On reading a reputable Christian author, I noticed that several of the quotations he used were from very ungodly sources. These quotations were used to bolster his points, to give his arguments strength, and elevate his presentation. The people he quoted were his authorities, at least on the particular point he was making. Some questions came to mind as I read through his book. Who were these people that he was using as helps to make his point? What was he saying about the people when he used their quotations? What was he assuming his readers would think about the people he was quoting?
When a writer quotes someone, he assumes the readers will ascribe some credibility to the person quoted. He assumes that the reader knows something about the source. He assumes that even if the reader has not heard of the source, the reader will ascribe some authority to the point made because the author would choose a reputable person to quote.
When an author quotes someone else, the author is saying that this person has standing to be speaking on the subject. That person dignifies the work by being quoted. The source is someone to be honored and regarded at least relating to the subject. The source is not being criticized or analyzed, but is rather being repeated and to a certain extent, emulated. Quotes that have no disclaimer are in a sense a legitimization of the person who is being quoted. Being quoted is an honor, in that for the moment the author is elevating the source above himself.
Two of the people who were honored by being quoted by the author I was reading were Niccolo Machiavelli and Abraham Maslow. Who were these men? Machiavelli was a politician who tried to ingratiate himself with those in power so that he could advance his own career. Maslow was a humanistic psychologist whose fame derived from his theory of human needs. If you are of the persuasion that humanism or pragmatism are admirable systems to emulate, then you would want to quote these men. But if you are using them to somehow bolster your argument from a Christian viewpoint, you weaken the Christian position by diluting it with competing philosophical suppositions. Why would we elevate the enemy in the eyes of our readers or give them more credence than they deserve? Yet we see this happen over and over in Christian writing.
There are times when quoting the enemy is appropriate. Paul quoted one of the Cretians in bolstering his argument that they were self-indulgent liars. What he did would be similar to Don Richardson of Peace Child fame quoting one of the tribal people saying that betrayal was an admired aspect of his culture. In doing so, he was only enhancing our understanding of their deception, not giving any honor to their tribal system which elevated trickery. In contrast, the above mentioned author legitimized both Machiaveli and Maslow. He gave them credence. He used them as authorities. But this muddied the waters of truth. S.D. Herron said that the unregenerate mind has a twist somewhere. When we quote those with a warp somewhere in their thinking, we do a disservice to truth.
The argument for using secular sources to bolster our argument is based on the concept of “spoiling the Egyptians” — using their treasures for our purposes. But the problem is that Egyptian treasures often undermine God’s truth. The analogy of the Egyptian treasure is often stretched too far. The Jewish people were slaves. They took things of monetary value. These treasures could be seen as proper payment for their forced labor of many years. To equate the Egyptian silver and gold with ideas is not legitimate. God did not instruct the Hebrews to borrow from Pharaoh’s library. They didn’t come away with the latest psychologists’ ideas, or research from their humanistic scientists, or theories from their theologians. Yet Christian psychologists regularly quote secular sources. Christian philosophers quote non-Christians to back up their lofty concepts. Many assumptions of secular scientists are passed on to unsuspecting Christians who read their quotes in Christian writings. And because a name is attached to the quote, there is enhanced authority, and an assumed stronger argument. Further, Christian theologians often quote from unbelieving theologians.
Does a Christian help or dilute his message by quoting sources the authors of which do not exhibit the qualities of Christianity? This may be the question that one needs to ask before using a quote. In the minds of Christians careful about the truth, the credibility of the author was weakened when he quoted Machiavelli and Maslow. How would an author’s reputation fare if he used Stalin or Idi Amin as sources on how to make positive changes in society? What would we think of an author who seriously quoted Bill Clinton on fidelity in marriage, or Bruce Jenner on manliness? Using the quotes of ungodly people to bolster godly arguments is just as ridiculous. A wise writer from ancient times stated, “The legs of the lame are not equal: so is a parable in the mouth of fools” (Pr. 26:7).
Quotes can do various things. They can be a help if a godly source is used. Or they can be a detriment if the excerpt is from an obviously ungodly source. Such quotations can be a Trojan Horse for wrong thinking, if a good quote from a secular mind legitimizes his or her other writings which undermine truth. Choose your sources carefully.
It is also important for a reader to be discerning. Who is being quoted? What standing does that person have to make the statements he or she is making? What is the background and belief system of the author? Members of cults at times write very quotable statements. Yet giving them credibility opens the door for undiscerning people to give a hearing to not only to their positive statements but also to their false doctrines. This is no idle warning. Jesus told us that in the last days deception would, if possible, “deceive the very elect.” Do not allow an enemy to slip into your camp unnoticed.
Words are powerful. They can bring truth or falsehood. They can point to either salvation or damnation. With such significance, it is important to consider what is being said and who is saying it, because “The lips of the wise disperse knowledge: but the heart of the foolish doeth not so” (Pr. 15:7). Since the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, it is important that what we quote and what we read come from a source that is truly wise. Truth is too precious to be contaminated by foolishness.