Four Reasons Why Public Critique Does Not Invoke Matthew 18
In following the dialogue on Ref21 between Drs. Belcher and Collins, I was struck by a complaint from Collins that Belcher should have picked up the phone and discussed his concerns privately. This demand for personal contact prior to public criticism of published writings is becoming almost ubiquitous these days. We even hear complaints that public critique violates Matthew 18 unless there has private dialogue first. Let me offer the following four reasons why this is completely wrong:
1. Matthew 18 establishes a procedure for dealing with personal sins, not public debate. "If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault," said our Lord (Mt. 18:15). This establishes personal sin as the context in which Matthew 18 governs our actions. In contrast, disagreement with a public figure in his published writings falls into a completely different category. As the author of many books, I have received a good number of negative reviews. In none of these cases did I think I was being accused of a sin, and even if I was it was not a sin committed privately against the person who criticized me. The charge, "Matthew 18 requires you to contact me first," is simply contrary to the purpose of this passage of Scripture. (Let me clarify that I am not aware of Dr. Collins charging Dr. Belcher with violating Matthew 18. I use this merely as an example of the kind of exchange that does not invoke Matthew 18.)
2. Just as private matters should be handled privately, public matters should be handled publicly. When someone publishes a book or article, they are disseminating their ideas to the public and making an impact on many people. This entails the responsibility of welcoming public criticism for that book or article. If there are matters of concern with respect to what one has written, those concerns need to be aired in a venue that is available to the same people who were impacted by the book or article. If there needs to be clarification, let the clarification be given publicly before the audience, not privately. If further debate and discussion will clarify the author's meaning, let that clarification be given publicly so that the impacted audience may benefit from it. In the case of Drs. Collins and Belcher, the debate involves a matter of Old Testament interpretation between two Old Testament professors who teach at confessional Reformed seminaries. Once the matter has gone public (in this case, via Collins' books and articles), its professional discussion also needed to be public.
3. When an author happens to be an officer under confessional vows to the Church, writings that impact the application of those standards are a public, not a private matter. In the case I mention above, Dr. Belcher pointed out that the kind of mere-Adam-and-Eveism promoted by Dr. Collins' book cannot help but impact the way confessional standards are applied in ordination exams. Westminster Larger Catechism 17 specifies a literal interpretation of Genesis 2:7 in which God created Adam and Eve as the first humans, Adam "of the dust of the ground" and Eve "of the rib of the man." In pretty obvious contrast, Belcher quotes Collins as saying that genetic studies may force us to "perhaps reconceive of Adam and Eve as 'the king and queen of a larger population.'" This, Collins points out, will "preserve Genesis' historicity," which is true, but it would not preserve the doctrine required by the Larger Catechism. The point is that when men under confessional vows publish writings pertaining to confessional doctrines, those writings have a public impact on the way the church views its confession. For this reason, it is not a personal but a public matter and should be dealt with publicly. I thought it was quite revealing that Dr. Collins defended himself by saying that he "was not writing to replace any denominational confessions." This defense fails to recognize that since 1) Dr. Collins is previously bound to a certain confessional doctrine (WLC 17); and now 2) publicly states that contrary views are acceptable to Scripture; it is unavoidable to conclude that 3) he - the chairman of Old Testament at the PCA's denominational seminary - publicly holds that the confessional standard is wrong. To be sure, Dr. Collins did not write the words, "the Larger Catechism is wrong," but the obvious effect of his writing is to make a case to that very effect. This is not to say that Dr. Collins should be flayed for writing this, but it is to say that once this view is publicly disseminated then it must be debated publicly as well.
4. We must realize that teaching and publishing entails a public responsibility that invokes public scrutiny and criticism. As James put it, "Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness" (James 3:1). Part of this "greater strictness" is the public criticism that accompanies the privilege of public teaching.
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