True Sources and Authorities

From the realm of research.

By FRANK H. YOST, Professor of Church History, S.D.A. Theological Seminary

The preaching of truth entails a grave responsibility. The messengers of truth must themselves be true, their methods must be in keeping with the character of their message, and any collateral information and supporting evidences which are brought to bear upon any topic must needs be accurate and reliable, based upon creditable authorities.

The importance of this fact is borne out by the commendation that has come to evangelists who are careful in this respect. Hearers who are informed in science and history have com­plimented some on the careful, accurate use made of scientific and historical data. The con­verse of this is likewise obvious. If well-in­formed persons are present at meetings where inaccurate statements are made, unsupported by adequate authorities, they are likely to be turned away, and the cause of spiritual truth thus loses the respect of men of trained intelli­gence. No cause, however virtuous in itself, can long succeed in the face of such misunder­standings.

This leads us to the question: What consti­tutes reliable authorities ? There are, first of all, authorities, and there are sources. The word "source," in the technical sense, needs careful definition. Source information is information arising nearest in both time and locale to a given event or phenomenon, and it is recog­nized that nothing is actually known of any oc­currence except as the information comes to us from observers of, or participants in, the. event. The only way we know positively what happened during the American Civil War is to read the letters, diaries, laws, army orders, and similar records, set down at the time of the war. John Ford Rhodes has written very skill­fully and accurately of the Civil War, but his treatment is an authoritative secondary work, not a source. He knew very little of the Civil War, except as he read and analyzed the sources, and the conclusions he drew from the sources are only valid as his own veracity and skill make them so.

Again, we do not know Roman history by reading Gibbon. We know only what Gibbon says. His saying it does not of itself make it true. But we know Gibbon used the sources carefully, and we find that we may have confi­dence in many of his conclusions.

 So with Mosheim and Neander : We do not necessarily know church history when we read these men. We only know Mosheim and Ne­ander. We know they used the sources, and we find ourselves justified in accepting many of their conclusions. But these men are not sources.

The sources should be used to prove any sit­uation. The only way we know that some in the church were keeping Sunday as early as A.D. 160, is to quote Justin Martyr to that ef­fect. Justin Martyr lived in A.D. 160, and is therefore a source. A statement from Neander, who died in 185o, does not prove the early ob­servance of Sunday. The sources must be used for that.

However, not all sources are of equal value. Some supposed sources are spurious, interpolated, or otherwise unreliable. New, sensational "finds" or "sources," which are ignored by authoritative writers, may wisely be passed over, especially where truth is being proclaimed. Lately there has been a revival of supposed letters describing the physical appearance of Jesus, and of statements concerning some features of sun worship, which have by reasonable tests been proved spurious or, at best, questionable. The man who is being led by the Spirit into all truth, and who is seeking to guide others in that direction, will be careful to observe universal truth in all fields of human knowledge. The statements he uses in develop­ing a line of thought will be true ones.

After the sources there come the authorities. Trained men who write carefully and reliably from the sources are authorities in their fields of study. In many respects Gibbon, Mosheirn, and Neander are still authoritative. They tell what sources they used, so that one can check back upon them. They are conservative in their conclusions, and the inferences they draw from the sources are not wild or extravagant or biased, but are usually sound and cautious. Hence, they are looked upon as reliable and are quoted as authorities. There are, of course, many more recent authorities, who are better known to the reading public, and whom it would be to our advantage to quote to intelli­gent audiences.

There are also writers who are sometimes quoted by us as authorities who are not reliable. Because of obvious bias or prejudice, because of complete dependence on merely secondary materials, or because of misuse of sources, these may not be depended upon. Among these un­reliable works should be mentioned Hislop, in his Two Baintons. Hislop is not an authority, and is often not reliable. He makes compara­tively little use of actual sources, and in some particulars has been proved inaccurate. His conclusions are sometimes extreme and extravagant, and the inference he draws from archaeology, linguistics, and history are frequently unwarranted and untenable. He is not used today by careful commentators, and would be better let alone in careful discussions involving the origin or development of ritual or dogma.

Authorities in the Controversial Field

What of authorities in the field of denomina­tional controversy ? Great care must be used here. Adventists resent very much to have the writings of D. M. Canright used against them. They say it is unfair, because he was an apos­tate. They resent it, too, when someone un­qualified and unrepresentative is taken as a spokesman for the Adventists and his remarks are used against the denomination. Adventists are justified in this resentment. But so are the adherents of other denominations or churches under parallel circumstances. Perhaps Father Chiniquy was no fairer than Canright. Per­haps Father Enright is no more representative as a Catholic than an Adventist speaking lo­cally on his own responsibility. Materials of this kind must be used, if at all, with grave reservations. In all fairness, only men who are representative and authoritative in an organ­ization should be quoted.

It was for this reason that the committee that prepared the revised law charts sought to be very careful to use only accredited Roman Catholic sources and authorities in providing statements for the public use of our evangelists. The statements used on the chart "Ten Com­mandments as Found in Roman Catholic Cate­chisms" cannot be successfully challenged. The statements were actually made. The volumes containing them are in existence, with the au­thentication of the episcopal imprimatur, and may be currently consulted. Because those who made the statements are of unimpeachable standing, they may be quoted without question.

No truthful position need involve an equivocal support. If a proposition or assertion be true, it can be honestly supported. If it is not of this nature, it dare not be used in the procla­mation of truth. Let us speak authoritatively, from actual sources and reliable authorities, concerning extra-Scriptural matters involved in the presentation of truth.


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By FRANK H. YOST, Professor of Church History, S.D.A. Theological Seminary

January 1947

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