Before You Can Say, 'I Disagree,' You Must Be Able To Say, 'I Understand'

New Testament Exegesis Gordon FeeI am currently reading New Testament Exegesis by Gordan Fee for my Greek Exegesis class. As I was perusing the section about the use of commentaries and secondary resources, I found a paragraph that was extremely helpful to me; not only in writing exegetical papers, but for writing in general and for verbal communication as well. Fee gives wise counsel as he writes on page 33,

A student is not bound to reproduce slavishly the interpretations of others, but you are bound to assess critically what you read. Before you can say, ‘I disagree,’ you must be able to say, ‘I understand.’ It is axiomatic that before you level criticism you should be able to state an author’s position in terms that he or she would find acceptable. After that, you may proceed in six directions:

a. Show where the author is misinformed.

b. Show where the author is uniformed.

c. Show where the author is inconsistent.

d. Show where the author’s treatment is incomplete.

e. Show where the author misinterprets through faulty assumptions or procedures.

f. Show where the author makes valuable contributions to the discussion at hand.

This is excellent counsel, especially for writers. It is simply easier to misrepresent someone’s position and to set up straw-men (weak arguments that your opponent isn’t making) in order to appear as though you have the superior argument. It is difficult to work through the principles Fee provides above. But when you follow this kind of approach to theological discussion and dialog,  you are not only misleading your readers, you are harming yourself, for you are forging patterns of thinking that will lead to greater and greater confusion and lack of clarity. Do the hard work of thinking well, and you and your readers will be blessed.

2 thoughts on “Before You Can Say, 'I Disagree,' You Must Be Able To Say, 'I Understand'”

  1. That’s a great paragraph; it sounds familiar to me from some other source. Mortimer Adler’s “How to Read a Book,” pehaps? I’m pretty sure it has an antecedent.

  2. Bode,

    You are right! I haven’t read Adler’s book, but as I pulled it off my shelf and quickly thumbed through the pages after reading your comment, I found this quote on pages 142-143: “Rule 9. You must be able to say, with reasonable certainty, ‘I understand,’ before you can say any one of the following things: ‘I agree,’ or ‘I disagree,’ or ‘I suspend judgment.'”

    Nice work.

    Derek

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