This week's column comes from Pam in Kansas. She asks, "How is it scholars can take a single passage out of the Bible and create a whole theology around it?"
The short answer is they can't -- or at least they're not supposed to. Nonetheless, it happens all the time. When a person, scholar or not, takes a passage out of context and uses it to prove something, whether it's a new theology or a point in an argument, it's called proof-texting. When someone has a pre-defined belief and finds a scripture or intentionally interprets scripture to support that belief, it's called eisegesis. Both of these processes are regularly used in developing theological stances.
For instance, some denominations insist that one must be baptized to get to heaven. They take their proof from Mark 16.16a "The one who believes and is baptized will be saved." In Mark (and in Mark only) belief and baptism are inextricably linked. However, those who make this assertion have done so with disregard for the second half of Mark 16.16 which reads, "but the one who does not believe will be condemned," implying belief is the primary requisite for salvation. Further, there are many other verses in the Bible that support belief-only salvation such as John 3.16, Romans 10.9-10, et al.
In fact, we could easily start our own theology this way. I randomly selected a passage in the Old Testament to see what we could do. In Zechariah 5:1-3 we read, "Again I looked up and saw a flying scroll. And he said to me, 'What do you see?' I answered, 'I see a flying scroll; its length is twenty cubits, and its width ten cubits.' Then he said to me, 'This is the curse that goes out over the face of the whole land; for everyone who steals shall be cut off according to the writing on one side, and everyone who swears falsely shall be cut off according to the writing on the other side.'" Now, I think much of our television programming is generally unfit for human consumption. So, I could use this passage to prove God has condemned TV viewers. How? Because the flying scrolls obviously represent the radio waves that bring TV programming into our homes. And further, the writing on the scrolls surely indicates the blatant lies and half-truths perpetuated by advertisers on TV. Therefore, anyone watching TV is cursed by God.
That whole process might seem pretty odd and farfetched, but this is the process of proof-text and eisegesis and it's used all the time.
How do we guard against this in our own lives (or become aware of someone else's proof-text)? By balancing everything we read in scripture with the tenor of scripture as a whole. The Bible is a rather lengthy and diverse collection of books, letters, poetry, and so on. However, the tenor, the spirit of the Bible, is consistent. To read scripture without falling into the error of others we must read it with eyes filled with love. Further, we must read it within its full context.
Love? That may sound shallow, but that is the spirit of the whole Bible. The rabbis have said, including one Rabbi Jesus Christ, that there are two commandments -- love God and love neighbor. Everything else (in the Bible) is just commentary.
So, how will reading the Bible with eyes of love keep us from error? By giving us a balanced view of scripture. For instance, in the case of our cursed television viewers, though we could better spend our time with our families by skipping television, to assert that God is in the business of cursing people who watch television is outside of the realm of love. Our life itself will be less fulfilling, but cursed? (Unless, of course, you take seriously the notion that domestic violence is linked to television violence -- hmmm.)
Further, if you read the Zechariah passage in its fuller context you'll discover the passage is a parable against those who opposed and did not support the rebuilding of the temple after its destruction by the Babylonians. Aha! It's not a passage about television at all.
There are many errant theologies floating about started by well-meaning folk with a belief they wanted to undergird with scripture. As you evaluate your own personal theologies, and those of others, weigh them carefully: (1) Are they true to the tenor of the Bible (Love)? and, (2) are they supported by scripture passages within their fullest context? If not, beware. You might be guilty of proof-texting and/or eisegesis.