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Theo Todman

October 1984

There is a tendency to assume that an article can only be called scholarly in proportion to the number of authorities it cites. Another view is to regard footnotes and references as tedious distractions and to ignore them. I would like to investigate the circumstances in which either view is valid.

We might start by asking ourselves the reasons for citing authorities. Citations would seem to form three major groups:-

(a) Authorities quoted because their testimony is necessary for the establishment of the case argued.

(b) Authorities quoted for illustrative purposes.

(c) Authorities quoted to show that the author is widely read and aware of their, possibly conflicting, opinions.

(a) Establishment of the Case

In what circumstances is it beneficial to quote an authority to undergird an argument? We can approach this question by asking three further ones, namely:-

(1) Is the authority authoritative?

(2) What evidence does the authority provide?

(3) Is the citation strictly necessary?

Taking question (1) first; it evidently does not help one's case to quote an authority who is not considered as such by the readership one is aiming at. In such circumstances, the most one can hope for is that the authority provides a testimony, much as Scripture itself can be quoted to unbelievers as a testimony against them, though really it should be used in anticipation of it being appreciated as the Word of God.

The authority, if a human one, also needs to be to some extent independent. If the only people you can get to agree with you are those of your own general persuasion, your case may be considered somewhat suspect. Of course, this point can be taken too far. For instance, extreme liberal theologians reject the testimony of any ancient authority who believed in what he bore testimony to, on the grounds that he was likely to be biased. This is like restricting a jury to persons convinced of the accused's guilt - it prejudges the case. However, one should always remember that any human authority is fallible and should be critically examined for error or bias though still reviewed sympathetically.

Secondly, question (2), the strict necessity of an authority; we have already dealt with an excision of unreliable or unrecognised authorities which, even if the argument they are introduced to support is sound, tend to give the impression that it is otherwise. Following on from this, it would seem sensible in Biblical analysis to restrict the needs for appeals to external authorities to a minimum, for extra-Biblical authority is fallible whereas Scripture is not. Also it is sometimes difficult for a reader to weigh up the testimony of external authorities being, in general, not so familiar with them as the author. On the other hand, if one is operating outside one's personal field of expertise or has anything unusual to say that requires technical corroboration, one really needs to be able to demonstrate that the consensus of relevant authorities is with one, and if they are not, to be ready to admit the fact.

As for sympathetic authorities, it would seem to be a matter of secondary importance in exegetical matters how many notables agree with one's exegesis. A case should rest on its own merits, not on how many votes can be canvassed for it. However, it is probably the responsibility of the expositor to admit to his exposition being heterodox, if it is so, and to quote and deal with the orthodox view if he can. If he cannot, he should refrain from publication!

(b) Illustrative Purposes

We now turn to the citation of authors for illustrative purposes. In this situation, no case rests on their testimony so they cannot really be said to be acting as authorities. Probable reasons for including them are first euphony, that is the quotation of a particularly elegantly or appropriately phrased passage.

Secondly, propaganda, that is the author expressing his conviction that certain other authors constitute good reading or hold views with which he agrees but hasn't the space to get across and hopes to have propagated by others. Certainly this need not be a sinister activity, but such citations should probably be excluded from expositions, on the first count at any rate, as being possibly misleading. It is easy, if one is sufficiently ingenious and widely read, to smuggle in quotes from great men of God on matters, probably devotional, far from the major thesis being presented and to give the impression that they hold the same view as oneself. Also isn't there a case for saying that if all one can produce is a recycled version of other men's thoughts and expressions, one should probably not be writing in the first place?

Thirdly, the author might simply be acknowledging that his thoughts were suggested to him by another writer.

(c) Awareness of Others' Opinions

Finally we must deal with authorities quoted to show the general erudition of the author. There are several considerations here. Firstly, the expositor might, as above, be indebted to another author and want to acknowledge the fact, or to use him as a suggestion for further reading.

Alternatively, as was also said above, he might be aware that he is expressing a minority view and feel constrained to discuss the major opposing teaching. Both of these attitudes are entirely wholesome.

Again, he might wish to show that he is widely read, even a scholar, and has considered the matter carefully. While these are praiseworthy characteristics, it is easy for vainglory or intellectual bullying to creep into this situation which is, perhaps, better avoided.

In Conclusion

To close, we consider one final question: what is the main reason for citing references, whether Scriptural or otherwise, at all ! Surely, it is to allow one's readership to "examine ... to see if these things are so," (Acts 17:11). This should be the guiding consideration. A true minister of the Word wants to operate in the light. It must be obvious both to himself and to his readership that what he is teaching is "clearly demonstrable from the Word of God," (Schedule 2, part 4 of The Open Bible Trust Deed). This method has also the most valuable by-product of showing in practice just how the Word of Truth is to be correctly handled by fully displaying the path by which doctrines are derived. This should inculcate confidence in the Word of God as the Sword of the Spirit, of practical usefulness in our daily spiritual battles.

Note: The above article was originally intended to stimulate the thoughts of prospective writers for Search, but it is hoped that it will also enable the wider readership to weigh up more confidently what is written in Search and other publications. Throughout it is assumed that any exposition will be prosecuted by the quotations of sufficient and relevant Biblical authority in context.

© Theo Todman August 2000.

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