Concordance-ism is not your friend

Concordance-ism is not your friend January 24, 2018

Concordance-ism is a plague and a scourge. This is the practice of determining “what the Bible says” about a given thing by “looking up” every mention of it in the Bible. Back in the day, that was only possible with a concordance — a separate, massive volume that was basically an index for every word in the Bible.

Concordances could be very useful tools, of course. The Bible is a large (collection of) book(s), and even those who were aces for the Bible Quiz Team and who had memorized huge chunks of scripture would often find a concordance invaluable for locating a particular passage that they couldn’t quite fully remember. That’s just using a concordance, and that’s fine. Concordance-ism is misusing the index, not to locate a particular passage, but to guide and steer and determine one’s reading, thereby creating the false impression that one has read “everything the Bible has to say” about a given topic.

Today, concordance-ism is easier than ever — and thus even more popular — because online Bibles and Bible apps allow the same word-search index function without having to lift a massive copy of Strong’s Exhausting Concordance.

You have to be strong to lift this thing. (Photo snurched from eBay.)
You have to be strong to lift this thing. (Photo snurched from eBay.)

If you’ve spent a lifetime hearing sermons and homilies — especially evangelical sermons — then you’ve no doubt encountered concordance-ism and its unfortunate byproducts. You’ve likely heard some preacher admit to it. Sometimes this is a sheepish confession acknowledging their last-minute, I-got-nothin’ sermon-prep from the night before. But sometimes it’s not a confession but a boast, with the preacher bragging that they “looked up every passage about X” to thereby claim that what they were preaching about X was comprehensive and authoritative.

That’s concordance-ism. And it doesn’t work.

But while concordance-ism is neither comprehensive nor authoritative, it’s always revealing. The “biblical” sermons and “biblical” arguments cobbled together by someone concordancing always plainly show just exactly which words that person looked up in search of authoritative prooftexts. And thus also, and more significantly, they show which words that person did not include. That latter, vastly longer list of words not included constitutes a list of thoughts not included — of thoughts precluded.

That’s what concordance-ism always reveals: the thoughts unthought, the boundaries of the concordancer’s language and imagination and literacy. It reveals what the concordancer regards as unthinkable, and thus what it is that they are incapable of seeing and incapable of understanding. This is something that person could not have told you about themselves because it is something they are, by definition, unable to know about themselves.

When that preacher or radio host tells you that they “looked up every single passage about X” what they’re really describing is all of the constraints and blinders and barriers they bring to the subject. They’re telling you how little they’ve thought about X and how little they’re able to think about it. They looked up X in a concordance, and only X, imagining that this is all the Bible had to say and all that there is to know about the subject.

No subject works like that. Consider, for example, the environment. I used to sometimes speak at churches on behalf of the Evangelical Environmental Network, and I would start, as expected/required, by reading a passage of scripture. Usually that would be Galatians 6:22-23 — “The fruit of the Spirit is love. Joy, peace, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control: There is no law against such things.” This was confusing to evangelical audiences accustomed to concordancing. The word “environment” doesn’t appear in that passage, so what on Earth does that have to do with anything?

This is what concordancing trains us to do — to draw lines and to set limits on what we’re able to think and understand.

We’ve previously discussed the classic example of concordance-ism gone wrong — the centuries-long “debate” among white American Christians over American slavery. Mark Noll collects and explores this wonderfully in his excellent book The Civil War as a Theological Crisis. Both the advocates for and the opponents of slavery wanted to know what the Bible had to say about it, but concordance-ism kept them from even remotely beginning to answer that question.

As I wrote here last year:

Consider the actual mechanism at work in that “Bible debate” over slavery. Consult the concordance and look up passages containing the words “slavery” or “slave.” But don’t look up passages containing the words “kidnap” or “captive” or “rape” or “oppression” or “bondage” or “justice” or “theft” or “wages” or “children.” Those passages are not allowed to be considered. The idea of a “biblical defense” of slavery only became possible once it was painstakingly extracted from the otherwise inextricable fact that such a defense would require a “biblical defense” of kidnapping, torture, theft, rape, abuse, oppression, and the forced destruction of families.

As Noll traces, the white opponents of slavery had some success within the stupefying constraints of concordance-ism by challenging the assumption that the words “slave” and “slavery” in the Bible referred to a practice that was identical to the American Holocaust those references were being cited to defend. That was good — countering one secondary aspect of why concordance-ism is so misleading and self-deceiving. But it didn’t challenge the overall construct of concordance-ism itself — the idea that we choose what terms to “look up” and thereby exclude every other passage and every other perspective and every other thought, reassuring ourselves that we already knew everything there was to know about something before we even got started manipulating the index to “prove” our prior assumptions.

For a more recent, howlingly awful example of concordance-ism at work precluding thought, take a glance at this essay from Alabama Football News: “Repairing Evangelical Political Theology: Getting the State Right.” It’s intended, I think, as a defense of Robert Jeffress’ obsequious surrender to Trumpism (that’s how Jeffress’ interpreted it, at least). It doesn’t succeed at that or at much of anything. John Fea is being generous when he describes it as “half-baked two-kingdom” theology. If I had to describe it, I’d turn not to a theologian, but to a physicist, Wolfgang Pauli: “This isn’t right. This isn’t even wrong.”

It’s easy to trace the concordance-ism at work here. This guy looked up the word “state,” thereby stumbling onto — and truncating, maybe unintentionally — two biblical passages that are, indeed, relevant to the long history and vast body of Christian political thinking. And based on having conducted his word-search of subject X, he regards himself as wholly versed in the subject. No need to read, understand, or even acknowledge 2,000 years of Christian thought and teaching. No need to flip through any of the rest of the Bible to see whether anything else in there might be in any way relevant.

This helpfully illustrates both the misleading results of concordance-ism and the mechanism by which it misleads. We can easily see not just which terms — which constrained values for “X” — this guy looked up in his concordancing, we can also easily see which terms he did not look up and which terms he would never imagine looking up. That list is very long and very revealing. His concordance-ism doesn’t tell us anything at all useful about the subject he imagines he is addressing authoritatively. But it tells us a great deal about him and about all that he is unwilling and unable to think.

Concordance-ism is not your friend.


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