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March 01, 2006

Theological Fencing

My wife reminded me of a piece of history that I'd learned and then promptly forgotten. In the early 1800s, in New Orleans, there were bands of aristocrat's sons who would roam the streets looking for duels. They had been well-trained in fencing, some by the top fencing instructors in France, and looked for opportunities to show their skill, and show off who their teachers were. Of course, the better fencers were trained by the better (read, more expensive) teachers.

These kids would walk around looking for opportunities to take offense with something that someone said or did, and challenge them to a duel. And the duel would begin in earnest -- unless the challenge was refused. If the challenge was refused, the challenge-ee was considered a wimp (or at least the 19th century equivalent of a wimp) and roundly mocked.

I see this happening today, but with less physical violence. I'm talking about theological fencing. Someone is offended by something that someone else has said, and demands a public debate so that the whole world can know how wrong that person is. Sometimes, the debates take place on Internet forums, sometimes in more formal settings. But they seem to be for the same reasons.

To prove how wrong someone is. To show publically how they don't know what they're talking about.

Not long ago, I expressed my disappointment in the fact that the Mohler/Patterson discussion on Calvinism had been downgraded from a debate. I still think, in a perfect world, that debate would be a perfectly acceptable way to show conflicting views on a subject, and to attempt to come to a resolution. But I'm becoming increasingly aware that public debates usually end up getting very personal, with both sides insulting the other's position, credentials, committment to Christ, etc. This isn't a perfect world.

I'm a fencer. Actually, I'm a reforming fencer. 6 years ago, I would travel from forum to forum, waiting for a fight. Then I'd go after the person who disagreed with me, showing everyone in the world just how foolish they really were, and how much more I knew about everything. There was one forum (no longer operating) where I would log in every fifteen minutes when I was at home, just to see if my opponent had responded to me. But I reallized something.

Nobody was changing their mind. The debates were happening, debate skills were being shown off, but nothing was changing. People were sticking with their positions no matter what. If anything, the debates were making people dig their trenches deeper, so that they were not going to be moved no matter what. "My mind is made up -- don't confuse me with the facts!" was the slogan of the day on every side of every debate.

Soli Deo gloria should be our motto. And we need to ask ourselves if God is receiving the glory when we debate, or if we are. Are we exhibiting our love for God, or our debate skills? What are we doing this for?

So I'm a reforming fencer. I actually call myself a sniper now -- I will wait until a really ludicrous arguement is exposed, and then I'll take a shot. I don't get involved in extended battles now -- snipers don't duel. One or two shots, and we're done. It's not perfect, but it's easier than quitting cold turkey.

I'm starting to see that theological discussion -- actually talking about our differences, and how we can work together dispite them -- is preferable to theological fencing. Rhetoric isn't going to change someone's mind -- we need to establish that we can work together in spite of our differences, and let God convict of our doctrinal errors.

Posted by Warren Kelly at March 1, 2006 04:32 PM | TrackBack
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