On Misunderstanding Dead Theologians

Just having seen this argument surface yet again on this blog, I thought I’d address it. The claim is sometimes made that one cannot properly understand or represent another theologian unless personal contact is made with that theologian to see if one is correctly representing their theology. If this is the case, we need to throw out all our textbooks of dead theologians, because there is no way that we can understand them. There is no way to contact them. We cannot possibly understand them, because we do not have access to their up-to-the-minute-yet-changeable-and-flighty-current-thoughts. To engage in church history is impossible. Heaven forbid we should think of words on paper as having any kind of stable meaning, maybe even (shocker!) more stable, more accurate, than personal conversation with someone else. Hmm.



  1. March 25, 2010 at 12:03 pm

    If personal contact is needed, we should just throw out the Bible too… Good point Lane. Thanks.

  2. David Gray said,

    March 25, 2010 at 12:06 pm

    Maybe a useful question would be when is it appropriate or even obligatory to contact a fellow Christian in such matters?

  3. greenbaggins said,

    March 25, 2010 at 12:14 pm

    If church discipline is going to be the end, then I would think personal contact would be required, a la Matthew 18. It depends on the aim and end of the refutation. It is certainly not wrong to contact someone, no matter what the goal. However, the result may be more confusion, not less, as I have observed many times. If it is a matter of refutation of someone’s writing, though, personal contact is not necessary. If misrepresentation has happened, then the one misrepresented can make that known in an equally public forum. This is the nature of scholarly debate.

  4. ray kikkert said,

    March 25, 2010 at 12:19 pm

    I will never understand such complaints …”The claim is sometimes made that one cannot properly understand or represent another theologian unless personal contact is made with that theologian to see if one is correctly representing their theology”… it’s just plain stupid … which doctrinal freak brought the complaint this time? They are currently not dead so now would be a good time to embarass them so that hopefully they will not bring this up again and warn others not to try this stunt at home. Next … we will find out they have the ability to converse with dead theologians before posting on blogs.

  5. Reed Here said,

    March 25, 2010 at 12:20 pm

    Are not published comments a public act? Does not Scripture envision private rebuke for private acts, and public for public>

    I admit that there are circumstances that can and should adjust the application of this principle. Yet it broadly applies. This history of the Church is pretty well dominated by the expectation that any published comment by one called to a teaching office in the church is by its nature to be responded to in like public manner.

    Calls for private conference on public comments need to be rooted in some mitigating factor. Such mitigating factors will usually be of a personal conviction nature. We should hesitate to insist where the Bible does not.

  6. Seth said,

    March 25, 2010 at 1:00 pm

    Postmodernism applied to theological interaction. You can’t possibly understand what a person is saying unless you are a part of their language community.

  7. Wes White said,

    March 25, 2010 at 1:07 pm

    Doug Wilson agrees with you:

    “This is as good a place as any to make note of the fact that public controversy is not bound by rules of confrontation laid out for us in Matthew 18. When Peter sinned at Antioch, Paul rebuked him publicly, face to face (Gal. 2:11), and he did this on the spot. It is not necessary to take someone aside privately if they have just done something publicly. I do not know how many times I have been asked about this. Let’s say I have written criticism of a recently published book–‘Did you contact Tony Campolo privately before you wrote that book review?'” Serrated Edge, p. 64.

  8. Phil Derksen said,

    March 25, 2010 at 1:10 pm

    Many of Doug Wilson’s cohorts and followers evidently disagree with both you and him.

  9. Ron Henzel said,

    March 25, 2010 at 1:17 pm

    Such is the legacy of Stanley Fish.

  10. rfwhite said,

    March 25, 2010 at 2:05 pm

    Mr. Moderator: David Gray raises a good question, in my view. Might I suggest we look at the question by wording it this way: is it appropriate or even obligatory to resolve questions about a man’s public teaching by a private meeting or private contact?

  11. Bobby Avant said,

    March 25, 2010 at 2:20 pm

    Since I’m the one who said I should respond. Normally I would agree with this. If wrote a paper defending post mil. I wouldn’t expect a critic to have to call me before he responds in writng.
    But Otis has said that Higgins a TE in the PCA is dangerous, papist, wants to bring the PCA into Rome & should be disciplined. I don’t think I’ve heard Doug Wilson or Steve Wilkins described this harshly on any blog.
    We live in the 21st century how hard is it to contact someone?

  12. TE Stephen Welch said,

    March 25, 2010 at 3:08 pm

    Bobby, did you contact TE Otis before you made statements about him?

  13. Reed Here said,

    March 25, 2010 at 3:13 pm

    Dr. White, David: seems like the fullest questions would be thus:

    1. Is it necessary to contact a man about his public comments before publicly commenting?
    2. If not necessary. is it appropriate under certain circumstances?
    3. If at least appropriate, under what circumstances and why?

  14. rfwhite said,

    March 25, 2010 at 3:28 pm

    13 Reed and/or 2 David Gray: try this. Is the process of judging the soundness of a man’s teaching (spoken or written) public and corporate, or private and individual, or both?

  15. Wes White said,

    March 25, 2010 at 3:41 pm

    Reed, that’s a good point. It’s interesting how people simply assume that the critics of FV have never contacted them.

  16. Reed Here said,

    March 25, 2010 at 4:19 pm

    Well, since it is spoken and written in a public/corporate context, it seems to me that mere corespondence would mean at least public/corporate. I actually go to the same passage Wilson does in this regard. Public teaching expects public response.

    I do note at the same time that there is the expection of personal response. I.e., it is not sufficient merely talk about another’s teaching. One must have the intention of talking to the person. This seems to be the ordinary expection/pattern in scholarly writing, book reviews, etc.

    In blogging it seems that this may be satisfied by at least emailing the person whose teaching is commented on a link to the comment, and inviting of response.

    As to private contact, I would say that this is an “also” response. While I’m not ready to say such is required (I’m open to changing my mind), I do think that a generous application of loving others as I wish to be loved will lead me to take this also step.

  17. Bobby Avant said,

    March 25, 2010 at 4:26 pm

    “Bobby, did you contact TE Otis before you made statements about him?”

    I don’t believe I accused him of being dangerous, papist, FV, and I did not call for his denomination to discipline him.
    I did say that I believed that theonmy is divisive but that was not generally directed towards him.

  18. truspire said,

    March 25, 2010 at 6:36 pm

    We are two young Christian girls, just trying to bring practical applications from the bible. We want to encourage others to study the word and grow in faith. So take a look at our blog, and comment.
    God bless

  19. Vern Crisler said,

    March 26, 2010 at 12:16 am

    Could it be that FVists use this argument — why didn’t he talk to me first? — because they want everyone to treat them as if they counted? If a PCA pastor calls up the FVist, won’t he give legitimacy to the FVist, treating him as if he were somehow in the same club, with veto power over the PCA minister?

  20. March 26, 2010 at 8:27 pm

    Dr. White,

    Public statements/writings invite public comment. Private consultation may also be appropriate as desired. Many of us here write publicly, and therefore invite pubic comment. Anyone who doesn’t wish to invite public response shouldn’t publish. People need choose their words carefully and then man up and own what they write.

    FWIW, most FVers seem to relish their 15 minutes of fame until they are called on their erroneous views and charges filed. Can’t have it both ways. It’s all fun and games until someone pokes their eye out.

  21. Jared Nelson said,

    March 27, 2010 at 2:10 pm

    With a blog called Dead Theologians, I suppose I am doomed to being misunderstood.

  22. terry west said,

    March 28, 2010 at 8:51 pm

    Would it be great if we could ask Calvin or Luther or any other theologian from history what they meant by certain statements? I think the point is if you can then why not?

  23. terry west said,

    March 28, 2010 at 8:53 pm

    That was supposed to read “wouldn’t it be great if…”

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