When I first became committed to the things of the Lord, I was a sponge. I took whatever anyone was giving so long as they said they loved Jesus. I bought whatever was sold as long as it had a cross on it. I remember my bookshelf when I was just beginning. It consisted of J. Vernon McGee’s five-volume transcription of his Through the Bible Radio broadcasts and Josh McDowell’s Evidence that Demands a Verdict Volume 2. I literally thought there could only be one or two other people on earth studying Christianity as deeply as I was. After all, I had never heard of anyone who had a “commentary” on the Bible. I kid you not, I started taking my McGee commentaries on dates and giving Bible studies to girls who could care less about the Bible, but would humor me as I expounded on my discoveries about the birth narrative of Jesus. Being so new to the area of Christian scholarship, I had no discernment about what was good and what was bad. I did not even know there was such a thing as a “bad” category out there! I remember opening the cabinet where my mother kept all her Christian books and finding a storehouse of treasures. I read everything I could get my hands on. After all, if it was published, it must be good. At least that is how I thought…then.

I suppose my first exposure to the “dark side” of this world came when I read a book about the evil origin of all other Bible translations other than the King James Version. I was completely blown away. Everything I knew was wrong. There was a secret deception in the Christian camp! And the guys who wrote about this deception knew what they were talking about. At least, as far as I knew, they knew what they were talking about. After all, they were referring to history, Greek, and textual issues. This was all stuff I had never heard about. I supposed they had uncovered a secret plot. And I bought it. Why? Because I did not know any better. However, over the next few months, I investigated more thoroughly and found out there were going to be some issues were I to blindly accept their “scholarship.” First, I would have to reject just about everything I had read to date. Luckily, J. Vernon McGee used the King James, so he was safe. But most of the other books I had been reading used a variety of “off-limits” translations. Second, I came find out there were others out there who knew history, Greek, and textual issues, who did not agree with the findings of the King James Version crowd.

Over the years, I committed myself to becoming an expert in whatever area related to my Christian studies. I first started with textual criticism. I read everything I could find on the issue. I eventually made the decision that the position claiming the King James Version was the only acceptable translation (which I soon found out was called “King James Only”) was off-base, to say the least. That was one of the easier decisions to make. I then moved to issues of creation/evolution. I exhausted myself trying to learn everything that was known, said, and argued about every position out there. I even carried around a notecard workbook with all the terms, positions, and arguments, and would quiz my family and friends (they eventually quit hanging around me!). Then I moved to studies of Revelation. Then to the “synoptic problem.” Then to the charismatic gifts debate. Then to the canon. Everywhere I went, I entered with a desire to understand as well as anyone out there (after all, I had a mind that worked just as well as anyone’s), but was left scratching my head, finding it hard to know who to trust.

Today, things are only more confusing. It was bad enough back then. But now with the internet, there is no end to alternative positions, soapboxes, and know-it-alls. I have finally realized I could never be an expert in every area. In fact, I was losing hope at becoming an expert in any one area. I had a choice to make. The way I figured, I could do one of four things: 1) keep plugging away at everything, hoping I could someday speak with authority on all things; 2) close my eyes, hold my ears, and just make the choices I hoped were best;3) become a hopeless relativist, believing that the never-ending options translated into never finding “the” truth; or 4) find a way to lean on trusted sources of integrity.

I have chosen number four. I will never be an expert on everything, but I can find honorable and studied men and women who are truly searching for the truth and have devoted more time than I will ever be able to log in their area of expertise. Like it or not, I have to “outsource” much of my studies to other people. I call this “referred conviction.”

Referred Conviction: knowledge or belief that comes through the valid trust we place in the expertise of another.

Although every one of these could be a blog post in itself, here are the things I generally look for in a scholar:

    • Do they have a reputable education?
    • Are they balanced?
    • Are they overly dogmatic?
    • Are they overly non-committal (i.e. “academic agnosticism”)?
    • Do they recognize and bring to light the difficulties with their own positions when debatable?
    • Are they prone to demonize those who don’t agree, or do they speak to them with a humble, respectful tone?
    • Are they recognized and/or endorsed by others whom I deem to be reliable?
    • Does their position ostracize other positions solely due to their associations (i.e., “this can’t be right, it is held by Catholics”)?
    • Have they recanted or admitted when they have been wrong before (this is a big one, as it shows the scholar is not “in it” to hold a fort, but to discover truth)?
    • Do they know when to quit?
    • Is their scholarship and ambition based on a fringe or nonessential issue?
    • Is their identity found in and tied to a particular institution, denomination, or ministry which demands certain conclusions?
    • Do they know and promote the difference between essentials and nonessentials?

I could go on, but I think this gives you an idea of what I mean. And you know what? It is sad to say, but when these criteria are followed, the choices for good “scholars” shrink quite a bit. I am not saying every one of these must be present in perfection, but if five or six are represented, then I have good reason to refer my conviction to that individual.

Some of you may be asking why “Christ-honoring” is not one of the criteria.  You must understand that these criteria have come to define “Christ-honoring” to me.

By the way, if I see these phrases represented too much, I quickly move on:

“I am absolutely certain that . . .”
“There is not a doubt in my mind . . .“
“The church has always believed . . .”
Everyone knows that . . .”
“It is perfectly clear . . .”
No educated person believes . . .”
Nothing could be further from the truth.“
“How can you be so stupid?”
“Have you completely lost your mind?”

Conversation stoppers do not a valid argument make.

C Michael Patton
C Michael Patton

C. Michael Patton is the primary contributor to the Parchment and Pen/Credo Blog. He has been in ministry for nearly twenty years as a pastor, author, speaker, and blogger. Find him on Patreon Th.M. Dallas Theological Seminary (2001), president of Credo House Ministries and Credo Courses, author of Now that I'm a Christian (Crossway, 2014) Increase My Faith (Credo House, 2011), and The Theology Program (Reclaiming the Mind Ministries, 2001-2006), host of Theology Unplugged, and primary blogger here at Parchment and Pen. But, most importantly, husband to a beautiful wife and father to four awesome children. Michael is available for speaking engagements. Join his Patreon and support his ministry

    25 replies to "How I Find Scholars I Can Trust"

    • Daniel

      So how do we keep a “referred conviction” from becoming a fallacious appeal to authority?

    • Don


      Sounds like a very similiar story to mine. I thought that because Gail Riplinger had a Masters Degree that she was an authority on the KJV issue. Now that I almost have mine, I wouldn’t consider myself an authority on much apart from the Gospel. I think I have held most of the varying positions within Christian orthodoxy at one time or another. My days of arguing are over but I am more than inclinded to teach or walk a person through what I believe. The Theology Program and your blogs help me and others do just that. Thanks.

    • Aaron Walton

      I would be happy to see you reply to the first post.

      According to your above criterion, why should I do any reading outside of my denomination? Why shouldn’t I refer all my convictions to MacArthur or J. Vernon McGee? They are much more learned than I.

      While I completely understand where you come from, I would like it if you could address the Christian’s personal responsibility to doctrine.

    • Michael

      Fortunately, by the time I heard the arguments about the King James being a more pure version because it was translated from the “higher Greek”, I already knew that the Bible was written in common Greek.

      It does take some wrestling to see who you trust. Yes, part of the key is knowing that trust and agreement don’t always go together. And we should always be humble about our ability to know anything with certainty.

      “When we are at our wits end for an answer, then the Holy Spirit can give us an answer. But how can He give us an answer when we are still well supplied with all sorts of answers of our own?” -Karl Barth

    • Jeff Ayers

      while that list of criteria for determining who to trust has merit, may i suggest another list:

      1. Do they hold to a works salvation gospel in any form (i.e. lordship salvation, endurance to stay saved or prove they are saved, defining faith as a faith that works etc.) —if they are not saved by grace alone through faith alone in christ alone for eternal life, then how can i trust what they say on any matters regarding the Scriptures?

      2. Do they hold to a high view of scripture i.e. that the Scriptures are the sole authority for all faith, truth and doctrine?

      3. Are they intellectually honest? i.e. if they know of differing evidence do they suppress it, if they know that their theology is refuted by other clear passages do they stick with it anyway, if they are presented with sound refutation, will it give them pause to at least consider they are wrong?

      4. Is their hermeneutic one of taking the bible in a plain normal and literal sense, unless the text gives clear reason to treat it allegoricaly, symbolically or spiritually?

      5. As much as you can ascertain, is their life lived in a pure, clean and holy (blameless) manor?

      6. is there a balance of living out what they are teaching including the consistent and regular verbal presentation of the gospel?

      7. Are they humble enough to be corrected by a person without degrees, notoriety or stature if an error is pointed out to them?

      8. Do they use exegesis, comparing scripture with scripture, rightly dividing and an understanding of the uniqueness of Pauls apostleship to form their positions, or is it formed by what other scholars, colleges, professors and authors say on any given subject?

      9. Do they correct the Bible when it differs with their position by appealling to another version, greek/ hebrew “expert” or a variant reading?

      10. Will they change their doctrine to match the scriptures, or the scriptures to match their doctrine?

      • Jack Lowe

        Agree w/ all of Jeff Ayers points! By the way I use to know a Jeff Ayers from “Conch Country” down south, would you be the same “Jeff Ayers” if so – Shoot me an email @ – be nice to catch up w/ you – “[email protected]

    • Aaron Walton

      I take offense at your list.
      First, as in my post (#3), can we justify only reading within our denomination? Is that really even treating others as if they are really Christians?
      Second, where then will we be corrected as in your #3 if everyone agrees with one another?

      One of my Dispensational Professors commented that Vern Poythress pointed out that Dispensationalists use “literal” in 4 different ways, my professor admitted his point at the time was valid. How would he have come across this without the humility to read others who “do not take a literal reading”?

      Also, I am not a Dispensationalist, yet I agree with the content of your #4; however, I feel #4 is written to exclude people like me. I do not know anyone personally who would not take the ‘literal’ meaning unless they felt it was warranted. Also, I know Dispensationalism enough to know that it does some funky stuff in order to keep a ‘literal’ reading.

      Regarding “Lordship salvation”, I again feel this is written to exclude me and I feel like we are misrepresented. You say we have no merit. But I do believe we are saved by grace by faith in Christ alone! I also believe Jesus would “save his people from their sin” and “we are his workmanship, having been created in Christ Jesus for good works that God prepared beforehand so we may do them” (Eph 2:10) Any work we do is God’s working in us. Sanctification is a part of salvation as he works in us.

      Please do not understand me as being rude, I took offense because I was effectively written off as having no merit. I really would like to see your #7 expanded to a humility to listen to those who do not agree with us necessarily.

      Your #2 should drive us to check teachers against Scripture, but I fear your suggested list drives us to check teachers against tradition and our own teachers.

    • david carlson

      Have to say Jeff that your list pretty much goes against everything that CMP laid out.

    • Char

      So I guess you’ve never read Cyril of Alexandria.

    • Eric S. Mueller

      Michael, I had a similar journey. I read everything I could get my hands on as a new believer, which led me into KJV Onlyism and legalism. Eventually, as I kept reading and studying and accidentally stumbling across some good sources, I took those positions to their logical conclusion and found them to not work out.

      I have to thank your Theology Unplugged podcast and blog for some of my growth. I have no idea how I stumbled across them, but I’m glad I did.

    • Jeff Ayers

      My list of 10 criteria is the basis for determining who I should trust IN THE AREAS OF DOCTRINE THAT I HAVE NOT HAD THE TIME TO STUDY…. and thus will defer to the respected persons position as correct until I have time to study the issue thoroughly myself.

      My list in NO WAY means that we should not read or study those outside of my denomination and my preferred sphere of theology.

      For example, I disagree with all 5 points of calvinism as clarified in Dordrecht, and then by Beza, Boettner and Sproul. But the last book I read was by John Gerstner Wrongly Dividing the Word of truth, where he attempts to show dispensationalism and the free grace message as heresy while setting up the TULIP and Lordship salvation as the ONLY orthodox position.

      I reject Arminianism as unscriptural yet I am currently reading Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities by Olson.

      So you MISSED the point of my list entirely. It is only for areas of which I have not studied, that I will defer to those who come closest to my 10 litmus tests,

      For example, as I understand FULL PRETERISM, it appears to be heresy. But my next book purchase from Amazon is filled with titles defending a full preterist and partial preterist theology. Once I have studied this issue to my satisfaction, i will no longer defer to men i respect in the field of eschatology such as pentecost, Bullinger and walvoord, but will espouse my own opinion after honest study.

    • Aaron Walton

      First, I still intend no offense. And ask that you may pardon me, I misunderstood the intent of your post on the basis that I understood Michael’s post differently. I understand him to be talking about issues that he does not have time to become a scholar in. For example, if he doesn’t see fit to become a scholar in NT Textual Criticism, he can defer to Daniel Wallace since Wallace is a scholar he can trust. However, from the post it doesn’t sound like Michael has the intention of studying each subject until he is satisfied as you described yourself to want to do.

      Second, to continue the illustration. I still take offense because according to what you have said, you wouldn’t trust Wallace with NT Criticism (for example) prior to your study in it because he believes in what you call “Lordship salvation”, and thus, according to you, denies men are saved by grace and shouldn’t be trusted on what he has to say about the Scriptures.

      Finally, Lisa recently had a blog post on theological shifts and she commented “There is no crime in not solidly deciding a position”. I might misunderstand your reason for deferring to me. I would like to comment that in your deferring, I would be much more comfortable with a non-position rather than deferring to men.

    • John Metz

      I always appreciate your ability to present your experience in a way that is so easy to identify with. I remember reading a few books on the prophecy in Revelation that were very popular in the 1970s. I had two conclusions: 1) they did not know what they were talking about, and 2) neither did I. Actually, that was a very good experience for me.

      In defense of Jeff’s list and a point I think you should add to your list, is his point 5. “As much as you can ascertain, is their life lived in a pure, clean and holy (blameless) manor?” While not always applicable to “scholarship,” it does apply to spiritual worth. The kind of person one is before the Lord always determines the real, spiritual worth of that person’s work and ministry. Although many of your points touch on this, Jeff’s question is one that is asked far too infrequently.

      Thanks for the post.

    • Paul Bruggink

      Once again, I really admire your courage in being willing and able to discuss difficult issues around your own personal Christian journey.

      Regarding your four options, I believe that there is a fifth option: accepting uncertainty, which I view as distinct from your option 3 in that I don’t see it as becoming a hopeless relativist. There are just too many issues about which there are trusted sources of integrity on both (or all four) sides. See for example, Gregory Boyd & Paul Eddy’s book “Across the Spectrum: Understanding Issues in Evangelical Theology,” the various Three, Four and Five Views books, or Christian Smith’s “The Bible Made Impossible.”

      I would rather spend my time understanding both sides of an issue than trying to find a way to sort out scholars’ “credentials.”

    • Boz

      That is a very similar to the method I use!

      “I then moved to issues of creation/evolution. I exhausted myself trying to learn everything that was known, said, and argued about every position out there. I even carried around a notecard workbook with all the terms, positions, and arguments, and would quiz my family and friends (they eventually quit hanging around me!).”

      That can’t be right – a while ago there was a post on here asking if a 150 year old turtle is more evolved than humans, who only live to be 90. (I am misremembering the specific details)

      That post showed a severe misunderstanding of the theory of evolution.

    • Dave

      Wow, that’s quite a discussion. I connect with your post quite a bit – I’m a senior in college, hungry for knowledge, looking to pursue graduate training in theology – and it seems like I’m about to step out onto a land mine.
      I’ve been blessed with amazing professors – they have taught me theology and scripture, some have been believers, others have not.
      Your list is efficient but not entirely realistic when it comes to a single human being – but is totally doable when you’re working with a range of people. Im just saying I’ve found it more helpful to search for scholars who balance rather than a single balanced scholar.
      But I’m young, and five years from now I’ll probably have a totally different stance, and I will be able to articulate with a much more impressive vocabulary. Haha

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    • Rong

      Two considerations from a seriously illiterate layman.

      One, without guidance from the Spirit even when we are taught the truth we may be deaf in the heart.

      Two, even the greatest of scholars are sinners. My point is not to deter us from gathering truth from one another but to realize that even the greatest of us may fall. It’s very hard to read of a scholarly hero who has fallen in character – but that doesn’t mean they haven’t been teaching the truth.

      Without discernment we are all blind men groping about trying to understand that what we are really feeling is an elephant.

    • Erico Rempel

      “Are they prone to demonize those who don’t agree, or do they speak to them with a humble, respectful tone?”

      We should not demonize people. But there is a time to display holy anger in doctrinal and moral matters. Indignation with heresy/sin is not wrong, it is precisely what Jesus and the apostles did. Mathew 23:15 comes to mind.

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    • LouLou

      I can get bogged down in the likes of Kierkegaard or Barth and find myself very confused and getting nowhere fast. I know that with a few lofty ideas I would spout off and totally turn off anyone within listening distance. NT Wright is my favourite – he brilliantly explains Christian orthodoxy and is very readable.

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    • Hawke

      I never would have guessed you were a former KJV-onlyist, Michael. One other bullet point I might add would be: are they the leading expert on the subject–well respected amongst their peers.

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