When I was in college, I was a Religion major at a state university. I was also a conservative evangelical, which meant that I spent a great deal of time contradicting the views of my liberal professors. In the process, I found that their arguments were never particularly convincing, but their most effective weapon was the sardonic sneer with which many of them would dismiss me as a mindless fundamentalist. No one wants to be looked at like they're stupid, and I saw many students succumb to these professors' liberal views not because they had been convinced intellectually, but because they had been intimidated emotionally.
Throughout college, therefore, I saw the truth in Paul's statement that "knowledge puffs up" (1 Corinthians 8:1). As I entered seminary, I wondered if I would ever see an example of an intellectual Christian who exemplified the truth that "love builds up."
My first class in seminary was "Theological Foundations," which was essentially an exposition of the five points of Calvinism. If ever there was a subject which could generate more heat than light, it was this one; and indeed, there was a student in the class who was an ardent Arminian. The class was taught by Dr. Roger Nicole, a charming older French Swiss scholar (and egalitarian!) who addressed every student as "Brozer" and "Seester".
As Dr. Nicole carefully explained the Reformed understanding of divine sovereignty, human freedom, and how they relate to creation, redemption, and all of life, our class's token Arminian would get frustrated and raise a variety of objections and counter-arguments. Now, I knew Dr. Nicole had heard every one of these arguments a thousand times before, and that he could easily have blasted this student out of the water. Yet I watched in amazement as he graciously and lovingly dealt with this young man's objections as if it were the first time he had ever heard them. Dr. Nicole readily admitted the possibility that he could be mistaken in his understanding of the doctrines of grace, he acknowledged that the student's questions were important, and he lovingly constructed arguments which completely demolished those objections.
Dr. Nicole's demeanor was loving and respectful even when the student's comments came across as disrespectful and insulting. Dr. Nicole honestly seemed more interested in winning his brother than in winning an argument. I have no idea whether the Arminian student was ultimately persuaded, but I do know that Dr. Nicole had made it as hard as possible for that student to hate him. Dr. Nicole had shown me the other side of the coin: "knowledge puffs up, but love builds up."
In a comment on my last post, Wayne wrote "I suspect that God cares far more about our heart attitudes in these debates than he does about whether or not we can 'win' arguments." I would agree, and I would add that God isn't the only one who cares about our heart attitudes in these debates. The people on the other side care about our heart attitudes, and if we become abusive and insulting, we simply hand them an emotional justification for rejecting our intellectual arguments. The people on our own side, and those who are still undecided, also care about our heart attitudes, and if they see us heaping abuse on our "opponents", they are more likely to sympathize with our opponents' views.
Dr. Nicole had no idea that the way he was dealing with an argumentative student would earn him the respect of someone who would later disagree with his egalitarianism. When I interact with Dr. Nicole's arguments for egalitarianism I do so with the utmost respect, not because of his considerable intellectual stature, but because of his loving demeanor toward a hostile student some sixteen years ago.
Dr. Nicole's winsomeness stands in stark contrast to much of the bile and vitriol I see expressed in this particular debate. Ideological comps and egals often caricature each other's views, indulge in sarcasm and ridicule of the other side, pretend that the truthfulness of their own view should be self-evident to all, and justify their own intractability by pointing to how they've been treated by the extremists on the other side. Such an approach merely makes the extremists on the other side feel justified in their vilification of us, while failing to persuade those in the middle who might otherwise be willing to listen to us. We would all do well to learn from Dr. Nicole (and Scripture!) that "knowledge puffs up, but love builds up."