Here is one of the most important points that Mortimer Adler makes in his ironically titled book, How to Read a Book:
Every author has had the experience of suffering book reviews by critic who did not feel obligated to do the work of the first two stages first. The critic too often thinks he does not have to be a reader as well as a judge.
Every lecturer has also had the experience of having critical questions asked that were not based on any understanding of what he had said.
You yourself may remember an occasion where someone said to a speaker, in one breath or at most two, “I don’t know what you mean, but I think you’re wrong.”
There is actually no point in answering critics of this sort.
The only polite thing to do is to ask them to state your position for you, the position they claim to be challenging.
If they cannot do it satisfactorily, if they cannot repeat what you have said in their own words, you know that they do not understand, and you are entirely justified in ignoring their criticisms. They are irrelevant, as all criticism must be that is not based on understanding.
When you find the rare person who shows that he understands what you are saying as well as you do, then you can delight in his agreement or be seriously disturbed by his dissent. (pp. 144-145)
This quote came to mind when reading the principal disputants in the current Trinity debate regarding relations of eternal authority and submission in the immanent Trinity. Secondary contributors have actually surpassed the original dialogue partners here, who quickly jumped to criticism and response rather than demonstrating that they had first truly understood what the opposing side is even claiming.
Moments before I posted this, I glanced at a blog post that lamented several developments in the PCA. The author was upset (among other things) by a change at Covenant Theological Seminary. I’ll quote his entire section:
Covenant Seminary changed the name of its Systematic Theology courses, the core of a seminary’s curriculum, to “Missional Theology.” Missional is a fashionable term of recent coinage. This, of itself, is enough to raise suspicions. Systematic theology is where the entire curriculum is supposed to be integrated: biblical theology, Old Testament, New Testament, church history all lend their insights. I’ll never forget Roger Nicole, at Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary, responding to a proposed revision of the curriculum which would reduce the theological core. Nicole, of even temper; Nicole, who never got angry; Nicole, who never raised his voice; Nicole of cheerful disposition; Nicole turned red with anger and declared that the history of theological education showed that the slide towards liberalism always began with a reduction of the theological core in favor of what inevitably we called “practical” courses. Do our seminary administrators, our permanent committee, or our committee of commissioners know this history? The additional tasks assigned to Systematics, implied by the new title “Missional,” inevitably will dilute commitment to core dogmatics.
There may be an argument within this paragraph worth considering, but the worth of the conclusion is dependent—at a minimum—upon the accuracy of its premises.
When you get to the bottom of the article, you’ll find an editor’s note appended to it:
One reader has drawn to our attention the fact that it is important to note that there was no ”revision” or “reduction” in the curriculum at Covenant Theological Seminary (CTS). Dr. Dalbey clarified before the Assembly that the same number of hours of the same systematic theology courses are still required.
Additionally, Covenant Theological Seminary changed a department name, not course names.
Finally, there is a separate department at CTS referred to as “practical” theology that was not grouped in with systematic/missional.
What’s unfortunate here—besides the author apparently misrepresenting his brothers and sisters in Christ in public—is that he undermined his own integrity, distracting his readers from what might have been a legitimate critique. If he had simply bothered to quote the decision of the seminary, he would have served his readers and the seminary and himself well, and put his critique on firmer ground.
It’s easier to see this problem in others, and harder to practice it ourselves. I know from my own experience that I am often eager to score points in a debate before demonstrating that I understand what is being said.
It seems to me that we can all do a little better in this regard.