It’s been a while since I wrote Right Texts, Wrong Meanings. The topic is worth revisiting for just about everything quotable in life. While many preachers continue to misquote Jesus, Paul or Peter, Christians writers and some theologians misquote other theologians. In our sound bite electronic age, this often gives the appearance of being an expert in this or that.
Now that much of the quotation search engine is available for getting fancy quotes in, many start quoting famous theologians like Calvin, Barth, Hauerwas, Moltmann and Bonhoeffer. The two interpretive elements I emphasize are literary context and historical context. It doesn’t matter how eloquent the quote is. As long as the quote isn’t in line with the original essays in which it appears, it is a misquotation. Some can connect their own cause with merely one or two words of the quote and think that quotation would accord them the power they seek. However, even if we get the literary context right, it doesn’t mean that the interpretive exercise is over. Every text is also a product of a historical context. Calvin’s view of church-state relationship and his way of using scripture to justify that view came from an era where separation of church and state was inconceivable. He wrote as a lawyer, often in defense of the legal system he tried to uphold in Geneva. Barth and Bonhoeffer wrote in light of Nazi Germany. Their writing also resulted in certain praxis in their lives whether for Barth to move away from Germany or for Bonhoeffer to stay in Germany. Moltmann matured as a theologian in post-WWII rebuilding era in Germany. Hauerwas spent his youth in the Jim Crow era where blacks were forced to have their own restaurants, bathrooms and the seats in the back of the bus. He also saw the deterioration of the democratic process here in the US. His writings came out of these and other circumstances.
When we quote these theological luminaries for the purpose of some other contexts, are we really being true to the original historical context? I can say that surely, we don’t often respect those historical context. Let me use HK as an example. Is HK government a parallel with Calvin’s Geneva or Nazi Germany and WWII? Is HK government parallel with the republican government of the US? No! It isn’t! If the historical situation isn’t exactly parallel, what gives us the right to quote these guys as some kind of eternal truth? Nothing! Unless we can find some form of historical and literary parallel, all our quotes show is our utter ignorance instead of enlightenment. I’m not saying that there’s zero parallel historically, but most of the quotes I see seem totally oblivious to this issue. The quote only make us sound sophisticated (“Ha ha, I know Greek and you don’t.”) and gives us a false sense of authority. Instead of being educated, we’re further misinforming our readers and students. Adding a few German, French, or English words (or whatever language from which the quote came) does nothing! Appearance of being well educated is often far from reality. It’s as bad as a preacher misquoting Jesus out of the blue in some topical sermon (Yes, I realize this happens all the time everywhere even in mega churches. So?).
Every quote is an act of interpretation, especially taken from the context from which it is written for some other agenda. These days, I think we need to rescue Calvin, Barth, Bonhoeffer, Moltmann, and Hauerwas from their hijackers. The problem is never the quote. The problem is the interpreter. Let Barth be Barth! Next time someone uses a quote, ask him, “What’s the context?” We need accountability.