Proof texting or Contextual interpetation

You may have gathered  that most of my blog material is following a theme. There is a thread or chain of thought or pathway if  you will   that I am going  down which may eventually reach a conclusion of sorts. I guess  that depends on whether the thread has  an ultimate conclusion or  I run out f material and energy. If that occurs I may have  to resort  to analyzing flower patterns or finding meaning in dissected marshmallows.

As a young Christian I would  do topical searches on the bible to find all  the words on a certain subject and write those references down thinking I was building an armory or arsenal of verses  that I  could use both defensively  or proactively when  the need arose  to defend my faith or tackle  the various cults I came across. As valiant as  this may have been it didn’t always result on cohesive arguments or brilliant logic.

As years have past my focus has changed from picking out individual bible verses  to larger themes or  the meaning of context in which  those verses exist. I am embarrassed   to say  that  my former efforts however well meant were at times misguided and wrong. To continue I need  to give some definitions which I will provide references  for

Proof texting is the method by which a person appeals to a biblical text to prove or justify a theological position without regard for the context of the passage they are citing. http://www.theopedia.com/

There are three main errors or fallacies common  to proof texting which rather than me define I have copied  and pasted from the internet.

PROOF TEXT FALLACIES

The first of these errors is recognized by nearly everyone to be an error when someone else is guilty of it, but is, unfortunately tolerated by nearly everyone in formulating their own doctrinal position. It is the error of taking a passage of scripture out of its immediate context and setting it up, in opposition to its context, as proof of a doctrinal point.

The second of these errors is also commonly recognized, though seemingly somewhat less well-recognized than the first. It is the error of setting up a single passage of scripture, or several passages of scripture, as proof of a doctrinal point in opposition to the teachings of the remainder of the Bible. It is, in effect, to take one or a few scriptures out of their broader scriptural context and make a proof out of them.

The third of these errors is hardly discussed at all in other sources this author has read, yet in a way it may be the most divisive of the three. It is the error of carving the Bible up into a series of proof texts and insisting that, once a verse or passage has been identified as a proof text for a particular doctrine, it can serve no other purpose. Beyond simply taking some verses out of context, this error destroys the entire concept of context. It reduces Bible interpretation into simply a matter of deciding which pre-established doctrinal pigeon-hole each verse was intended to fill. Thus, for example, once a person arguing from this form of the Proof Text Fallacy has decided that Acts 2:37-41 is a proof text for the doctrine of baptismal regeneration, that person will ignore (and usually tell others to ignore) the apparent promise of receiving the Holy Spirit in verse 38, because that promise is not a part of the one and only purpose of the passage. Unfortunately, this error is quite common, though not always stated openly as the basis of the arguments in which it lies buried.  http://www.angelfire.com/ks2/fallacies/falltext.htm#AH

I  thought rather  than demonstrate these three individually I would discuss  them generally because  all three  make  my point. I have known people over the years  that have moved  from one theological persuasion to another. the most extreme of which was a person who was converted  through the charismatic movement and moved  away  from it because of the error  they saw, to fundamentalism. What is ironic  to me is that both extremes contain  some serious hermeneutical  and exegetical  errors. To be fair no system is perfect all human thinking  has it flaws and  no one except God has all knowledge without limit.

What I am trying  to say here is both positions  hold  to certain views regarding scripture that are diametrically opposed  to the other. What is also ironic is both positions claim  to take a literal view of scripture but  come  to different conclusion especially regarding the dynamic gifts (Apostolic gifts). However  on most of the major themes such as salvation,  the trinity, the person of Christ and the nature or being of God  they would generally agree  to a point. I have  to admit that on the whole issue of apostolic gifts I am also much more  in line  with the fundamentalist position. Admittedly much  of what is misinterpreted here by both sides are not necessarily salvation issues but points of view. I do think the argument against gifts and experientialism are far more compelling  than for the continuation of gifts but I will leave that discussion  for another time I am digressing once more.

What is apparent  that I have alluded  to is  the literalness with  which we can  sometimes  take certain passages of scripture but more importantly how  we use those scriptures  to build our doctrine and theology and even more serious how when taken out of context and used in an argument or debate  to proof text a position how erroneous that can be be. This is where context is important in interpreting the bible.

Context: Context can be defined  two ways 1) Discourse that surrounds a language unit and helps to determine its interpretation and 2) The set of facts or circumstances that surround a situation or event then there is what is known as contextualization whereby  we place  the meaning of something within a certain context such as racism or the word gay. Gay once meant  to be happy or joyous in spirit but  now is contextualized within  the meaning of ones sexual orientation towards the same gender. From this we can see  that context has its issues as well  because one can hijack the definition of a word. So If I was  to use a statement in isolation such as Jack has a gay marriage without referring  to  the context in which  it was stated I run  the risk of people assuming Jack is a homosexual. However if I then stated that 150 years ago Jacks mother reported  that Jack has had a gay marriage or Jack has a gay marriage we would refer  to  the historical meaning  of the word at the time and determine  that Jack had a happy marriage. Context is vital  to our understanding of not only biblical texts  but  every text in every language throughout all  time. We may not always understand the cultural context  that one text or  another is written  in but  through investigation and research we can come  to a more clear understanding.

This is  true of the long running debate of predestination and election verses the idea  that we have  the free will to  choose or reject  the Grace  of God. The  two main contributors I will refer  to as examples are John Calvin and Jacobus  Arminius. Neither of these men came  to their conclusions in isolation from the time  they existed in,nor were  their theological positions uniquely  there own invention. John Calvin developed his Institutes  of Religion and wrote his commentaries  based on  his reading and research from men such as Augustine and others  that essentially held that God was sovereign in His choices regarding men and their election  to salvation. Calvin also held to the the belief  that man was incapable of pleasing God in his own strength because of his sinful nature. Calvin and others of this persuasion believed that man because of Adam’s sin was spiritually dead. Man according  to Calvin and others could not and will not respond  to the call of grace  to repent of their sins unless God by His Holy Spirit enables them  to  come. God chooses   whom  He will  to receive salvation and that call is irresistible. This irresistible grace is called unmerited because God’s choice in whom He calls is His choice  not ours, it has nothing  to  do with whether  you and I are morally more pure  or ethical or  that we displayed a more charitable spirit towards others. In fact down  through history it can be noted  that   those   who have received  God;s grace are often the most unlikely candidates while at other  times  there are men and women  who appear  to have simply grown up in Christian families and lived  fairly uneventful lives  so far  as the world is concerned but then became great people of God. There are also  those such as Martin Luther  who grew up in what  we protestants  would call  the church of Rome and  then had a life changing experience  that caused  him  to stand against a  whole religion and essentially change the course of History.

Then there are men like Jacobus Arminius who stood on the other side  of the fence championing free will  that men could choose or reject  the Grace of God. Those  who defend Arminius argue that some of his own ideas  weren’t really that far removed  from Calvin’s. Apparently Arminius believed in  the sovereignty of God and also predestination and election. The problem we have though is  that if Arminius did hold  to these ideas  how  did he interpret  their meaning? To understand Arminius  we need  to look also at where his  thoughts and ideas stemmed from. Essentially Arminius was a follower of Pelagius. Admittedly Arminius was more moderate in his views where Pelagius denied predestination Arminius didn’t. However as mentioned above Arminius also advocated free will. Pelagius also held  to the idea that man was not  so fallen or morally corrupted that man could not respond  to the gospel of their own free will and determination. Pelagius had accused  Augustine of  Manicheanism which is the idea that all material matter was evil but only that which was spiritual (non-material) was good. That wasn’t Augustine’s assertion at all but it began a long running debate between the two men.

My point here  is that both Calvin and Arminius views have an historical context from which they emerged and developed their ideas and beliefs  didn’t develop in an historical  or theological vacuum. Neither men’s ideas were isolated from the history or the culture they lived in, time history and culture are determining factors  as  to how they came by their conclusions.

So how  does  this effect the way we  view  the bible? Quite simply if  history and culture were not determining factors as  to  how the above men came  by their conclusions, if context is irrelevant then how  do we determine if something is right or wrong? How  do we determine  if we have correctly perceived a truth if its context is not important? I will let the post modern philosophers deconstruct  that for a moment  while we deal  with the real world where words  have specific meaning and words only have meaning when structured in statements and paragraphs and not a bunch of disembodied verses strung  together.

Proof texting as is stated  above is flawed because even  if  you can  find an overwhelming amount  of verses to support  to your thesis it  does not mean  your conclusion is correct. If  the premise is false all else that follows no matter how well developed and articulated is also false . Further to this if those verses are used in isolation  to their context it changes their meaning and may well be meaningless. Context matters because it limits how  we can interpret scripture correctly.

Interpreting scripture in context can at times  be painful  for us  because it takes  away  our license to put emphasis on ideas in the bible  that are simply not there. I  would like the bible not  to say how rotten and sinful humanity is, I  would like the bible to say that all  those I love  and care about  will be there in  heaven and that I was able to change their hearts. I would love a little more license  to do my own thing. However that is not  what the bible  does. The bible and more importantly God’s Spirit are constraining influences that limit  what I may and may not  do or what I can and cannot  do. Contextually  the bible leaves us without excuse and also limits what I am  and  am not able  to do. 

In the big picture it may be that some people have a  view of God that doesn’t exist or they have  tried  to make God in their own image or worst of all they can only worship a god that fits  their prescription of  who and what god is  that  they are comfortable with. You only have  to look at all  the false religions that claim  to be Christian that in the end only try  to reinvent God.

I stated at the end of my last blog  that in reality I can’t  go back in time  and change  who  I am or undo  the past. This is true because everything I am or will be has been designed by God  the creator. God has planned  and predestined all  things  from eternity. I am simply blessed   to be have been called and chosen by Him  for no other reason   than something in my life  may be glorifying  to Him. God will be glorified in the end the bible says  so. I understand this because the context of the bible  tells  me this is true.

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