Toward a theological ethic for internet discourse
Religion & Liberty Online

Toward a theological ethic for internet discourse

The relationship of the Christian church and the broader culture has been a perennial question whose genesis antedates the life of the early Church.

In his Apology, the church father Tertullian defended Christians as citizens of the Roman empire in the truest and best sense. If all the Christians of the empire were to leave, he wrote, “you would be horror-struck at the solitude in which you would find yourselves, at such an all-prevailing silence, and that stupor as of a dead world. You would have to seek subjects to govern. You would have more enemies than citizens remaining. For now it is the immense number of Christians which makes your enemies so few,—almost all the inhabitants of your various cities being followers of Christ.”

In the post-industrial Information age, Christians remain at the forefront of social and cultural formation. In the context of the developments at the dawn of the third millennium, the engagement of church and culture has taken on a new form, focused most especially on new forms of technology and communication. The internet in particular, and related “new” media, have raised important issues for the ways in which Christians communicate with each other and with non-Christians.

The basic question has been raised in different ways arising from various concerns. The 2008 Evangelical Outpost/Wheatstone Symposium puts the question thusly: “If the medium affects the message, how will the Christian message be affected by the new media?”
Others have raised the issue in a more pointed way, shaped by the perception that discourse on the internet, particularly Christian and theological discourse, is characterized by a spirit of divisiveness and sectarianism. John H. Armstrong, a prominent minister and evangelist, wonders somewhat doubtfully, “Can Christ be truly glorified in blogging?” The folks at Scriptorium Daily recently recorded a podcast exploring with prescience the “coarseness of digital dialogue,” especially among Christian websites. And this coming Sunday, April 24, is Internet Evangelism Day, which focuses especially on the way in which Christians engage non-Christians through new media.

If the “new” atheism of Richard Dawkins et al. is characterized by the irascibility of its rhetoric, is there also a spirit of a “new” theism, where there is a destructive lack of mutual respect between opponents who genuinely disagree? I have heard a good deal of criticism of the people at the XXXChurch ministry for their “friendship” with infamous porn star Ron Jeremy. XXXChurch founder Craig Gross regularly holds public debates with Jeremy, where they argue about the validity and morality of pornography.

I think it’s fair to be critical and even skeptical about the wisdom of some of the methods that are used. But one thing I can say for sure is that the XXXChurch ministry is taking on questions of technology and sexual morality that are at the forefront of critical cultural engagement in a way that is authentic and ultimately far more responsible than a merely disengaged Pharasaical hypocrisy.

The importance of these sorts of issues are really at the early stages of recognition in the Christian community. This Thursday, for instance, there’s a town hall meeting at my school, Calvin Theological Seminary, by Dr. Robert Baird, a clinical psychologist/trained pastor, who will be giving a presentation entitled: “Behind Closed Doors: Christians, Pornography, and the Temptations of Cyberspace.”

To answer Armstrong’s question, whether Christ can be glorified in blogging and the new media, I feel compelled to answer unhesitatingly, “Yes!” But God can only be glorified in the new media if we approach our engagement in a way that responds appropriately to divine instruction. Augustine advises us in his masterpiece on Christian rhetoric, “The discipline of rational discourse indeed is of the greatest value in penetrating and solving all kinds of problems which crop up in the holy literature. All that one has to be on guard against here is a passion for wrangling and a kind of childish parade of getting the better of one’s opponents” (De Doctrina Christiana, II.31.48).

There are two basic commandments that are relevant to a theological ethic for internet discourse. The first has to do with the “theology” part of it, and it’s the first table commandment: “You shall not misuse the name of the LORD your God, for the LORD will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name.” At its most basic and core meaning, theology is language about God, and so when we speak about God, in an academic, popular, or pious way on the internet, we are “doing” theology. The Heidelberg Catechism understands this commandment to include the mandate to “praise him in everything we do and say.”

This leads us to consider the second relevant commandment, having to do with the “discourse” component. The second table commandment that concerns interpersonal communication is the one in which we are instructed, “You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.” This commandment enjoins us not only to desist from lying, gossip, slander and the like, but to actively “guard and advance my neighbor’s good name.”

The sorts of concerns raised by Armstrong, Reynolds, and others testify anecdotally, I think, to the fact that internet discourse in general, and theological and religious discourse in particular, are not typically practiced in accord with the love toward God or neighbor enjoined by these commandments (here’s a rather humorous video guide to the use and abuse of logical fallacies in internet disputation).

So what can we say positively about how discourse in the digital age ought to proceed, particularly in media like blogs and postings on social networks? Our dialogue needs to consist in at least three inter-related elements: charity, civility, and humility. We need to proceed in our conversations with fellow Christians and non-believers in a way that is oriented toward loving them as image-bearers of God. “Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers” (Gal. 6:10).

When we are disagreeing or arguing with someone, we ought not resort to insults or demeaning characterizations simply to “win” the dispute. This doesn’t mean that disagreement should cease in favor of a sentimental “kumbaya,” post-modern “Can’t we all just get along?” mentality. What it does mean is that our language should be oriented toward loving reconciliation.

Again, we can disagree, often sharply, without using rhetorical techniques designed to impugn the dignity of the other person. In fact, a full-blown concept of love requires that we correct others when we see that they are in error, but that we do so carefully and lovingly. Both of the commandments discussed above also include the positive duty to, in the case of blasphemy, not “share in such horrible sins by being silent bystanders,” or with regard to interpersonal communication, “love the truth, speak it candidly, and openly acknowledge it.”

As Augustine has put it, “The interpreter and teacher of the divine scriptures, therefore, the defender of right faith and the hammer of error, has the duty of both teaching what is good and unteaching what is bad; and in this task of speaking it is his duty to win over the hostile, to stir up the slack, to point out to the ignorant what is at stake and what they ought to be looking for” (De Doctrina Christiana, IV.4.6). Or as Bonhoeffer writes in Life Together, “Christians need other Christians who speak God’s Word to them. They need them again and again when they become uncertain and disheartened because, living by their own resources, they cannot help themselves without cheating themselves out of the truth.”

It is an act of love to mutually encourage each other rebuke one another. Bonhoeffer writes that you show no kindness to a brother or sister whom you leave ignorant in sin: “Nothing can be more cruel than that leniency which abandons others to their sin. Nothing can be more compassionate than that severe reprimand which calls another Christian in one’s community back from the path of sin. When we allow nothing but God’s Word to stand between us, judging and helping, it is a service of mercy, an ultimate offer of genuine community.”

This conception of charity relates to the second point regarding civility. Os Guinness has succinctly defined what civil discourse should look like: “It is not to be confused with niceness and mere etiquette or dismissed and squeamishness about differences. It is a tough, robust, substantive concept that is a republican virtue, critical to both democracy and civil society, and a manner of conduct that will be decisive for the future of the American republic.”

Again, it is a mistake to confuse the civility of discourse, the dignity with which you treat the other person, with the watering down or silencing of true doctrinal disagreement. This facile confusion characterizes, I believe, the account Richard Mouw gives, which derides “doctrinal clarity” in favor of “divine generosity.” We can have both doctrinal clarity and humble and generous discourse.

In fact, the realization of this balance seems to be Mouw’s stated purpose, as he writes,

I have spent a lot of time trying to promote convicted civility. I have to confess, however, that I sometimes get a little nervous about that project. It is so easy—as Marty made clear—to err on one side or the other; holding both up simultaneously takes constant effort. And I would hate to have assisted the cause of a freewheeling sense of divine generosity that does not maintain vigilance in protecting and defending the truth of the gospel.

Judging whether Mouw fails to keep that balance properly in this particular essay is less important than realizing the truth with which he is responsibly engaging: we must promote the truth in love and civility.

Mouw is also right to point to humility as a way to encourage manifestation of these qualities. Mouw argues that our private pride often breaks out publicly: “We evangelicals have often failed to show a proper spirit in our public relations because we have not displayed a proper spirit toward our private selves.”

Polemic and vitriol are one of the legacies of the Reformation with which evangelicals have to come to grips. Philip Melanchthon, a key figure in the early Reformation and himself no wilting daisy in the trials of theological dispute, went to his deathbed decrying the “rabies theologorum,” the rage of theologians. Sectarianism is perhaps the peculiar and characteristic Protestant temptation, such that critics of the Reformation often equate the two.

But if we are to take up the fundamentally important doctrinal disputes of the Reformation era and beyond, then we must do so in a spirit of humility, recognizing our human frailties and shortcomings. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer has written, “We must once again get to know the Scriptures as the reformers and our forebears knew them. We must not shy away from the work and the time required for this task.”

Before we can indulge the luxury of polemic, Christians today must at least approach the erudition and piety of giants like Luther, Erasmus, Melanchthon, Cajetan, Calvin, Musculus, Vermigli, Brenz, Bellarmine, Junius, Arminius, and Voetius if we hope to live up to our calling to be witnesses to the truth in a digital age.

Jordan J. Ballor

Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is director of research at the Center for Religion, Culture & Democracy, an initiative of the First Liberty Institute. He has previously held research positions at the Acton Institute and Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, and has authored multiple books, including a forthcoming introduction to the public theology of Abraham Kuyper. Working with Lexham Press, he served as a general editor for the 12 volume Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology series, and his research can be found in publications including Journal of Markets & Morality, Journal of Religion, Scottish Journal of Theology, Reformation & Renaissance Review, Journal of the History of Economic Thought, Faith & Economics, and Calvin Theological Journal. He is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary and the Henry Institute for the Study of Christianity & Politics at Calvin University.