Part of the art of rhetoric is knowing what one can defensibly and logically say and knowing what one ought to say. Rev. Joshua Scheer, Associate Editor for the Brothers of John the Steadfast, asked me to come up with a brief set of guidelines when it comes to the art [!] of namecalling, and so here are some ideas to keep in mind when contemplating what sort of rhetoric you might want to use when engaging theological opponents. “Namecalling” here will simply refer to the rhetorical device of using a name to describe one’s intellectual opponent, without regard to whether it constitutes proper rhetoric or bombast, bluster, obfuscation, sophistry, or something else. I must say at the outset that these thoughts are not divinely inspired and not exhaustive. Other people may have their own ideas.
There are a couple of presuppositions to which I hold, and if one doesn’t share them then the rest of this will probably make no sense. The first is that God’s Law is good and instructs Christians in the way we are to live. The second is that speaking God’s Law to another person, particularly in this case to another Christian, is an act of love. The third is that the Christian, according to Psalm 1 and Romans 7, delights in the Law of God.
It would be very easy to take one extreme or another on this question. The first natural position, taken by your high school guidance counselor, is that namecalling is never okay. The Christian analog to this position might say that namecalling is ipso facto a sin. The problem with this is Jesus. He actually does this. A lot. For a rather strong example, read Jesus’ words against the scribes and Pharisees in Matthew 23:1-36. It seems wise for one to take a position that avoids calling Jesus a sinner. An objection to this is that the Christian is not Jesus, which is true, but St. John (1 John 2:6) reminds us that the Christian, who abides in Christ, “ought to walk in the same way in which He [i.e., Jesus] walked.”
Yet one doesn’t read about Jesus running around and calling everyone He meets by some name, even though, as the incarnate omniscient God, He certainly could find a reason to call everyone by a name. The opposite position, taken by petulant teenagers, is that any instance of namecalling is acceptable. The Christian analog to this position might say that since Jesus, on occasion, employed namecalling, then it follows that it’s always acceptable for the Christian to do it. It doesn’t take much effort to figure out what’s wrong with this position: there’s no consideration for moderation, prudence, and charity. Jesus obviously did take these things into consideration, since (as has been mentioned) Jesus does not always employ this sort of rhetoric. As readers of Scripture and literature understand, the use of names can be highly effective at bringing to bear a large body of understanding in a short word or phrase. For example, if one is discussing a matter with another and one wishes to describe the other as being overly optimistic that all things will work together and without any real idea of who will make them come together, why, or how, and that all people are basically good and wish good for others, one might simply tell the other he is being something of a Pollyanna. Likewise, St. John the Baptist’s use of the phrase “brood of vipers” (Matthew 3:7-10) calls to mind not only the serpent from Genesis 3 but also a particularly deadly sort of snake — all in a very short (and rhetorically effective) phrase.
To walk the narrow way between these extremes is difficult, because it acknowledges that neither the never nor the always position is satisfactory. This means exercising the aforementioned virtues of moderation, prudence, and charity, rather than either forbidding all or allowing all. So how does the Christian determine whether namecalling could be useful at a particular time? Here are some ideas:
1. It must be accurate. This should go without saying, but to call someone a Pietist who insists upon a decreased role of the laity in the governance of the church would be woefully inaccurate.
2. It must not merely serve to build up the one using the term at the expense of another, or to score cheap points.
3. It should address the argument that the person is actually making, rather than either arguing against a caricature of the argument (straw man) or arguing against the man himself (argumentum ad hominem).
4. It must be used to set the tone that the matter being discussed is one of high importance to the Christian in relation to his salvation (one might not use the strongest terms to denigrate those advocating the primacy of Mark over Matthew, but one might bring it out for those who deny infant baptism, for example).
5. It should be used in order to demonstrate how pernicious a false teaching is, with the goal of showing the errorist his error that he might repent. In addition, the name should serve as a warning to others that they would avoid his false teaching, which leads to:
6. Names should be used for the false teacher but not for those caught in his lies. This is a critical distinction. Luther advised in his treatise “On Christian Liberty,” “Fight vigorously against the wolves, but on behalf of the sheep, not against the sheep.” Those who are misled, ill-taught, ignorant, simple, young, and otherwise the victim of a false teacher ought to be treated gently. But because real souls are damaged by false teaching, the false teacher should be dealt with firmly and swiftly, lest more fall prey to him.
I’m sure there is more that can be said but these rough guidelines ought to serve as a good starting point for Christians to understand when the use of namecalling might be appropriate and when it might be over the line.