Grace for All: The Problem is Proof Texting and the Solution is…


“Exegetical Notes on Calvinist Texts” is the next essay in Grace for All. It is written by Grant R. Osborne, professor of New Testament at TEDS (link). Osborne is also a prolific author, having written numerous commentaries and books, including the Hermeneutical Spiral (a Christianity Today 1993 Critics Choice Award winner).

For Osborne, theological problems are the result of “proof texting”.

The problem is that in the past, systematic theology has by and large taken passages out of context, grouped them together in a logical order, and in many cases made them say things not intended by the original authors.

If “proof texting” is the problem, then what is the solution?

The answer is to be found in the methods of biblical theology

Does that mean there is no place for systematic theology? Before we tackle that question let’s make sure we understand what it meant by the terms systematic and biblical theology.

What is systematic theology? The article in the NIV Zondervan Study Bible defines it as:

organized on principles of logic, order, and need. It is concerned with how the whole Bible logically coheres in systems of thought.

This article, rightly, notes that “everyone holds to some sort of [systematic theology]”.

What is biblical theology? The same NIV Zondervan Study Bible defines it as:

[the study of] the theology of individual biblical books …, [and] of select collections within the Bible

Osborne writes in his essay that biblical theology is where

we take every passage in its own context and interpret it in light of the author’s intended meaning. We do not place a verse from John next to a verse from Hebrews and interpret one by the other; rather we allow John to speak for himself and the writer to the Hebrews to speak for himself.

Feedback Loops

Thomas Oden, in his systematic theology Classic Christianity, writes:

The biblical history resists systematization. Yet since the Bible wishes to address each hearer as a whole person, it invites and requires that each believer seek to bring its loose ends together, to listen for its unity, and to try to see it integrally. It calls for systematic, cohesive thinking about its varied events and messages. History does not readily lend itself to systematic statement or definition, yet Christian teaching rightly persists in modestly seeking internal consistency and clear definition concerning God’s self-disclosure in history

The article from the NIV Zondervan Study Bible goes on to explain that each approach to theology (systematic and biblical among others) serve as feedback loops for each other.

there are always
 feedback loops—information loops 
that go back and reshape how one does
 any exegesis or theology. The loops
 should not take over the final voice,
 but they shape the process whether one 
likes it or not. It’s absurd to deny that 
one’s [systematic theology] does not affect one’s exegesis.

These feedback loops are illustrated by Osborne in his book, Hermeneutical Spiral.

TheologySpiralSo, if biblical theology is the answer, it does not mean that there is no place for systematic theology. It just means that we must work at letting biblical data inform our systematics, which is in turn informed by our biblical theology.

For more information on the differences between systematic and biblical approaches to theology I recommend this recent post at TGC (link). This post, from which I got the quotes attributed to the NIV Zondervan Study Bible, explores these topics in detail, tackling the question of how we approach trying to “make sense of parts of the Bible as a whole”.

Examining the Proof Texts

The rest of Osborne’s essay in Grace for All does not delve into how we integrate different theological approaches to best understand a passage. Instead it explores several passages that are typically used as proof texts in the debate between Calvinism and Arminianism. It summarizes what each means, at least as Osborne understands them, in the context of the book they appear in and the themes found in other books by the same author. Osborne then takes what he learns from doing biblical theology and makes a case for the systematic understanding of soteriology offered by Arminianism.

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