My freshman year of college was a humbling time for me. As a student in high school, I’d discovered a talent for writing that had impressed many of my teachers. I’d even won a few awards in some interschool writing competitions. So when I strolled into class that first day on campus, I was prepared to show this English Professor the kind of talent he was dealing with. I’ll never forget what he scribbled over the first assignment I handed in,
“Disappointing. You can do better.”
Once the sting of those words had faded, I was forced to admit he had been right. His criticism helped me grow into a better student, a better writer, and in some ways, a better person. Justin Taylor, of The Gospel Coalition, believes healthy criticism is a vital part of building a strong theology. However, as he states in a recent blog post, this can be a difficult task for Christians,
“Critique—done well—is a gift to the one being criticized. (‘Faithful are the wounds of a friend,’ Prov. 27:6). We should welcome the opportunity to have our thinking corrected and clarified. We 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.”
To help Christians develop their ability in constructive criticism, Taylor offers three exercises to remember when engaging another’s theology,;
Understand Before You Critique
“A man of knowledge uses words with restraint, and a man of understanding is even-tempered.” – Proverbs 17:27
Taylor urges his readers to try and understand a point of view before they cast judgment on it, as quick words often lead to division. Jesus commands us to love our neighbor as our self (Mark 12:31), so we must approach every situation with an open mind and an open heart.
Drawing on John Frame’s How to Write a Theological Paper, Taylor asks believers to meditate on these questions,
1. Can I take my source’s idea in a more favorable sense? A less favorable one?
2. Does my idea provide the only escape from the difficulty, or are there others?
3. In trying to escape from one bad extreme, am I in danger of falling into a different evil on the other side?
4.Can I think of some counter-examples to my generalizations?
5. Must I clarify my concepts, lest they be misunderstood?
6. Will my conclusion be controversial and thus require more argument than I had planned?
Offer Your Alternative
Lastly, Taylor encourages Christians to share their thoughts and alternatives to any issue, realizing that sometimes there are better arguments to be made. The Bible teaches us that two Christians working together can do more than two apart (Ecclesiastes 4:9), and that our differences can complement one another in useful ways (Proverbs 27:17). Though Christians will still make mistakes, these three points can help us become better critics, and perhaps even better servants of God.
What about You? What are your thoughts on constructive criticism, and how can Christians become better critics?
*Ryan Duncan is the Entertainment Editor for Crosswalk.com