Ye shall know them by their fruits

Benjamin Marsh
7 min readNov 30, 2023

In the end, the ad hominem is a biblical standard…

A cadre of very online scholars and publishing organizations across a broad spectrum of political and theological persuasions ply you for cash this time of year. The emails roll in: give to help our publishing endeavors! Don’t you like our content?

At the same time, these author/publisher/blogger/tweeters maintain the veneer of authority and importance by staking their claim on having the best *arguments* about this that or the other Christian topic. Their case for their function is that they are people who wrestle in the realm of ideas, perhaps taking as a thematic verse for themselves “taking every thought captive” or “renewing your mind.”

The idea — their central argument — is that ideas themselves require engagement merely on the level of ideas, that there is a marketplace or sparring ground wherein ideas take place. It largely seems to occur with a certain kind of nouveau reclamation project on various kinds of Protestant thought, a sort of re-creation of the original grounds for Protestant seminaries and universities, this idea that ideas are these things that are out there that have to be taken as ideas-in-themselves, battled merely as ideas, and argued as arguments. And furthermore, these people want you to believe that this work has value in itself and should be financially supported.

The product of this approach is, in my humble opinion, a kind of aloofness rooted in reading a whole lot of books. This aloofness allows authors to closely identify with and run in circles with some of the most horrible people (eg the pornographer doing business with the American Reformer or the neo-fascist authors promoting racial segregation in their midst) because they are ‘doing the homework’ and someone has to think those big thoughts and read those big books.

I argue against this approach because I as a pastor am concerned the entire enterprise is an intellectual veneer over a chasm of nothingness whose only practical output will be intellectually supporting political outcomes and terrible people who are at odds with God’s teachings about morality. Some of them, I truly believe, think that they are doing good by reading and writing as the culmination of their life’s efforts. I am concerned for them and for their readers that they will be fooled into thinking that this work of reading and writing absent a meaningful context of action will result in lifetimes spent as intellectual hamsters in wheels, all blogs and books signifying nothing.

Moreover, by adopting the stance that the persons and personalities at the center of different arguments do not matter to the argument themselves, they allow into their midst a cadre of morally bankrupt people who ought never be within earshot of the readers whose souls these authors are trying to protect.

My own arguments against this publishing/conference/convivium/writing/reading — as-Christian-service world and against the attitude of Mr. Taylor above are too many to capture in one article, but here are just a few, presented as briefly as I can:

  1. It is entirely abiblical and instead the product of Enlightenment thought. That is to say, the authors of Scripture never separated ideas and speakers, and God Himself measured the arguments of speakers by the actions of the speaker. “Away from me, I never knew you” is the condemnation of the one who did wrong, did not serve God, did not live the Christian life. The Apostle Paul regularly invited his audiences to consider his life as the basis of his words. He could never bank on a presumed Enlightenment marketplace of ideas. So, too, with the other early Church leaders. Timothy was even circumcised to aid in his witness despite the early church freeing converts from that requirement! Person and words were inextricably linked. Ideas never exist in a vacuum in Scripture. Context, the king of understanding, begins with the author/speaker when reading and preaching the Bible. By centering their public-facing activities on mere ideas — ideas devoid of context or character — this new world of writers and publishers, many of whom want to roll back Enlightenment approaches to Christian life and thought, end up perpetuating Enlightenment behaviors of the worst people in the world being viewed as noble or good because they have interesting ideas and write a lot. The problem is, ‘interesting’ is not an adjective the Bible cares about. A book, for example, like “The Case for Christian Nationalism” is certainly interesting, but it is also a piece of fascist propaganda which promulgates ethnic separation. Continuing to work with him or writing/publishing/engaging with the authors which uphold the trellis of his even being a public Christian figure is perpetuating Enlightenment approaches to thought that are not rooted in the Bible. And he is but one example.
  2. It ignores the reality of agitators and propogandists on their intellectual ‘side’ who have no compunction against using proximity to these thinkers for their political projects. For every “focus on the argument” neutral-ground-type thinker there are a hundred political activists who bank on their presumed intellectual superiority to accomplish their political ends. The audiences of the “focus on the argument” types are duped into doing the politics of people who are more honest about their political ends because the “Focus on the argument” types won’t get their hands dirty by doing partisan politics or being honest about their political persuasions informing their purportedly neutral argumentation.
  3. It creates the false idea that thinking/reading/writing is the intended outcome of the Christian life. “Ye shall know them by their fruits” is not a reference to published works or even a reference to sermons in the pulpit. The measure by which I am judged — and all thinkers are judged — is what they then did with their lives. Faith without works is dead and all that. Spurgeon, prince of preachers, sold his sermons for a penny to fund an orphanage. Bonhoeffer resisted Nazis to the point of death. Luther did not merely write the Reformation into existence: he spent his days organizing the church in opposition to Rome, created new liturgies, wrote hymns for public worship, and on and on. The judge rendering his verdict ‘‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” does not have an intellectualist escape clause.
  4. It encourages the decline of character. Ideas are attached to names. Names sumbolize people. People do things, good or bad. Repeatedly centering names of people based merely on their ideas, ignorant of their lives, allows for the constant rehabilitation in this life of people who have good ideas but are terrible people and in the past of people who did awful things by had good ideas. Both pathways — present and past — allow for the decline of the soul of the thinker today because ‘he did it. he justified it. he got away with it and was still a good person.’ The margins soften when we allow sin. The Germans were right to refuse to translate works of Nazi theologians. We are right to burn books by Ravi Zacharias. Edwards’ works, however brilliant, must be tinged by the stain of his slave ownership. Pastors (Driscoll, Mahaney, Sauls, etc) should be — MUST be — disqualified by their behavior, however many ideas they have and however good they are at saying them from the stage. By centering ideas absent character and by making ‘argument’ the center of discussion, we commit the same fallacy John Piper warned against in the political arena.

Christians communicate a falsehood to unbelievers (who are also baffled!) when we act as if policies and laws that protect life and freedom are more precious than being a certain kind of person. The church is paying dearly, and will continue to pay, for our communicating this falsehood year after year.

Of course, a broader warning remains: those who want merely to center ideas and arguments oftentimes do so at the expense of moral clarity in their own lives, and this is often intentionally done to support their sins! Christian leaders with opaque financials want to center their ideas because they are making a lot of money. They want to “just preach the gospel” because they don’t want you looking at their money. What good is a Christian writing/publishing/conference enterprise that cannot be honest about its financials after Bakker or all the many other televangelists and hucksters that went before? Who can countenance listening to a speaker or organization who facilitates or covers up sexual abuse knowing full well how many times Pastors have revealed themselves to be moral monsters??

Let us instead take the position of Paul, who centered his character

But thou hast fully known my doctrine, manner of life, purpose, faith, longsuffering, charity, patience, persecutions, afflictions, which came unto me at Antioch, at Iconium, at Lystra; what persecutions I endured: but out of them all the Lord delivered me.

And of the Proverbs, which revealed the link of Wisdom and character.

I wisdom dwell with prudence, and find out knowledge of witty inventions. The fear of the LORD is to hate evil: pride, and arrogancy, and the evil way, and the froward mouth, do I hate.

Consider character, works, ministry, output when weighing the words of scholars and bloggers, and do judge the lives of those making arguments. The ad hominem fallacy is actually biblical, after all.