Not too long ago I critiqued a fellow blogger on some erroneous conclusions he drew from Ephesians 1 (Predestination Controversy: A Review of “Paul on Predestination” by Haden Clark). After which there was a brief discussion between the two of us regarding differences of thought. Unfortunately, my responses were typed on my phone rather than my laptop. Therefore, some of my comments got disjointed from the original. As a result, I’m afraid that my words may have been misunderstood.
The nature of Biblical Doctrines: What a Proof-Text is for and What it Isn’t
My point is not to dig up that old conversation (at least not here), but to highlight an important point that I believe he made in his original post: biblical doctrines are rarely found and/or properly understood from one proof text. That is not to say that proof-texting is wrong. Or that proof-texting does not prove the point of the teaching being made, but it does highlight the need we have as biblical students to compare Scripture with Scripture. Taking in the whole biblical narrative, not compartmentalizing it for this or that.
For example, I believe Paul’s argument in Ephesians 1 makes it very clear that being found in Christ is a result of God’s activity in choosing an elect people for Himself. Verses 4-5 plainly teach that “[God] chose us in him before the foundation of the world…he predestined us for adoption as sons [this includes daughters] through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will.”[i] These verses act as a positive case for God’s electing purposes; His predestinating purposes in accordance with His good will. Or perhaps said a little clearer, these verses when used as a proof-text provide a defense and justification for the doctrine of divine election in Christ.
Therefore, there is nothing wrong with appealing to these texts as “proof-texts” either together or separately. That being said, the case that one makes for divine election is not limited to these two verses, or even Ephesians 1. In order to solidify our understanding of God’s electing purposes in history, we would need to compare these statements found here with the rest of what God says (the Bible says) in other places. Something proof-texts do not provide privately, but that is not their intention nor should it be how we use them; except perhaps in rare cases.
Current Debate over Marriage as an Example…
Take for instance the doctrine of marriage. Today you may find yourself thinking that defining marriage is a fluid thing. “How one identifies marriage is really up for grabs. The only solidifying ingredient being ‘love.’”
However, the Bible offers a different answer. And while I believe there are specific texts we might appeal to in order to prove our case that marriage is limited to the union of one man and one woman for life. Seeking the whole counsel of God on this issue is what we ought to strive for.
Recently, there was a debate in South Africa on this issue between Dr. James R. White and Dr. Graeme Codrington (Does the Bible Restrict Marriage to a Man & a Woman?). White’s argument was that a positive case could be made for marriage being a union between a natural man and woman based off of Jesus’ statement in Matt 19:4-6,
“Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.”
According to Jesus’ testimony, the Bible explicitly teaches “from the beginning” that marriage is definable between a man and a woman. Therefore, any other aberration is a distortion of the original creation mandate. This would include the doctrine of divorce, which was the primary subject of the Lord’s discussion in Matthew 19. Jesus was not saying that “all divorce” is sinful, but that God’s intention for marriage, which is between a natural man and a woman, should not be nullified on the grounds of a person’s selfish desires (i.e. hard-heart; Matt 19.8).
This particular text which serves as a proof text has a variety of applications; and yet, it would not be wise to limit our study and understanding of what marriage (and divorce, etc.) is, biblically speaking, without comparing these verses with the rest of Scripture on these subjects. However, these verses do offer a positive case for marriage from our Creator’s point of view.
More than Just Reading…
And so, the point I am making at this moment is that we could look at any number of texts used to prove a certain point, doctrinally speaking, which would certainly be justified (e.g. salvation, atonement, sovereignty, prophecy, marriage, sexuality, divination, sacrifice, eating and drinking, worship, origins, etc.). I’ll repeat “proof-texting” is not wrong, they do “prove” the rationale for belief, but the student of Scripture is challenged to seek the whole counsel of God in order to comprehend what the Lord intends for us to know and believe, so that we will be well-equipped to live, teach and answer the critic.
Therefore, it is not enough to just read your Bible’s, but to study and meditate upon them; seeing Holy Writ as one cohesive whole not separated segments where one could position one writer against another, as is the tendency of some today. This also means we should also use discernment when reading certain texts asking ourselves the question: “Is this portion being descriptive or prescriptive? Am I just being told what has transpired historically? Or am I being given a prescription for living?”
When we fail to discern proper categories, when we fail to discern the symbolic nature of the text literally (i.e. according to the literature), when we fail to identify the proper emphasis of action on the part of the actor and recipient[ii], when we fail to identify the nature of the retelling (is it descriptive or prescriptive), then all sort of egregious errors ensue.
Considering the Debate Once More…
As I listened to the debate from South Africa during my afternoon run, I noticed that this is precisely where Codrington failed. He denied the nature of Jesus’ comments in Matthew 19. He also denied that marriage should be truly defined by the creative order in Genesis 2. And the method he used to do so was related to many of the errors that I previously mentioned a moment ago.
Rather than deal with the positive case provided by Dr. White’s proof-text, Codrington said Jesus’ answer was inconsequential because he was responding to a question on divorce and not the definition of marriage. He then stated that while the original creation required a man and woman relationship for marriage, the Bible hardly made the case for this as the only definitional standard. To buttress his position, he cited instances of polygamy and incest as the grounds for his dismissal. He then attempted to make a philosophical case for homosexual marriage by appealing to a loving, monogamous relationship as the true standard, commenting that “reproduction” is not a necessary element of definitional marriage.
Several problems are easily identified, however, when the texts of Scripture are weighed.
First off Genesis 2:18 signifies that the creation of woman was so that the man would not be alone, and the comments found after her creation from the man’s side in vv. 23-25 define this marital relationship as between a husband and wife.
Second, the instances of abuse of marriage that Codrington refers to (i.e. polygamy, incest) are ripped from proper contextual consideration. The Bible describes polygamy as occurring, even amidst some godly individuals (like Abraham, Jacob, David and Solomon), but the descriptions are not to be taken as normative definitions of marriage. Rather they are to be seen as deviations. And while, we might point to aspects of God’s law that makes provisions for the taking care of the women in such relationships, this was not God’s commendation of the activity but a protective measure to prevent abuses of the female parties involved. In other words, a husband was to provide for them in terms of wealth, status, and needs within the bonds of marital union. Favoritism or mistreatment of one wife over and above another was prohibited. We should also note that such relationships in the Old Testament are littered with problems as a result of such sinful activity.
What of the instances of incest? Well, incest in the Law after Sinai was prohibited. Even before then I believe it is clear that incest in the form of parents with children or children with a parent’s spouse was already prohibited.[iii] But it is true that before the Law was given through Moses, marriages with close relatives were not prohibited. Cain’s wife was his sister (Gen 4.16-17). Abraham married his half-sister Sarah (Gen 20.12). And Isaac and Jacob married their cousins (Rebekah—Gen. 22.20-24; 24.15-67; Leah and Rachel daughters of Laban, brother of Rebekah—Gen 29.16-30). Granted when we compare what we adhere to today with what transpired in the past we are naturally perplexed and disgusted by the prospect, but this is a result of God’s transitioning behaviors for mankind in history (cf. Lev 18.6) not a moral judgment on the past. When necessity demanded it, such relationships were warranted and acceptable, but when necessity passed such relationships became forbidden.
Finally, Codrington failed to consider the truth behind what is often identified as the ceremonial law code (holiness/cleanliness code) in Leviticus 18-20. He says God was only concerned about religious abuses found in homosexual practices (i.e. temple sex/prostitutes). Those were condemned, but they say nothing of “loving” marital unions between two gay people. The problem Codrington faces is that God says it was for those practices and many more that the land was vomiting them out of Canaan (cf. Lev 18.25, 28; 20.22). Such violations of God’s law were the reason Israel was sent with a sword to make war with them, destroying their idols and idolatry (cf. Lev 18.24; Deut 9.3-5; 12.1-3).
Codrington errs in his reasoning because he does not see that all of life is religious. All of life is ethical. Everything that we do is either done for the glory of God, or the glory of some other; namely self. This is the underlying foundation of the ceremonial laws—to be holy as the Lord God is Holy (Lev 19.2)—which touches on every aspect of life, including sexuality which sinners’ pervert. Codrington’s assumed dichotomy between the religious and secular spheres of life is false.
Now you may, if you like, develop your own doctrine concerning marriage, sex, salvation, election, etc. but the moment you deviate away from the Bible to justify it you can no longer call it “Christian.” Doctrinal errors are always found when the text is not the center piece of the teaching being taught; when the teaching is not God-centered, but man-centered. Doctrinal errors are also the result of not carefully weighing the whole counsel of God, comparing and contrasting one text with another.
In the immediate future, I plan on addressing a few of those “error” that are smuggled into the Christian worldview as true, but lack positive biblical support to justify them.
[i] All Scripture unless otherwise noted shall be of the English Standard Version (ESV).
[ii] i.e. Eph 1 illustrates that God’s action is primary and the man’s is secondary in the process of election; with God’s elective action taking place before time and in time, and man’s reception (passively and actively; logical not chronological order) of God’s elective grace happening in time.
[iii] One clear example I think is found in Reuben taking his father Jacob’s spouse; comp Gen 35.22; 49.4.