It is very easy to become isolated and myopic. It can happen to any of us, and especially in regard to who we are willing to learn from. I have for years been an avid reader, reading roughly 100 books a year. But I have noticed how easy it is to surround myself with voices that validate the beliefs I already hold. I want to argue in this post that such a habit is dangerous. Reading widely and diversely is important for our thought life.
Take a look at your bookshelf. Are all the books published by one or two of the same publishers? Worse yet, are they by one or two of the same authors? If so then you may be cutting yourself off from challenging thoughts, friends. It’s not that we shouldn’t find respected and worthwhile teachers to learn as much as we can from. The Lord knows that I love the writings of John Frame. I read everything of his that I can get my hands on and I delight in learning from him. But if I only read John Frame I think that would be dangerous. The danger lies in not challenging our assumptions, and in giving too much weight to one single (or several) authors.
By not reading widely and diversely I am taking for granted that what I believe about any given subject is in fact right. Furthermore, I am assuming that other views, expressions of ideas, or nuances are wrong. But how can I know this until I am willing to examine things carefully and from multiple angles. I confess I have my favorite “heretic.” I thoroughly enjoy reading this author not because I find his conclusions accurate or compelling, but because he challenges me to think afresh about my own beliefs. He challenges me to rethink my defense of a position, or better yet, to offer a nuance to that position. Reading the same few authors (especially when they all quote each other) can limit, either intentionally or unintentionally, the voices that we allow to speak into our lives and challenge our beliefs and assumptions.
It’s important here to remind my readers of where I stand on the Inerrancy of Scripture. The Word of God is not one of these voices, it is the ultimate voice speaking truth and standing as a sure foundation. I recognize that we can’t just say that and rest on it anymore. That plenty of scholars and lay leaders will challenge me by asking questions about interpretation and meaning, etc. I don’t want to derail this present subject, however, by going down that trail. I have written on such things elsewhere and will be addressing such issues again in my current Wednesday series (Inerrancy and Worldview). When I say, then, that we must let the myriad of divergent voices speak to us, and we must be willing to be challenged, I ultimately think that such challenges need to drive us back to the Word of God for reevaluation. When I read from my favorite “heretic” and am pressed to give an answer to a question I had not considered, I don’t look to the “heretic” to get it, I go back to the Word of God and seek a Biblically faithful response. But without that “heretic” I wouldn’t perhaps have thought to ask and answer that question. There is value, then, in reading the divergent voice, but only if it drives me back to God’s authoritative Word.
In addition to allowing multiple voices to speak to us, we must also be aware that reading only a few select authors from one narrow tradition may give too much credence to that author or that tradition. I consider myself a Reformed Evangelical Christian. I love the tradition I am a part of, and I value greatly the respected authors, theologians, and pastors of that tradition. But if I am not careful I can assume the validity of statements, doctrines, expressions, etc. simply because they are spoken from within that tradition. Such a trend is dangerous, friends! It is not Biblical accurate simply because John Piper said it! I have sometimes found myself in disagreement with people in my tradition and thought, how can they so blindly accept that argument, or that defense, or that view. I fear that sometimes we (I certainly include myself here), can accept things without question, without desire for nuance, because they are said by those we respect in our tradition. I must be willing to challenge myself and learn from faithful teachers of a plethora of stripes, colors, and persuasions. I especially want to find solid scholars attempting to be Biblically faithful from other traditions.
For example, I love the work of Fred Sanders (who is not the favorite “heretic” I wrote of earlier). Sanders is a top-notch scholar whose work on the Trinity is especially praiseworthy. Sanders is also a Wesleyan. Now that puts us on the opposite side of a number of doctrinal discussions, but that’s good. It’s good because I know that Sanders affirms key doctrines about the Inerrancy of Scripture and about the gospel. So I can trust him to attempt to work out his arguments Biblically. And that means as I wrestle with my own beliefs, assertions, expressions of ideas, and assumptions I can do so with someone who disagrees with me and yet is attempting to do the same thing I am: be faithful to God’s Word. There’s untold value in that.
If you and I only subject ourselves to the voices that already agree with us we may stop growing, and we may give too much authority to select people. We want the weight of our beliefs to rest on God’s Word, not on our favorite teacher, not on our favorite book, not on our favorite Creed or Confession. We ought to be willing to reevaluate and challenge our beliefs constantly by the Word of God. I love the expression that rang out from the era of the Protestant Reformation: reformed and always being reformed by the Word of God. Read widely and diversely, friends. Challenge yourself to evaluate what you believe. Is it what God teaches or only what man teaches?