In Defense Of Proof-Texting -- By: R. Michael Allen

Journal: Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society
Volume: JETS 54:3 (Sep 2011)
Article: In Defense Of Proof-Texting
Author: R. Michael Allen

In Defense Of Proof-Texting

R. Michael Allen


Scott R. Swaion*

* Michael Allen is assistant professor of systematic theology at Knox Theological Seminary, 5554 North Federal Highway, Fort Lauderdale, FL 33308. Scott Swain is associate professor of systematic theology at Reformed Theological Seminary, 1231 Reformation Drive, Oviedo, FL 32765.

I. The Indictment: Proof-Texting In The Dock

Proof-texting has been maligned as of late, charged in the court of theological inquiry. Many biblical scholars snicker and jeer its employment, while many systematic theologians avoid guilt by association.

In this context, we wish to mount an argument in defense of proof-texting. In so doing, we claim neither to defend all that goes under the name of proof-texting, nor to dismiss its critics’ charges. Rather we argue that proof-texting is not necessarily problematic. What is more, historically it has served a wonderful function as a sign of disciplinary symbiosis amongst theology and exegesis.1 We believe that a revived and renewed practice of proof-texting may well serve as a sign of lively interaction between biblical commentary and Christian doctrine.2

Two preliminary matters should be considered. Insofar as we discuss “proof-texting” or “proof texts,” we employ a term in need of definition. Traditionally, “proof texts” (dicta probanta) were parenthetical references or footnote/ endnote references to biblical passages that undergird some doctrinal claim made, whether in a dogmatics textbook, a catechism, or a confession of faith.

Second, we should consider the way in which “proofs” were perceived to function in theology. What system of “warrant” underlies the practice of proof-texting? The assumption behind proof-texting, at least in classical Protestant theology, was not that the meaning of a cited proof-text should be self-evident to the reader apart from the hard work of grammatical, historical, literary, and theological exegesis. Modern criticisms notwithstanding, classical Protestant theologians were not naïve realists.3 Rather, the assumption was that theology is a sacred science, whose “first principles” are revealed by God alone

and therefore that constructive theological argumentation must proceed on the basis of God’s revealed truth, particularly as that revealed truth is communicated through individual passages of Holy Scripture, often understood as sedes...

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