At Least Know Something About Those You Criticise

On actually reading and listening to your opponents:

It is quite easy to be an armchair critic. It is quite easy to attack something that you actually know little about. It is quite easy to criticise something you do not really understand. It is quite easy to think you have won a debate by ignoring what the other side says. It is quite easy to set up straw men and knock them down. It is quite easy to be a partisan if you refuse to hear what the other side is saying.

I think you get my point. Plenty of folks are happy to remain in ignorance about what they are arguing against. They might be well read on their particular side of an issue, but they have read little or nothing about or by the other side. Generally speaking, we need to know what it is we are refuting. And that means reading some of their material at the very least.

Sure, this is not always to be the case. For the Christian for example, I am NOT saying that for every book you read on Christianity, you should read one on Satanism as well. But, if your thing is to defend the faith and deal with opposing views, you should know something about the latter.

Thus if you are seeking to be a Christian apologist – even to a little extent – and want to contrast Christianity say with Islam, you should read a bit about it. Perhaps reading some of the core documents is where to begin: the Koran, the hadith, the sira, and so on.

If you are taking on the new atheists, reading some of their work is to be expected. When I wrote a two-part critique of Dawkin’s The God Delusion when it first came out in 2006, I did not rely only on other Christian assessments, but I went out and bought the book (even though I really did not want to spend money on it!).

To have a fair and honest debate with someone, knowing something about their position is of course crucial. And it is not just for debates that this is vital. Simply for clear communication with anyone on anything, this is needed. Even just for a husband and wife to get along, they need to be able to really hear and understand what the other one is saying.

So whether it is reading or listening, making sure we understand what another person is saying is crucial. In this regard, there are plenty of basic books out there on communication skills and the like. Two volumes that are a bit more intellectually inclined by the famous philosopher Mortimer Adler can be mentioned here.

One is How To Read a Book (1940) and the other is How to Speak, How to Listen (Collier, 1983). Let me offer just one quote from the first volume:

When you buy a book, you establish a property right in it, just as you do in clothes or furniture when you buy and pay for them. But the act of purchase is actually only the prelude to possession in the case of a book. Full ownership of a book only comes when you have made it a part of yourself, and the best way to make yourself a part of it — which comes to the same thing — is by writing in it. Why is marking a book indispensable to reading it? First, it keeps you awake — not merely conscious, but wide awake. Second, reading, if it is active, is thinking, and thinking tends to express itself in words, spoken or written. The person who says he knows what he thinks but cannot express it usually does not know what he thinks. Third, writing your reactions down helps you to remember the thoughts of the author. Reading a book should be a conversation between you and the author. Presumably he knows more about the subject than you do; if not, you probably should not be bothering with his book. But understanding is a two-way operation; the learner has to question himself and question the teacher. He even has to be willing to argue with the teacher, once he understands what the teacher is saying. Marking a book is literally an expression of your differences or your agreements with the author. It is the highest respect you can pay him. (p. 49)

Yes, I know, some book lovers believe it is heretical to mark a book. But I do it, and a yellow highlighter is my preferred method. By the way, if you want to see Adler discussing with Bill Buckley that second book I mentioned, see this hour-long video:

And watch from the 7:30 mark where Adler speaks more about “two-way talk” in which careful listening and careful speaking are both needed in a conversation or a debate. He goes on to say that reading a love letter is quite intensive, and we need that sort of care and concern when reading or listening to others.

Image of How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading
How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading by Adler, Mortimer J. (Author), Van Doren, Charles (Author) Amazon logo

Theological debates

While dealing with non-believers is one matter, here I mainly want to speak to the issue of internecine debates among Christians. Before proceeding, let me highlight the fact that it is sadly clear that some Christians really know very little about what they are talking about.

As one case in point, just today I got an email from some gal prefaced with the words “HIGH ALERT!” She said, among other things, the following: “Please don’t depend on a Rabi, Pastor or Priest to know the truth. We have to know ourselves. [Martin Luther removed 7 Books from the Bible]. I believe only the Catholic Bible has those 7 books.”

Oh dear. Not only does she have problems with basic spelling, but she is woefully ignorant about what she is speaking about. Um no, Luther did NOT remove any books of the Bible. Yes, he found the book of James problematic as it seemed to differ with Paul and his teaching on salvation by grace through faith.

What this gal is likely thinking of are the various apocryphal books. Protestants do not see these as being inspired like the other canonical books, but they understand that they have some material which is profitable. So Luther’s German Bible not only included James, but some of these deuterocanonical books as well – books such as Judith, Tobit, and Sirach. But for more on this matter, see this piece:

So this gal knows next to nothing about Luther, about church history, about Bible translation, and about a whole host of issues. As such, she would be well advised to do a bit of study and reading before sending out more emails such as this!

But getting back to my main point. Christian disputes can have to do with all sorts of things – things such as eschatology and the like. Often Christians on one side will make their case but without a real understanding of what those on the other sides believe. And there are of course more than just two sides here, whether on the millennium or how to interpret Revelation, and so on. These folks are often out of their theological depth because they do not even know what the various options are.

Consider something like the interminable debates about Calvinism and Arminianism. These have been going on for centuries now. But I have come across far too many gung-ho Arminians who clearly know very little about Calvinism. They certainly have not read his Institutes or any key works about him. Then again there are many Calvinists who know little about Arminianism, and really need to read important defences of it, such as Roger Olson’s 2006 work, Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities (IVP).

Getting a good basic understanding of what the other side is saying is crucial. We can rely to some extent of fair assessments of the other side from those in our own camp. But actually reading or listening to what the other side has said cannot be beaten.

With that in mind we need to be aware of good proponents of the various views, and the works they have penned. As to the Calvinist/Arminian debates, consider these three sets of very helpful and informative books on this issue:

Why I am Not a Calvinist by Jerry Walls and Joseph Dongell (IVP, 2004)
Why I am Not an Arminian by Robert Peterson and Michael Williams (IVP, 2004)

40 Questions about Arminianism by J. Matthew Pinson (Kregel, 2022)
40 Questions about Calvinism by Shawn Wright (Kregel, 2019)

Against Calvinism by Roger Olson (Zondervan, 2011)
For Calvinism by Michael Horton (Zondervan, 2011)

Here we have experts on each side making their case. So if you are an ardent Arminian, you not only should have the first books of each pair listed above, but the second as well. Getting all six of these books – or even just one pair of them – would be a good place to begin.

If you are a keen supporter of one side of a particular theological discussion, the least you can do is read important and careful defenders of the other side, whatever the issue might be. If you think one view on a certain subject is the only correct one, having at least some knowledge of the other options does not go amiss.

Indeed, you never know, if you expose yourself to some opposing points of view, you might even change your mind on some things! Sure, core biblical doctrines we want to hang on to vigorously, but on all sorts of more secondary matters, having an open mind to various different points of view won’t kill you.

It is especially on the social media where we find so many cases of folks arguing for their position, but too often without any real understanding of what they are criticising or arguing against. By all means argue for what you believe, but at least make sure what you are attacking is what the other side actually has said or believes.

Tearing down imaginary arguments of your opponents is not quite the way we should be proceeding here.

[1682 words]

2 Replies to “At Least Know Something About Those You Criticise”

  1. Hi Bill,
    I read your posts when they appear on the Aquila Report. I find them helpful.
    One little correction:
    This book:
    Why I am Not a Calvinist by Jerry Walls and Joseph Dongell (IVP, 2004)
    Why I am Not an Arminian by Michael Peterson and Robert Williams (IVP, 2004)

    You mixed up the authors names. They should be Michael Williams and Robert Peterson. They were my profs at Covenant Seminary.

    Bill Myers

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