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Charitable Reading: Advice to Readers of Theology

By Richard Topping

When I was an undergraduate philosophy student, I was taught the principle of charity by Prof. Bernard Suits. He told us that before we begin a critique of someone’s position, first we take the very best reading of the position before we subject it to examination. Do not caricature or misrepresent another person’s point of view or we end up shadow boxing with our own bad interpretation rather than offering a legitimate analysis of an argument. Professor Suits told me this principle is observed mostly in its violation.

God does not get all “supernatural” from time-to-time.

Whole theological schools of thought have begun in response to a misrepresentation of the longer Christian tradition or aspects of it. For example, I have found critiques of an “interventionist god” to be critiques of theologies of the past that, in fact, do not exist. I have not found a major Christian theologian yet that sets up a theology of creation so that God is estranged from the world God creates and therefore can only engage with creation as Creator by interloping. It is God’s world, God is always already involved in it – God does not get all “supernatural” from time-to-time. Islam, Judaism and Christianity agree – God is creating now, creation and providence are ongoing; the world is now and always “upheld by the word of his (the Son’s) power.” (Hebrews 1:3). All this to say, beware of mischaracterizing a position that is not your own. Take the strong version of what you read; do some historical study to inform your perspective for the sake of justice and charity. Check your interpretations against other interpreters. Talk to others in your class to see if your problem in understanding is, well, you.

If philosophers have a principle of charity, Christian readers ought to have an interpretive disposition of an analogous character. We ought to interpret other people as our theological neighbours, whom we honour as creatures made in God’s image, given to us by God for our learning and edification. Their gifts are for us. We ought to linger with our neighbour’s writing, as an act of love, to understand what they want to say to us. One way of thinking about interpreting those who have gone before us in the faith is as an act of “communion with the saints.” Those who went before us, in different times and places, struggled with making sense of the faith in their circumstances, and while different from our own, there are always things to be learned, even if they fall into the “errors to avoid” column. When we interpret with imagination, however, often we observe analogues and precedents that are remarkably prescient for our place and time.

Lots of interpreters will emphasize distance; an imaginative interpreter seeking to learn for the sake of salvation, discipleship and praise sees proximity. Hilary of Poitiers (315-368) has things to teach us about the gendered use of language with respect to God. “The Son was conceived in the womb of the Father,”1 he says. By saying this he contorts what we know of biology so that we speak more truly of God and don’t simply project maleness onto God. Marguerite de Navarre (1492-1549), the Sister of the King of France – Francis I, can teach us about the importance of theological conversation over “ostentatious debates” – like those of Martin Luther and John Calvin – in conversational theological writing.2 The Barmen Declaration (1934)3 made against attempts to coordinate the church to National Socialist ideology inspired both the Belhar Confession (1982)4 against apartheid in South Africa and the recent “Reclaiming Jesus” document (2018)5, which confesses faith in the here and now of the struggle of the Christian Churches in the U.S around truth-telling and racism. The Barmen Delcaration is itself inspired, in part, by the 1528 Ten Theses argued by Berchold Holler and Franz Kolb at Bern and behind them Zwingli, especially in the use of the phrase – “and does not hear the voice of the stranger” – from John chapter 10.6 What shocks a reader of these documents and other authors from the past is not the historical gulf between then and now, but the incredible analogical relevance and immediacy of the past to the present through retrieval. Appropriation of what these friends in the faith teach us requires humility, sustained attention, a teachable frame, and a sanctified imagination open to a word from the communion of saints. We have got to be traditioned to be creative, formed to be transformative, or we repeat the slogans of the age in which we live and call that edgy.

… what these friends in the faith teach us requires humility, sustained attention, a teachable frame, and a sanctified imagination open to a word from the communion of saints.

Another charitable way to construe reading theological texts is by means of the command to ‘honour your father and mother.’ This commandment comes in the second tablet of the law, and is in fact, part of what it means to love some of our closest neighbours, our parents. Parents are not, of course, always correct in their advice or knowledge. Sometimes parents in the faith fail us and lead us astray – the complicity of the church in residential schools and apartheid are pernicious examples. However, parents also have been around longer than their children. They have longer life-experience and, often, faith-experience. Honouring your parents is wise. Listening to those who have struggled with what you now face can save you some unnecessary pain, mis-spent time and lead you from thinness to depth. Honouring our mothers and fathers in the faith also presents a challenge. They disturb us; they make it hard for us to relax in lassez faire clichés – “you can’t fight city hall,” “people never change.” And then along comes the saints who wrote and lived in ways that overturned and changed things. They can inspire us to bother writing and acting in Jesus’ name in our own situation. Listening to ecumenical confessions and creeds of the past, reading theologians commonly esteemed by the church, can help we people of faith with our struggles to be faithful and effective in our time. It does not mean the authors of these documents or any theological writer is infallible – in either their script or their life; it does mean that they have learned and said things commonly recognized as astute, even definitive, for the life of the Christian community through time. They tried to confess Christ in their time, often in the face of adversity. They can disappoint us with their blindness and prejudice; but they can also encourage, shock and inspire us by their example. I think a special measure of sympathy and care needs to be exercised here. We should be more skeptical of our explanatory schemes and prejudices and exercise the greatest possible imaginative sympathy to our predecessors, even in disagreement.

Sometimes reading will make us feel uncomfortable. Our hands will sweat, and our hearts start to race. Be careful not to give up when this happens.

A practical note: we are embodied readers so pay attention to your body when you read. Sometimes reading will make us feel uncomfortable. Our hands will sweat, and our hearts start to race. Be careful not to give up when this happens. Worthy texts have a way of challenging what we have always thought. Learning sometimes involves dislodgement of long held ideas, and that’s threatening. The defensive move is to throw up the safe-guard of theory and use sophisticated tools to protect yourself. The more hermeneutics we learn, the greater the temptation. Instead, we should go for a walk and pray. Pray that in our reading we will be permeable to what we need to hear. It could be that an author is just wrong; it could be that we are being taught, even by God. And so, we try and identify what we read that produced this discomfort. At these moments we are discovering our theology. When cherished beliefs come under scrutiny, it is disorienting. We may need to read further to be charitable to the writer. Perhaps he or she has yet to address the other side of the point or go on to a thicker account of the matter. Or perhaps, we are being reoriented by means of what we are reading. Great texts have a way of doing that especially when and where God is or becomes the active agent by whom we are taught. We all start reading as people of a time and place and we think we know what matters and where in the world we are and what our life might mean. And now, now we encounter a new thing, a new reality, and we are recontextualized in the light of it, and we start to read the world, painful as it is, in terms of the God about whom we are reading. It could be conversion, calling, deepening of the love of God. If we experience the grace of that kind of encounter when we are reading about God, give thanks.

“It’s astonishing, but Christ is so powerful that he can even manifest himself among the theologians. We cannot force him, but every now and then he permits us to see and hear something.”7

Richard Topping is the Principal at the Vancouver School of Theology, and Professor of Studies in the Reformed Tradition.

1. “On the Trinity,” trans. E. W. Watson and L. Pullan, in Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, eds., Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, vol. ix, Second Series (Peabody Massachusetts: Hendrickson, 1994), Book 12, section 8, 219-220. Kathryn Tanner argues: “The gender-bending use of gendered imagery here – a Father with a womb – might very well present the best hope for avoiding the theological reinforcement of male privilege.” Christ the Key (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 215.

2. See for example L’Heptameron of Margaret, Queen of Navarre: Selected Tales, ed. Stanley Appelbaum (Mineola, N.Y.: Dover Publications, 2006). See also Carol Thysell, The Pleasure of Discernment: Marguerite de Navarre as Theologian (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 9.

3. See Eberhard Busch, The Barmen Theses Then and Now, trans., and annotated by Darrell and Judith Guder (Eerdmans: Grand Rapids, 2010) for an excellent treatment of the theses and their ongoing relevance.

4. See Rothney S Tshaka, Confessional Theology? A Critical Analysis of the Theology of Karl Barth and its Significance for the Belhar Confession (Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2013). The book argues for the political significant of confession and demonstrates the relationship between Barmen and Belhar.

5. See, accessed August 17, 2018.

6. See Karl Barth, The Theology of the Reformed Confessions 1923, trans. and ed., by Darrell and Judith Guder (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 2005), 75. Barth’s teaching of Reformed Confessions in 1923 obviously influenced his imaginative repertoire for the Barmen Declaration of 1934 together with the 1933 Dusseldorf Theses. For the genealogy of these influences on Barmen see Eberhard Busch, Barmen Then and Now, 21-22. He notes that using past confessions for present confession involves instruction by the past but that “in order to say the same thing that had once been said, it had to be said a new way.” Ibid., 22.

7. Karl Barth, Barth in Conversation, vol. 2, 1963, ed., Eberhard Busch and trans., Darrell Guder, et. al. (Westminster/John Knox, 2018), 107.