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.

G.K. Beale on the Presence of a Covenant in Gen. 1-3

Alright, I finally cracked open G.K. Beale’s 962 page beast, A New Testament Biblical Theology: The Unfolding of the Old Testament in the New.  It’s been staring at me, tempting me with it’s theological awesomeness, so I finally gave in. At about 60 pages in I can safely say this is going to be a watershed work in New Testament studies. Describing the project in a short blog-post while doing it any sort of justice is next to impossible, especially when you consider the fact that Beale’s own description takes him about 25 pages. Still, the title alone points us to fact that one of the main thrusts of Beale’s work is to show how the New Testament can only be understood as the unfolding of the grand story-line of the Old Testament.

In order to do so, he opens with a summary and theological analysis of that story-line, beginning with a focus on the first 3 chapters of Genesis. He pays special attention to Adam, the concept of the Image of God,  and the eschatological thrust of the creational command to “conquer and subdue” the earth and “be fruitful and multiply” (Gen. 1:28), themes of crucial importance for understanding the rest of the tension and story-line of the OT.

It’s at this point that I ran across a very helpful passage discussing the presence of a “covenant” in Gen 1-3. After some careful examination of the texts Beale notes that there are a number of considerations that point us to the idea that it is possible, indeed necessary, to speak of a “covenant” relationship between God and Adam in the Garden, despite the objection that the word “covenant” is not used in the passage. The passage is worth quoting at length here:

In light of these observations, we can speak of the prefall conditions as a “beginning first creation” and the yet-to-come escalated creation conditions to be a consummate “eschatologically” enhanced stage of final blessedness. The period leading up to the reception of these escalated conditions is the time when it would be decided whether Adam would obey or disobey. These escalated conditions indicate that Adam was in a covenant relationship with God. Although the word “covenant” is not used to describe the relationship between God and Adam, the concept of covenant is there. God chooses to initiate a relationship with Adam by imposing an obligation on him (Gen. 2:16-17). This obligation was part of the larger task with which Adam had been commissioned in Gen 1.:28: to “rule” and “subdue” creation and in the process to “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth.” Adam’s “ruling and subduing” commission included guarding the garden from any threat to its peaceful maintenance. In light of Gen. 2:16-17 and 3:22, Adam would receive irreversible blessings of eternal life on the condition of perfect faith and obedience, and he would receive the decisive curse of death if he was unfaithful and disobedient. Thus, the discernment of irreversible escalated creation conditions discussed above is the best argument for such a covenant notion.

Consequently, the argument that the word “covenant” is not used in Gen. 2-3 does not provide proof that there is not covenant relationship, just as Adam and Eve’s marriage relationship is not termed a “covenant” in Gen. 2:21-24 but expresses covenantal concepts and, in fact, is identified as a covenant elsewhere. Likewise, it is profitable that God’s covenant with Adam is referred to as a covenant elsewhere in the OT. The essential elements of a covenant are found in the Gen. 1-3 narrative: (1) two parties are named; (2) a condition of obedience is set forth; (3) a curse for transgression is threatened; (4) a clear implication of a blessing is promised for obedience. It could be objected that there is no reference to either party reaching a clear agreement or, especially, to Adam accepting the terms set forth in this so-called covenant. However, neither is this the case with Noah and Abraham, with whom God made explicit covenants. –A New Testament Biblical Theology: The Unfolding of the Old Testament in the New, pp 442-43

Again, these conclusions come after a solid examination of the texts (pp. 30-41), and is followed by reinforcing argumentation (pp. 43-46). Still, I found this passage to be helpful in showing that to speak of God’s creational covenant with Adam, or a “covenant of works”, is not an obvious imposition of foreign concepts onto the text in order to fit it into a theological grid, as is so often charged.  Rather, something like this is positively required by a close, narratively-oriented reading of the text.

As I continue to dive into this ambitious, and already thoroughly rewarding work, I’m sure more excerpts and summaries will follow this.

Soli Deo Gloria