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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Pastor at University Baptist Church, San Antonio.
Professor. PhD in Theology.
Runner. Cyclist. 2nd Dan.
Roast Master at caffeinatedtheology.com.