Student in a School of Fools
I recently finished a refreshing and encouraging conversation, recorded for a future podcast, with my friend Tim Challies on the subject of writing. One of the things covered in that conversation was dealing with criticism. The irony is that each of us has at one time or another criticized, or at least critiqued the other. Tim is quite clear on his conviction that public schools are a viable option for Christian parents. I’ve been quite clear over the years that I think not. Our pens, mightier than swords, have crossed. That, however, has not kept me from being blessed by, served by, taught by Tim.
Too often, perhaps especially among we who are Reformed, we are binary when it comes to those we are willing to learn from. We tend to be either all in, or all out. We assign a white hat or a black hat to every preacher, writer, or podcaster we take in, and often, dramatically strip our heroes of their white hat when they cross us or our convictions. Now I’m not of a mind that suggests we ought to surround ourselves with bad teachers to make us stronger. I am persuaded, however, that the issue ought more to be good teaching than good teachers, or as the case may be, bad teaching rather than bad teachers.
When I was a younger man I looked upon virtually every conversation as an opportunity for battle. As a college student I regularly called my dad after class and let him know of the great victories I imagined I had won. He, being wise, cautioned me—you can learn something from all of your professors. You’ll serve yourself better being a discerning student than a tilting Quixote. Trusting the teaching of my own father, I have sought to be just that, a discerning student.
The truth is that I disagree with everyone but me. While I acknowledge that I’m not right about everything, nonetheless everything I believe I believe. I don’t believe I’m always right, but I do always believe I’m right. Thus all of my teachers are people with whom I disagree. While all of them have blessed me despite their errors, many of them have blessed me by exposing my own errors. My counsel is to learn the strengths of your teachers, and mine deep there. I don’t get my eschatology from my dispensational brothers. But many of them are quite adept at breaking down a tough passage of Scripture. I don’t look for sacramental insights from my Baptist brothers, but many of them are right on the money on how we have peace with God.
But the principle goes well beyond intramural debates. C.S. Lewis, as many scholars are all too happy to point out, didn’t fit neatly into the evangelical subculture that so admires him. But boy howdy when he’s on, he is on. Few writers I am aware of have such an insightful capacity to expose the nature of our sin, or even the glory of our Maker. G.K. Chesterton, another occupant of great swaths of my bookshelf was even more far afield than Lewis. But he had many of the same strengths. This doesn’t undo my convictions on either the manner of our justification, nor the inescapable importance of the doctrine, any more than reading Luther, the great champion of justification by faith alone, tempts me to become, well, a Lutheran.
We serve a God who delights to make straight lines with crooked sticks. I pray He is able to use a sinner like me, with all my errors and my warts. If He can use me to serve the kingdom, He can use anyone. May we all be faithful Bereans. May we beware a sloppy feel-good ecumenism that blurs critical distinctions. But may we learn to give thanks for all the Balaam’s asses that He speaks through even in our day. Reject error, by all means. But rejecting those who make errors means rejecting the crooked sticks our Lord uses to make straight lines.