Posted by: chuckbumgardner | July 15, 2017

Represent others’ ideas as you would have others represent yours.

I was pleased to read a good little piece by Larry Hurtado about accurately representing the views of others, most specifically those with whom one disagrees. I received this instruction in no uncertain terms during my master’s work, most specifically from Kevin Bauder. He taught me very simply (but with no doubt as to the importance of the matter) that if I were to present someone’s views, that person should be able to agree wholeheartedly that I had presented them accurately.

This is significant in all of life, of course, but is of signal importance in academia. Anyone in academic circles has seen examples of published interchanges between scholars (presentation-response-rejoinder-surrejoinder) in which the constant refrain is how one scholar in the interchange is not accurately portraying the argument of the other.

I have been involved in editing a theological journal for a few years now, and (as would be expected) have seen a spectrum as to how well this is done. At times, an author’s presentation of an opponent’s position will strike me as a caricature at best, if not inaccurate. When I have dug down into the opponent’s position to check my niggling suspicions, I sometimes find that some level of misrepresentation is occurring—whether intentional or not (and I charitably assume “not”!). Here’s where it gets sticky: Is the author simply not reading carefully? Is the opponent’s position set forth at a level which the author is not comprehending, and so is being too simplistically rebutted? Has the author merely read a portion of the opponent’s full argument, and the resulting lack of holistic and contextual understanding has brought about a misrepresentation? Is the author actually purposefully distorting someone’s position?

An author’s natural inclination to support his own position can easily bring that author to subconsciously (or consciously!) misrepresent the position of his opponent. As Hurtado said, “the temptation to exaggerate or caricature views that you disagree with is very real, and no one is immune to it.” This does not mean that an author has no chance of representing an opponent’s position fairly—but it does mean that the author has to work at it.

I entirely agree with Hurtado’s practice of sending one’s work to the person one is reviewing or with whom one is interacting. I wouldn’t call such a practice essential, but I do think it wise. I have done that with one of my own reviews, and the very determination to do that shaped how I wrote the review, pushing me toward more scrupulous accuracy, and changing the ways in which I stated my critiques.

The Golden Rule could be applied this way in academia: portray your opponent’s arguments with the accuracy and evenhandedness with which you would want your own work portrayed. Represent others’ ideas as you would have others represent yours.




  1. This is a timely and needful entry these days. There is a firestorm occurring within conservative, reformed, evangelical circles right now as a result of inaccurate and slanderous misrepresentation of views. I think it would do us well to consider the two greatest commandments when we take each other to task over perceived differences. Excellent post.

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