One of my seminary colleagues once told me, “We must preach like the apostles preached. They proof-texted freely and showed Christ in every text.” I looked at him strangely and replied, “But I’m not an apostle. I’m called to preach what the apostles wrote.”
Most proof-texting (or cross-referencing) is innocent enough. However, it quickly can be a dangerous game that, without controls, leads to destructive heresies and a different Christ (2 Cor. 11:4). Ask Paul. He dealt with unbridled proof-texters nearly everywhere he went: Galatia (Gal. 1:8), Corinth (2 Cor. 11:13), Colossae (Col. 2:16-23), and Ephesus (1 Tim. 1:3-7; 2 Tim. 2:16-18) to name a few.
Does this mean we must never proof-text? No, but we need a carefully thought-out strategy before we proof-text:
- “Initially” limit yourself to the “analogy of antecedent Scripture.”
- Preserve the biblical author’s original intent in your preaching-text.
- Introduce any subsequent revelation in summaries and conclusions.
I’ve written elsewhere of the “analogy of antecedent Scripture.” Briefly, that principle suggests: If our single aim is to determine the biblical author’s original intent (and it is), we “initially” must limit proof-texts to passages the biblical author knew at the time he wrote. This is only reasonable. For example, Paul couldn’t have known the contents in the book of Revelation when he wrote Romans since Revelation hadn’t been written. It would be unfair, then, to superimpose passages from Revelation onto Romans (eisegesis). However, it is justifiable to cite antecedent passages that informed the biblical author’s meaning.
May we ever cite texts written later? Absolutely: (1) once our initial study is complete, and (2) we have determined our biblical author’s original intent, then (3) it is (entirely) appropriate to consider any subsequent revelation that may cast light upon our preaching-text. In fact, it would be disingenuous to withhold it. I only caution: It’s best to introduce any subsequent revelation in summaries or conclusions so as not to lose the uniqueness of the preaching-text. This upholds the sufficiency of Scripture while at the same time declaring the whole counsel of God.
One other issue must be considered: How does this passage fit within the controlling theme of the Bible? I discussed this, too, in a previous article, but it all comes to bear at this point in the interpretive process. Walt Kaiser defines the canonical center of Scripture this way:
[T]he plan of God . . . that he would form a nation and out of that nation he would bring the one through whom salvation would come to all the nations.
The Bible is the spectacular narrative of how God freely gifted that promise to sinful mankind and fulfilled that promise in His Son, Jesus Christ. Every paragraph of Scripture, then, feeds into this canonical center and—in some way—serves to advance God’s glorious redemptive purpose in Christ.
But Isn’t Christ in Every Text?
The rage for the last 20 years or so has been to find Christ in every text. Often, this is done by anachronistically proof-texting or superimposing later events onto texts. This practice was fueled by a slew of preaching books in the late 1990’s/early 2000’s like Graeme Goldsworthy’s Preaching the Whole Bible as Christian Scripture. The idea is the whole Bible is centered on Christ. The trick to preaching, they suggest, is to find Christ in every text, and draw Him out. Proponents call this the “Christocentric” approach (as if our approach is not Christocentric).
We agree the whole Bible centers on Christ in this way: Every text in Scripture “points” to Christ. However, to dig underneath the text for a deeper (oftentimes, superimposed) Christocentric meaning is allegory. No one likes to hear that, but that method seeks a “deeper” meaning than the biblical author intended. A better approach is to read the Bible forward, not backward. Rather than searching for Christ in every text, our task is to decipher the biblical author’s original intent and show how that intent is fulfilled in God’s promise-plan (which finds its fulfillment in Jesus Christ). Or, as Spurgeon once recounted, “[F]rom every text of Scripture there is a road to . . . Christ.”
David & Goliath
Kuruvilla’s excellent article, “David v. Goliath (1 Samuel 17): What the Author is Doing with What He is Saying,” illustrates the fallacies of the “Christ-in-every-text” approach. He cites Goldsworthy’s approach: David is a type of Christ (the Anointed One) and Goliath is a picture of sin and death. Thus, Goldsworthy suggests, the David & Goliath episode serves to foreshadow that “God’s Christ (Anointed One) wins the victory over sin and death on behalf of his people.” Peter J. Leithart, a Presbyterian (PCA) theologian, goes further:
The fact that he is described as wearing ‘scales’ indicates that Goliath was a serpent. Once again there is a serpent in the garden-land of Israel. . . . David was the new Adam that Israel had been waiting for, the beast-master taking dominion over bears and lions and now fighting a ‘serpent.’
To these unsubstantiated speculations, we ask, “Is this what the biblical author of Samuel intended?” Of course not. We get this neither from his grammar nor his historical context. The only possible way we get this is to superimpose later events. The biblical author of Samuel highlighted how God used David’s child-like faith in the promise-plan to preserve the nation, Israel. Of course, we know the rest of the story: That nation, Israel, brought forth the One Who would redeem souls from all nations–Jesus Christ!
Searching for Christ in every text seems innocent–and even virtuous–at first. Well-intentioned souls dove in, head-first, with excitement. However, the unintended consequences of such allegorical tendencies are far-reaching. If no NT author makes those connections from the David & Goliath episode (and no NT author does), then we implicitly are grooming hearers to trust human speculation rather than the sufficiency of Holy Scripture. Worse, we unwittingly have asked listeners to trust the word of man rather than the Word of God; and, apparently, they did.
This leads us to our present state of confusion. We have sowed allegorical seeds to the wind, and we are reaping the whirlwind of postmodernism. For instance, modern evangelicals no longer reinterpret individual texts Christocentrically (through the cross-event). After a while, that became old and stale to them since every sermon sounded the same. Their thoughts turned to a new way of finding Christ in every text. Now, they reinterpret texts “Christo-missionally,” (through Christ’s mission). To them Christ’s mission is not so much to save sinners (though they agree He does) as it is to take-up the cause of “the oppressed” against “the oppressors.” Every passage in Scripture, then, is reinterpreted in the light of personal experience, not the biblical author’s intent, a move Southern Baptists leaders surreptitiously pushed through with Resolution 9 in Birmingham in 2019. Resolution 9, too, seems innocent enough on a cursory reading. However, upon closer examination, it offers license to take the biblical narrative of David and Goliath in the same direction as the homosexual rector of Episcopal Church of Holy Communion (Missouri), Mike Angell. In his June 21, 2015 sermon, Angell proclaims:
Our Goliath isn’t a person, it’s an ideology, it’s a system. Our Goliath was created as women and men from Africa were forced into chattel slavery. My ancestors enhanced the racial biases they inherited. They created and codified a system of race that haunts us today. . . . It feels like we are on the front lines, still, and still our Goliath wakes up in the morning to taunt us. The Bible tells us that Goliath walked back and forth jeering at the Israelites for forty days. Forty days is the Bible’s way of saying “a really long time,” too long. We have been waiting for the end of racism for too long. Why won’t this Goliath leave us alone?
David, in this scheme, represents anyone who has the courage to stand up against systemic racism. This example might have gone unnoticed had not Angell won the internationally recognized John Hines preaching award for this type of allegorical preaching. Of course, that homily was in 2015. Today, we’ve moved beyond that to demanding atonement: i.e., white congregations must pay reparations to black congregations. Princeton theologian, Keri Day, is demanding $500 million from white churches and synagogues. She grounds such an astounding demand in no less than Christ’s authority; namely, Jesus’ encounter with Zaccheus in Luke 19. Indeed, she claims salvation cannot be complete without reparations (you can view her demands here). Again, we might dismiss such banter as “radical” or “fringe” positions but for the fact that Day is a professor at Princeton Theological Seminary.
How did we get to this place? Partly, it is because we didn’t think carefully through two things: (1) how to proof-text properly and (2) how properly to introduce any subsequent revelation. Unbridled proof-texting, cross-referencing, and a mishandling of God’s progressive revelation, in large part, brought us to our current woes. Now, in all-out postmodernism, Holy Scripture indeed has become a wax nose which each man/woman shapes to his/her own liking. The only solution is to this crisis: Preserve the sufficiency of each text in Holy Scripture, and show how it advances God’s promise-plan, which finds its fulfillment in Christ.
Walt Kaiser, Preaching and Teaching from the Old Testament (Baker: 1981), 32
A quote often is attributed to Spurgeon is, “I take my text and make a beeline to the cross.” Spurgeon never appears to have made this comment, but he certainly agreed with it in principle. In Spurgeon’s 1859 sermon, “Christ is Precious to Believers,” he favorably recounts an old Welsh minister telling a young minister, “[F]rom every text of Scripture there is a road to . . . Christ. And, my dear brother, your business is when you get to a text, to say, ‘Now, where is the road to Christ?’”
Graeme Goldsworthy, Gospel and Kingdom (Winston: 1981), 73.
Peter J. Leithart, A Son to Me: An Exposition of 1 & 2 Samuel (Canon: 2003), 98, 100.
Angell was formerly Assistant Rector at Assistant Rector at St. John’s Church, Lafayette Square, Washington, DC. The John Hines preaching award “celebrates the ministry of preaching and its importance in our Church by recognizing outstanding sermons that are deeply grounded in scripture and focused on the seen and unseen needs of the worshipping community, the nation and the world.”