How to Read Authors and Theologians with Whom You Disagree

In light of recent conversations spurred on by the Founder’s cinedoc, By What Standard?, I thought it might be of some service to offer a brief post expressing my thoughts on reading authors and theologians with whom you disagree.

Frankly, I could be more specific in the title, I suppose. “How to Read James Cone,” or “How to Read Karl Barth,” or “How to Read Martin Luther King, Jr.” or even “How to Read Wayne Grudem” might offer a few more clicks, but my goal isn’t to get lost in the specifics. Instead, what I hope to impart are some thoughts on reading any author or theologian that the reader enters into the endeavor knowing that there will be major points of disagreement.

And I suppose that is where we should begin: Should you read authors and theologians with whom you disagree?

As the title of the post suggests, I certainly think so. Honestly, I think anyone who agrees with everything any given author writes (outside the boundaries of Holy Scripture) is doing so unthinkingly. So, in order to gain insight from those believers and scholars who have walked before us, we must learn how to read those with whom we disagree.

Read Broadly

We are all drawn to those with whom we agree. Each of us find comfort in the echo chamber. It’s safe. It’s cosy. So, we all share the tendency to read the same authors and theologians from the “approved list” of our own particular theological tribe.

But dialogue does not exist in the echo chamber.

Nor does growth.

In my studies, I was encouraged to read the best arguments available in order that I understood the argument in its clearest and strongest form. And as Dr. James Leo Garrett would regularly remind his students, “until you’re able to present the view of your opponent in such a manner that he would claim it to be his own, you are unprepared to engage his argument.” And so I read Gustavo Gutierrez’s Theology of Liberation; I read Scanzoni and Hardesty’s All We’re Meant to Be; I read Rogers and McKim’s The Authority and Interpretation of the Bible; I read Moltmann and Barth and Wesley and Calvin and. . . .

The list goes on and on.

I have found many authors to be extremely helpful. I have found others to be tremendously frustrating. But in order to understand the landscape of thought, it’s important that we read broadly.

Read Humbly

When I was a student at East Texas Baptist University, Dr. Bob Utley would describe the context from which we approach the Bible as a set of lenses (think eyeglasses) marring our interpretation. (In this case, the glasses hinder, rather than help, the clarity of the text.) My particular lens reflects the fact that I grew up during the end of the 20th century as a white male raised in a Christian home. As such, I may read and interpret certain passages of Scripture differently that would a Jewish girl raised in the 6th century on the opposite side of the world.

Does that nullify my reading of the text? No.

Does it nullify her’s? No.

Some scholars would rather I simply exchange my context for their’s—whether that be exchanging my color or nationality or socio-economic status for their own. But that is simply to exchange one biased reading for another. The problem is that, even were I to do so, I would still be looking at the text through a context foreign to Scripture in order to discern the meaning of Scripture.

It just doesn’t work that way.

The text has one meaning and it is not defined by my particular time and place. And by reading the insights and perspectives of others who may differ from my own, I am given a helpful means to discover the leanings of my own context and to seek to offset them—to mitigate the manner in which they influence my reading.

The goal, then, is not to exchange my context someone else’s perspective.

The goal is to rightly divide the Word of God.

The goal is to discover how my context influences my reading in order that I seek the meaning of the text apart from that bias.

So yes, you should read authors and theologians with whom you disagree, and you should do so humbly. But you should also read them critically—keeping an eye on God’s Word.

Read Critically

While we must read broadly and humbly, we need to subject every thought—every point—to the teaching of Scripture. (In order to do this, it is imperative that you are well-versed, as it were, in Scripture). Rather than submitting the text to the particular ideology of the author—or even his conclusion regarding theology—we must submit the author’s views to the text of Scripture.

One could even say that the Bible is a powerful “analytical tool” in discerning which authors and arguments are worth embracing. But I digress.

Personally, this means “prejudicing” the books I read. Whenever I read a book (that I own; don’t do this with a library book), I do so with a pen in-hand. I use that pen to underline points that I believe to be critical to the author’s argument or particularly insightful. I use the pen to emphasize points of disagreement I may have with the author. I often write notes in the margins, noting my disagreement and, sometimes, amazement with their argument. I’ll summarize their argument in logical form, to demonstrate the fallacy of their argument. Sometimes, I will just write questions raised by the author. Be warned, however, that if you practice this and loan your books to others, it can sometimes make for interesting conversations—especially if they view the author or the argument differently than you do.


Should you read authors and theologians with whom you disagree?

Unquestionably. But be sure to do so with a humble spirit and a critical eye.

Postscript: Read Charitably

While this is only tangentially related to this post and, were it long enough, I might offer it elsewhere on its own, I felt it worthwhile to tack it on to this post.

Don’t hate-read.

There’s a practice—and not one with which I am entirely unaccustomed to having done in the past—of reading a book or author about whom you have already drawn strong conclusions for the simple purpose of ripping it to shreds in a review or on social media. While this may have the appearance of a critical reading, in reality, it accomplishes little more than posturing to your echo chamber. It doesn’t approach the argument on its own terms, but merely seeks to disprove or discredit the author. It is often most clearly seen when a pastor or minister of a particular tribe or theological subset reads the work of someone of the opposite conviction—whether that be an ardent Calvinist reading an anti-Calvinist (or vice versa), an avowed cessationist reading a continuationist (or vice versa), a convinced dispensationalist reading a covenantal theologian (or vice versa), or any other major delineation of views.

Hate-reading accomplishes nothing more than signaling to those in your tribe or echo chamber that, at the very least, you think you belong there. But hate-reading is neither critical (in the positive sense) nor humble.

Frankly, it’s uncharitable. Don’t do it.

Five Noticeable Changes at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary

As a student of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary (SWBTS) since 2008, I’ve spent eight years living on campus. We moved away in 2017. Recently, I got to spend two weeks on campus. There are five big changes on campus worth noting:

  1. The Student Center
  2. From 2008 to present I’ve seen Naylor student center go from Victorian formalism to an African Safari. Now it feels, well, like a student center. The student lounge is no longer aiming for museum chic; instead, students spend hours enjoying one another’s company there. The café is a constant hub and even features Pac-man, ping-pong, and ski-ball for the students. In just two weeks, I saw more students mulling about, laughing, and enjoying the Naylor center than I’ve seen in years.

  3. Scarborough College
  4. I have always thought Scarborough college is great. It provides a top-notch education: students from my youth ministry have gone on to study in the college and have transformed into scholars. There is now a strong student life presence on campus. While my Michigan State University blood rejects blue and gold outright, anyone can see the students now sporting Scarborough College swag are enjoying being a part of the college. Although, if the rumors of forming official sports teams turn out to be true, I may have to retire my ‘undefeated since 1908’ t-shirt.

  5. Chapel Services
  6. The new format for chapel is impressive. The order is geared toward the reading of God’s Word. Each service begins with the public reading; music leaders, guest speakers, and even the President are slated to read God’s word to the student body. This speaks to the high prestige the school places on the inspired Word of God. This format alone is reason enough to be excited about the future of SWBTS. Everyone attending cannot help but notice the Word of God is on the lips of the faculty.

  7. Roberts Library
  8. I went to Seminary Hill to spend two weeks researching and writing my dissertation. The librarians and library staff were amazing. They compiled research, prepared a place for me to study, and continued to provide encouragement (and even extra research) for two weeks. If you want to spend time in a quality theological library staffed by godly disciples who work toward your success, study at SWBTS.

  9. The Amazing Faculty
  10. Always save the best for last; and the SWBTS faculty is one of the best. The heart of SWBTS faculty is for students and ministry. Prior to arriving on campus, I sent out a slew of emails to SWBTS faculty asking if we could get lunch. Every single email was answered in the affirmative. Despite the end of the semester, the rush for grading, and various projects, every professor took some measure of time to meet with me. Even SWBTS President Adam Greenway stopped me at chapel to ask how I was doing and to encourage my research. You cannot doubt the heart behind Dr. Greenway’s vision; SWBTS is for her students.

I’m aware that not all the changes feel positive to everyone. The vibrancy of life isn’t without its aches and growing pains. But that’s what I see at SWBTS—vibrant life. A fresh breeze of excitement, a campus which loves and mentors students, and a leadership team with God’s Word on its heart—who could ask for a better time to support SWBTS? Her future is bright. Her Savior is on the move. Now is the best time to support The Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.

Why I’m Pursuing a PhD

I have this recurring dream every two months or so that I’m back in school. In this dream I’m not missing any items of clothing (so it’s not that dream), but it’s the dream where roughly two-thirds of the way through a semester I realize I haven’t been to class even once, read a single page, completed any assignments, and there’s no possibility of catching up. I’ve heard of others who have this same dream, so I’m not alone. Today, I’m happy to say that one part—and hopefully it remains only one part—of that dream is coming true as I dive headfirst back into the academic world.

Last Thursday was my first official day as a PhD student and the anxiety level—that nervous energy—seems to be fluctuating somewhere between 9 and 10. Recently, I read about the imposter syndrome—the idea that “I’m a fraud and before long everyone will know it” experienced by many Ph.D. students—and I’ve resonated with that sentiment from the moment I applied for admission into the program. The questions echo in my mind: Am I up to the challenge? Am I smart enough? disciplined enough? What if I fail? Is it even worth it?

So, in effort to combat those questions (which are grounded in fear and doubt), I think it better to answer the more foundational question: Why am I pursuing a PhD? In this post, I offer three main reasons with hope that it might spur each of us in our walk with the Lord.

For the sake of knowledge

Simply put, I’m pursuing a PhD because I have a desire to learn more and I now have the opportunity to do so. I have always enjoyed the classroom—if that makes me a nerd then I don’t want to be cool. I remember in my university years when I was still green when it came to studying theology, a professor said something along the lines of “the more you learn of the Bible, the more you see how much you don’t know.” That remains true; I long to learn more and I have the opportunity to do so in a formal academic setting. I count it a responsibility as a minister of the gospel to be a life-long learner and I want to make the most of any opportunity the Lord brings my way.

For the sake of the church

My research major is apologetics and I did not come to that decision lightly. As the surrounding culture grows increasingly hostile toward Christianity, it becomes all the more necessary that we answer such hostility with a robust gospel message—a message simple in form but with vast cultural implications. Local churches in the US must be ready to give a “defense to anyone who asks . . . for a reason for the hope that is in [us]” (1 Pet 3:15).

For the sake of the nations

As part of my MDiv from Southwestern Seminary, my family and I served with the IMB as missionaries for two years in Madagascar. Despite the fact that we returned to the States afterward, my passion for God’s glory among the nations hasn’t lost any steam. With apologetics as my emphasis, I will study world religions extensively and, Lord willing, use that knowledge by training missionaries headed toward career service on the field, church members preparing for short-term mission trips, and be better equipped for service myself.

But is a PhD really necessary for any of the reasons I give above?

Of course not.

No formal education is ultimately necessary for anyone to learn more, to serve the local church, or to reach the nations for Christ. William Carey, the Father of modern missions, is proof positive. He had no formal education beyond the age of 12, yet he was far more intelligent than I ever hope to be.

For the sake of obedience

There is an underlying motivation that compels me and strengthens my resolve: By the power of the Holy Spirit, I want to be faithful to do what God has called me to do and to maximize each and every gift he has entrusted to me. My reasons for pursuing a PhD are simply that: mine. Perhaps the Lord has called you to the same; perhaps not. But one thing I know for certain: we have all been called to faithfulness in every pursuit we undertake. Let us do that and the church will be strengthened and the nations reached.