Prooftexting and Anecdotes
This final section looks at two methods used in teaching and edification, both in catechesis and during the sermon. Prooftexting and anecdotes are both methods of teaching the proper interpretation of Scripture. Both can be used appropriately. But both can also be grossly misused. The interpreter should be aware that these are opposite methods of instruction and interpretation. Prooftexting points the hearer/student toward a text of Scripture. Anecdotes point the hearer/student toward human experience.
Prooftexting is one of the most basic methods of showing where and how Scripture teaches. It should never be minimized or eliminated. For every line in the Catechism the student should be taught where in Scripture the teaching is found and how it is rightly interpreted. For every claim about the will of God a pastor makes in his formal interpretation of Scripture (known as the Sermon) he should firmly ground the hearers in the texts which prove his claim.
Unfortunately, as pastors who make public interpretations of Scripture on a regular basis, prooftexting is often done in a short-cut method. Consider the following example:
Let a man so consider us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God.
What is the verse reference? Is the pronoun “us” contrastive with or inclusive of the reader? Who specifically is meant by “us”? What issue was being addressed by the writer of this verse? What is the previous verse? What is the next verse? Where is this passage typically used in catachetical instruction? When is this passage read in the historic Church year? Why is it used on that Sunday? How is this passage used in the Confessions? What does this passage have to do with the forgiveness of sins?
And now the tough question: “How far through this list would my confirmands and members get?” Actually, how would the second and third questions usually be answered by the average membership of a Confessional Lutheran congregation. In this author's experience the usual answer from college students who were members of Confessional Lutheran synods is that “us” means “Christians.”
Consider a second example: Question 53 in the 1981 ELS Catechism:1
Is it a sin to take one's own life? God also forbids us to take our own life, or even to shorten it by harming our health.
Acts 16:28: Do yourself no harm.
Ask the same basic questions as above regarding this particular passage. Who was speaking to whom? What was the precipitating context? What is the concern? How does this particular wording legitimately extend beyond that context? Does this passage prove that suicide is a sin? With these words was Paul preaching the Law to this man? What should the interpreter know from context before making that kind of judgment? Consider Walther's treatment of this context in his fourteenth evening lecture on Thesis IX (p. 129ff). Students are better prepared when they know these passages in context and understand why they are used as well as limitations on their interpretation that need to be considered. They should be directed chiefly to strictly relevant passages and contexts and not be given a passage as a prooftext that has convenient wording, but which is in actuality only related to the topic by extension of thought.
Prooftexting has the distinct benefit of putting the actual Word of God into the hearer's heart and mind as the source and norm for interpretation of God's Word and their own instruction. But there is another method of interpretation that has been increasingly used in the sermon, the anecdote.
The anecdote is at best a well told example or story that illustrates a point of scriptural interpretation and makes that point more memorable to the hearer. A generation or two ago these used to be called “illustrations.” In the pages of Concordia Theological Monthly there were several articles from the 1930s to the end of the 1950s that discussed the proper and improper use of illustrations. The basic thrust of these articles was that an illustration should not be the fulcrum upon which the sermon balanced, it should not be more memorable than the Scripture itself, and it should not replace the Scripture as the basis for instruction and interpretation. Rather, the good illustration lead the hearer to remember the Scripture better, to understand the Scripture itself better, to enable the hearers to explain and interpret the Scripture to others in a clear way—all so that the Scripture had the preeminence.
But anecdotal preaching styles have been growing in Confessional Lutheran circles. Christ's use of parables is often cited as justification for this manner of preaching. And, as stated above, anecdotes can be used properly. However; in his public interpretation of Scripture—the sermon—the preacher must bear in mind that an anecdote by its very nature points people to human experience, not to the Scripture. This author's experience with anecdotal preaching at Conventions, Conferences, and other venues within his own synodical fellowship has lead him to question the value that seems to be placed on this type of Scriptural interpretation.
Most congregation members probably do not read the Scripture regularly at home. The most time an average congregation member spends in contact with Scripture is usually the Divine Service each Sunday—assuming that the member attends that regularly. Assuming that the Divine Service has not been subverted to the “Hey God, look at me, I think You're really Big and Totally Awesome” schlock,2 the hearer has about 15 to 20 minutes worth of exposure to Scripture presented to him in liturgical form. Perhaps another 15 in hymnic form—if the hymns are scriptural. What is left? The public interpretation of Scripture—the Sermon. Once each week the preacher, the public interpreter of the Word of God, has an opportunity to present the truths of God's Word to the flock placed under his charge by God. What is it the public interpreter of God's Word wants the hearer to remember? --that the pastor tells funny stories? that the pastor had members at his previous calls who often had bizarre life experiences? that the pastor watches a lot of TV/Movies/ reads a lot of books/ spends a lot of time online? The public interpreter of the word has a captive audience for 15-25 minutes during which he has their attention. Why are they there? Why has God called that pastor there? There is no story, anecdote, or illustration that this author could think of for which there is not already an example in Scripture itself. Why not give them Scripture? Is 15 to 25 minutes of Scripture too much for the hearers to handle? Are the public interpreters of God's Word being taught to be so inept that they cannot rely upon Scripture to explain Scripture. Do the preachers not want their hearers to know and love each of the people mentioned in the Bible and understand the examples they give—it was for this reason that God had their experiences recorded!
A proper paper would have a conclusion and wrap things up. This author chooses to leave the reader to evaluate the whole on his own, and to evaluate his own situation in response to this paper. May it be of some good use.
רק ליהוה כבודו
1 Question 81 in the 1966 edition, and the prooftext is used for Question 54 in the 2001 edition—which is also about suicide.
2A Yiddish word meaning: “something cheap, inferior, or shoddy.”