Why We Must Read Original Sources Before Criticizing

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In my seminary days, one of the popular authors to hate on was N.T. Wright. He doesn’t believe in justification by faith alone, people would cry, even as panels of highly decorated professors criticized his work and painted it outside the lines of orthodoxy. John Piper wrote a book against his teaching, which probably made Wright one of the most unpopular theologians in the US almost overnight. Don’t nobody cross Piper, especially not with his massive following of Reformed and restless 20-somethings (of which I was a part).

After reading some of Piper’s book, The Future of Justification, I was convinced Wright was a heretic. I asked one of my friends what he thought. We talked for awhile and then he asked a question of his own, rather mildly: Have you ever read N.T. Wright? Uh, well, I, uh…

It was then I discovered a principle of personal conviction I’ve since tried to apply to my life: I will not criticize, and especially not label as “another gospel,” that which I have not personally read.

But this happens all the time (I just notice it more now). You hear people saying how they love or hate the teachings of John Calvin, and yet they’ve never read Calvin. All they know is what some anti-Calvinist blogger wrote, and that’s all they need to hear. From a five minute conversation with them, it’s obvious they don’t understand his teachings, either.

I’ve talked with people who could give you 57 reasons why they don’t agree with presuppositional apologetics, and yet they’ve never read any positive argument supporting the approach. How can you disagree with a theory or teaching when you don’t even know what it says?

When we do this, I think we lose all credibility. People don’t really take you seriously when you don’t even know what you’re arguing against (and they shouldn’t). Many times it’s because we want to sound learned without doing the antecedent work of actually studying. That’s just pride, and we need to repent of it.

One way I’ve chosen to repent is by resolving to read original sources before I criticize them. I figure the least I can do is try to understand someone on their own terms, which is a way to show respect (even if you disagree). There’s nothing that gets under my skin more than people who’ll tell you all day and all night why you’re wrong on a given subject but won’t actually read the original source upon which the discussion rests.

So I figure I’ll walk a mile in the right direction; I’ll extend that courtesy to others. I may still disagree with their position, but they can usually respect the fact that I took them seriously and treated them fairly.

One of my best friends is a pretty avid natural law theorist, and I’m a presuppositional guy myself. As we conversed about two oftentimes different approaches to apologetics (ways of defending Christianity), I realized I needed to read what he was reading in order to legitimately interact with him. So I asked him to give me a few titles that best represented his view.

It hasn’t changed my mind, but I have learned a lot from it. First, there is a lot of common ground we share that I didn’t think was there before. Second, it has helped me understand my friend more deeply. Even on the issues we don’t agree, I can at least empathize with where he’s coming from. And it allows us to have a more intelligent conversation because we’re not just lobbing darts at hidden targets in the dark.

I think this is also why we are terrible in the U.S. about having open debate with others with whom we disagree. We don’t really talk to each other as much as we talk past each other, because neither side takes the other seriously enough to study their position. As Christians we despise this tactic. We get portrayed as bigots and homophobes by people who’ve never read a Bible in their life and don’t care to listen to what we’re saying. It’s a filthy smear campaign. But we do it, too.

Read original sources and give people a fair trial. In love, give people the kind of hearing you wish they’d give you. Then give judgment based on the word of God, who is the sole arbiter of truth and justice. You never know—they may just return the favor.

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3 thoughts on “Why We Must Read Original Sources Before Criticizing

  1. Pingback: Why We Must Read Original Sources Before Criticizing | Theology and society

  2. Awesome advise! My only problem is with your last conclusion, in my experience with a conversation between a Christian and a ‘non-believer’ I have found that more ones then not, the Christian is the one who has read the bible less and the ‘nonbeliever’ has read and studied the bible to such a point that they decided not to believe. I know this my be an exception (and I have terrible grammar) but most atheists I run into have more Bible head knowledge then I do myself.

    • Thanks Andrea. That’s a good point. I’ve met “atheists” who have read the Bible or seem to be familiar with it, too. I suppose if anything that’s an encouragement and exhortation for us to go back to the source and study it more thoroughly, as we should. We are called to know God’s Word, so we must apply ourselves to it.

      We also have to keep in mind that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, so even a child who trusts in Jesus is more knowledgeable than the atheist who has studied the text and not come to the fear of God. Thinking himself wise, he is actually a fool. But again, this should drive us to study God’s Word so that we may defend it, as all Christians are called to do.

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