Polemics. Etymology and Meaning
In both the Greek Septuagint and the Greek New Testament we encounter the verb πολεμέω (polemeo, Strongs Greek 4170), meaning: to war, carry on war and to fight. The noun πόλεμος (polemos Strongs Greek 4171) also occurs meaning: battle, fight and war.
“The English word polemic comes from Ancient Greek πόλεμος, and later French polémique (Polemic, controversy Polemic.)”. πόλεμος (polemos) -> πολεμικός (polemikos) -> polémique -> polemic. Its meaning expresses “Having the characteristics of a polemic. A strong verbal or written attack on someone or something. A person who writes in support of one opinion, doctrine, or system, in opposition to another; one skilled in polemics; a controversialist; a disputant. An argument or controversy.”1https://etymologeek.com/eng/polemic
This raises the question:
…..what place is occupied by polemics in the general field of theology. Schleiermacher divided theology into “philosophical,” “historical,” and “practical,” and subdivided “philosophical theology” into ” polemics ” and ” apologetics,” apologetics being directed outwardly, and polemics inwardly. This division, however, is unsatisfactory. 2New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge, Vol. IX: Petri – Reuchlin by Schaff, Philip available at https://ccel.org/ccel/schaff/encyc09/encyc09.html?term=PolemicsNew Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge, Vol. IX: Petri – Reuchlin by Schaff, Philip
In other words, Schleiermacher’s idea of polemics restricts it’s activity to “contentiously debate” the correct understanding of doctrine, within the membership of the Church or various denominations. Although this is a vital activity within the Church (as, many who claim to be Bible-believing Christians cannot even articulate the basic message of the Gospel) some will find this description lacking.
A succinct definition is as follows:
“…the art or practice of engaging in controversial debate or dispute.”3 Catherine Soanes and Angus Stevenson, eds., Concise Oxford English Dictionary (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004).Catherine Soanes and Angus Stevenson, eds., Concise Oxford English Dictionary (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004).
In broader terms, in Christianity, the word is used to describe the activity of the conducting of verbal or written controversies in defence of doctrines held to be essential to Christian truth. Contrary to Schleiermacher, polemics negate or disaffirm the false teachings of those inside or outside Christianity. Its goal is to deconstruct an opposing worldview and to argue against the truth claims of another, with the intent that they are reduced to absurdity.
In todays’ cultural millieu polemical debate runs the risk of being summarily dismissed or relegated into a league of uncivil discourse, both by the secular world and by accommodating, non-controversial, non-offensive Christianity, insipid and devoid of any salt in the biblical sense.
Let your speech be always with grace, seasoned with salt, that ye may know how ye ought to answer each one.(Colossians 4:6 [ASV])
It’s worth noting that the “loci classici” regarding polemics (2 Cor 10:3 and 1 Tim 1:18 etc.) use forms of the verb στρατεύω, strateuó (STRONGS NT 4754) to make war, hence to serve as a soldier and not the verb πολεμέω, polemeo (STRONGS NT 4170)
The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit, be with you all.(II Corinthians 13:14 [ASV])
- 2New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge, Vol. IX: Petri – Reuchlin by Schaff, Philip available at https://ccel.org/ccel/schaff/encyc09/encyc09.html?term=Polemics
- 3Catherine Soanes and Angus Stevenson, eds., Concise Oxford English Dictionary (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004).