What about proof-texting?

December 14, 2011 | Editorial | Number 24
Dick Benner | Editor/Publisher

An Ontario pastor raised the question of not defining proof-texting and challenged my guideline of wanting only “new information” when calling for a “reasoned discussion” on sexuality, in his letter to the editor, “Let the Bible speak on sexual matters,” Nov. 28, page 13.

While I assumed that informed readers were both familiar with the term “proof-texting” of Scripture and had likely heard all the old arguments on the subject, I will, at the request of others, probe the subject of proof-texting. Space doesn’t allow for a rehashing of all the pros and cons of the ongoing debate, so I’ll forgo addressing his second challenge.

Since I am not a theologian, I turn to Walter Brueggemann, an Old Testament professor at Columbia Theological Seminary, Decatur, Georgia; William Placher, a humanities professor at a small liberal arts college for men in Crawfordsville, Ind.; and Brian Blount, a New Testament professor at Princeton Theological Seminary, who have co-authored Struggling with Scripture, that covers the topic of proof-texting.

I called for a “reasoned discussion” because there is nothing like sexuality—particularly homosexuality—that sets off a fiery storm about proof-texting. Those of a conservative bent whip out their six “clobber passages” and bang them with “hysterical certainty,” as one writer puts it. The liberals whip out their “historical-critical” method and read the passages “in context,” dismissing the literal interpretation of the text. Neither side really listens to the other; hence, a stand-off.

What we have not yet learned, or accepted, is that each of us comes to the Bible from a different perspective and background, and with a different agenda. Acknowledging this, Brueggemann says, “There is no interpretation of Scripture . . . that is unaffected by the passions, convictions and perceptions of the interpreter.”

He appeals to us, then, to acknowledge this up front as we seek ancient Scriptures for God’s will for our lives today. We must acknowledge that none of us has the final authority to say that the Bible says anything definitely because the God revealed by the text is a “living, breathing, constantly changing God.”

This means we must struggle with the text and look not only at the context in which the authors found themselves, but at our context as well, because, as Blount writes, “ethical biblical authority is contextual biblical authority.” To read our own beliefs and convictions into the text (proof-texting) does as much disservice to the text as when we take it at face value.

Blount, who insists believers need to struggle with the hard parts of our faith and tradition, and characterizes those who opt for pat answers as bringing stagnation, says that the latter are like “Paul’s babes in the faith who need the suckling security of a milk bottle filled with authoritative assurances about what we should do and how we should live in any and every time for any and every circumstance.”

The brouhaha over the sexuality issue is puzzling to Placher, who believes homosexuality isn’t a very important subject within the pages of Scripture, given its limited mentions. “So, why has it come to be such an important issue in the life of the church?” he asks. “Some would answer that people are claiming the right to engage in same-sex intercourse without having that count as sin at all. Yet are there not many in our culture who pursue greed and injustice unapologetically? The Bible condemns such sins much more often. Why is our focus not on them?”

The answer, Placher says, is rooted in the power structure of society that has pushed GLBT (gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgendered) people to the margins. It is still “socially acceptable to treat [them] with contempt,” while biblical admonitions against wealth and power are routinely ignored because it might offend those who have risen to great wealth and power within the church.

As a way to bridge the gaping chasm between liberals and conservatives, Brueggemann proposes an “interpretive rule” that requires both sides to “make our best, most insistent claims, but then with some regularity, relinquish our pet interpretations and, together with our partners in dispute, fall back in joy into the inherent apostolic claims that outdistance all our too-familiar and too-partisan interpretations.”

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