Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Let the Reader Beware: Warning Labels on Theology Books

From time to time a student will ask me about what commentaries they should use/purchase. I usually provide the standard answer about buying individual volumes rather than an entire set since every series has its winners and losers.  My answer is usually followed by a request that the faculty at Ashland Seminary create a list of what is, in our opinion, some of the best resources to buy. This is a fair request from students, but one that we have never taken the time to complete.

So I was intrigued when I noticed that someone had posted a “Basic Library Book-list” prepared by the faculty at another seminary. I opened the list and began to look over the various recommended resources. I looked over the Old Testament section and recognized a number of familiar volumes, especially under Genesis where I am wont to spend my time when not in the New Testament.

But since I am by trade a New Testament scholar, I quickly scrolled down to that section and began perusing the list. I looked over the Matthew section and was surprised not to see Hagner’s commentary listed. But I did see Nolland listed under the section on Luke, so they must not have an issue with Word Biblical Commentary. I looked further and saw more names I recognized and thus concluded that the faculty at this seminary didn't think Hagner’s work made their type five list. But then I noticed that there was precious little from Jimmy Dunn, Joseph Fitzmyer and Tom Wright, to name a few. “What an unusual list,” I thought.

Then my eye landed on one individual’s name and I felt a bit better, but only for a moment. For next to his name was what looked like a little cross, the kind publishers will use to indicate that the author has passed away. My heart skipped a beat with the sudden realization that I had somehow failed to miss the passing of another great NT scholar.

I performed a Google search forthwith, but was unable to find any evidence that this person had passed away. I returned to the list and confirmed that it was his name that had the little cross before it. And then I noticed there were a number of names with little crosses. This time, however, there was no skipping of the heart. I knew many of these people and they are certainly not dead. I began looking for the place in the document that explained the meaning of the little cross.

That was when I discovered that it wasn't a cross, but a little dagger. And next to the dagger was this explanation:

† The dagger symbol indicates that a book, although valuable, contains some theological errors and, therefore, must be used with special discernment. Books that differ from a (particular theological) viewpoint are not so marked.

Now my heart fell out of my chest. This list of best resources also came with a warning label: “Let the Reader Beware.” In other words, guard your mind and soul as you use these resources.

I was taken back since I don’t live and work in a world where these types of theological warning labels exist. Certainly I will advise a student that a particular author, volume, or series has a particular theological, historical or methodological point of view. But I don’t warn them that they could be in mortal peril if they use them. My goal is to always encourage students to read widely and use any source that helps them to best answer their questions. Not infrequently, this will mean using resources that we don’t always agree with, but can learn from.

I wonder, what kind of theological thinkers are we training? Do we want those who can’t think for themselves or have to be warned that a particular resource may challenge some of their own theology? Is this truly what it means to educate?

When first found this list I thought perhaps I could “borrow” it from the seminary (with permission of course) and edit it to fit the preferences of our faculty and the needs of our students. But as I look closer I recognize I will still have to build my own list. At the same time it reminded me that, when I finally do create such a list, that I also consider why I may or may not include certain books. Am I truly picking the best resources, or am I subconsciously telling the reader to “beware” by not including them?