While recognizing the valid place theological disputation must have in the pursuit of truth, and in the quest for unity between the divided churches, Spener (1635–1705) wished to stress the primacy of love. Though Christ himself, the apostles and their successors vigorously defended truth and refuted error through disputation, nevertheless, Spener insists, ‘Purity of doctrine and of the Word of God is maintained not only by disputation and writing many books, but also by true repentance and holiness of life.’

Holiness meant doing everything in a spirit of love, whereas many, in his day, seemed rather to be intent on self-justification at the expense of those with whom they disagreed in theology and in church allegiance. Writing in his Pia Desideria, Spener recognizes that it will sometimes be needful to point out the errors of those who think differently from ourselves, with the aim of bringing them back to authentic Christian belief. But this must always be done with courtesy and humility.

‘God has given us the gifts which are needful…to win the erring, we should be glad to do what we can to point out, with a modest but firm presentation of the truth we possess, how this is based on the simplicity of Christ’s teaching. At the same time we should indicate decently but forcefully how their errors conflict with the Word of God... All of this should be done in such a way that those with whom we deal can see for themselves that everything is done out of heartfelt love for them.’

What matters here for Spener is that universally acceptable Christian principles should be adhered to and not the over-stressed and hence imbalanced principles of any one school of thought. This leads him to move on naturally to speak of relationships with heretics and unbelievers. Though it is vital to try to draw them on to true faith and belief, yet this must never be at the expense of respect for their human dignity, a message still needing to be heard. Spener advocates ‘a practice of heartfelt love’ towards them, and that ‘we consider these people to be our neighbours’ [Luke 10.29–37] and ‘regard them as our brothers according to the right of common creation and the divine love that is extended to all.’

Insulting and wronging an unbeliever is not only unacceptable, but also a definite hindrance to any possibility of his conversion. He goes on to say, with timely relevance, ‘A proper hatred of false religion should neither suspend nor weaken the love that is due the other person.’ Once again, a little later in the text, Spener is compelled to speak of the primacy of love: ‘Disputing is not enough either to maintain the truth among ourselves or to impart it to the erring. The holy love of God is necessary... Holiness of life contributes much to conversion’ [1 Pet. 3.1–2].

The problem with disputation is that it detracts from true Christianity and leads inevitably to a narrow confessionalism. Gradually it becomes more important to bring men and women into the increasingly restricted orbit of our own particular denominational stance than to lead them to salvation in Christ Jesus. Even well-ordered debate does not always have God’s imprimatur.

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