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?