Can arguing about theology ever be helpful?
The Westminster Assembly was an advisory body of theologians to the English Parliament which met at Westminster from 1643 to 1648. It produced a new range of standards for church order and government, worship and doctrine for the churches of England, Scotland and Ireland that have been used ever since by Presbyterian churches across the world.
16 Nov, 2023

Assuming that there is such a thing as truth versus error, how can we ever distinguish them? Some are afraid of discussing theology because it’s so easy to be taken in by subtle arguments, or because they believe it’s too difficult to explain sacred things to ordinary people. Others at the opposite extreme will argue about everything, even things as pointless as how many angels can dance on a pinhead. The Westminster divine John Ley of Solihull, Warwickshire went into print on multiple controversial issues as well as contributing to the discussions at the Westminster Assembly. He also wrote a discourse ‘On Disputations’ where he conceded that there is wisdom in avoiding religious disputes and highlighted the risk of being addicted to arguing for its own sake. Yet, as shown in the following updated and abridged excerpt from this discourse, he insisted that out of concern for people’s spiritual welfare, it is unloving to leave them to be choked with the chaff of error instead of ensuring that they get the finest wheat to feed on spiritually.

Some are too averse to disputes

There is a danger that disputations in religion will be inconsiderately undertaken, or indiscreetly managed. As [the scholar] Ludovicus Vives put it, “The truth by too much scratching and alteration may be lost; and error by artificial arguments and ornaments may have such a glorious flourish and varnish set upon it, as to make it to be taken for the truth.”

This is not unlikely, for copper (he says) can sometimes have a more glorious lustre than true gold. Nothing, as Cicero observes, is so incredible, but by eloquence it may be made to appear probable; nothing is so horrid, but by a garnish of words it may be made to shine. This imposture is easily put on simple, ordinary people; for it is very easy with volubility of tongue to deceive. What people do not perceive with understanding, they receive with admiration; nor can they put a due difference betwixt garrulity and authority.

Ordinarily too, people are more affected by what is said by those who contradict solid and long-believed truth under pretence of new discoveries of truth, and more taken with error than with what has warrant from the Word of God and the consent of all the Christian churches of the world of both ancient and later times. Sometimes the fallacy is all the more attractive because these promoters of novel doctrines make an impressive profession of self-denial, refusing the advantages of a comfortable living, which their opponents enjoy, and they position themselves boldly against authority.

It is therefore wiser to be unwilling to give too much leeway to religious disputations (or rather, disputations of religion), partly because of the subtilty of some of unsound principles and partly because of the naivety of others of a better belief. They suspect no deceit, and they have confidence in the strength of truth, and so they are easily entangled with invitations to dispute. This brings the greatest disadvantage to their cause, for they do not forethink how their adversaries may be equipped for assault, and what liberties they will take when they report the outcome, either to make show of victory, or to shadow a foil.

There are also two great groups, which are opposites to each other, and which are too opposed to all disputations, namely the Muslims and the Pope.

Mohammed (that famous impostor and false prophet, the founder of that impious and impure sect of the Muslims) not only forbids all disputes about the religion of the Koran, but if any are disposed to dispute, he instructs his deluded disciples to answer them like this. “Say unto them,” says he, “‘God alone knows all thy acts, and at the last day will discuss all controversies.’ Again, to incredulous men say, ‘I follow not your law, nor you mine; therefore let me alone with that which is mine, and I will let you alone with yours.’”

Meanwhile, Pope Gelasius decreed against disputing with those who are of another communion, and Azorius the Jesuit in his Moral Institutes says that it is not lawful for laymen to dispute publicly about the faith. If there are any disputes of matters of faith between Catholics and heretics published in any mother tongue, they are forbidden in their Index of prohibited books.

Some are too addicted to disputes

Others are diverse from and contrary to these, in that they are too much addicted to disputation. They are too forward to make or accept offers to debate, and too ready to multiply needless and presumptuous questions in matters of religion.

Some have such a high opinion of their own giftings for knowledge and communication that they think their eminence cannot be sufficiently known, nor they enough admired and honoured, without public ostentation in a polemical debate. Perhaps by the imitation of heathen philosophers, or perhaps by natural corruption, various Christians been puffed up to high degrees of vain glory. They are proud of those preeminences for which (according to the apostle’s caution) they should rather be humble and thankful (1. Cor. 4:6). Paul expostulates with pathos with those who think too well of themselves, and disdain others: “Who maketh thee to differ from another, and what hast thou that thou didst not receive? now if thou didst receive it, why boastest thou as if thou hadst not received it?” (v. 7), that is, as if it were your own of yourself, without being beholden to another — especially to God, who could just have easily made the one you despise glorious, and you contemptible.

Felix, the Manichean heretic, was so forward as to provoke Augustine to public dispute. But he was so unqualified for it that the one who published the report of the debate wondered which was more astonishing, the impudence of Felix braying rather than disputing, or the patience of the people, hearing his absurd arguings without tumult, or the stomach of Augustine, who so patiently continued to long to address his unlearned follies!

Said a wise and learned statesman, “The itch of dispute is the scab of the church.” Ludovicus Vives uses a similar expression: “When you scratch an itch too much, you draw blood, and the momentary relief is succeeded by raw soreness. So, those who scratch the truth too much by disputation, wound it, and only put it in need of further curing and healing.”

As some have itching ears (in the apostle’s words, 2 Tim. 4:3), so some have itching tongues, and some itching fingers and pens. The Scholastics, for example, multiplied the number of needless questions far beyond the limits of sober, reasonable and respectful inquiries in religion. The early church father Gregory Nazianzen accused some of being so wretchedly affected that they make it their delight to make trifling disputes over divine matters, and are just as presumptuous in resolving their curious questions as they are rash in putting them forward for debate. Such precipitateness and temerity Gregory thought needed to be bridled and restrained.

They are “men of corrupt minds,” too prone to perverse disputings, and the apostle reproves them for this (1 Tim. 6:5). By their disputings, questioning and resolving, they aim to be wise above what is written (1 Cor. 4:6), and so betray their egregious folly to all the world. They are neither as wise nor as holy as they should be. Not so holy, because they are so bold as to put up for debate undoubted principles of divinity, lacking the humility which is essential to true holiness. And not so wise, because the extent of your pride is the extent of your folly.

Disputes may still be profitable

Disputations on matters of religion are however warrantable by Scripture and reason, and not only lawful, but sometimes also expedient and profitable.

For the undoubted duties of morality, the apostle prescribes present and prompt obedience, “without murmurings or disputings” (Phil. 2:14). Yet for matters of faith and conscience he requires no such thing either in affection, or in fact. Instead he gives leave, and advice, to Christians to bring both people’s spirits and their speeches to the test (1 John 4:1; 1 Thess. 5:21). He requires of Christian believers that they be “ready always to give an answer to every one that asketh a reason of the hope that is in them” (1 Pet. 3:15). If this is required of a Christian, much more of a minister, who should be “able by sound doctrine both to exhort and convince the gainsayers” (Tit. 9:11), just as Apollos “mightily convinced the Jews, and that publicly, showing by the Scripture that Jesus was Christ.” This may stop the mouths of some adversaries, in the same way that if a light is hung over the lake where there are frogs, the frogs will stop croaking.

Nevertheless some are so contumacious against the truth, and so malicious against those who powerfully plead for the truth, that they prefer to use violence to stop the mouths of those who have overcome them by the power of truth (like they did with Stephen; Acts 7:54, 57, 59), rather than confess themselves convinced or satisfied with the clearest evidence produced in the plainest cause that can be debated. This is not the fault of disputation itself, but the perverseness of the disputants, who persist in disputing though they do not have one wise word to say in favour of their foolish and false opinions. We must, said the ancient great theologian Hilary of Poitiers, “not flee from erroneous doctrines, as afraid to encounter them, but must repel and conquer them by disputations.”

As the philosopher Picus de Mirandula said, “Dispute is the sieve to separate the fine flour of truth from the coarse bran of error.” This is for the honour of the truth and, at least equally, for the benefit of those who embrace it, for when truth and error are clearly distinguished, it is not only more beautiful to the eye, and more pleasant to the taste, but more nutritious, because it provides better and purer nourishment to the soul. As it is a duty of love that those who have the responsibility of caring for souls are to feed them with the finest of the wheat and to satisfy them with honey out of the rock (Psalm 81:16), so is it also an act of love not to allow these souls to be choked with the bran of error and heresy, which many are too forward to force down the throats of poor people who don’t know any better.

Indeed, being seduced into heresy is even more dangerous than that, for the apostle said of heretics such as Hymeneus and Philetus that “their speech will eat like a canker, or gangrene” (2 Tim. 2:17), which is easy to catch, and hard to cure. We know that canker and gangrene are very dangerous diseases, and those who are spiritual physicians ought out of love to do their best to keep their flocks from such infective and destructive mischiefs. If debate is a means of doing so (as it can be, when done wisely), it may be expedient that way to curb and discourage heretics from corrupting the flocks, and may serve also for an antidote to preserve them from the venom and poison of heretical tongues, which, if they are left without opposition, will go on to subvert “whole houses” (Tit. 1:11).



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