Were the Westminster Theologians “Proof-texting”?

Eventually in any discussion of good exegesis and theological method, the issue of proof-texting will come up. Proof-texting is that time-honored method of biblical interpretation that consists in citing a verse to justify some theological conclusion without any respect for its context or intended use. If you’re nerdy to care enough about this sort of thing, please keep reading. If not, here’s a video of a cute cat.

Now, as I was saying, proof-texting is often brought up in discussions as a prime example of decontextualized readings–readings that irresponsibly ignore the literary and historical setting of the text. As the popular saying goes, “a text without a context is a pretext for a proof text.” Daniel Treier notes in his article on the “Proof Text” (pp. 622-624) in the Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible that the charge of “proof-texting” is almost universally negative, and usually aimed at pop-preaching, or increasingly by exegetes at theologians’ handling of texts. Indeed, it’s fairly common to read biblical scholars prattling on in their commentaries about theologians abstractly “theologizing” and “propositionalizing” texts. (Of course, this happens and it shouldn’t and it ought to be called out. Literary and historical contexts must be respected. I’ll just confess I’m annoyed with biblical studies types acting as if attending a Methodist church instead of a Presbyterian one has no effect on their readings, as opposed to those theologians.)

The crew doing some “theologizing” at Westminster Abbey.

In any case, chief among the alleged offenders are the post-Reformation scholastics such as the Westminster Divines (pastors and theologian-types) who wrote the Westminster Confession. Indeed, at first glance the classic confession seems to be a prime example of it. In traditional printings, a quick review of the various chapters will show you very short statements with footnotes listing various single verses allegedly supporting the proposed doctrines. On their own, a number of the verses seem only tenuously connected to the doctrine at hand.

Carl Trueman has an excellent article on the way recent historical work has led to critical re-appraisal of the development of Reformed Orthodoxy and the Post-Reformation scholastics, which, in part, sheds light on their alleged proof-texting:

…the new approach has demonstrated that Reformed Orthodoxy was grounded in exegesis but engaged in constant dialogue with the history of theology. This is in part evident in its eclectic nature but also has direct application to some contemporary issues. For example, one common complaint about the Westminster standards is that they are based upon proof texts. The concern seems to be that Reformed theology has thus been built on simplistic, decontextualized reading of isolated texts. Many, of course, will be aware that the divines themselves did not want the proof texts included and that they were overruled in this by Parliament. That in itself should give pause for thought about how such texts function. Yet [Richard] Muller has explored this issue further and demonstrated that the divines were not only competent exegetes themselves and that Reformed Orthodoxy is exegetically grounded but also that proof texts in the seventeenth century were not intended as simple, blunt answers to complex questions. Proof texts operated rather as exegetical markers, directing the reader to the key verse but doing so in the expectation that the reader would check the classical expositions of that verse.

So, first off, the Westminster Divines didn’t even want the proof-texts included precisely because they were aware of the dangers of poor exegesis and context-less readings. Second, the texts were supposed to be used as pointers to further research, both of the text, and of the deeper history of interpretation. Basically, they wanted readers to do their homework.

Trueman then uses the example of the “covenant of works” to highlight the way this re-appraisal might shape our judgment about historical, Reformed orthodoxy.

One criticism is that the only reference to the pre-Fall arrangement with Adam in the garden as a covenant is Hosea 6:7. The Hebrew is ambiguous and could indeed be read as “like a man.” As such, it seems remarkably slender textual ground upon which to build such a crucial doctrine as the covenant of works. In fact, as Muller has shown through his study of the Westminster Annotations, the divines were well aware of this ambiguity. Their use of the language of covenant to refer to Adam in Eden was not built on this text, but upon Romans 5, which they saw as pointing to the conceptual presence of covenant in Eden, even as it was linguistically absent. Such a point would seem significant in assessing John Murray’s criticism of the covenant of works.*

Were the Westminster divines proof-texting then? In the sense that they are usually accused of, apparently not. Now, does that mean every reading of every text they cited was absolutely perfect? No, but the giants of Westminster probably deserve more credit than they’re typically given on this point.

If I might suggest two take-aways for contemporary biblical types:

1. When criticizing the hermeneutical approaches of different periods, we need to be careful of rushing to judgment. Anyone who’s spent any amount of time in biblical studies knows that the methods are constantly up for debate (form-criticism, redaction-criticism, literary, etc.). Who knows what readings we’ll find silly, mistakenly or not, in 20 years, let alone 200?

2. This also means we probably could take a cue from the Reformed scholastics at this point. They knew that one way of guarding against our interpretations being over-determined by the cultural and literary prejudices of the day, was by being in dialogue, both with the text, and with the history of interpretation. May we humble ourselves enough to do the same. Who knows? We might even want to throw some scholastics into the mix.

Soli Deo Gloria

*For more on the exegetical grounding of the covenant of works, G.K. Beale has some good stuff on the covenant in Gen. 1-3.

5 thoughts on “Were the Westminster Theologians “Proof-texting”?

  1. LOVE the analysis, which keeps the door open for ongoing questioning, clarification of doctrine (critical re-appraisal is food for healthy discernment!). THANKS! Can I look at the cat video now?

  2. So I’ve been wrestling with the covenant question since it came up in our discussion. For the record, this comment is completely decontextualized regarding the Westminster confessions and the process by which they came to their conclusions. I went to the Methodist seminary rather than the Presbyterian one and unfortunately had a church history professor for “reformation to present” who spent most of the semester babbling about Luther and covered everything else in the final 6 or so classes. So I recognize I’m speaking out of ignorance to some degree.

    Given that preamble, I think I’m willing to go along with covenant logic being a useful tool for contemplating Biblical truth to a point. Where I get fidgety is when the extra-Biblical apparatus gets substituted for the raw text and starts to eisegete it, insofar as that happens (e.g. That can’t possibly be the meaning of a verse in this part of the Bible because it’s the wrong dispensation/covenant, etc). The interpretive tool can never become the text, though I recognize that drawing overly discrete boundaries might be problematic too.

    Let me make an analogy with form criticism. Isaiah’s encounter with God in the temple in Isaiah 6 looks like something that can be categorized as a “call narrative.” It’s one thing to say that Isaiah used that trope to talk about his vision in the temple. It’s another thing to say that because it looks like Moses and the burning bush and Jeremiah saying “Lord, I’m only a child,” then Isaiah 6 had to have happened before Isaiah 1 and the redactors just got it wrong (which is the scholarly consensus best I can recall from my Old Testament term paper). When the tool becomes the text, the text is longer canonical. Does that make sense or am I full of it or a little of both? You’re not allowed to give me another book to read!

    • Well, this one was published in…

      Okay, so I totally sympathize. I’ve had a number of the same complaints myself about biblical studies, form criticism categories, etc. At the same time, what’s been interesting for me is that I’ve come late to understanding classic Reformed covenant theology. I too studied under Wesleyans that told me none of this. I’m largely self-educated in Reformed theology.

      Still, what was interesting for me to see was the way Ancient Near Eastern studies findings about secular Hittite and Babylon treaty forms find their parallel in the biblical text. With the suzerainty-vassal type (with historical prologue, partners, stipulations, witnesses, blessings and curses)–think Sinai, Deuteronomy as a whole. With the unilateral land-grant type–think the promise to Abraham and the flaming pot, the promise for David’s line. Then, you see all of the work of the prophets as that of covenant-enforcers, constantly calling God’s people back to the fidelity spoken of in the covenant. So many of their proclamations of judgment take the form of formal covenant law-court proceedings (Isaiah 40-55, Micah, come to mind). Also, they are covenant-proclaimers–God’s saving action, like everywhere, is described in the language of fidelity to his promises (ie. covenant) with the fathers, and at Sinai. In fact, one important thing to note is that the secular treaties had no word for “covenant”, but just a lot about “oaths” and “promises”, so all that language of “oaths” and “promises” is also treaty and land-grant, covenant-language, even if the word ‘covenant’ isn’t there.

      It’s as if the biblical writers (and through them, God himself) appropriated these forms in order to communicate the nature of God’s relationship to humanity. What’s amazing is just how much of the biblical text and biblical categories fit quite well and are explained within that framework (although, at times transformed by it too.) So, the relationship between Adam as the Image of God, a Kingly-representative, to God fits quite well within the suzerainty-vassal framework–which, by the way, was not the opposite of a love relationship either. The secular treaties also contained intensely personal language of devotion. Instead of the Image being some kind of faculty like reason, or the soul, the Image is a functional-relational concept. It’s part of what keeps the focus of the narrative on the ethical, the relational, instead of the merely ontological. This, in fact, is where we find a grounding for a personal, yet objective measure for justice in our relationship.

      I’m could keep going here, but where I’m going with all of this is that while, yes, some later “theologizing” about the covenant might have gone off the rails on some details, I see the covenant categories drawn from ANE studies as akin to the Rosetta Stone that helps us read what’s already there.


      Horton argues that later Reformed theologians saw the distinction in the two types of covenant (suzerain, and land-grant), not having technical language, the called them Law and Gospel. One consisting in reward and curse according to obedience, and the other solely in promises that God unilaterally fulfills. The Gospel is God’s fulfilling of his promises to Abraham and David, by his Son doing what we couldn’t on our behalf, fulfilling the broken covenants of Adam and Israel at Sinai, suffering their curses, and securing the blessings for us, both those of Sinai, and the original blessing of eschatological life promised in the tree of life. (What implications this has about origins, I think is an issue for another time.) Actually, covenant theology is part of what keeps the gospel from being an ahistorical “plan of redemption”, because the plan happens as the historical fulfillment of the covenants. I could go on, but you start seeing how the covenant concept links Kingdom and Cross, as well as keeps us from losing the saving significance of Christ’s obedience to the Father precisely as a human, as well as the Divine Son, and a whole host of other issues, only the answers are set in a biblical, historical key, not so much later, ontological ones. Or rather, they ground the later ontological ones. Or vice versa. I think you know what I mean.

      I won’t recommend more books, but if you want them…

  3. Pingback: Rules for Reading Calvin After Reading Muller | Reformedish

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