Elasticity of Scripture

Only at this blog will you find a post like this coming right after a post like this. One of the things I’ve been thinking about while arguing about UFC, studying at college, and grappling with the social context of the early church, is the idea of how far you can stretch a particular passage of scripture as you grapple with a particular issue. While the “context is king” hermeneutic is really useful for figuring out the “impossible application” of a passage – there are lots of circumstances that it seems we can pull a verse out of the ether (or the Bible) to address – without looking too hard at the context of the verse. Sometimes we call this ethics, other times its doctrine.

I have always hated the concept of “memory verses” as some sort of bandaid solution to every personal calamity, I get suspicious when I walk into houses that have verses stripped of context strewn all over the walls. I reckon putting big slabs of text all over your walls is much more Godly. Well, not really. As Carson famously argued “a text without a context becomes a pre text for a proof text” or something… but I think we can actually legitimately “proof text” without completely paying attention to the full “original audience” context. We don’t need every historical nuance to come up with a sound systematic understanding of an issue. The Bible doesn’t consider Climate Change – but says lots about our responsibility for the planet, its brokenness, and our new gospel priorities (and expectation of a new creation)…

I’ve been thinking about this since giving a presentation on Question One of the Westminster Shorter Catechism at church a couple of weeks ago.

The proof texts for the “chief end of man” are, in my opinion, pretty weak. If you consider the context of those passages it’s almost impossible to argue that this is the “big idea” of any of the specific passages, but it’s a “big idea” from the Bible, and we seem to feel like we need a good proof text for every position – we can’t just argue on the basis of “the vibe”… you can stretch a fair bit of Bible over the idea that one of our chief purposes being to glorify God. We have this correct concept that we get to by doing our systematics properly, but no great proof text, so we pull all the little bits of Bible into a paper mache type shape to build our idea, or we have an idea and we stretch (like a balloon) passages over it to give it a Biblical flavour.

Pacifism is not specifically mandated in the Bible, but I can see how one might reach that end by stringing together the teachings of Jesus, the fruits of the Spirit, and also our understanding of church history (how the early church acted based on the teachings of the Apostles) – but I think you can equally look at the Bible and come to a just war/justifiable violence position. Depending on what passages you want to string together. I can see why systematic sermons are hard – but they’re also, as forms of communication, heaps more compelling and much better for application.

But just how far can we stretch “scripture” when building a systematic framework? And where does context fit into this picture of systematising? If we’re Mark Driscoll we just talk about the idea without bothering using the Bible – which may, in the end, be preferable (and possibly prophetic).

What do you reckon? How far is too far when it comes to proof texting?


Al Bain says:

Thanks Nathan.

DA Carson would be proud.

al bain says:

How far is too far when it comes to proof texting?

when you can justify UFC.

peter y says:

too far = when you wouldn't have come up with the idea from just reading the passage on its own?
My recent post Via Dolorosa – Item for Good Friday

Nathan says:

Al – here's how you can do that using the Bible and context…

1. Assume that Paul would not positively illustrate a point with a reprehensible cultural norm.
2. Recognise that in the first century there was a sport (not gladiatorial) that involved wrestling with no rules (except that eye gouging and groin shots were out).
3. Read 1 Corinthians 9:25-27…

25 Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. 26 Therefore I do not run like a man running aimlessly; I do not fight like a man beating the air. 27 No, I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.

4. Understand that Paul was probably referring to some form of pugilistic art as an analogy for Christian life from verse 26.


Peter – I think that's a good rule – but I also don't think any passage by itself leads us to the "chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever"… But I think it's an accurate summary, I don't think any of the proof texts provided in the footnotes of the Catechism actually lead to that conclusion by themselves, nor can they, read in context, do so. None of the verses used say "this is your purpose" – but rather they affirm that glorifying God is good and proper conduct… or something.

Gary Ware says:

You didn't mention that the proof-texts were added by the Westminster Assembly after the composition of the Confessional documents at the direction of the Parliament.
So, the Confession and Catechisms were composed as summaries of the Scripture, not as atomistic expressions of portions of the Bible.
They don't so much 'prove' the doctrine in question as serve as representative markers showing the Scriptural nature of the statement.
To that extent your observations above are true.
That being said, the proof texts are a valuable reminder that the authority of the Westminster Standards rested on the Scriptures, not on the Church. A valuable lesson in itself.
Coming from that philosophy of interpretation, the great preaching movements have been based on sequential exposition of passages and not topical sermons.
While it can be observed that the puritan model actually treated the passage as a topic, and then structured itself as a topical message (consider Spurgeon and Lloyd-Jones as successors) the more usual contemporary model seeks to unpack a passage, not as a proof text, but in an effort to determine its contribution to our understanding of the whole message of Scripture.
My recent post Don Carson On Lack Of Sleep, Cynicism & Doubt

Nathan Campbell says:

Thanks Gary,

You’re right – I didn’t mention that… I guess I just figure the texts they chose were somehow related to their thinking.


I think you’re right – and I pretty much agree. I think systematics require both an understanding of the range of a particular passage, and an understanding of what the Bible as a unit has to say about a topic taking in these ranges everywhere… I can see why they’re scary, and why expository preaching is preferable (both for the preacher and for the listener) – but I think topical preaching is a tool every preacher needs. I think it’s topical talks that attract non Christians best. Given that my personal “unifying” principle for Biblical theology is Christocentric and evangelistic I naturally incline towards that which enables me to preach Christ to unbelievers best.

Al Bain says:

Like I said….

Stuart says:

This is a hobby horse for me, so I'll say (rather a lot) more later if I get the chance, but part of the art of systematics is seeing that texts can imply more than they say. Since this principle is often abused, let me give just one example before heading to bed.

We might think that Jesus doesn't say anything directly about polygamy. But in Luke 16:18 (etc.), Jesus counts remarriage after divorce as adultery. If he is condemning second unions after divorce, a fortiori he must also be condemning second unions before divorce — that is, polygamy.

Seumas says:

I waited a while before responding. Surely part of the point of moving beyond the immediate applications of socially-embedded texts is one form or another of systematisation. Ethics, Biblical Theology, etc., are all forms of systematisation too. If we think the Scriptures form a complex, nuanced, yet unified discourse from God (which is what I would say), then we should expect to be able to do that kind of systematisation. The question of 'how far' then becomes a question of competitive coherent systematics: sure, I can develop a theory of just war out of the Scriptures, but does it make a more coherent appeal to the whole of the canon when read against other, more important, areas of systematisation, such as the drama of redemption, the process of salvation, and so on? It's not simply that one can argue for anything from the Bible, it's how that can or cannot be integrated with both broader systematisations as well as against the finer grains of detailed exegesis.

Leah says:

Memory verses are excellent.

You can't throw them out just because some people might use them badly.

When I was younger, whenever I was afraid, I remembered Psalm 56:3 (I knew the KJV version, "What time I am afraid, I will trust in thee.")

Not to mention I think that's probably a better use of the bible than, say, trying to justify UFC… something that a lot of Christians could legitimately oppose.

(NB: I'm not saying they are right [ie that UFC's bad] just that the opinion has some legitimacy to it.)

AndrewFinden says:

I heard that John Piper recited the whole of Phillipians from memory.. now that would removed your objection to 'memory verses', and provide a sufficient challenge for you perhaps?

Stuart says:

Firstly, let me say again that I think preaching is a whole other question. I won't address that here; I'll just make some comments about how the Scriptures indwell and transform us.

Also, as we've discussed before, I think metaphors are important. I think a lot of Christians begin with this papier mâché view: that is, what I'm doing when I'm systematizing is shredding God's real revelation, that is, the Scriptures.

But I tend to agree with Seumas, that there is a 'real' revelation in the system (or theology), not just in the individual texts. (Sorry if this is putting words in your mouth, Seumas!) That is, the Scriptures describe and reveal reality — they describe who God really is and what God has really created. The Scriptures do not create that reality.

To take a simple example: Scripture says that murder is wrong. For me, this is not an arbitrary ruling: it's based on who God is and the way he has created the world. So when Moses gives the commandment against murder, it's not that a new reality has been created (as if murder would be okay if God hadn't said anything about it). Rather, the commandment simply describes and reveals the reality that was already there.

(I think it's on this basis that God can judge people who've never heard the Scriptures — they're doing things that are objectively wrong, even though they're not breaking a commandment, because no commandments have been given to them. Incidentally, there's another nail in the voluntarist coffin :P )

So the task of ethics is to get to the reality under the Scriptures. Again, pastorally, someone might say, "Where does it say in the Bible that I shouldn't marry an unbeliever?" This is the papier mâché approach. You can point to one particular, contestable verse about that (1 Corinthians 7:39). But if you understand what marriage is, and what it means to be a believer/unbeliever, then it's unthinkable to choose to be married to an unbeliever. (And you'll need this same logic, plus some more, if someone asks about going out with an unbeliever, 'coz I'm not aware of any specific verse on that.)

When I talk of 'getting to the reality under the Scriptures', I think we need to describe the ethical shape of the world. This shape has edges (things you mustn't do if you wish to act righteously) and contours (things you should probably consider doing if you wish to act righteously). The text-only view tends to get people to focus on the edges, as if 'righteousness' meant 'not-sinning', rather than 'positively doing good'. (Witness, for example, the discussion of whom to marry: "Well, the Scriptures say that as long as they're of the opposite sex, not a close relative, not already married, and a Christian, then you haven't sinned. So go for it!") Such a view devalues wisdom. Finding those righteous contours requires a more systematized view of Scripture, coupled with a keen ability to look at and accurately describe the real world and the circumstances in which people really live.

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