“Observing evangelicals debate the doctrine of the Trinity over the last few months, I’ve thought about that breakfast room and the essay on polemic theology and wondered what would Roger Nicole think?”
The first time I attended the national meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society, I was an aspiring-but-not-yet PhD student. A classmate and I made the journey to Colorado Springs to hear scholars we had only read but never seen or met. In those days, scholastic luminaries were debating the nature of God in the ornate ballrooms of The Broadmoor Hotel. Due to the financial limits of seminary students, we spent our evenings in more modest accommodations, and yet, in our three-star hotel we encountered another kind of scholar. There we met two of what church historian E. Brooks Holifield called “Gentlemen Theologians.”
Holifield documented how a segment of clergy in antebellum America were “proponents of clerical gentility.” Spread throughout all denominations, and though often disagreeing among themselves over major and minor issues, these Gentlemen Theologians were the ones who made the decisions that shaped churches. In short, these were the ministers who gave a voice to “orthodox religious thought” (24).
Staying with us in that hotel were the now late Roger Nicole (1915-2010) and a colleague of his from Reformed Theological Seminary. While not chronologically of the class of Holifield’s gentlemen, they carried their same spirit. To come to this assessment, my classmate and I did not spend the evening asking them questions or embarking on a formal mentoring relationship. Rather, we simply observed them at breakfast and that made all the difference.
One morning, as is universal with the hotel complimentary breakfast scene, chaos was in full force as families and other guests were nosily consuming eggs and pastries while waiting in line at the waffle station. In their midst, I noticed Dr. Nicole holding a table while his colleague patiently waited his turn at the toaster, though with a puzzled look on his face.
Someone had left their toast unattended and the professor was at a loss how to maneuver so he could have his turn. Rather than shuffle aside the abandoned and browned slices, he lifted them to a clean plate and proceeded among the grazing throng asking all if this toast might be theirs. Given that most were talking past him and his own aged meekness, not all could hear him, but some did, and soon he was relieved and carried on with his own meal.
While this might not appear that remarkable, how he went about that simple matter with unpretentious care and concern for a stranger’s food, made a lasting impression on a young seminarian. For here were two academics, in town for a meeting at which they were well-known and highly regarded, lodging at a basic hotel and taking the time amid the tumult of the free breakfast to honor and care for those with whom they were eating. It was gentlemanly and spoke volumes.
Polemic Theology and the Trinity Debate
When a pastor friend of mine would later give me a copy of Roger Nicole’s essay, “Polemic Theology: How to Deal with Those Who Differ from Us,” I took notice, recalling that breakfast experience. How fitting it was for a scholar of his stature to write a piece like this, for I had seen a glimpse of how he might model care for another’s words and thoughts in the same gentlemanly fashion his colleague cared for a stranger’s abandoned breakfast. This, I suspected, was a Gentlemen Theologian, and as I have read and learned more, the testimony of Roger Nicole is that he was representative of a generation of such scholars.
Observing evangelicals debate the doctrine of the Trinity over the last few months, I’ve thought about that breakfast room and the essay on polemic theology and wondered what would Roger Nicole think?
Certainly there has been substantive discussion over vital issues of non-negotiable importance. Yet, there has also been a great deal of unhelpful polemics as we have seen a blurring of the distinction between healthy intra-evangelical debate and the attribution of heterodoxy. As I’ve watched and read, I have been hoping for more Gentlemen Theologians to help us know how to proceed. For one can contend in public as a gentleman without having also to condemn.
Contending as Gentlemen without Public Condemnation
Gentlemen Theologians need not hide from controversy or gloss over such with thin platitudes. No, as Nicole made clear:
“We are called upon by the Lord to contend earnestly for the faith (Jude 3). That does not necessarily involve being contentious; but it involves avoiding compromise, standing forth for what we believe, standing forth for the truth of God–without welching at any particular moment. Thus we are bound to meet, at various points and on various levels, people with whom we disagree.”
However, care should also be given to how one engages. Another observation Holifield made about his nineteenth century Gentlemen Theologians related not just to what they believed, but how they wielded their theology and how their actions were received in their culture. He explained,
“The theology was used, among other purposes, to attract and reassure men and women … that ‘reasonable’ behavior—restraint, order, refinement, self-control, self-improvement, and similar virtues that sometimes seemed alien in [their] culture—was congruent with the deepest nature of things” (206).
Holifield described men who exercised self-control with their thoughts and words in service of others. This restraint sometimes seemed alien to the watching world, but it was consistent, not inconsistent, with what they say they believed.
Along these lines, Nicole also offered,
“One method that I have found helpful in making sure that I have dealt fairly with a position that I could not espouse was to assume that a person endorsing that view was present in my audience (or was reading what I had written). Then my aim is to represent the view faithfully and fully without mingling the criticism with factual statements. In fact, I try to represent them so faithfully and fully that an adherent to that position might comment, “This man certainly does understand our view!” It would be a special boon if one could say, “I never heard it stated better!” Thus I have earned the right to criticize. But before I proceed to do this, it is only proper that I should have demonstrated that I have a correct understanding of the position I desire to contest.”
Earning the right to criticize seems like it should be a vital mark of a Gentlemen Theologian and is one that many in the current Trinity debate have labored to honor. However, some have gone further than criticism to question publicly a brother’s orthodoxy without significant care or personal interaction.