This article is going to be different than my usual brand of writing, as it does not directly pertain to textual criticism, but rather research methods. Research methods is the most neglected topic of study, in my opinion. Many people are easily fooled by academics because they are unfamiliar with how to evaluate footnotes and sources. I recently had a book recommended to me called Stamped from the Beginning, which I was told was legitimate because it had “hundreds of footnotes.” When I began to read it, I noticed that many of the footnotes were simply references to the author’s peers and colleagues. When I studied The King James Only Controversy, I found many issues with the way footnotes were employed. In both cases, the authors utilized footnotes and citations to give the guise of credibility despite the footnotes not providing any value to the point that was being made.
In almost every modern controversy that I have taken the time to research, it seems to be the case that the way authors cite their sources and approach historical studies is rather vacuous. This is especially the case with popular level writers more so than scholars. This effectively means that a scholar or non-scholar can cite another work while simply imposing their own viewpoint over the historical data without regard to the citation itself. The citation does not need to be relevant, nor does the author need to represent the cited material accurately, because the chances of the reader actually checking the validity of the citations is extremely low. This creates the effect of a work being well researched, well cited, while at the same time being nothing more than assertions presented by the author. Yet, it has “hundreds of footnotes,” and is therefore “legitimate.” In this article, I’d like to detail what is called gatekeeping (probably a different application of the word than you are used to) while pointing out how various modern tactics can mislead readers under the guise of “proper scholarship.”
Research Methods: Gatekeeping
Gatekeeping is one of the most valuable skills any reader can employ as they approach a new text. Simply put, a gatekeeper is someone that stands in between two points. Gatekeeping, as it pertains to studying, is a method that stands in between the reader and the author. In the application of evaluating a work, gatekeeping allows a reader to identify the quality of a citation. It is easy to read a book with hundreds of citations, and think that it is well sourced and legitimate on those grounds alone. It gives the reader a false sense of security that the material is more trustworthy than it actually is in reality. That is why gatekeeping is so important. It protects the reader’s mind from any unlawful access.
Simply put, gatekeeping is the process of researching the research. When a reader stumbles upon a footnote, he should test the quality of that citation. Who is the author citing? What are the qualifications of the cited source material? What are the beliefs or systems set forth by the author of cited material? Does the cited material directly apply to the point the author is making within the main text? Is the cited material well sourced itself or just the same assertion being made by another author? Answering these questions will help a reader develop a mature understanding of the material.
It is not enough simply to cite a source, that source has to be meaningful to the point the author is making. It has to amplify the credibility of an assertion by adding weight. It grounds an assertion to reality. Many footnotes fail to do this, yet give the reader a false sense of security that a point is legitimate simply because the footnote or citation exists. It is often the case, especially in modern scholarship, that scholars will incestuously cite scholars within their own camp to prove a point that was no more established in the cited source material than it is in the work where the citation is employed.
Another way that gatekeeping protects the reader is by evaluating the system of the of the author of cited material. In a book recently published by a well known Reformed Baptist on Covenant Theology, the author makes repeated reference to Meredith Kline, JV Fesko, Tom Schreiner, and John Owen when making points supporting his framework of Reformed Baptist Covenant Theology. It is always a red flag when an author utilizes source material to arrive at a different conclusion than the cited text. The author may not be wrong for doing so, but the reader must ask, “Why is the author using material to support a point that the cited material wasn’t making?” The reader must demand that the author justify the use of every citation, and connect that justification to the actual point being made. It is not wrong to cite sources from people who disagree, but it is important that the reader scrutinize those citations if the author does not make the purpose of using such a citation abundantly clear in his point.
Simply put, the reader must ensure that the author is accurately representing the data, or at least explain why he is using a citation to support a different system than that which was set forth in the cited material. A careful reader examines the validity of every citation. In this example, it is important to try and understand why modern Reformed Baptists are using John Owen to support a new system on Reformed Baptist covenant theology. If the claim is that “this is what Baptists believed,” why must the author travel to different systems to support it? The author may be justified in the citation, but the reader must apply a careful eye to ensure that he does not adopt an incongruent view. It is not the case that Reformed Baptist is necessarily incorrect for citing a Paedobaptist or New Covenant Theologian, but the reader must take the time to ask and answer the questions if the author doesn’t make it abundantly clear. Do not allow an author to smuggle an idea into your brain in the trojan horse of a footnote. A careful reader must demand that an author justify his citations. If the author has not done that, there is no reason to accept any assertion supported by such a citation.
In every discipline, whether it be political science, critical studies, Biblical studies, etc., modern academic methods have played on the reader’s ignorance in evaluating cited material to make assertions that the cited material does not support. As a reader, you must demand that an author not only cite his sources, but also justify those sources. Why is the author employing this source? Is the cited material saying the same thing as the author? Did the author of the cited material arrive at a different conclusion than the author who cited it, and did the author interact with that disagreement? Is the cited material sound in itself or is it just another scholar making the same assertion? In short, what is the value of the cited material, and how does it support the point the author is making?
Taking the time to be a gatekeeper will protect your mind from adopting vain philosophies. It will teach you to scrutinize new teachings. It will teach you to avoid adopting a new perspective on something too hastily. As a reader myself, I never adopt a position on the grounds of one author’s perspective. It is important to read a wide body of material, representing many sides of an issue, prior to settling on a topic. This is especially relevant to the discussion of textual criticism. Most people approach the conversation as an argument, seeking to prove their point while doing research into other viewpoints. If this is how a reader operates, he will most certainly arrive at the conclusion he started with in the beginning. It is the same phenomenon that occurs with low information voters. Assertions are as good as absolute truth, and nothing can change that in the minds of the undiscerning. When it comes to the issue of textual criticism, the practice of gatekeeping could not be more important when it comes to evaluating the claims of modern scholars. Hopefully this article, though off-topic for this blog, will help my reader as they approach the discussion of textual criticism.