proof-texting considered harmful

By | 12 September 2013

Myriad excellent works of the faith throughout the centuries have used the “proof-text” method for supporting their statements: Westminster Shorter Catechism, Second London Baptist Confession of Faith of 1689, and many many more.

On the surface, it seems like a great idea – quote the single statement (or sometimes a couple single statements) that support your view. But that can lead to very very dangerous outcomes indeed.

Yanking statements out of their proper context is NOT how to study the Bible!

Yes, some verses can be proofs all on their own for certain core doctrines, such as Romans 6:23, “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life through Christ Jesus our Lord.” Another like passage is Matthew 28:19-20a, “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you.”

But the very concept of prooftexting in general is not sound; taking select quotes and lining them up to make it sound like they say what you want them to say often leads into eisegesis, rather than the proper application of scripture, which is always via exegesis.

Exegesis, or reading out of a passage, is precisely how Jesus taught from the Old Testament (Luke 24:27, “[t]hen beginning with Moses and with all the prophets, He explained to them the things concerning Himself in all the Scriptures”). His authoritative teaching was one of the many things that, humanly speaking, set Him apart from other religious leaders of His day. And Jesus spoke from the recorded word a lot. (Yes, He spoke “new” things as well, but His teaching was generally expounding upon what had already been preserved.)

Eisegesis means to read-into something. Eisegesis is what literature professors have their students do when they ask them to explicate a poem – say what it means to you .. not necessarily what you think it is actually saying, or what the author intended.

When Paul preached, he “reasoned with them from the scriptures” {Acts 17:2}. He started with God’s word, and argued from it in its entirety.

Scripture “proofs” for several entries in the catechism or confession of faith referenced above do tend to be inline with what the rest of scripture says to specific topics. Or is the only way to properly answer a given question, such as “What is the seventh commandment? The seventh commandment is ‘You shall not commit adultery’ {Exodus 20:14}”

Sadly, though, some purveyors of proof-texts do not inquire into the entirety of the council of scripture for specific topics, but instead go searching for support for their pet issues, the topic of this week’s sermon, etc. I saw this recently in a forum I follow where one member asked about the biblicality of “children’s ministry” (specifically “children’s church” – interestingly, something I had written about a while back, and have since seen more recent opposition if not outright condemnation of the practice).

“But,” I hear some of you say, “Jesus and Paul and the other apostles used proof texts! Every time they said, ‘it is written’, they were proof texting.”

Well – no. They didn’t. Jesus and the apostles used texts to start or buttress their arguments, but rarely left them on their own. Instead, they used them as explanations and support for doctrine. Jesus and the apostles used the word “for” when they quoted the scriptures, or “as” – always drawing on the Old Testament for support or explanation, but never leaving it as enough on its own.

Individual texts can, and should, be the start of further inquiry – they should never ever be the end of inquiry. Until proof-texting is universally done as merely the beginning of inquiry, it shouldn’t be done.