite foreknowledge nor a historical survey of the development and defense of this doctrine. Both have been nicely handled in Steven C. Roy, "How Much Does God Foreknow? An Evangelical Assessment of the Doctrine of the Extent of the Foreknowledge of God in Light of the Teaching of Open Theism" (Ph.D. diss., Trinity International University, 2000). For Roy's historical survey, see chapter 2 of his thesis. For his exegetical work, see chapters 4, 5, and the appendix in his dissertation.

10 John Sanders, "Is Open Theism Evangelical?" (plenary address at the annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society, Colorado Springs, 15 November 2001), 22, 23.

11 John R. W. Stott, Christ the Controversialist (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1970), 22.

Introduction 17

of the souls of men, we would not refuse to engage in necessary controversy, when the truth of the gospel is at stake. The apostolic command is clear. We are "to maintain the truth in love," being neither truthless in our love, nor loveless in our truth, but holding the two in balance.13

2. Truth and love are necessary companions in doctrinal disputes. There is no biblical or logical contradiction between controversy and compassion, contention and contrition, criticism and Christlikeness. Paul insisted that edification of the body of Christ required "speaking the truth in love" (Eph. 4:15, ESV) so that the church would not be like "children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine" (v. 14).14 The solution to doctrinal drift is spoken truth with a heart of love to the glory of God and for the good of his church.

3. We must distinguish between a tolerant spirit toward persons that manifests itself in love, and a tolerant mind toward ideas that is never able to come to a knowledge of the truth. "Tolerance" today is a disposition rarely defined but routinely insisted upon without distinctions. The fruit of this fuzzy thinking manifests itself in the church as a refusal to condemn ideas for fear that one might offend individuals. Stott, however, insists that we return to a biblical distinction:

We need to distinguish between the tolerant mind and the tolerant spirit. Tolerant in spirit a Christian should always be, loving, understanding, forgiving and forbearing others, making allowances for them, and giving them the benefit of the doubt, for true love "bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things" [1 Cor. 13:7]. But how can we be tolerant in mind of what God has plainly revealed to be either evil or erroneous?15

Chesterton would have agreed. He wrote, "The object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid."16

14 An application of how this was worked out in Paul's ministry can be seen in his rebuke of Peter in Antioch (Gal. 2:11-14). D. A. Carson's analysis reinforces the principles commended in this introduction: "Thus unless we are prepared to charge him with international-class hypocrisy, the apostle Paul is fully persuaded that his rebuke of the apostle Peter is entirely within the constraints of Christian love. Indeed, at one level, it is motivated by love" (D. A. Carson, Love in Hard Places [Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 2002], 150).

15 Stott, Christ the Controversialist, 8.

16 G. K. Chesterton, The Autobiography, vol. 16 of The Collected Works of G. K. Chesterton (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1988), 212.

18 beyond the bounds

4. We must love and pray for the good of those whom we critique. John Newton exhorts us to remember our spiritual duties in the context of theological contention:

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. ... [If he is a believer,] 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____[If he is an unconverted person,] he is a more proper object of your compassion than your anger. Alas! "He knows not what he does." But you know who has made you to differ [1 Cor. 4:7].17

5. Finally, we must commune with God in the doctrines for which we contend. John Owen argued that true communion with God is not only the goal of doctrinal contention but also the means by which it is to be conducted:

When the heart is cast indeed into the mould of the doctrine that the mind embraceth,—when the evidence and necessity of the truth abides in us,—when not the sense of the words only is in our heads, but the sense of the thing abides in our hearts—when we have communion with God in the doctrine we contend for—then shall we be garrisoned by the grace of God against all the assaults of men.18

As we seek to exemplify the spirit of this counsel, may the Lord be merciful to us all. We present these essays with the humble hope that God would use this book for the magnification of his name, the edification of his church, and the advancement of his kingdom.

Soli Deo gloria.

17 John Newton, "On Controversy" [Letter XIX], vol. 1 of The Works of the Rev. John Newton (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1985), 269.

18 John Owen, The Glory of Christ, vol. 1 of The Works of John Owen, ed. William H. Gould (London: Johnstone & Hunter, 1852; reprint, Edinburgh and Carlisle, Pa.: Banner of Truth, 1959), lxiii-lxiv, emphasis added.

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