Peter Matheson (Rhetoric of Reformation) recognizes that polemic is “both necessary and useful” (8). It enables underdogs to gain a foothold, and “enables us to see things as they are. Its caricatures are nearer to the truth than the smooth rhetoric and facile images beloved of politician, businessman and media mogul. It encourages us to laugh at those whom we otherwise tend to fear. It has an apotropaic function. . . . By laying bare the ‘realities,’ however unpalatable, of a situation, it provides diagnostic tools by which problems can be honestly faced and remedies attempted. By asking the right questions, and asking them in a way that cannot be swept aside, the first steps have been taken to undermining false certainties and clearing the way for alternative solutions” (8-9).
It has shock value, forcing “its targets into revising their perceptions.” Those watching from the sidelines are given new vantages: “The clash of view and counter-view also empowers onlookers by offering them a range of options. Polemic of this kind, for all its divisive features, presupposes an ultimate community of minds and values. . . . polemic has a liberating role. It is illuminating to note who dislikes polemic, for it empowers those who have nothing to pit against oppression but their minds and their mouths. It is the extreme, all-or-nothing language of the dreamer” (9-10). For all its aggressiveness, polemic doesn’t foreclose discussion but invites response.
Reformation polemic wasn’t simply verbal. It was also evident “in its songs, its music, its wood-cuts, its art, its sermons” (19). One effect was that “theology and piety became, for a while, kurzweilig, entertaining.” But the play was series: “One of the achievements of the pamphlet may have been to recover the playfulness of religious discourse. Its closeness to the dance, song, poetry and ritual or oral culture enabled it to touch people in new depth” (21).
To be successful, polemic cannot remain impersonal. It “had to be directed not only at corrupt institutions and threadbare belief systems but at those who personified them, or even profited from them. Polemic soon became personal; groups and individuals were held up to ridicule and abuse.” Those who were attacked – clergy, monks, theologians – responded in kind (3).
For all its virtues, polemic can become a “blunt weapon.” Matheson argues that it did in Luther’s showdown with his erstwhile disciple Thomas Munzer: “Legitimate discussable differences in opinion developed, in this case, as in so many others, into a confessional fracas between hostile forces. It became difficult to distinguish between adiaphora, marginal issues, and central ones, because stances were so closely identified with particular people, with their incarnation in particular prophets, who were seen to be endowed with a particular ‘spirit’” (187). As reform was caught up into political conflicts, state-building, and confessionalization, rhetoric soured.
In Luther’s final pamphlet against the Papacy, Matheson says that Luther personalizes the issues (“my gospel” v. the devilish papacy), “moralises in an abusive, tedious and unedifying way,” and polarizes, leaving no room for reconciliation (211-2): “The over-blown imagery and the sprawling self-indulgence of the arguments against the Papacy . . . provoke the very derision which Luther hoped to direct at the Roman Antichrist. Such ungoverned rage becomes ridiculous, an unintended theatre of the absurd. . . . It is on longer used ‘playfully’ to nudge or prod the reader into challenging conventional ideas or entertaining news ones. Nor is it any longer a hand-maid to the larger theological enterprise” (212-3). Polemic turned into propaganda, “almost entirely counter-productive.”