Wolterstorff’s Dialogical Imperative

By | July 15, 2014


In October 1998 eminent Christian philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff (Yale University, emeritus) delivered a lecture entitled “Tertullian’s Enduring Question”. The lecture was subsequently printed in a publication calledΒ The Cresset in 1999 and it is now available as chapter 13 in the first volume of Wolterstorff’s collected papers. In the lecture Wolterstorff reflects on Tertullian’s famous question from Prescriptions against Heretics (as quoted by Wolterstorff):

What does Jerusalem have to do with Athens, the Church with the Academy, the Christian with the heretic?”

The purpose of Wolterstorff’s essay is to reflect on how Christians should engage with scholarship. After summarizing Tertullian’s largely oppositional approach to non-Christian scholarship, Wolterstorff compares and contrasts it with Clement of Alexandria’s let’s-learn-from-the-pagans-whatever-we-can approach and ultimately proposes a synthesis of the two. In this context he states a principle that is, or should be, fundamental to scholarly interaction, whether between Christians and non-Christians or, more generally, between any two scholars of contrary persuasion:

Thou must not bear false witness against other scholars, be they ancient or contemporary. Thou must not take cheap shots. Thou must not sit in judgment until thou hast done thy best to understand. Thou must earn thy right to disagree. Thou must conduct thyself as if Plato or Augustine, Clement, or Tertullian, were sitting across the table – the point being that it is much more difficult (I do not say impossible) to dishonor someone to his face.

The notion of honoring one’s dialog partner is, Wolterstorff emphasizes, a moral imperative, one that we might add is a corollary of “love your neighbor as yourself”:

[I]f the Christian is going to engage in that practice of our common humanity which is scholarship, then he is thereby under obligation to honor his fellow participants by understanding as well as he can how they are thinking and where, to put it colloquially, they are β€œcoming from.”

This dialogical imperative is something Wolterstorff made a habit of reminding his students of on a weekly basis. It’s something we would all do well to remember.

7 thoughts on “Wolterstorff’s Dialogical Imperative

  1. Michael Kallenberg

    Dr. Rhoda,

    Thank you for posting this principle of scholarly interaction from Nicholas Wolterstorff. I wish more evangelical scholars would heed it (as you know, the majority of evangelical scholars have not followed this principle when it comes to the debate about the openness of the future).

  2. John

    Thanks, Alan, for posting your note. I went looking for something online by Wolterstorff which would touch on ideas he uses in his book Practices of Belief, in particular in chpt 4.

    Starting on p.90, Wolterstorff has a section with the title “Ways of Finding Things Out and Practices of Inquiry.” In short, Wolterstorff “practices what he preaches,” demonstrating the mainly Clement type strategy he discusses in this paper.

    If such a noted scholar as Wolterstorff is constantly engaged in a process of “finding things out”, a process of “inquiry with many practices”, then I had better be prepared to do the same.

  3. Pingback: Wolterstorff mashup: becoming participants in the university | Meet Jesus at uni

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