Concerning our rhetorical engagement with the Roman Catholic Church, we who are heirs of the Protestant Reformation must recognize that we live in a different time period from Luther and Calvin. In the twenty-first century we don’t typically link Christian faith to armed combat (thankfully). However, it was far different in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries when religious solidarity and national destiny went hand-in-hand. In such a society, the idea of religious pluralism was new and frightening. With what church does one identify? Even saying it this way is somewhat misleading. There was hardly a pluralistic choice. When Luther published his Appeal to the German Nobility, for instance, he was not proposing an alternative option. It was, for him, a necessary replacement of an apostate church institution. In addition to generating profound existential angst among rank-and-file Christians, such transition created a social and political revolution, which the wars of religion vividly remind us.
In this setting, words were employed to heighten concern, awaken emotions, and motivate action. In this clash of competing worldviews, where the stakes were life and death, rhetorical conventions permitted and even promoted an aggressive confrontation aimed at demeaning opponents. In this polemical universe, you could not punch below the belt, because there was no belt marking off acceptable and unacceptable blows. My friend Jason illustrated this point during seminary. The consummate Calvinist, Jason once mentioned nonchalantly to our classmate Linford, a Mennonite friend: “If we were living five hundred years ago, I’d be drowning you about now.” The strength of their friendship allowed for such a bizarre statement. Perhaps the most bizarre part, however, was its truth.
With regard to polemics, we live in a new day. The influence of Christian virtue on verbal etiquette has delivered us from the violent vituperations of yesteryear. In other words, we can disagree with charity. This is not to say that the Reformation is therefore over. Far from it. The same fundamental issues of difference that separated Catholics and Protestants in the sixteenth century largely exist today. But instead of drowning or impaling our Catholic conversation partners, we may now enjoy a cup of coffee with them at Starbucks, pray for their families, and cherish them as friends.
This sort of humility doesn’t mean that we have compromised our conviction of what constitutes truth. Only after reaching an informed conviction, having taken time to listen, learn, and think, do we possess the requisite courage to relate to others in a vulnerable, humble way. Conversely, when we attack the jugular of the one who disagrees with us, we demonstrate our insecurity. Once again, Jesus is our example. Although God, Jesus did not exploit his deity, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant (Phil. 2:6–7).