An Ethic of Reading

by on September 8, 2009

student_readingSitting in my first Covenant Theology class of seminary, Dr. Williams, in addition to speaking about the course, provided one of the most important “nuggets” of wisdom that I will ever receive during my theological training. He briefly, yet powerfully, spoke about an “ethic of reading.” He explained that many of us in Reformed circles, especially my generation, are suspicious readers. He called us to cultivate an attitude of sympathetic reading. Now, being a sympathetic reader does not mean that we avoid critical reading or necessarily agree with what each author claims. Being a sympathetic reader means not being dismissive or mean-spirited in how we approach texts. This “ethic of reading” was not about reading strategies, but rather character formation. Also, it was a matter of respect. If the professors have assigned a particular article or text it is worth reading, even when we disagree. Dr. Williams lamented the countless number of times he read book reviews from students that totally ripped apart texts, saying it was not worth their time. At no point, did these individuals consider, “I wonder why my professor assigned this, what did he want me to get out of it?”

Dr. Williams spoke about how he declined opportunities to write for two journals that wanted him to essentially “bash” dispensational eschatology and over-realized eschatology (He had done tremendous work on eschatology, hence those particular topics). Dr. Williams refused because he did not want to write polemics. In class, he urged us, “Be champions of construction, not champions of polemics.” Rather than vehemently attacking what we are against, we ought to passionately speak about what we stand for. He gave an incredible example of being a champion of construction—the Apostles Creed. When I heard him call the Creed “polemical,” I was surprised. Dr. Williams explained that it was a polemic against the Gnostics, Marcionites, Ebionites, and other heretical sects in the early Church. Yet, it was written constructively. At no point are any of those groups listed in the Apostles Creed, but one can be absolutely certain that in affirming its commitments no one need to question where they landed.

I am praying that the Lord would protect me from the pride that lurks within me that would have me interact with texts, produced by actual individuals endowed with the imago Dei, in a mean-spirited or dismissive way–without any grace! Lord, give us all humility!

About

Comments

That’s a valuable piece of wisdom. I wish I had received it when entering seminary. I read with a “hermeneutics of suspicion” rather than a “hermeneutics of charity”.

I read Kevin Vanhoozer’s _Is There a Meaning in This Text?_ toward the end of seminary and he spoke eloquently and compellingly about the “morality of literary knowledge”–i.e., how we are actually doing personal violence to those who engage in “communicative action” (that is, those who write) by reading them with a dump truck load of salt instead of sympathetically.

Thanks for posting your bit of shared wisdom.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *