Daniel Martyn Harris

Newton and the Dangers of Disputation

Fight the good fight, but be cautious as you enter the fray. Be aware of what is wrong with the world, but do not let it consume you. Speak the truth, but do so in love.

We live in an age of innumerable errors. There are false religions, false views of man, false views of God, false views of salvation, false views of the nature of truth itself. There are false views of justice, false views of morality, false views of sexuality, false views of the end and telos of man. And that is not even opening the can of worms that is politics where we observe countless examples of governmental overreach and failures of magistrates to do their divinely appointed jobs. Human life is trodden over in the name of personal choice, evil is called good, and what some have termed a “soft totalitarianism” seems to be on the rise.
Suffice it to say, a lot of people are wrong about a lot of things.
In such an environment it is tempting for sound minded Christians to take hold of the battle standard and begin berating everything and anything that is in opposition to the truth. Social media and other online tools make such crusading easier than ever, gifting everyone a virtual stone to throw which we can chuck without the discomfort of looking into a living person’s eyes. Comment, correct, pile on, mock the evil–this is normative for Christian online discourse. And for in house discussions, or at least toward people who claim to adhere to the tenants of Christianity, we see no holding back as the accusations of “heresy” fall from the righteous.
Now I understand that there is precedent for boldness and even strong language in the Biblical and Protestant tradition. Our religion follows in the way of Elijah who taunted the prophets of Baal, of John the Baptist who condemned the promiscuity of an already unrighteous King, of Christ Jesus who called people vipers and children of Satan. Martin Luther spared no ounce of indignation when he wrote The Bondage of the Will to Erasmus or when he frequently likened the pope to the antichrist. In our day John Knox would be labeled a gross misogynist for his First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women and Samuel Rutherford would be seen as unduly divisive for writing against the Arminians and daring to be imprisoned over something so minute. Truth mattered to these Christians of the old school, and they saw it as something worth fighting and dying for. G. K. Chesterton, while often doctrinally deficient, nevertheless epitomized this same passion for truth: “No man ought to write at all, or even to speak at all, unless he thinks that he is in truth and the other man in error.” We belong to a combative religion that is called to contend for the faith once delivered to all the Saints and to protect the deposit entrusted to us.
Yet with all that stated and assented to, I was convicted by a letter by John Newton (the same author of Amazing Grace) about the dangers of controversy. I thought I would share some excerpts from “A Guide to Godly Disputation” though it is worth reading in full, multiple times (please do read it!). In it Newton provides counsel to someone who is publishing an article against an opposing viewpoint:
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.
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On Being a Normal Horse

I was struck by the self-pity of Bree, the kidnapped Narnian horse who in the story is escaping homeward from the southern deserts of Calormen. He is a charger, a beautiful white war horse who has fought many battles, even earning acclaim for his feats in this foreign kingdom. But during the flight northwards to his homeland, in one instance he does not appear so grand. Bree and his company are attacked by a large lion and it is Shasta the young boy, not Bree the warhorse, who turns around to face the lion in an attempt to defend two females in their company. Bree continues bolting away from the scene in a dash of panic, leaving the others to a likely death.

I recently read The Horse and His Boy and since I had long forgotten the plot and the conclusion, I enjoyed the whole thing as if it was the first time. What a brilliant, well-constructed story. It takes some time to get going but by the end the story fits snuggly like a glove, resolving every uncertainty and lose end in a work of pure Lewisian craftsmanship. On top of that, I believe it speaks directly to some issues in myself, namely a preoccupation with self with tendencies to self-pity.
I was struck by the self-pity of Bree, the kidnapped Narnian horse who in the story is escaping homeward from the southern deserts of Calormen. He is a charger, a beautiful white war horse who has fought many battles, even earning acclaim for his feats in this foreign kingdom. But during the flight northwards to his homeland, in one instance he does not appear so grand. Bree and his company are attacked by a large lion and it is Shasta the young boy, not Bree the warhorse, who turns around to face the lion in an attempt to defend two females in their company. Bree continues bolting away from the scene in a dash of panic, leaving the others to a likely death.
Later we see Bree in a state of despondency at his failure. He was not supposed to run away, he should have faced the danger and sacrificed himself for the weaker members. He should have acted heroically, but the moment came and went and he was missing in action. I understand this feeling very well. In my mind I both imagine and expect that I will act according to the lofty standards I know I should be able to reach. But I fail! I do not live up to my own expectations. Some things I put considerable work into do not seem to materialize and make an impact. Other times my actions toward my family do not reflect the righteous example I am called to model to them. There have been several what I call “golden opportunities” presented to me over the years to speak up about the gospel of Jesus Christ to unbelievers, yet I remember them as Bree remembers his failure: as opportunities missed.
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