The Problem With Proof-Texting

For those who don’t know what proof-texting is – it is finding passages of scripture that supports whatever position you want to uphold.    Typically what happens is that an assertion is made, which generates disagreement.   The opposer will list a passage of scripture or a string of passages as proof that that assertion is wrong.   I have noticed this to be a common occurrence in the blogosphere.  But I do believe it happens quite often in face to face conversations.

Now, please don’t get me wrong.  I do understand the need for Christians to support positions with the biblical text.  Otherwise, whatever it is we are trying to assert or refute can get reduced to mere opinion.  However, I have observed that submitting a string of bible passages to communicate that position can cause some problems that can undermine the reconciliation and convictions we are seeking to uphold.

Problem of interpretation: isolating passages by themselves does not address the meaning and how that relates to what is being refuted. Passages must be considered in their rightful context and then correlated to the overall witness of scripture.  For example, the issue of Christians and alcohol came up recently, which generated a host of passages that either supported either the acceptance of alcohol or its prohibition.  Proof-texting can allow support for both sides but something has obviously gotten lost if that is so.  Also, a word doesn’t necessarily mean the same thing everywhere it’s used, which is why context is so important.  To interpret properly, the word has to be examined according to how the author is using it.   If we throw out a string of passages simply because we think it aligns because it is using the same word or the same concept, it is quite possible that we are comparing apples with oranges.

Problem of understanding: if there is a disagreement about a particular point being made, there needs to be an understanding of where the points of dissension are.  Throwing out a series of passages does very little in reconciling competing viewpoints and given interpretive differences, can be comparing apples to oranges.  Rather, an explanation as to how the passages are related or asking questions about why a certain passage is being used in support of a position can promote better understanding.   Providing an explanation also forces us to examine our own understanding of the text and if we have possibly missed the point the author is intending to make or have taken something out of context.

Problem of communcation: proof-texting does not really promote dialogue.  It does not address where the differences are occurring.   When passages are identified that seem to conflict with our understanding,  there needs to be a dialogue about why the passages listed stand in opposition to whatever position is being refuted and specific points of difference.   And dialogue does not mean, ‘let me tell you why you’re wrong’.  It goes back to understanding.  Moreover, the interpretation and understanding factor ought to compel an examination of how we are communicating particular topics or passages.

Problem of arrogance: by throwing out a series of passages, especially if there is no explanation offered, can exude a confidence in one’s position that does not need explaining.  It can communicate the idea that the proof-texter has it all figured out and the position that is being refuted would certainly not be made if the presenter really had an understanding of what the bible is saying regarding the topic.  It can paint the proof-texter in light of having a superior knowledge of the topic.

I think the bottom line is that if we are sincere about understanding scripture more thoroughly and accurately, it behooves examination, understanding and dialogue.  Theology is done in community through an exchange of knowledge and a willingness for better understanding, which throwing out of list of passages does not do.

I personally wish that there was a Proof-Texting Police Squad ready to issue citations :)  What do you think?

22 Responses to “The Problem With Proof-Texting”

  1. That’s my biggest problem with topical preaching/teaching – it can be just one proof text after another – doesnt have to be, but to often is. Sometimes it’s the concordance version of preaching – 65 verses proving the point, when few if any are actually about what the topic is. I think computers may have made this worse, not better – it’s all the easier to just crank out 400 passages that have a particular word in them

  2. My favorite example of how context is king is 2 Samuel 7. “House” is used there with four different meanings: temple, palace, dynasty, and reputation/status. All within the same chapter.

  3. Combining this post with CMP’s on RW –

    My biggest issue with RW is his choice to use about 15 different bible translations in each of his books – all based on which one proves his point best. I don’t think he usually is proof texting, but it seems to come close sometimes.

    Most of the time I don’t have a problem with his exegesis, but man it is aggravating having to pull up each verse and figure out the context before I feel comfortable with whatever teaching he going with.

  4. Lisa, do have any Bible verses to back up your point? :)

  5. David: I noticed that, too, about Rick Warren. I actually viewed a video in which he used different versions of the SAME VERSE to make his point. Although I let it go for the sake of the larger lesson, it seemed a little fishy to me.

  6. Paige-Patric Samuels September 17, 2010 at 8:10 am

    Michel you have pointed out a very important argument that seems to be so paramount in Pentecostal Folk theology and Tabloid Theology, where tradition has super-impose itself above that which is written. I have known of instances where catch phrases such as: the least you do for Jesus is precious in his sight, Which is not Biblical.

    Proof text is problematic when cultural expression sounds like biblical text as oppose to how one thinks or believe. Again one of the issues at stake is as you said Michel, is arrogance, where a miss appropriation of the text, or a miss handling of the Text in that the text appears isolated from its context, so the special text are in fact interpolation of the text, eisegesis.

    This remains a problem in our church groups and ministry

  7. Many, unknowingly, have some of their belief structures founded upon proof texting or a form thereof. I’ve sat in classes where Biblical Docetism was being taught and promoted (again unknowingly). But when confronting them about their hermeneutic I was hit quickly with Heb. 4:12.

    Trying to bring correction through proper hermeneutics can be somewhat difficult because it changes/challenges long held beliefs in what a few verses incorrectly spoke to.

  8. Great article.

    However, this “proof-texting” claim can be used in an argument to deny almost any doctrine. (“Oh, you’re just proof-texting. Here’s what I believe about the trinity.”) There are some Bible doctrines which are very important but do not have hundreds of verses to support them.

  9. I completely agree with MShep2. Beware of the person who uses it in an argument too much. Most of those go on to proof-text themselves. It’s a way to disarm your opponent so you can use the prooftexts that you like. Clever, isn’t it? But I do think that it’s valid when a host of verses are given without any context. I’m not sure, however, how many people know how to NOT prooftext and draw their theology from the larger discourses and implied truths.
    I would also want to be careful of those who go through books, thinking that they are immune to this. I’ve seen the preaching of biblical books turned into “100 Lessons on Various Topics the Preacher Likes to Harp On.” Just because the preacher is going through the book doesn’t mean he will not still employ a bad hermeneutic and practice eisegesis. The key is educating pastors in discourse analysis and in simply just seeing the big picture of a biblical book. He then should be able to see how it all fits together as he moves through it.

  10. I think of a lot of this this has come about because of the tendency of topical or conversational type preaching/teaching which has been so popular in the church in recent years.

    Instead of consulting the Bible first, and going through whole chapters at a time to properly understand context, we seem to pick out our favorite subject, go to a concordance or a study Bible, and call it good. I’m not saying not use a concordance, or study notes, but I think there is a lot of over dependance upon them in modern Christianity.

    When I came out of charismania several years, which is notorious for proof texting, and calling the latest Christian book their Bible, I saw the need to really study the Bible again on my own. I had been raised in the SBC which did Bible study as just that. No Christian books, pre-programmed study guides, etc; just straight Bible. What that did was force us to actually think about what was being said, and mull it over. Again, I am NOT saying that some outside clarification isn’t important, it is. However, there is also such a thing as over clarification. As Lisa mentioned by holding the proof texting contests we so often see in comments on blogs doesn’t necessarily make us understand better, but often makes it more confusing because it makes the Bible itself look divided on certain subjects.

  11. The problem with accusing someone of “proof-texting” is that you have to assume that the individual using a certain text has never studied out the context in which the verse(s) appears.

    My point is that two people can quote the same passage: One can be proof texting and the other can be stating quite clearly the main punch line of a larger and more extensive study they have conducted.

    If I were to string together 5-10 verses dealing with the deity of Christ I would not be proof texting in the sense that people use the term. I would merely be pointing to key verses properly interpreted in thier context. The point of doing this is to say, “here are the key texts and where to find them. Go check it and study the context of each.”

    I highly doubt that anyone wants to give a full exegetcal outline for every passage they bring up in coversation. Also the context of the conversation takes on some responsiblity as well.

    For example:

    If I’m talking with another pastor that is or ought to be well versed in Scripture I may only have to quote a single text to him to invoke the entire context of a passage to change his mind or encourage his postion.

    I’ve been on the receiving end of “proof-texters” who couldn’t give you the context or the argument addressed in a verse to save their life. It’s frustrating to be sure. They come off arrogant to be sure.

    But the difference isn’t in the mere citation of passages. It’s in the indivual who quotes them and their knowlege of the passage.

  12. Jason, I think that is why dialogue is so important

  13. Great post Lisa!
    Unfortunately the blog world is a vine ripe for and with proof texting, something that I don’t think is really overcome due to the nature of blogs in which most people are trying to get their point across quickly.
    In the fundamentalist world, it happens all too often as preachers toss out passage after passage after passage to prove their point, because they are “bible believing churches,” (and unfortunately they state that like the community church down the street doesn’t believe in the bible).
    My favorite is their use of “Flesh” or “Sarx” to often drive what I see as a very gnostic view point.
    Definately dittos to the people who commented above about RW. I did the “Purpose Driven Life,” and I agree that although he may not be proof-texting per say, he definately is choosing which translation illustrates his point best (could he use “The Message” some more please?). But in his defense, I think he is just trying to make it understandable to lay people like myself…until the have the time to go through THE THEOLOGY PROGRAM!

  14. Lisa makes good points, but I can’t resist mentioning someone’s observation that a “prooftext” in any other discipline is called a footnote.

  15. One day a long time ago, I realized when people were discussing end times, in all sorts of forums, there were such a grievance and sword wars unlike I had ever seen. So there were those that were Preterits, Pre-Trib, Mid-Trib, Post-Trib, and I think even other groups that I can’t even remember now.
    And one day I realized something quite valid. All these people were getting their views from the Bible and only from the Bible.

    This helped me to really see that there are some mysteries that people have not figured out until it actually happens in the course of time.

    Also, regarding varying views. Like, One Saved Only Saved versus can a person’s name be blotted out like the Bible says?
    Well, it all comes down to can our names be blotted out like the Bible says? Yes. But are we adopted children of God for real? Yes.
    So the bottom line it is pointless to argue about it because all the Scripture in the Bible shows us that we cannot sort this out.

    The same is true with Election…Does God know everything versus free will. Why, it just makes us crazy to figure this one out.

    And even more, what Paul stated about the mystery of godliness…How can God die on the cross? God can’t die, but yet He did. Another concept too hard on the human brain. One can actually make oneself crazy trying to sort that out.

    Or the centuries of views on baptism and communion! And many have died because of it.

    Or what about ourselves when we need to know how to respond to enemies…do we pray for them, bless them, or do we not invite them in, nor cast our pearls before swine? There are various things that the Lord says to do in the Word. It is apparent that we must do what the Holy Spirit guides us to do at any given moment.

    I keep coming to a conclusion when I think on these things…it is so no one can boast in this life. Have you noticed that sometimes when people think they have it, they start looking a bit ridiculous?

  16. Here’s an attempt at proof-texting something (by no means) controversial… And here’s another one…

  17. I’ve sat in classes where Biblical Docetism was being taught and promoted.

  18. “Theology is done in community through an exchange of knowledge and a willingness for better understanding, which throwing out of list of passages does not do.”

    Lisa, this sounds to me like the groundwork for making a case for how “church” done today may actually be largely irrelevant and ineffective. One man at the podium and an audience held mute and captive during an “appointed time” may lead to mute and mindless “observance” for some who think to fall in line with a traditional/customary practice. Many consider this is key to their “being” Christian. And the question of why we do what we do never occurs. Of course, this would be disastrous to the current system and some churches altogether if we came to the realization that something is truly amiss and how to “fix” it starts with a huge paradigm shift.
    Just some remarks from the common laity. Thanks.


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