Do You Read Primary Sources? If Not, You Should

by John Ellis

I’m enjoying working through Stuart Hackett’s The Resurrection of Theism: Prolegomena to Christian Apologetics. A dense book, in which Dr. Hackett interacts and contends with some of the world’s greatest thinkers throughout the ages as he makes his argument, it does not make for breezy reading. The Resurrection of Theism most likely does not belong in the stack of books next to your beach chair (at least, not mine). It does hold immense value for the Christian (and non-Christian), though. The time and cognitive capital spent digesting Dr. Hackett’s arguments are beyond balanced out in the intellectual/spiritual balance sheet … was going to be my thesis, until I thought about it a little more.

Look, before proceeding further, please don’t misunderstand; this will be an article in which I may need to provide the disclaimer to hear what I’m saying and not what I’m not saying. Far be it from me to encourage anyone to set a book down. And I definitely don’t want to discourage would-be readers of any book. Jump in the deep end. Blow up your synapses. Glaze your eyes over in dubiety. Seriously, reading books beyond our current cognitive depth is enriching, both intellectually and existentially/spiritually. However, as I contemplated recommending Dr. Hackett’s masterpiece another thought elbowed its way into my mind: The lack of knowledge of the book’s primary sources will likely make the book more difficult to read than necessary and, possibly more importantly, set the reader up to be unduly swayed by the cogent and persuasive arguments of Dr. Hackett. How can the reader be assured that he or she agrees with Hackett’s interpretations of his primary sources as well as his presuppositions based off those interpretations that are baked into his arguments? In turn, what assurance does Hackett’s persuaded reader have that his or her agreement is justified? So, instead of writing an encouragement to dig into The Resurrection of Theism, I offer the plea to prioritize the reading of primary sources at least alongside, if not above, the reading of secondary sources.

In his book, Dr. Hackett argues for rational empiricism as a basis for Christian apologetics. For example, in the first sentence of chapter 1, he writes:

“Rational empiricism, as I profess it, is the doctrine that knowledge is possible only because it involves the combination of two elements: a mind that comes to experience with a structure of thought in terms of which it is necessarily disposed to understand that experience – this is the a priori or ‘before experience’ element; data upon which this structure of thought terminates to gain specific knowledge of particulars – this is the a posteriori or ‘after experience’ element.”

That’s a long sentence, and one packed with much intellectual meat for chewing. But what if you lack the “teeth” to adequately chew it? How do you know Dr. Hackett’s interpretations and conclusions drawn from his primary sources that are shaping his arguments are legitimate? By the time you complete the book, you may find yourself in agreement with an argument based on presuppositions and conclusions that you would otherwise disagree with; ergo, your agreement with Dr. Hackett may be fool’s gold – fool’s gold you trumpet to others, contributing to the spread of ideas and beliefs that are ill-informed or, possibly, not true. For example, without a working knowledge of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, a book Dr. Hackett leans heavily on, both positively and negatively, the reader is sure to be confused, at best. At worst, the reader may find him or herself in an unearned agreement or disagreement. Extending that, without an understanding of the epistemologies of Descartes, Locke, and Hume, to name a mere and the most obvious three of the philosophers Kant was responding to, I fear much of the richness of The Resurrection of Theism is lost.

Again, please don’t hear what I’m not saying. I’m not claiming that Dr. Hackett’s thesis and subsequent arguments should be rejected. I’m saying that unless the reader is conversant with his primary sources, how can the reader really know?

Dialing down the headier example of Dr. Hackett and his primary sources, I offer two other books as examples: Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World by Tom Holland (not the actor currently playing Spiderman) and Our Program: A Christian Political Manifesto by Abraham Kuyper. Both books are enriching, enjoyable reads. Both interact with themes and trends important to Christians (and non-Christians). And, like The Resurrection of Theism, both books’ arguments are based on specific understandings of history, philosophy, theology, and sociology built on stated and unstated interactions with primary sources.

Dominion dominated many evangelical reading-lists this past year, and for good cause. A fascinating, well-researched, and easily digested book, it’s one of those rare books that feel just as comfortable next to a beach chair as it does in a stodgy stack of weighty tomes. But, like all well-written, well-argued books, Tom Holland’s book has a distinct reading of its sources. Are you literate enough in the course of Western history, not to mention the philosophical trends and theological evolution of the Church, to legitimately say that you agree or disagree with the thesis? Holland makes certain claims and comes to conclusions that are dependent on specific interpretations and analyses of historical, philosophical, and theological trends. Without some level of understanding of Holland’s primary sources, the reader doesn’t have enough knowledge to adequately or legitimately express either agreement or disagreement.

Kuyper’s book, Our Program, has been massively influential among a large segment of the Reformed Christian world, and not without reason. Thought-provoking, often clear-eyed, and with the goal of honoring God and serving His people, the book offers a blueprint for a robust political theology. The thing is, and this is just one criticism I have, Kuyper’s understanding of the English and American revolutions is naïve and surprisingly ill-informed. For one thing, he sees far more ideological daylight between those revolutions, specifically the American Revolution, and the French Revolution than can be justified by history and philosophy. But how would the reader know that if the reader hasn’t studied the histories and the philosophies undergirding and defining the Enlightenment era revolutions? To make it personal, how do you know my criticism is justified without a fluency in those histories and philosophies?

To reiterate, my intention is not to discourage anyone from reading anything. Read The Resurrection of Theism. Read Dominion. Read Our Program. In doing so, though, be wary of accepting the thesis and arguments wholesale unless/until you’ve interacted with primary sources. And, more importantly, read primary sources. I understand that it’s not possible to read, for example, the entirety of Dr. Hackett’s bibliography, even removing books that fall under the tag secondary sources; the bibliography includes one hundred and twenty five books (assuming my count is correct) beginning with St. Anselm and ending with William Kelley Wright.[1] That’s a daunting (and expensive) list to complete, and that’s the bibliography of just one book. While there is overlap, of course, Dominion’s bibliography is even longer. Our Program doesn’t include a bibliography, but if you were to chase down the sources Kuyper cites, the list would be comparable in length to the other two. However, alongside of books like the ones discussed in this article, I encourage you to be intentional about reading the “great” books that are generally considered at the vanguard of Western thought.[2]

To that end, I will be compiling and publishing a list of the “primary sources” of the Western canon that I believe all lovers of knowledge and wisdom should read and be conversant with. Please note, and I will reiterate this in the introduction to the forthcoming list, but the descriptor “incomplete” will be stressed. Whatever its flaws and omissions, though, my hope is that the list will be useful for those wanting to engage a wider world of thought than they have previously engaged with. On a personal note, when I began my journey into the literary world of philosophy, theology, etc., I would have been well-served by such a list. Lord willing, I will have the list compiled and published within the week. Stay tuned.

Soli Deo Gloria

[1] By way of possibly useless trivia, Dr. MLK, Jr. wrote a paper in college on William Kelley Wright. You can read that paper, if you so desire, by clicking here.

[2] I am woefully and shamefully uninitiated into the worlds of Asian, African, and Middle Eastern thought/ideas. Lord willing, I will be beginning a reading program to correct that deficiency in the near future.

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