On polemic and polemical theology

The other day, a friend asked for recommendations on The Trinity and I mentioned in my preferences that I would not recommend Matthew Barrett’s book “Simply Trinity.”  If you want to know why, you can read my review and additional comment article here.  This prompted some discussion about whether or not Barret’s book was intended to be polemical or not -and whether it should have been.

For the record, I think that Barret’s book is polemical and that this is okay, for reasons I’ll go into shortly, however, I think he does the polemic badly.  Other readers have reacted differently seeing the book as not intended to be polemic, not primarily about debate with others and more focused on a positive restating of the classical Trinitarian position.

Why do I think that Simply Trinity is polemic?  Well, it’s because it seemed obvious both by how the book was introduced, both by marketing and really through the book itself that Barrett does have a particular disagreement in view.  Barrett believes that there has been some drift from classical trinitarianism and so there are a few areas where he detects such a drift but it is clear that he has primarily in view the Eternal Functional Subordination position. Indeed, whilst he talks about other examples of what he would consider error, including forms of social Trinitarianism, it seems to me that he sees the EFS guys, especially Ware and Grudem of being at risk of falling into that trap too, as well as the subordinationism they are usually accused of.

Indeed, what I would say is that if Barrett wanted to primarily write a book focused on a positive retelling of the Classical position then he has been distracted by the other arguments.  The result is that he loses space in his book which would have been better employed with a clearer and warmer retelling of the positive doctrine.  It has struck me that it is possible that his original intend and desire was simply to write a positive doctrine of the Trinity but that he came under pressure from publishers and others to engage the controversy. If his primary aim was not to engage the controversies he did then perhaps he would have done well to keep that discussion to a couple of appendixes as Bob Letham does in his book on the subject.

However, if the aim was to be polemic, then I see no problem with that providing it is done well and that requires a fair presentation of the opposing position, something I believe is missing from Barrett.  I believe that polemic is fine because in some sense most theological works are polemic.  WE write on theology recognising that there are people opposing what we consider to be the correct position and so there is an element of writing to defend the position and to challenge rival views. This is true whether we are writing about the Doctrine of God, Justification, Atonement or Creation. 

So, what we might say is that there is a difference between something being polemic and it being polemical.  What I mean is that we cannot avoid the fact that our positive retelling of a specific view will challenge the views of others.  However, we can choose whether or not to focus on attacking opponents.  Barret’s book spends a lot of time on the latter. That’s fair enough but if you are going to do that, it needs to be done well.  I don’t think he achieves that.

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