Within the avalanche of information coming at us, how do we identify true authorities in any domain of knowledge? How do we judge the anonymous Youtube channel, the self-proclaimed discernment ministry, the mega-church pastor, or the well-known author? We need something more than merely an intuitive feeling that a person ‘makes sense’, or ‘seems to know what he’s talking about’. All false teachers do, or they wouldn’t gain a following. Nor can we trust that we have some remarkable internal common-sense. Everyone thinks of himself as a pretty shrewd fellow, while the Bible unflatteringly calls the lot of us sheep. What follows are some suggested methods to wade through the morass.
1) In the case of living teachers of Christian virtue, does the person you trust exemplify the kind of life you are to follow? Is he an example of true Christian piety (Hebrews 13:7)?
2) Does the person you trust himself submit to a tradition? In the case of the Bible teacher, he must be able to defend his position using Scripture, sound reason, and a proven theological method. Something similar holds for a teacher in any other domain, be it science, history, economics, or human behaviour. Can you evaluate his teaching against anything in the past? Does he seem to translate and pass on what has been tried and tested in the past, or is he boasting in his novelty and creativity? The saying is mostly valid: what’s entirely new is seldom entirely true, and what’s entirely true is seldom entirely new.
3) Does the person you trust exemplify right thinking? Does he display good reason, sound judgement, unprejudiced evaluations and fair-minded attitudes? This third qualification carries the catch-22 of ‘it takes one to know one’, so we need to discipline ourselves in the canons of right thought, to be able to see it in another.
That is, when we choose to trust a person as some kind of expert in a particular domain of knowledge, we ought not to do so simply because the person seems to have such knowledge in great quantity. There is little skill in accumulating vast amounts of knowledge, and only marginally more in impressing others with the size of that knowledge. What counts when it comes to the pursuit of truth is of a person demonstrates the ability to think. Right thinking is not vast recall, or enormous powers of regurgitation. Right thinking has to do with how knowledge is assimilated, analysed and judged. People are led astray because they are mesmerised by the sound ‘n fury of a lot of facts and figures. “If someone can remember that much, he must be clever enough for me to trust.”
Mortimer Adler wrote a very important and useful book for the development of right thinking, called How to Read a Book. What follows is an abridged summary of his guidelines for the right assimilation of information, followed by the correct understanding of its meaning and of its significance.
* Come to terms with an author by understanding what the important words are in his work, and what he means by them.
* Having done so, discover the key propositions, premises and conclusions contained in the work.
* From these, understand the author’s argument. Observe if his argument is deductive or inductive. Observe what he assumed. Observe what he says can be proved, what need not be proved and what is self-evident.
* Consider what his solutions are.
* At this point, the work of criticising the contents of the book takes over. Critical judgement will say I agree, I disagree, or I suspend judgement with good reasons for doing so. Critical judgement can only be done when you can state the author’s argument in terms he would agree with.
To judge critically is to acknowledge your emotion, make your assumptions explicit and attempt impartiality. The disagreement will not be mere opinion; it will give reasons for the disagreement without being contentious.
* There are three ways of disagreeing with an author rationally, stated as responses to the author:
1. “You are uninformed” – the author lacks relevant knowledge.
2. “You are misinformed” – the author makes assertions contrary to the facts.
3. “You are illogical” – the author reasons poorly or fallaciously.
A fourth way exists, which is really a way of suspending judgement. It is to say “Your analysis is incomplete,” which is to say that the author has not solved all the problems, or did not see the ramifications and implications of his ideas, or failed to make relevant distinctions, or failed to make as good a use of materials as possible.
Once we have begun to grasp and practise these ways of handling knowledge, we are better off in two ways. First, we are able to better handle the knowledge coming at us from every side. If a book, or website or video fails the tests of right thinking, and does so again and again, there is no reason to trust its analysis or to place much stock in it. Second, we are better able to evaluate the teachers of knowledge themselves. A person who consistently commits fatal errors of logic, whose sources are erroneous, or who mishandles his materials disqualifies himself from our consideration as some kind of expert. No matter what the domain of knowledge, we want to hear from people who think properly when they handle that knowledge.
It might seem that we are a long way from plain biblical discernment when we speak of right thinking. But that is because we have imbibed a form of thinking which divorces the God-glorifying task of good thinking from the God-glorifying task of biblical interpretation. If we think well, we are better able to spot teachers who handle the text of Scripture properly. If we think well, we will consult the right people on various areas of human knowledge., and distinguish the authorities from the posers.