Critique—done well—is a gift to the one being criticized. (“Faithful are the wounds of a friend,” Prov. 27:6a). We should welcome the opportunity to have our thinking corrected and clarified. We see see in a mirror dimly and we know only in part (1 Cor. 13:12), but God has gifted the church with teachers who often see things more clearly than we do at present. In God’s providence and through the gift of common grace he may also use unbelievers to critique our views, showing our logical mistakes or lack of clarity.
Critique done poorly—whether through overstatement, misunderstanding, caricature—is a losing proposition for all. It undermines the credibility of the critic and deprives the one being criticized from the opportunity to improve his or her position.
It’s impossible in a blog post to set forth a comprehensive methodology of critique—if such a thing can even be done. But there are at least three exhortations worth remembering about criticism: (1) understand before you critique; (2) be self-critical in how you critique; (3) consider the alternatives of what you are critiquing.
1. Understand Before You Critique
Mortimer Adler makes the important point in 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)
I do think we have to add at least one caveat to Adler’s perspective here. He is assuming goodwill upon the part of the one being criticized. In the last decade or so I’ve noticed theologians with novel interpretations or positions who perpetually protest that they are being misunderstood. At some point, we might judge that the theologian doth protest too much. If not even the most careful and considerate critiques can understand one’s point, it may be that there is some incoherence to the point itself. The idea that understanding and critiquing the theology of some folks is “like trying to nail jello to a wall” has now become a cliche—but the metaphor is apt and exists for a reason.
Nevertheless, Alder’s perspective is one we need to hear and to heed in so far as it depends on us. Viewed from a biblical perspective, there are moral imperatives bound up with the act of reading and critiquing. Jesus tells me to do unto others as I would have done unto me, and he tells me to love my neighbor as I love myself—and this includes how I interact and critique.
2. Be Self-Critical
John Frame, in a piece on “How to Write a Theological Paper,” makes the second point:
Before and during your writing, anticipate objections. If you are criticizing Barth, imagine Barth looking over your shoulder, reading your manuscript, giving his reactions. This point is crucial. A truly self-critical attitude can save you from unclarity and unsound arguments. It will also keep you from arrogance and unwarranted dogmatism—faults common to all theology (liberal as well as conservative).
Don’t hesitate to say “probably” or even “I don’t know” when the circumstances warrant. Self-criticism will also make you more “profound.” For often—perhaps usually—it is objections that force us to rethink our positions, to get beyond our superficial ideas, to wrestle with the really deep theological issues.
As you anticipate objections to your replies to objections to your replies, and so forth, you will find yourself being pushed irresistibly into the realm of the “difficult questions,” the theological profundities.
In self-criticism the creative use of the theological imagination is tremendously important. Keep asking such questions as these.
(a) Can I take my source’s idea in a more favorable sense? A less favorable one?
(b) Does my idea provide the only escape from the difficulty, or are there others?
(c) In trying to escape from one bad extreme, am I in danger of falling into a different evil on the other side?
(d) Can I think of some counter-examples to my generalizations?
(e) Must I clarify my concepts, lest they be misunderstood?
(f) Will my conclusion be controversial and thus require more argument than I had planned?
3. Offer Your Alternative
Millard Erickson, in an earlier edition of his Christian Theology (p. 61 in the 2nd edition) emphasizes an additional point:
In criticism it is not sufficient to find flaws in a given view. One must always ask, “What is the alternative?” and, “Does the alternative have fewer difficulties?” John Baillie tells of writing a paper in which he severely criticized a particular view. His professor commented, “Every theory has its difficulties, but you have not considered whether any other theory has less difficulties than the one you have criticized.”
Good criticism is hard work, and it’s necessary work until Christ returns. The above three points won’t prevent us from making every mistake, but they will help us be better critics and therefore better servants of God and truth.