A great deal of confusion prevails among us today on the subject of quoting men. Some brethren quote outstanding preachers and scholars, both dead and alive, for various reasons. Others condemn quoting men in such a broad, sweeping way that the impression is left that quoting men is wrong under any and all circumstances. It is with a view to clarifying some of this confusion that the following comments are offered on the subject.
Wrong Purpose for Quoting Men
Men should never be quoted on any religious subject for the purpose of proving a thing to be right or wrong in the sight of God. We live in a time when many brethren feel that the highest authority they need for what they believe and practice is the endorsement of their favorite preachers, living or dead. We should all realize that the all-sufficient standard of right and wrong is God's word, and no man or group of men regardless of how pious, or venerated can supplement or subtract one jot or tittle (II Timothy 3:16-17; II John 9-11). Jesus has "all authority in heaven and on earth" (Matthew 28:18), "that in all things he might have the preeminence" (Colossians 1:18). We are "complete in Him, which is the head of all principality and power" (Colossians 2:10), "and might and dominion and every name that is named, not only in this world, but also in that which is to come . . ." (Ephesians 1:21).
These things lead us, therefore, to this inevitable conclusion: If a thing is right (taught in the Word) quoting all the men who ever lived in opposition to it cannot change it; if a thing is wrong (contrary to the Word) quoting all the men of every age who favored and endorsed it cannot make it acceptable to God. This brings us back to the old subject of the authority of the scriptures, disregard for which is the basis of all religious confusion in our age, as well as all others.
There is never any justification for anyone's quoting men to prove the rightness or wrongness of anything. Observation will show that those who do so usually realize their lack of Bible authority for what they seek to bind or loose. If one knows where the Book authorizes his belief or practice he usually quotes it; if he realizes his lack of Bible authority for what he teaches he will "canonize the saints" who have occupied a position similar to or identical with his own and sort of feel insulted if others do not feel about them as he does. It should go without saying that no disrespect is shown for anyone, living or dead, by rejecting their word as authoritative for religious belief and practice. Thus to do is to respect them, not disrespect them. Paul warns against thinking "of men above that which is written" (I Corinthians 4:6).
Right Purposes for Quoting Men
To show that someone has misrepresented them.
One of the easiest things in the world to do is misrepresent an absent party, especially a dead person, by stating "his position" on some issue. It might be that someone has quoted something out of context and given it a meaning never intended by its author. In such cases, the only possible way to keep the record straight is to quote the man.
To show their followers that they do not practice everything their leaders advocated.
When one quotes some man as authority for what he believes he usually quotes only that with which he agrees - it is very likely that the man he quoted advocated many things which would condemn many phases of his followers' practice. For instance, many religious people place much confidence in what Martin Luther said, he becomes their authority, yet they wear his name in defiance of his expressed desire that people do not wear his name. This shows the inconsistency of his followers; they accept only that portion of Luther's writing which suits them. Paul quoted men for this purpose in Acts 17:28. The atheistic philosophers of Athens had led the people into the most degrading forms of idolatry, leading them no doubt, to believe that such was in keeping with the scholarly conclusions of their most venerated leaders of all time. Paul denies this saying, "as certain of your own poets have said, 'For we are also His offspring'."
To adopt their words as a statement of our convictions concerning some Bible truth.
Some men can express things better than others. If what some man has said is true there is certainly nothing amiss in quoting the truth. A thing, however, is not true because a man has said it, but the man may have said it because it is true.
To show their followers that the men they quote agree with us, not them.
I often quote men in this way when preaching about instrumental music. One can quote practically every leading denominational scholar on the side of truth on the subject of mechanical music in worship. This practically disarms the users of such, proving that they are out of step with their own leading scholars. Paul quoted men in this fashion when he said, "One of themselves, even a prophet of their own, said 'The Cretians are always liars, evil beasts, slow bellies! This witness is true" (Titus 1:12-13). He shows that the Cretians' own prophets agreed with him in his evaluation of their nature.
To show that they are inconsistent with themselves.
Paul instructed Timothy to "instruct them that oppose themselves" (II Timothy 2:25). The only way to do this is to quote conflicting positions taken by those who oppose themselves. This could be a valuable instrument in leading people to the truth. Thinking people can see that if a man always tells the truth he will never contradict himself. Truth is always consistent with itself. Thus, if we show that a man has contradicted himself, we have shown thinking people that he doesn't teach the truth all the time. He who teaches error needs a good memory, else what he says on one occasion will collide with what he said on another.
To show that they have changed.
Sometimes men begin to teach things that are contrary to the scriptures. People know that they haven't always been taught thusly, so approach them with reference to the change. It is often that they will have too much pride to admit any change, saying, "I teach just what I have always taught." This is an appropriate time to quote their former writings to show they have changed. When their former positions are shown to contradict their present ones, and yet they deny that such is true, honest people will become suspicious and turn to the truth rather than follow men.
To guard against misrepresentation.
It is a serious thing to attribute to one a position he doesn't occupy. This is far too frequently done by brethren. One way to guard against it is to quote what one has said. Let him state his own position. Every man is entitled to this fairness regardless of who he is, or what he is. Through prejudice or ignorance, we may misrepresent another's position. It can be avoided by quoting his own statement of his belief.
Probably other good reasons for quoting men could be given, but these will suffice to show that in some instances it can be helpful in leading people to the truth. Let it be re-emphasized, however, that no amount of quoting men can change the nature of a religious position, right or wrong. Let us hurry back to a wholehearted acceptance of the all-sufficiency of the Divine Word.
Cautions When Quoting
Always give the source, and "honor to whom honor" is due (Romans 13:7).
To fail thus to do is inexcusable, and unbecoming of a child of God.
Always keep the quotation in context.
This is very important. Someone said, "a text out of context becomes a pretext." Quoting a man's writings out of context, and thus attributing something to him which he never meant is unjust, unfair, and un-Christian. If we quote a man, let's quote him right.
Always quote the full thought.
If we stop a quotation in the middle of a thought we are likely to misrepresent the author's meaning. No Christian should desire to do this.