We are continuing a conversation about the Five Ways of Theology. Previously, we talked about different adjectives that come before the word theology. You might have heard them before. We talked about biblical theology, historical theology, systematic theology, and dogmatic theology. For our last one, we’re going to look at a word you don’t see every day: elenctic. A synonym of elenctic is another word you don’t see every day: polemical. Archibald Alexander, back in the early 1800s, was a professor of theology at Princeton. His actual title at Princeton Theological Seminary was Professor of Didactic and Polemical Theology. His successor, Charles Hodge, had an even more expanded title. His was Professor of Exegetical, Didactic, and Polemical Theology. And Hodge was followed by Warfield, who went back to Alexander’s title, Professor of Didactic and Polemical Theology. I don’t know of any theology professors these days who have the word polemical in their actual title.
So what are these words polemical and elenctic? Polemics, of course, is the idea of debate. Engagement. Usually it implies a critical analysis of another position. Sometimes the word even connotes hostility. To be in polemics is to be in an intellectual contest, and to be in, as it were, “a fight for ideas.” Elenctic comes from a Greek word, elenchus, which means a logical refutation. A good way to define that word would be to use the term cross-examination. A related expression in Greek has the idea of bringing to shame. The idea is that in an intellectual contest you bring the other person to shame, as it were, for his or her view.
What we’re talking about here is really the term apologetics. Elenctic theology goes back to our friend from the Middle Ages, Thomas Aquinas, and appears as the title of Francis Turretin’s three-volume theological work published around the 1680s. He called it Institutes of Elenctic Theology. What we’re talking about here is persuading peoples of other faiths, or even people of no faith as the case may be in much of our culture today, of the truth of the Christian faith.
This approach to theology refers to a method. The idea is that you make a statement; you put forth an actual proposition where you state that something is true. That can be a little unfashionable in our moment, but nevertheless, you make a statement. Then you line up objections to that statement, and you present the other side, as it were. But then you systematically walk through each of those objections and refute them and dismiss them, and at the end, if you’ve been successful in all of this, your statement stands, and it stands as true. Polemical or elenctic theology has a long and rich history in historical theology. We could say simply it means conviction.
We’ve been talking about the Five Ways of Theology. There are many more, actually. Let me just mention a sixth. R.C. Sproul used to say, “Theology is doxology.” That is to say, theology is worship. So there you have it. Doxological theology is our sixth way.