The Birth of Proof-Texting

I’m currently working through Christianity’s Dangerous Idea on Protestant history by Alister McGrath. Lots of great stuff overall. In the section on the shift in power from Lutheran Protestantism to Reformed Protestantism (everywhere other than Northern Germany), he had this great point to say:

Yet the process [of shifting power between different Protestant divisions] also affected issues of doctrine. The rise of Calvin’s vision of Protestantism forced Lutheranism to define and defend itself against two rivals instead of its traditional single opponent – Catholicism. Both Lutheran and Reformed communities now defined themselves by explicit and extensive doctrinal formulations. This can be seen as the inevitable outcome of a quest for self-definition on the part of two ecclesial bodies within the same geographical region, both claiming to be legitimate outcomes of the Reformation. At the social and political level, the communities were difficult to distinguish; doctrine therefore provided the most reliable means by which they might define themselves over and against one another. The notion of a core concept of “Protestantism,” with two major branches, became difficult to sustain given the embittered hostility between the two factions and their open competition for territory and influence.

Perhaps more importantly, given the central role of the Bible for Protestantism, this new trend meant that the Bible tended to be read through the prism of “confessions” – statements of faith that frequently influenced, and sometimes determined, how certain passages of the Bible were to be interpreted. This shift was a contributing factor to the rise of “proof-texting”: citing isolated, decontextualized verses of the Bible in support of often controversial confessional positions. Paradoxically, this development actually lessened the influence of the Bible within Protestantism, in that biblical statements were accomodated to existing doctrinal frameworks rather than being allowed to determine them, and even to challenge them.

(Page 103)

Wow. Definitely still very true today, too, with very harmful consequences. So what do we need to do to overcome these problems?

Ryan Robinson

It is easiest to identify Ryan as both theologian and tech guy. By day, Ryan is a Technical Consultant work with PeaceWorks Technology Solutions. There, he works on websites, CRMs, and SharePoint implementations. Along with blogging here, Ryan is a founding member of the MennoNerds blogging network and a contributor to the book A Living Alternative.