On Peer-Reviewed Scholarship and Self-Criticism

I see a growing trend/problem in today’s scholarship. Authors are becoming less and less likely to submit their manuscripts to anyone who would disagree with the main thesis of their work. They are not submitting their materials to those who would be their staunchest critics. This is in keeping with the growing self-idolization of scholars, who quite often think that if they say it, then it is true. This is pride and egotism at work, not humility and desire for truth. Scholars are motivated by whether they can sell the book, or whether they can gain prestige as “the world’s foremost authority” on the subject. Of course, rarely can those two things both be accomplished in one book. They usually try for one or the other. But their motivation is incorrect. The true motivation of the scholar must be the glory of God, which is only to be gained by the pursuit of truth.

Truth must be tested by all those who oppose it. This is why God has given the tremendous gift of heresy to the church: to test the truth in the church so that the church will know why it does not believe X, and instead believes Y. I would even say that the Holy Spirit uses heresy more often than almost any other goad to get the church to realize what the Bible really says. I remember well Ligon Duncan’s rule of thumb in reading the early church fathers: when they are responding to heretics, they are generally on target. When they are not, watch out!

If we are really after the truth, and not just our own prestige, then surely we should submit our materials to the very best and brightest critics of our position on the matter in question. It is a humble thing to do, and it is a wise thing to do. Two examples of this, one positive and one negative, will help illustrate: when Peter Enns published his book Inspiration and Incarnation, he did not submit the manuscript to those of the faculty of WTS who would have opposed his main theses. As a result, the book suffered from lack of probation, if you will. The book has a certain anemia about it that bears the mark of musings, but not of tested scholarship. On the other hand, when John Piper wrote his book critiquing N.T. Wright (The Future of Justification), he sent the whole manuscript to none other than N.T. Wright himself, surely the very best critic who opposed Piper’s position that Piper could find! This shows not only humility on Piper’s part (notice that in N.T. Wright’s response to Piper, entitled simply Justification, he did not extend the courtesy back to Piper, which says a lot about Wright’s ego, in my opinion), but also a desire to get at the truth, and to have it tested against the most rigorous standards possible.

Of course, there is an additional side benefit to doing this sort of thing. If and when the scholar is published, he will already know the vast majority of ways that his book could be criticized, and will therefore not be very surprised by any of the book reviews (except perhaps the positive ones!). Some scholars have been known to sink into a deep depression because their work was not well received, and because they were shocked at the reception it got. This is their own fault for peddling a book to stroke their own ego, and to feed their own idol: the fear of man.