Monday, November 16, 2009

Prooftexting as Methodology

When I was in Seminary, one of my homiletical professors told us that every point in your sermon must be supported by a proof text. Suffice it to say that this resulted in either sermons with few points to supported or long sermons that ended up stringing Bible passage after Bible passage. Once, in another homiletics class, I was crunched for time and fudged by turning in a sermon written for this above mentioned professor. The second professor called me aside and said that while there was nothing "wrong" with the sermon, I was to promise him that I would never preach that way in the parish.

It seems to me that prooftexting is a deficient methodology whether you use Bible passages to proof text your point or passages from the Lutheran Confessions. The Christian faith deserves a well reasoned paragraph, with passages used both to frame and support the line of reasoning, that does not turn the Word of God into debate points but lets that Word speak. For that Word to speak, it is not enough to have a passage thrown at your opponents or thrown under your outline.

St. Paul spoke of the analogy of faith. Roman Catholics and Orthodox might speak of Tradition (capital T). Lutherans speak of tradition (a small t but still tradition). We confess that which has always been believed, taught, and confessed, in every place and at every time. We confess the catholic faith. This is Luther's contention and it has become enshrined in Confessions which insist we speak not with a sectarian voice but with the catholic voice that has been spoken from the earliest of days. With equal fervor the fathers of the Church are quoted with Scripture to show that what we believe teach and confess is neither novel or trivial but catholic and evangelical.

We have many subjects that need addressing in the Church. Everything from sexuality to worship cries out for Truth spoken in love. I have been impressed by some of the documents that our own LCMS has produced. I think for example of the wonderful CTCR document on marriage and family (click HERE for a PDF copy). No less than Richard John Neuhaus (of blessed memory) spoke approvingly of this statement (in the pages of First Things). It was well reasoned, reflected a familiarity and respect of the fathers of the Church, knowledge and understanding of our Lutheran Confessions, and an evangelical spirit.

Recently the Council of Presidents of the LCMS have produced some Theses on Worship in an attempt to frame the debate some have called "Worship Wars." It is a document notable not for what it says but for what it does not say. It is an outline of points and passages -- prooftexting. You can read it HERE . My biggest complaint is not simply what is said, but what is not said, and what should be said -- but these do not fit the form of an outline and proof texts. These would require a thesis and its reasoned development showing a respect for the fathers, a familiarity with the Confessions, knowledge of Scripture, and an evangelical spirit. A few of those things are lacking in this document.

Phil Secker, Doctor and Teacher of our Church as well as curator of the legacy of Arthur Carl Piepkorn, has prepared a critique of these Theses that is worthy of consideration. You can read it HERE. His point is well taken. Individual passages from Scripture and the Confessions miss the mark when the principle that predominates is absent -- namely the conservative liturgical principle elucidated in the Confessions in many places. Well, you can read what he says.

It has always been my feeling that one of the weaknesses of the Synodical Catechism is the seeming prooftexting methodology which makes the point, prints out a passage or two in support, and then goes on to the next. I would much prefer one or two passages with a paragraph that explains the point, puts it in the context of our catholic faith and confession, and then leads us to the proper and faithful conclusion.

Prooftexts are often merely theological two by fours that we use to hit people over the head... "oh yeah, well in Hezekiah is says this! So top that!!" Finally, my biggest complaint is that it is a very Protestant method -- one born of a church without tradition and unleashed from its life and confession lived out over the generations. We can pick and choose passages out of context and cut and paste them together to say just about anything -- Christians have been doing this and technology has only made it easier. I heard a YouTube video of Benny Hinn using passages cut and pasted together to prove that Adam could fly and that he had visited other plants throughout the solar system. Ooooh, way kewl. But, alas stupid, childish, and, well, outside the Christian sphere entirely.

Maybe it is high time we put aside this popular methodology and instead were concerned more about the catholicity of the faith. You can find just about anything in Scripture than can be abused and distorted from its context to say whatever you want it to say. Recall the old joke about the smart alec Pastor who claimed he could find a text and preach a sermon on any subject given to him. A woman sought to prove him wrong and suggested laxatives as the topic. Without a blink, the Pastor said his text was Exodus 34:4 "And Moses took the two tablets and went up into the hills..." and preached his sermon. Is that what we want or how we want the great issues of the day treated? Lets learn a new method (or relearn an old one that is not prooftexting).


Rev. Eric J Brown said...

You have gotten me thinking - and a blog post of my own might be developing on this. I think we have mistaken "Sedes Doctrinae" for "proof-texts." As Lutherans we have a love of Sedes Doctrinae - those passages of Scripture upon which doctrines rest, upon which they are seated. However, these passages are not the end of the discussion, but these are where we begin the discussion from - these are the passages from which we begin our delving into the riches of the wisdom of God.

But if one uses a passage of Scripture as a proof-text, you are not beginning examination or meditation - you are seeking to end discussion. "Proof" is a word of finality - end of discussion. The Sedes though are where we sit down and are taught by our Lord.

Again, excellent post - I am almost tempted to make you my home page.

Canadian said...

Excellent post. The Fathers did not do Protestant proof-texting. It was usually the heretics who came with bible texts stacked as high as they could. The church has always sought to retain what has been taught from the beginning through the apostles and this by necessity requires (T)tradition--the correct interpretation of the scriptures.

Pastor Peters said...

Yes yes yes... your point about sedes doctrinae and prooftexting is spot on (to use Weedon's favorite phrase). That is why some of the subjects are so controversial and so difficult to resolve -- we through passages at each other thinking that one of them will be the bomb that shuts up the other side... we have lost the perspective you mentioned and that is where the conversation needs to be...

Chris said...

This is what is being taught at Lutheran seminaries in homiletics classes? If you're required to prooftext everything then why not just read straight from Holy Scriptures for the homily?

Pastor Peters said...

Chris... what I recalled was more than 32 years ago... that is not what is being taught now...

Carl Vehse said...

If this discussion is all about a misleading phrase, "proof texts," where one should really be using the phrase, "Sedes Doctrinae," then someone should tell Paul McCain he needs to change a title!

CPH is still selling The Proof Texts of the the Catechism with a Practical Commentary by Louis Wessel (St. Louis: CPH, 1927) as a "classic work providing notes and commentary on the various passages in the Holy Scriptures most commonly used in teaching the Christian faith to both youth and adults."

And CPH notes for its Luther's Small Catechism w/ Explanation 1991 Edition: "This [sic] proof texts in the explanation of this version of Luther's Small Catechism are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV) of the Bible."

McCain even talks about the proof texts in one of his Cyberbrethren articles.

However, if this discussion is not simply over using the wrong phrase to describe what we in the Missouri Synod have, for example, in the Explanation of Luther's Small Catechism, but that the very format some call "proof texts" and others call "Sedes Doctrinae" is wrong, then who might be the person to be suggested to "save the day"?

One only has to look in “Catechesis: The Quiet Crisis” (Concordia Theological Quarterly, Vol. 56 (1992), No. 2-3, pp. 99-121), where William E. Thompson notes (Surprise, surprise!):

"Loehe wrote an explanation of the Catechism which was narrative in form and which focused on developing a life of prayer based on the text of the Catechism. The narrative explanations explained the Catechism word for word. Scriptural citations were also included in narrative rather than proof-texting form. This tradition was brought to America in the Franconian colonies of Michigan. Following the break with Missouri, the Iowa Synod theologian Johann Michael Reu carried this tradition forward. Augsburg Publishing House still publishes an explanation of the Catechism by Reu which follows this pattern. We in Missouri, at least in recent times, have lost this rich catechetical tradition. Our synodical explanation of the Catechism, in its dogmatically styled outline-form with scriptural proof-texts, can produce good systematicians who are then prepared to tackle Francis Pieper's Dogmatics. Such a pattern is appropriate and, indeed, necessary to good dogmatics, but inappropriate to catechesis. A catechism with such a construction lacks the baptismal realism of Luther, Loehe, and Reu, who prepare those catechized to "take up the Large Catechism."

Thompson then goes on to associated such neglect over the the Explanation of the Small Catechism with a disrespectful attitude and a lack of faith in the means of grace.

Is this where the discussion is headed?