Vanhoozer on Proof-texting

Kevin Vanhoozer, in his excellent book The Drama of Doctrine, gives the reader some things to consider about proof-texting (compiling a list of texts to prove a point).  To be sure, Vanhoozer certainly affirms that texts teach us doctrinal truth, but he says they do more than that.  For now, note what he says about the dangers of proof-texting.

“…Proof-texting is a terrible example of how theology should treat the biblical text in order to do it justice.  Proof-texting assumes a uniform propositional revelation spread evenly throughout Scripture: one verse, one vote.  Not only does this approach risk decontextualizing biblical discourse, it also leaves unclear just how the texts cited in support actually lend their support to the point in question.”

It has to do with language, says Vanhoozer: “A picture of language holds the proof-texter, and propositionalist theology in general, captive.  Propositionalism mistakenly assumes that language is essentially a matter of picturing states of affairs….  Propositionalism thus gives rise to a kind of textual positivism,” which means “regarding theories as nothing more than summaries of experimental data or statements about observable phenomena.  Proof-texting is positivistic, according to this analogy, to the extent that it regards theology as nothing more than summaries of exegetical data or statements about extractable propositions.”

What then?  Vanhoozer continues by saying that “the truth of Jesus Christ comes clothed in the forms of narratives, songs, parables, fulfilled prophecies, pastoral epistles, and apocalyptic…”  This means that “it is a truth that must not only be believed, but felt, done, and loved.  Scripture enjoins us to receive the propositional content of testimony in a variety of ways that correspond to the variety of its forms…the testimony in Scripture is doing more than conveying information: it is training our thinking and perceiving to understand what God is doing in Jesus Christ and in the Scriptures themselves.”

Before tearing Vanhoozer (or me!) apart for this, please read more of his work.  I think he is on to something big; he’s not selling out to post-liberalism or postmodernism, nor is he simply staying in the trenches of modernism.  He is critically engaging both at the same time, and making some helpful contributions along the way.

For the above quotes, see The Drama of Doctrine (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2005), 271, 288.


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One Reply to “Vanhoozer on Proof-texting”

  1. Amen . . . nice job, Shane.

    I’m seeing this wrong approach to defending doctrinal and ethical positions all over the place! People just don’t understand that to boil off sound-bytes from the Biblical text is to twist it to one’s own ends. The Bible instead needs to be “twisting” us to God’s ends – namely testifying to his redemptive work in Christ.

    To make election a central dogma, or the church, or sacraments, or Pentecost, or even the family (as do Mormons and many neo-traditionalist protestant types) – to make ANYTHING a central dogma – is to fundamentally misread the text; and while it may not have such a destructive result, it shares much in common with such abberations as the German Christian movement and cultic groups throughout history!


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