Becoming a Discerning Reader

I just finished reading another chapter of Slave by John MacArthur. In it, he recounts the martyrdom of John Huss. Huss happened upon the writings of Wycliffe and they totally changed his life. I know it wasn’t Wycliffe alone that fortified Huss while he burned at the stake, but how did Huss know Wycliffe was right? What if Huss was simply enamored by the novelty of Wycliffe’s ideas about the authority of the church versus the authority of scripture? How did John Huss become convinced that the doctrine of the Catholic church was wrong?

Is there any book you’ve read outside of scripture that presented a new idea or spiritual concept to you for which you would be willing to burn?

The recent online discussions about two different Christian books have had me puzzling over those questions the last couple of weeks.

The two books were written by Christians for a Christian audience and published by Christian presses. The authors use the Bible as the foundation for their ideas. Even so, there has been a great deal of disagreement, even heated argument, among believers about the ideas put forth by the authors. One side is warning the other to avoid a book because of its dangerous, anti-biblical ideas. The other side says, “You’re wrong. You’re exaggerating. Besides, how do you know it’s wrong? Why should I listen to you?”

If Christians are using the same book (the Bible), why are there so many different interpretations? I realize that there are different methods of interpretation that yield different results, but can they all be right simply based on the correct execution of a method of interpretation? Are they all equally valuable? Is it possible for an idea to be right in its own way?

And how do you know that the interpretation, though achieved by the accurate use of an accepted method of interpretation, is taking you down the right road? Authors have hundreds of pages to craft an idea; how do you know whether they’ve taken you to the right or wrong place by the end? Do you simply trust the publisher? Well, it’s a Christian book. I bought it at LifeWay, so it must be good. (“Good” in the sense that it contains truth.) Do you trust the author? Do you trust your feelings about the ideas? Do you trust it because it resonates with your experience and spirit?

These are important questions. For instance, as I mentioned, I’m reading Slave by John MacArthur. Generally, I trust what he writes. In this new book, he has the burden of convincing me that there has been a vast conspiracy among biblical scholars and translators to remove the word “slave” from the New Testament. That’s a pretty big accusation with some real implications for my life. Am I simply going to believe it because it’s John MacArthur? Am I going to disregard his argument because I don’t like the word “slave” or the idea that Jesus owns me? After all, based on my understanding of slavery, that’s not very nice and loving; that doesn’t sound like Jesus. MacArthur is accurately and carefully using a historical-grammatical hermeneutic. The conclusions he’s reaching are correct (based on my limited knowledge of the time period and culture) according to that method. Does that make it truth or just a particular kind of truth? When I finish the last chapter, how will I know whether MacArthur is right or not?

How do you evaluate the veracity of a book? I’m looking forward to reading your comments.



13 Comments on “Becoming a Discerning Reader

  1. Oh, wow, Leslie. This is a good thing to mull over. But I guess in past experience, I trust a book to the measure that it aligns with what I’ve absorbed from the Scriptures, and that would include the way it resonates (or fails to resonate) with my spirit and hopefully the Spirit within me.


  2. I read a lot of books. I’ve always loved to read, but have been really picky about what I read. Because of this, I too have been striving to have more discernment when I am reading a book. These are good things to think about and Lynn says pretty close to what I would have answered. I try to evaluate any ideas being presented in light of God’s Word and the doctrine/theology I tend to lean toward.


    • Yeah, I tend to think like Lynn, too. Here’s another question: where does your certainty come from regarding the doctrine you tend to lean toward?


  3. It is something we should mull over. I for one admit to being a lazy reader. I *like* to read. Just about everything. I read fiction, non-fiction, devotionals, historicals, you name it.

    If everything we read should be edifying and 100% true, then I assume we should just read the Bible and stop there.

    Music & Books are my two areas where I personally don’t struggle so much with not reading/listening to 100% “pure” sources. I’m old enough to discern for myself. My kids, not so much. I’m way more careful about what they’re exposed to.

    But you raise a very valid point Leslie. 🙂 I should probably take more caution to what I give credence to.


    • I’m not saying that everything that we read has to line up 100% with scripture. Quite the opposite, I believe we should read widely and whatever interests us; there’s treasure everywhere if we have the eyes to see it. (Sorry if I didn’t make that clear.) My question is about how much of a book’s message do we absorb and/or incorporate into daily life. What do we accept as truth and how do we determine that?


      • I would argue that everything we read should pas the Phillipians 4:8 test. It can be fiction, but it should be something that eddifies and encourages right and biblical thinking.


  4. Leslie – You’re making some really great observations and raising legitimate questions here. We do live in dizzying times don’t we when it comes to an unprecidented amount of words being written and published. Not just in terms of the major publishing houses, but right here on the Internet. How easy it is to speak, to be heard and to be believed. And to me it’s absolutely frightening to realize that we will all give an account to God for every word we say!

    And just how DO we know, in terms of all those “Biblical teachers” what’s right, whose right, how much are they right, at what point should we stop listening to them?

    Are we in danger of throwing the baby out with the bathwater by rejecting people we don’t completely agree with? Or, on the other hand, if we bite off the meat and spit out the bones, will we be not only endorsing bad teaching to less discerning readers, but perhaps ourselves become slowly poisoned by tainted meat?

    All I can say is, for me I make those judgment calls based on what I know of the Scriptures, and I pray that God will give me wisdom and discernment to do so. I prefer to avoid conflict as much as possible but when I do find myself engaged in controversy I pray that God will also give me geniune humility.

    My best answer to your questions I think can be answered by King Solomon:

    “But beyond this, my son, be warned: the writing of many books is endless, and excessive devotion to books is wearying to the body.

    The conclusion, when all has been heard, is: fear God and keep His commandments, because this applies to every person. For God will bring every act to judgment, everything which is hidden, whether it is good or evil.” Ecclesiastes 12:12-14

    God bless you today sister.


    • Those are some good words to me, Diane, as much as I’ve been writing lately. Thank you!


  5. Great questions, my friend and they make me wish we were all sitting down over coffee to discuss it.

    I would agree with Diane’s sentiment here. My embrace of any book (or other written material) is directly related to what I know from Scripture. I spend more time in Scripture than I do in any other book, and it does exactly what it says it will do…be a lamp unto our feet and a light unto our path.


  6. Scripture is my yardstick. I used to read anything and everything without any shadow of a filter. Then I became involved in an intensive Bible study that forced me to answer cultural issues with Scriptural answers and that challenged me to confront my own personal lifestyle with Scriptural answers. Awkward and uncomfortable, as I realized the myriad of areas where my confession (that Jesus is my Savior) did not line up with my profession (how I was living my life and choices to my own tune and not in surrender to Him).

    I’m not introducing a Savior/Lordship issue here. I’m saying that my life was not experiencing active sanctification. I was choosing to be lazy and disobedient in the efforts of reordering my priorities to reflect a high view of God and His word.

    Learning to measure what I read against Scripture came only after I learned to measure all my life choices against Scripture. Without assigning a strict ordering to that process, it did follow that placing His word in my heart worked towards giving a discerning mind to what I was reading. And whenever now I read something, a something that doesn’t sit quite right, I search Scripture for an answer.

    In short, being a discerning reader is not a 15 min microwaveable event. I believe it requires effort and a teachable heart for persistent self evaluation and humble repentance when in error. Time spent in God’s word does directly impact discernment just as time spent with a friend directly impacts your ability to know what she would like for her birthday. God promises to reveal Himself to those who draw near to Him. I believe Him.


  7. Great article and comments. While I read the Bible (almost) daily, I try to read widely in other genres as well, both spiritual and technological and sports-genres, etc. Mostly Christian authors, but many not. God sends rain on the evil and good, and I believe he has put his gifts in many who don’t recognize him as the source. So I try to discern between truth and lies in each one, whether written by a fellow-Christian or not, and gain what I can from them and trash the rest.


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  9. Good questions. good post. I’ve been thinking along a similar line lately (though not as articulately). I think we often tend to align ourselves with a specific theology or ministry philosophy when it comes from a source we respect. We like to name drop. We talk in theory and intellectual idealism and even when our theology is good, we are rarely good at applying when the rubber meets the road.

    I am seeing people align themselves with famous pastor personalities/ministry philosophies to the detriment of real life relationships. I have seen people post on facebook that ” _______ is absolutely the best and our favorite pastor ever!” and felt sympathy for whoever actually shepherds and cares for that family in real life (not the famous pastor they mentioned). I’ve seen significant portions of church goers leave a body because the leadership refused to denounce a particular famous pastor (for having what many consider a controversial style). I’ve seen a pastor leave a church because it wasn’t conforming to his ministry ideal (as seen in books by his favorite authors) fast enough. All this recently and within the Gospel Coalition/T4G community – and at least one of those instances caused much pain and grief within a local body.

    I guess I’m not talking about just discernment anymore, but I think it does play a part, and I think you’re touching on a very big issue. We read blog posts by other christians and fool ourselves into thinking that because we have intellectual knowledge that we are spiritually mature. I love to read, but God is increasingly showing me that I need to be sure I am prioritizing his Word over anything written by humans, even when it is biblically based. I know I’m not a scholar and I benefit GREATLY from commentators and learned theologians – but I think it’s easy to forget that we need our hearts to be renewed day by day. We NEED the Holy Spirit to change us, and He does so through the supernatural power of the living Word of God, the Bible. Tossing around opinions, methods, and quotes from respected authors/pastors can be good, but we can do those things very pridefully, and in graceless ways that belie our faith in the sovereignty of God and do not display the love of Jesus.

    Okay, I should probably stop rambling (ranting?) now. I preach to myself as much as anyone. =)


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