Insults, Invectives and Christian Speech

I did my Reformation Era paper on Invectives against women preachers/teachers/writers in the Reformation, and one of the questions I asked was, “should we be shocked and appalled by it?” Part of what I wrestled with was whether these invectives were unique, or whether they were a part of the rhetoric of the day. The invectives hurled at the women preachers were just as nasty as the invectives hurled between men. Indeed, all one has to do is look at the insults that Luther threw out left and right to anyone who dared disagree with him. (For fun, check out the Lutheran Insulter, it’s a hoot!)

And now as I am neck-deep in Patristics, I find the same pattern of invectives. Athanasius, the great defender of the faith against Arianism, was not polite in his disagreeing with Arius and his followers.

In his Orations against the Arians (Book 1), he takes several swipes at Arius:

Arius is the “forerunner of the Antichrist.”
Arius is “weak and effeminate”.
Arius has an “unmanly character of his soul.”
His writing has an “effeminate manner and melody.”
Those who follow Arius are “Arian-maniacs!”
Arius’ writing and theological treatises are “jokes”, “fables” and “a laughable document”.

Does Athanasius need to say these things to disagree with Arianism? Does it actually improve his argument to throw out names and insults? Once he settles down and actually engages the ideas of Arianism and weighs them against Scripture, he has a pretty good argument.

Are the insults necessary?

That is the question that I keep coming back to as I read the invectives, insults and rhetoric in the writings of the “heroes of the faith.”

Are the insults necessary?

That is the question that I keep coming back to when I read blogs and debates going on between evangelicals today.

Is there a way to disagree strongly and smartly without having to resort to insults? And if there is, why don’t we do that? Why is it that in 2,000 years of Church history, disagreement and even condemnation of heresy is done not solely through sound exegesis, wrestling with theology or in the spirit of truth and love, but is instead peppered with insults, and name-calling?

Now of course, we could argue that it’s just simply human nature. But as Christians aren’t we called to be different? Our words belie what is in our hearts, and if the Holy Spirit resides in our hearts, how can insults flow so freely from our tongues?

I’m not saying that we can’t disagree or that we can’t specifically defend Truth or that we can’t name heresy and sin for what they are. But, are the insults necessary?

  • eortlund

    No they are not.

    I remember someone saying that, out of all the rhetorical skills in the 16th century, restraint was the least prized. Which is unfortunately, because Proverbs treasures it.

  • http://www.briercrest.ca/faculty/profile.aspx?id=49 Charles

    Of course the insults are necessary. How else am I supposed to bolster my fragile self-esteem if I’m not allowed to describe those who disagree with me as stupid, crazy, and evil?

  • Dustin

    I wish there was a “like” button on this blog. I’d be “liking” Charles’ comment above…!

  • Pingback: 10 Reasons Christians Shouldn’t Read the Patristic Fathers « Cheese-Wearing Theology

  • Felix Alexander

    What kind of utter wanker doesn’t realise that it’s absolutely necessary to insult people to make your point? If you don’t, people might not realise who’s in the right! Not only that, but if everyone begins their arguments with a few insults aimed at the other side, you’ll see who the smarter and more creative ones are because they’ll have the best and most fitting insults in their pieces.

    It should also be self-evident to even the dimmest minds that insulting your opponents in a debate can let your anger out in a controlled way, instead of resulting in more violent responses.

    You see, in many cases, in societies when even honor and respect are limited resources, it’s utterly necessary to dishonor people who make pretenses to honor they don’t have. Because usually such people are too dim-witted and arrogant to understand the more subtle criticisms you would achieve by completely discrediting their idiotic positions (I speak of certain Christian heresies, not all wrong positions in general!) they would go right over their head. In a sense, it’s a technique to shame them into shutting up. Or at least, shame people who might be in two minds over the wrong ideas. This is much better than Athanasius’s idea of actually killing the fools. Gimme an insult over a sword any day of the week!

    Frankly, I think anyone who isn’t able to read over and ignore insults is probably too weak-minded to sustain a more complex argument anyway. Insults are just words. Half the time they’re wrong; the other half, they apply to almost anyone. If you’re hurt by them, you probably deserve to be.

    (The particular tone I’ve taken is intended ironically. I point this out because some people simply don’t have the brain capacity to understand this subtle form of humor.)

    • http://cdntheologianscholar.wordpress.com Amanda

      +10 for using the term “wanker”. Love it!