Wednesday, June 11, 2008

John Frame on why proof-texting isn't necessarily a bad thing

If there's one thing that most people seem to agree on it's that proof-texting is a bad thing. There must be more to theology than writing up a dollop of Reformed doctrine followed by a long list of "proof texts". Even in systematics, theological proposals should arise from direct engagement with the text of Scripture, not simply be "proven" by a string of references. At its worst proof-texting rides roughshod over the contextual meaning of Scripture. How many times have you laboriously read through a theologian's "proof-texts" only to find yourself asking, "What's that got to do with it?" Frame is not unaware of the downside of proof texting. But he makes the point that,
'after all has been said, theology really cannot do without proof-texts. Any theology that seeks accord with Scripture... has an obligation to show where it gets its scriptural warrant. It may not simply claim to be based on "general scriptural principles", it must show where Scripture teaches the doctrine in question.'
That's true enough. But is proof-texting the best way to go about it? Frame suggests that proof-texting has value as a "useful form of theological shorthand". Theologians should engage in thorough and responsible exegesis of Scripture. But this is not always required. Merely to cite Genesis 1:1 is enough to show that God created the heavens and the earth. As Frame points out, 'Scripture can, and often does speak without the help of the exegete.' He adds the rider that verses should not be quoted out of context. Theologians should have an accurate grasp of the meaning of the texts they cite. So, proof texting in itself is not necessarily a bad thing. Frame argues that the Bible itself uses proof-texts, although he does not give any proof-texts to prove his point!
I suppose proof-texting has its uses as a form of theological shorthand. But there can be no substitute for theology that has been enriched by the sustained exegesis of the biblical text. John Murray, Frame's old Professor shows us a more excellent way here.
(Quotes from The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God, John Frame, P&R, 1987, p. 197).


Paul said...

Sorry to be picky, but "God created the heavens and the earth" has said different things to different people.

I don't deny that prooftexting is pragmatic, reasonable and helpful in some circumstances.

However, there is no such thing as an uninterpreted fact. All reading is interpretation. The Bible doesn't say anything, rather people say things about the Bible. I can understand why this makes some people uncomfortable, but it is wiser to accept this than maintain the belief that some arbitrary interpretation (e.g. the Pope's) is absolutely correct.

This doesn't call for relativism, but for dialogue and an inductive, quasi-scientific approach to scripture which denies absolute certainty of interpretation.

Exiled Preacher said...


Yes, Gen 1:1 in itself cannot prove 6-day creationism or whatever. But it does say that God created the heavens and the earth -it shows if nothing else that God created all things.

I think Frame would agree with you that there is no such thing as an uninterpreted fact. he writes,

"The basis of Christianity and of all thought is God's revelation. The "facts" are the facts of that revelation interpreted by God, known and therefore already interpreted by man. There are no facts devoid of such interpretation, and if there were, they could not be known, let alone used as the basis of anything." (p. 72 & 73).

In a way, quoting proof texts is an act of interpretaion. The writer is arguing that his point is borne out by the listed Scriptures as he understands them.