Christodoxic Principles for Christian Writing. How should Christians write to one another, especially when they differ? How should they interact with one another via social media or even more scholarly methods? After seeing various Christian answers to these and similar questions, I have invested the past several weeks reevaluating my own writing style as well as my own past interactions with fellow Christians – both critical and non-critical. Listed below are principles gathered from a variety of sources that altogether exemplify a Christian writing style – Christ-glorifying principles that I commend to all Christians, including myself.
1. Examine your Heart. “Take heed unto thyself…” (1Tim. 4:16). Before writing anything, whether treatise, post, or response, we must examine ourselves in light of Christ Jesus and His Word. This is necessary for at least two reasons. First, we must zealously pray for those believers with whom we differ. By doing this, we will not only foster a deeper Christ-like love for our brothers but also properly frame the disagreement in light of the cross of Christ and eternity. Consider the words of John Newton:
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 you account him a believer, though greatly mistaken in the subject of debate between you, the words of David to Joab, concerning Absalom, are very applicable: ‘Deal gently with him for my sake.’ The Lord loves him and bears with him: therefore you must not despise him, or treat him harshly. The Lord bears with you likewise, and expects that you should show tenderness to others, from a sense of the much forgiveness you need yourself. 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; and though you may find it necessary to oppose his errors, view him personally as a kindred soul, with whom you are to be happy in Christ forever.
Second, we must test our motives to determine whether they are truly Christodoxic – that is to say Christ-glorifying. Are we writing to exalt ourselves, or are we writing to exalt Christ? Are we writing to genuinely sharpen our fellow believers’ understanding of the Christocentric Scriptures, or is our goal to engage others in a back-and-forth game of theological ‘gotcha’? Do we demonstrate Christ-like humility by welcoming criticism from fellow Christians regardless of how it is delivered, or do we manifest a defensive spirit, dismissing such criticism as mischaracterization or personal attack. Again, Newton’s counsel is instructive:
Be on your guard against admitting any thing personal into the debate. If you think you have been ill-treated, you will have an opportunity of showing that you are a disciple of Jesus, who, “when he was reviled, reviled not again; when he suffered, he threatened not.” This is our pattern, thus we are to speak and write for God, “not rendering railing for railing, but contrariwise blessing; knowing that hereunto we are called.” The wisdom that is from above is not only pure, but peaceable and gentle; and the want of these qualifications, like the dead fly in the pot of ointment, will spoil the savour and efficacy of our labours. If we act in a wrong spirit, we shall bring little glory to God, do little good to our fellow-creatures, and procure neither honour nor comfort to ourselves. If you can be content with showing your wit, and gaining the laugh on your side, you have an easy task; but I hope you have a far nobler aim, and that, sensible of the solemn importance of Gospel-truths, and the compassion due to the souls of men, you would rather be a means of removing prejudices in a single instance, than obtain the empty applause of thousands. Go forth, therefore, in the name and strength of the Lord of Hosts, speaking the truth in love; and may he give you a witness in many hearts, that you are taught of God, and favoured with the unction of his Holy Spirit.
What should our primary motive in Christian writing be? It should be to persuade men, as 2 Corinthians 5:11 declares, “Therefore knowing the fear of the Lord, we persuade men.” Timothy Keller recommends the approach of John Calvin, “Seek to persuade, not antagonize, but watch your motives!” Keller continues: “…it is possible to seek to be winsome and persuasive out of a self-centeredness, rather than a God-centeredness. We may do it to be popular. On the other hand, it is just as possible to be bold and strongly polemical out of self-centeredness rather than God-centeredness. And therefore, looking very closely at our motives, we should be sure our polemics do not unnecessarily harden and antagonize our opponents. We should seek to win them, as Paul did Peter, not to be rid of them.” Let us all examine our hearts in light of Christ and His Word. Let us all earnestly pray for those Christian brothers and sisters who differ with us. Let us all test our motives. May we all be Christodoxic.
2. Assess Arguments, Not Intentions. “…with humility of mind let each of you regard one another as more important than himself” (Phil. 2:3). It is often difficult to discern the intentions of an individual with whom you are acquainted, let alone someone you have never met. 1 Corinthians 2:11 declares, “For who among men knows the thoughts of a man except the spirit of the man, which is in him?” When interacting with fellow Christians, a Christian should do not assess himself in light of his own intentions, while assessing another Christian in light of his assumptions of that person’s motives. A Christian should evaluate another’s theological arguments, not his intentions, and the former should be done graciously. In Keller’s words, “Only God sees the heart—so remember the gospel and stick to criticizing the theology.” It is always wiser to assume positive intent, given that a reader lacks the benefits of face to face discourse such as tone and inflection. Dave Gilliland writes: “Unless the context clearly and specifically states otherwise, write and read with the understanding that what is being discussed is the accuracy of the statement, the legitimacy of its application, or it’s practical/theological consequences, not the intentions of those participating in the discussion.”
3. A ‘Face to Face’ Approach. “…we shall speak face to face. Peace be to you…” (3 John 1:14). In my own experience, people generally tend to be more gracious to acquaintance and stranger alike when interacting in person. In the same way, Michael Horton, Professor of Theology and Apologetics at Westminster California, states, “…it is a lot easier to caricature somebody you have never met.” When engaging in theological discourse, I propose that Christians ‘picture’ themselves sitting across from their intended recipients in a face to face discussion. In other words, when critiquing any theological view or position, Christians should probably refrain from any statements that they would be unwilling to declare face to face
4. Write unto others how you would have them write unto you. “Love does no wrong to a neighbor” (Rom. 13:10). When Christians write to others in the manner they themselves would prefer to be written to, they demonstrate love for the recipients of their message. David Gilliland offers practical suggestions for writing graciously to others:
- Write the way you like to be written to, especially when holding an unbeknownst error.
2. Write as if you might hold the other persons position a year from now.
3. Think of how hard it is to be convinced of error even when the case is convincing, why create unnecessary relational hurdles?
4. If someone does change their view it will mean they will be more closely associated with you. Will that make it easier or harder for them to change their minds?
5. Yes, God must open their eyes, but if He is going to use you isn’t it reasonable that He would open your eyes to write in a way that anticipates a new advocate? “Have you considered?” is generally more productive than “You must recant.”
6. The issue is rarely “What the Scripture says,” but what it means. Starting a post [on social media] with “I understand the text to mean . . .” is more engaging and to the point than “The Scripture clearly says . . .”
7. Allowing for regional differences, using the term “my Bible” can come across pretentious unless you have the “autographa.”
8. Recognize that doctrinal error rarely arises in a vacuum, but as an overreaction to other errors. Acknowledging the original error is often the first step in real progress.
9. One of the keys to a wise argument amongst peers is knowing when it is best to let the Holy Spirit “connect the dots”  [brackets mine].
5. Sola Scriptura. “What any man undertakes to prove as necessary, he shall make good out of Scripture.” The Scriptures are the plenary inspired, wholly infallible, wholly inerrant, and all-sufficient Word of God; hence, they constitute the sole authority of faith & practice for the believer. Consequently, Christian writing, let alone all Christian communication, should be firmly founded upon the Word of God – replete with its truths, its principles. Any argument or valid critique must be fully grounded upon the clear teaching of the Christocentric Scriptures.
6. Peacefully Maintain the Unity of the Spirit. “In the essentials unity, in the non-essentials liberty, in all things charity.” In short, Christian communication should exhibit a biblical balance in all matters. Christians should refrain from reframing any disputable or non-essential matter as an essential matter of the Christian faith. To do otherwise would be to encourage caricature, division and strife. Disputable matters must remain disputable matters. Christians are bound to disagree with one another, but such disagreement must manifest genuine respect and self-effacing Christian love. In the midst of disagreement, we must preserve “the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:3). We must uphold fellow believers’ Christian liberty in disputable matters of doctrine & practice. As relates to essentials of the Christian faith, these tenets, to be sure, should be vigorously defended, but any such defense should be conducted in genuine Christian love.
7. Focus on the Positive. “Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, let your mind dwell on these things” (Phil. 4:8). A positive focus– one that focuses on the excellences of Christ, His Word, and our life in Him – is far more winsome than a negative one. Furthermore, it is important to emphasize theological common ground when critiquing any theological viewpoint.
8. Take Full Responsibility for Whatever You Write. Timothy Keller, who draws this particular principle from John Murray’s Principles of Conduct, states it the following manner: “You must take full responsibility for even unwitting misrepresentation of someone’s views.” He continues:
In his book Principles of Conduct he [Murray] argues that “all falsehood, error, misapprehension, every deviation from what is true in thought, feeling, word, or action is the result of sin. . . . Quite apart from sin there would have been ignorance and lack of full understanding on the part of all created rational beings. But limited knowledge is one thing, falsehood in understanding or representation is another” (p. 132). In other words, to misrepresent reality to others is always wrong. He grants, of course, that there is a great difference between a deliberate lie and unintentionally passing on erroneous information. But he goes on: “[W]e think very superficially and naïvely if we suppose that no wrong is entailed in purveying misrepresentation of fact. Even when persons are, as we say, the innocent victims of misinformation, we are not to suppose that they are relieved of all wrong. What we need to appreciate is that the representation is false . . . a misrepresentation of God’s truth.” He concludes: “This consideration that all falsehood, as a deviation from truth, is per se wrong should arouse us to the gravity of our situation in relation to the prevalence of falsehood and to our responsibility in guarding, maintaining, and promoting truth” (p. 132). [brackets mine]
Keller derives the following application from Murray’s words:
This is very sobering. In our internet age we are very quick to dash off a response because we think Mr. A promotes X. And when someone points out that Mr. A didn’t mean X because over here he said Y, we simply apologize, or maybe we don’t even do that. John Murray’s principle means that polemics must never be “dashed off.” Great care should be taken to be sure you really know what Mr. A believes and promotes before you publish.
9. Do Not Mischaracterize an Opposing Position. Keller draws this principle for Christian polemics from Archibald Alexander of Princeton Seminary: “Attribute to an antagonist no opinion he does not own, though it be a necessary consequence.” Keller comments:
In other words, even if you believe that Mr. A’s belief X could or will lead others who hold that position to belief Y, do not accuse Mr. A of holding to belief Y himself, if he disowns it. You may consider him inconsistent, but it is one thing to say that and another thing to tar him with belief Y by implying or insisting that he actually holds it when he does not. A similar move happens when you imply or argue that, if Mr. A quotes a particular author favorably at any point, then Mr. A must hold to all the views that the author holds at other points. If you, through guilt-by-association, hint or insist that Mr. A must hold other beliefs of that particular author, then you are violating Alexander’s Rule and, indeed, Murray’s Rule. You are misrepresenting your opponent.
Elsewhere, Keller restates this principle like so:
“Do not assign a position to an opponent that he will not own even though you think it is the necessary consequence.” In addition, he urges great care in asserting any necessary consequence of any theological position, recommending something akin to the following verbiage: “Mr. X, we think that your position will lead in a generation or so or maybe in your disciples to Position Y.” To effectively advance any Christian discussion with those with whom we disagree, we must labor to ensure that we do not mischaracterize or misrepresent their position.
10. Engage an Opposing Position In Toto & in its Strongest Form. Keller also recommends a two-part principle from George Gillespie, a seventeenth-century Scottish theologian. First, Keller urges fellow Christians, “Take your opponents’ views in total, not selectively.” He expounds upon the initial part of this principle:
Just because someone says (or fails to say something) in one setting—either for good reasons or because of a misstep—does not mean he fails to say it repeatedly and emphatically in the rest of his work. Gillespie is saying, ‘Be sure that what you say is Mr. X’s position really is his settled view. You can’t infer that from one instance.’ If we build a case on such instances, we are in danger of falling afoul of Murray’s rule as well. We must take responsibility for misrepresenting the views of others.
Second, Christians should address an opposing position not only in its entirety but also in its strongest form. Keller encapsulates Keller in the following manner: “Represent and engage your opponents’ position in its very strongest form, not in a weak ‘straw man’ form.” He continues: “This may be the most comprehensive rule of all in polemics, because, if it is adhered to, most of the other policies and principles will follow. Do all the work necessary until you can articulate the views of your opponent with such strength that he says, ‘I couldn’t have said it better myself.’ Then and only then will your polemics not misrepresent him, take his views in toto, and actually have the possibility of being persuasive.” Elsewhere, he urges Christians to “give the other person’s argument or position in a way that they not only recognize but in some cases might say, ‘That is good as I could have done it.’ Then, when you start to criticize it, they feel like, ‘You’ve paid me the respect of really listening to me.’” Michael Horton similarly states, “We have to represent even our theological opponents in a way that they would recognize…You have to state the position in terms that that person would recognize before you earn the right to critique it.”
In conclusion, it is my heart’s desire that my own writing be characterized by principles such as these. For it is my firm conviction that this assortment of principles will foster genuine, Christ-glorifying dialogue among our Christian brothers and sisters. May the Lord motivate, empower, and encourage all His people to this end. Soli Deo Gloria!
John Newton, “On Controversy,” The Works of the Rev. John Newton, Vol. 1 (New York: Williams & Whiting, 1810), 241-242. Newton also addresses how a Christian should discourse with one he views to be an unbeliever: “But if you look upon him as an unconverted person, in a state of enmity against God and his grace, a supposition, which, without good evidence, you should be very unwilling to admit, he is a more proper object of your compassion, than of your anger. Alas! “He knows not what he does.” But you know who has made you to differ. If God, in his sovereign pleasure, had so appointed, you might have been set for the defence of the Gospel. You were both equally blind by nature. If you attend to this, you will not reproach or hate him, because the Lord has been pleased to open your eyes, and not his.”
Timothy Keller, “Be Winsome and Persuasive,” Internet article: http://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/be-winsome-and-persuasive. Also cited in Tim Challies, “The Blogs, the Battles and the Gospel,” Blog Article: http://www.challies.com/christian-living/the-blogs-the-battles-and-the-gospel.
David Gilliland, “Ten Suggestions for More Productive and Convincing Writing,” Facebook Discussion: https://www.facebook.com/groups/395895603926383/permalink/458505234332086/.
The Gospel Coalition, “Chandler, Horton, Keller on How to Disagree,” Facebook Video: https://www.facebook.com/thegospelcoalition/videos/10152938686752723/?fref=nf. I heartily recommend this video to all who read this blog post. It is an illuminating discussion between Matt Chandler, Michael Horton, and Tim Keller on how Christians should disagree with one another.
Gilliland, “Ten Suggestions,” #1-9.
The Westminster Divines.
Although frequently attributed to Augustine of Hippo, Schaff notes that the theological axiom “appears for the first time in German, A.D. 1627 and 1628” and “has recently been traced to Rupertus Meldenius, the otherwise unknown divine.” Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, Vol. VII: Modern Christianity and the German Reformation (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1910; reprint 1974), 650.
Timothy Keller, “Three Rules for Polemics,” Internet article: http://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/gospel-polemics-2.
The Gospel Coalition, “Chandler, Horton, Keller on How to Disagree,” Facebook Video: https://www.facebook.com/thegospelcoalition/videos/10152938686752723/?fref=nf.
Timothy Keller, “Be Winsome and Persuasive,” Internet article:http://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/be-winsome-and-persuasive. Also cited in Tim Challies, “The Blogs, the Battles and the Gospel,” Blog Article: http://www.challies.com/christian-living/the-blogs-the-battles-and-the-gospel.
The Gospel Coalition, “Chandler, Horton, Keller on How to Disagree,” Facebook Video: https://www.facebook.com/thegospelcoalition/videos/10152938686752723/?fref=nf.