Proof Texts and Faith

For a number of educated folk in the Christian Reformed Church, the resignation of John Suk from ministry hit hard. Was he right? wrong? His intellectual objection to the standards of the CRC were certainly part of it. In Losing our Religion,  Bryan Berghoef explores the problem and especially the difficulty of 16th century texts. What sort of authority can these have for the church today? He frames it in particular in the context of hermeneutics and the differences in exegesis between then and now, between a proof-text model and that of the present-day narrative theology. Two paragraphs present something of the problem:

For example, nearly every single point of doctrine in the Canons are made by quoting a single verse from varied and disparate sources like Ezekiel, Moses, Paul, and all too infrequently, Jesus. This ‘systematic’ approach to theology has been disregarded by the leading and best theologians today who prefer a narrative approach to theology in which the themes and storylines of whole texts are used, rather than the ‘hunt and peck’ method of proof-texting that can be (and has been!) used to justify just about anything.
So many of the doctrines we are demanding adherence to were ‘constructed’ out of verses taken out of texts that were not actually concerned with that particular point at all, when read in light of the whole.

The trade-off between narrative and proof-text theologies presents an implicit argument that should be brought out, why the new narrative theology is qualitatively better than older forms. This position is not so much argued as assumed. In a pragmatic sense it may very well better accommodate the patterns of our thinking, but that said, I’m not sure that is a sufficient base from which to criticize the Reformation texts.

(In a post-modern sense, I am not wedded to either view. The point is that the contemporary cannot be privileged without also establishing its superiority according to some criteria. Does there exist a final hermeneutic? I rather doubt it.)

Underneath, I hear an argument of sorts being advanced, that the latter produces better spiritual fruit, that it is perhaps generates a better spiritual connection. I want to respect that, although I find that discipleship — the process of conviction-action-reflection/worship seems a better path to spiritual fruit than hermeneutics (this is likely a left-over from my childhood Methodism).

So we come then to the matter of “proof-texts.” This strikes me as being particularly cultural, speaking more to present cultural dis-stances than of a process. The Forms of Confession are theological documents, not the result of biblical exegesis. Rhetorically, I would suppose that behind most of the points we could find pre-existing commonplaces of texts; this is not the invention of proof-texting. Rather I see two things going on: first an adornment: what we say theologically is adorned biblically, the citations not only providing a formal connection but in themselves asserting a Reformed conviction about life in the Word. We put on the texts not merely as manipulation (though some do this), but as a way of confessing, even promising that we ground our life in God’s Word.

Secondly, in a more political mode, the use of proof-text, of drenching our thoughts in Scripture is a way of asserting something close to the priesthood of all believers; it is a protest, a counter to priestcraft with its reservation of truth for the “educated” or the elite. In the Reformation period, such a use of Scripture was deployed against the elaborate typological or allegorical readings of the medieval and patristic period, this being part of the rising tide of a more reason/fact oriented western intellectual tradition. At the congregational level in Reformed circles, the proof text then is a way of socially keeping the domine honest. It’s a dialogic approach.

Finally, there is the matter of our stance. Proof-texting, the drenching of life with the Word — this is what “those other folk” do, the ones at the third-tier Baptist schools. We reserve the Bible for the big stuff, but not the daily parts of our lives; proof-texting (and our discomfort with it) is a class boundary. And yet. I don’t know how I can be aflame with God (to borrow from the Desert Fathers) without it.

Or as the song goes, humming to myself on my tasks:
Sweeter are thy words to me
Than all other goods can be;
Safe I walk, thy truth my light,
hating falsehood, loving right.


One thought on “Proof Texts and Faith

  1. Thanks for this thoughtful engagement.

    As I noted in your comments on my blog – you’ve got some good things going here. I am not sure I was trying to say that narrative theology produces better fruit in terms of one’s discipleship and life of faith – though that could be the case. I was implying rather that narrative theology allows the text to speak without trying to answer dogmatically things which many of the biblical writers were not necessarily concerned with. To that extent, the more we hear the story of the life of God with his people, the more we are invited to live into it, so in that sense it would enrich the life of faith. But as you note, much more is needed: reflection, worship, etc.

    As for proof-texting, yes, we all ‘take’ verses and read them and they speak powerfully to us. It should be that way. It’s impractical to imagine that we could spend time reading whole books every time we open the Bible, and then spend time doing serious exegesis and hermeneutics to boot. Small pieces of the text can and should inform our faith life, but hopefully as part of a broader whole of studying the text on one’s own and in community, which itself belongs to a broader tradition. But do we want such an approach to determine the bounds within which we must operate?

    It seems that we have become fundamentalist in our adamance that we remain subservient to these documents. In a healthy relationship –one in which they are part of the ‘cloud of witnesses’ rather than immovable objects– they would encourage and speak into our lives, without maintaining a choke hold on them.

    (I also agree that there is no ‘final hermeneutic’, but that doesn’t mean that some methods aren’t better than others. And yes, my article did not make a case for one over another as much as ask questions. As usual – there is more work to be done!)

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