…few, if any, writers write with the precision of a legal document, and the inverted pyramids which have been built upon chance phrases of Clement or Justin are monuments of caution which we shall do well to keep before our eyes.
Existence is defined by contextual understanding. Everything in life is understood through context. What surrounds an object is almost as important as the object itself in explaining that object. Objects themselves can be explained in countless ways. The same messy room could be the result of years of neglect or a movie director setting up a scene. Likewise, Science Fiction author Arthur C. Clarke once stated: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Data, by itself, can have an infinite number of explanations. When viewing the same evidence, any two people could likely come away with reasonable but divergent interpretations. What tilts the weight of the evidence in one direction rather than the other is always context.
Language, in its basic operation, is largely ambiguous. Each sentence can have multiple meanings. A man says of his wife: “She is the most attractive woman in the world.” He could mean he is physically attracted to her more than he is physically attracted to any other woman. He could mean that other men are highly physically attracted to her. He could mean that (in spite of her degrading appearance) he still ignores more physically attractive women because they are not better than his wife. He might just be joking. The possibilities are endless. Without context, it is a mistake to militantly side with any single interpretation. It would be even a bigger mistake to assume a meaning into “most attractive” (such as physical attraction) and then reinterpret the context to fit that assumption. Context defines words; words do not define context.
In relation to the Bible, what this means is that it is a mistake to build (to use Hatch’s imagery) inverted pyramids on fleeting phrases. Hatch does well to illustrate grand and sweeping systems of thought based on fragile evidence. The meaning of a verse or word cannot just be assumed, especially with equally valid and competing interpretations being available. Everywhere and always the larger narrative takes precedence. As Hatch points out: “few, if any, writers write with the precision of a legal document”. Attributes of God are not to be taken from a scattering of prooftexts and chance phrases, but they are to be understood through the overall point of the writer in their specific social-political historical context.
NT Wright expresses his experience with the inverted pyramids, which so often crop up in the modern Christian landscape:
Sometimes even some of the best systematic theologians have allowed their ideas and their systems to float free, to leave the world of 1st century Judaism. And even if they say they believe in the authority of the Bible. [How that works out in practice] … is that they organize all these concepts and sprinkle bits of the Bible in like you may put sugar on your cornflakes in the morning, make it taste better. But it is not actually generated by the narratives and the energy and the reflection which is actually there in scripture itself.
Prooftexting is how individuals win debates. Prooftexting is how smooth speakers make cute expressions. Prooftexting is not how truth is achieved. When reading the Bible and trying to understand Biblical theology, the only valid question is “what is the author trying to communicate to his intended audience?” The implications of what is said must always take second stage to the overall narrative. Only then can Biblical theology be formed.
This question cuts to the heart of any Biblical debate and stops people from distracting from the text. If the debate is about Exodus 32 and the text shows Moses convincing God not to kill Israel because foreign nations would mock God: What is the author communicating to his reader? What evidence is there that shows that this author believed a different series of events occurred rather than what was described? What should the audience take away from this text? Is there any reason to think the author wanted the audience to believe that these events did not take place as described?
When the debate is narrowed to the text in question, this cuts down on prooftext battles where one prooftext trumps another. It is very open ended to debate what one text might mean to the debater; to debate what that one text meant to the author is much more focused. The more words written by an author, the harder it is to ignore the particular theology of the writer. If the author is incredibly prolific, there is more than ample opportunity to understand their basic understanding of theology.
As a side note: while it is acceptable to show what future authors thought about any one prooftext, it is in equal measure as unacceptable to use an unrelated point by a future author to override the text in question. For example Romans 9 can hardly “trump” Hosea 8, especially considering that Hosea had never heard of any people group called Romans or any individuals named Paul. The earlier text is more likely to have influenced the later. If the author of Romans had been trained in a Jewish context, this would include study of Hosea. It would be more rational to form an understanding of Romans 9 consistent with Hosea 8 rather than to form an understanding of Hosea consistent with Romans. This contextual “conflict” is used as an example.