Excerpt taken from Dr. Trueman’s talk titled Brevity and Clarity: John Calvin the Theologian at the Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary Conference in 2009. Listen to the whole talk here.
(edited slightly for readability)
A lot of work has been done on the function of prooftexts in the 16th and 17th centuries. Many of you will probably have copies of the Westminster Confession of Faith. If you open the confession you notice there are a series of prooftexts printed in the confession. And sometimes you check those prooftexts and they don’t particularly seem to speak to the point that the confession is making. And the question comes up “were the people who put these prooftexts in, were they mad? Were they incompetent? Was this a bad day—were they reading a different Bible than we have?”
Well the answer of course is that those prooftexts function in a specific way in the 16th and 17th centuries; in a way that is quite different from the way we think prooftexts work today. In the 16th and 17th centuries they functioned as exegetical marker-places. You open your Westminster Confession in the late 17th century and you see a prooftext, and you don’t assume that that prooftext gives you a knock-down argument for your opponents on that point.
We’ve all read those tracts, “Roman Catholicism says this but the Bible says that,” and you’ve just got a statement taken out of context from a Roman Catholic document, and then a single line of Scripture bummed down on the page, as if sophisticated Catholic theologians don’t read the Bible and aren’t aware that verse is there. That’s not how they operate in the 16th and 17th centuries; you go back, and you check the history of exegesis on the passage that’s being referred to. So you open your Westminster Confession, you see the prooftext, and then you pull of your shelves the top ten, twenty, thirty, forty commentaries that have been written on that passage throughout history, and you read what the great commentators have to say, and by the time you’ve read what all the great commentators have to say, you probably have a good idea of why that prooftext is included at that point in the confession.