McGarvey on Controversy

By Larry Ray Hafley

The church, the truth and the gospel thrive on controversy. Controversy abounds when the truth is preached. The church grows when controversy surrounds it. The gospel, the sword of the Spirit, is sharpened when, through controversy, it confounds sin and darkness. There has always existed an innate conflict of truth and error, of the gospel and sin, of the church and the world. It is inherent in the very nature of things. They are natural adversaries.

Occasionally, controversy itself finds controversy-there is controversy over controversy. With that in mind, we submit a number of remarks on the subject of controversy from J.W. McGarvey. The citations and quotations which follow were taken from his book, Biblical Criticism. Please read them and reflect on them.

“Where the hottest fire of the enemy is, thither the return fire must be directed. Some of the friends of this last champion have cried out that he is being ‘hounded’ for his recent utterances; but this should not surprise them, for it is the business of the hounds to open after every fox that makes a fresh trail before them. What are hounds fit for if they do not chase away the foxes?” (p. 186)

“This is an open charge of hypocrisy made against censors of Dr. Abbott, or at least against a majority of them, and these the more intelligent. A man of his opportunities ought to know that no cause ever wins by such charges. If he cannot defend his companion in misery by argument, it would be more commendable in him to give up the contest than to turn to maligning the other side. The fact that a man is sincere or devout should never be used, though it often is, as evidence that his positions are sound or his arguments valid; it is still worse to parry the arguments of an opponent by charging him with insincerity” (p. 201).

“The President ought to remember that, on such questions as those made prominent by the ‘higher critics,’ a man’s personality and his teaching are so identified that it is next to an impossibility to keep them separate in thought. When the religious papers feel called upon to combat, with all their might, opinions which they regard as subversive of the Christian faith, it is not very easy to so aim their blows at the false teaching as not to strike the false teacher. Indeed, if a man comes forward with teaching which he knows beforehand to be very offensive to his neighbors, it does not appear very manly to complain when the latter are offended at him as well as at his teaching. A brave man is willing to bear all the personal consequences of any opinions which he may be constrained to propagate. If he dares not do this, he had better hold his peace” (p. 233).

“When the writings of certain critics lead to the discrediting of large portions of the Bible, and bring those who accept them to conclusions in conflict with plain statements of Christ and the apostles, the editors of religious papers that are truly religious will not cease their philippics because of a new and innocent name applied to the poison. Arsenic is arsenic, even if you call it sugar” (p. 235).

“Free Thought and Liberty of Speech”

“When a preacher or an editor becomes crooked in his teaching, and others criticize him until public opinion frowns upon him, he nearly always cries out that he is persecuted; that the ecclesiastic thumb-screws are being applied to him; and all the instruments of torture once used in the Spanish Inquisition became familiar to him. He cried out for freedom of thought and liberty of speech; and if the church he has scandalized undertakes to put him away for denying the truth, he is at once proclaimed a martyr by a whole host of fellows as crooked as he.

“Unfortunately for these victims of persecution, their views on the subject of free speech are very one-sided. They want all possible freedom themselves, but they are not willing to grant it to those on the other side. They desire to teach their heretical or infidel theories with perfect freedom, but they are not willing to be held up as heretics or infidels by those who believe them to be such. Why not have freedom of thought and liberty of speech on both sides? Why should it be regarded as a rightful exercise of freedom for a man to hold me up to ridicule, for believing the Bible, but an abuse of it for me to condemn and ridicule his unbelief? By all means let us have free speech; but when, by the full exercise of it, some fellow is floored, let him take it as his part, and not begin the cowardly cry of persecution. Jesus taught his disciples to be content when they were called Beelzebub; why should his enemies think themselves too good or too tender for the same treatment?” (pp. 246,247)

” . . .it is better to reply to men’s arguments than to cast suspicion on their motives” (p. 264).

“Hospitality to New Truth”

“There are certain men who think themselves called upon to emphasize the importance of giving a hospitable welcome to all new truth. I am greatly in favor of this myself, and I would join with these brethren in their cry if I thought there was any occasion for it among those who read what I write. There is nothing I delight in so much as new truth. Not that there is any truth new in the absolute sense of the word, but that there are truths new to me when I discover them-new because of my previous ignorance of them. I have been searching for new truths all my life; and when I find one of special importance, I am like the wise men when the star appeared the second time, I rejoice with exceeding great joy. Hospitable to new truth? My door stands wide open, winter and summer, to let it in. I am not acquainted with any man of sense who differs from me in this particular; . . . .

“But before I bow anything new in to my sanctum, I must know that it is a truth. My welcome for new truth is not more hearty than my detestation for error, whether new or old. Especially do I abhor old error when it steals the cap of truth and comes smiling up to my front door. I must know my guest before I give him a hearty welcome; and he must excuse me for letting him stand at the door till I read his credentials.

“. . I would have every man who finds truth which he clearly perceives to be truth to welcome it. I admire the caution of those who do not yet know whether that which they hear is truth or error, in holding a non-committal position; but I would despise the man who, having thoroughly studied the subject, hesitates to assail what he knows to be false and injurious. This is the stand that I have taken, and I fight not like one beating the air” (p. 352, 353).


“Some people have very confused ideas about hunting for heresy, and about Christian liberty. If a man advances and seeks to propagate teaching which I regard as very injurious, if not ruinous, and I assail it with vigor, such vigor as he feels unable to resist on the merits of the question, it is common for him and his friends to cry out, ‘Heresy-hunter! Heresy-hunter!’

“. . Out West there are bear-hunters. They go creeping around among the hills and rocks trying to slip up on a bear and take the advantage of him. In this they are like real heresy-hunters. But if a man is walking along the public road, and meets a bear reared on his hind legs, and reaching for him with his fore paws, there is bound to be a fight or a foot-race; and if the man should fight the bear, nobody could on this account call him a bear-hunter. The bear might say, ‘I am free, and have as much right on this road as you have,’ and the man could answer, ‘I am free, too, and have as much right on this road as you have.’ And if the man should also say, ‘You are after hugging me, and you hug everybody you can get hold of, so I will put a bullet through you,’ the average citizen would say that the man was in the right. So, if heresy does not want to be shot at, it should play sly and not walk out into the public road” (pp. 383, 384-emphasis mine-LRH).

Closing Comments

Please soberly reflect on the wisdom of brother McGarvey’s words.

Controversy about controversy may effect some good and some bad results. (1) A mean man who is in the right may be led to “clean up his act,” to argue truth fairly and honestly. That is good. (2) A good man may be further stimulated to reflect again on his attitude in argument. That is good. (3) A good man may feel that his fight for truth, though done with a grace, poise and charity, is doing more harm than good, so he sheathes his sword. That is bad. (4) Error may go unchallenged because truth fears being considered intemperate, unloving, unkind, devoid of the meekness and gentleness of Christ. That is bad.

Solution? With all love, gentleness, sweetness and kindness, firmly, militantly and aggressively hack and wail “the living day-lights” out of every high thing that exalts itself against the truth of God Almighty.

Guardian of Truth XXIX: 20, pp. 611-612
October 17, 1985