Frank Viola, of whose book Reimagining Church I wrote an incomplete review last year, has just posted a link to an online (PDF) version of part of a chapter from an earlier book which he wrote with George Barna, Pagan Christianity. The chapter is called Reapproaching the New Testament: The Bible is Not a Jigsaw Puzzle.
Proof texting is a phenomenon I am very aware of. I know very well how it is used by preachers and others, including bloggers, sometimes apparently allowing them to “prove” almost anything they want to prove from Scripture. I have criticised this approach before; indeed it underlines the fundamentalist approach to the Bible which I discussed in this blog series. But I have never before seen any attempt to justify proof texting theologically. That is not of course what Viola and Barna are doing, but in at the beginning of their chapter (pp. 2-3 of the PDF) they give an interesting explanation of the theology behind it:
The approach most commonly used among contemporary Christians when studying the Bible is called “proof texting.” The origin of proof texting goes back to the late 1590s. A group of men called Protestant scholastics took the teachings of the Reformers and systematized them according to the rules of Aristotelian logic.
The Protestant scholastics held that not only is the Scripture the Word of God, but every part of it is the Word of God in and of itself—irrespective of context. This set the stage for the idea that if we lift a verse out of the Bible, it is true in its own right and can be used to prove a doctrine or a practice.
When John Nelson Darby emerged in the mid-1800s, he built a theology based on this approach. Darby raised proof texting to an art form. In fact, it was Darby who gave fundamentalist and evangelical Christians a good deal of their presently accepted teachings. All of them are built on the proof-texting method. Proof texting, then, became the common way that we contemporary Christians approach the Bible.
As a result, we Christians rarely, if ever, get to see the New Testament as a whole. Rather, we are served up a dish of fragmented thoughts that are drawn together by means of fallen human logic. The fruit of this approach is that we have strayed far afield from the principles of the New Testament church. Yet we still believe we are being biblical.
After an introduction to how the books of the Bible are arranged and divided, Viola and Barna list eight ways in which “We Christians have been taught to approach the Bible”. All of them are varieties of David Ker‘s Alexander’s Sword method. They continue (p. 10):
Now look at this list again. Which of these approaches have you used? Look again: Notice how each is highly individualistic. All of them put you, the individual Christian, at the center. Each approach ignores the fact that most of the New Testament was written to corporate bodies of people (churches), not to individuals.
But that is not all. Each of these approaches is built on isolated proof texting. Each treats the New Testament like a manual and blinds us to its real message.
A bit later they write (p. 12):
You could call our method of studying the New Testament the “clipboard approach.” If you are familiar with computers, you are aware of the clipboard component. If you happen to be in a word processor, you may cut and paste a piece of text via the clipboard. The clipboard allows you to cut a sentence from one document and paste it into another.
Pastors, seminarians, and laymen alike have been conditioned by the clipboard approach when studying the Bible. This is how we justify our man-made, encased traditions and pass them off as biblical. It is why we routinely miss what the early church was like whenever we open up our New Testaments. We see verses. We do not see the whole picture.
There are a few factual errors in the extract. For example, in 1227 Stephen Langton was not “a professor at the University of Paris” but Archbishop of Canterbury; a Wikipedia article suggests that in fact he divided the Bible into chapters in 1205, when, according to another Wikipedia page, he actually was a lecturer in Paris.
But these minor points do not detract from the strong message of this chapter. Viola and Barna clearly show how fundamentally flawed is the typical evangelical approach to Scripture, and so by implication how fundamentally flawed are many of the conclusions derived from it. As evangelicals we really do need to find a better way of understanding the Bible, if our claim to take it as the inspired and authoritative Word of God is to be meaningful and intellectually honest.