On Proof-Texting

I’ve always found ‘proof-texting’ to be disrespectful both to the Bible itself and also to the person to whom that proof-texting is being done.

There is a world of difference between showing occurrences in the Bible of phenomena or ideas (which is what I do with my Scripture references), and ripping verses out of context (both local and taking account of the whole Scripture) in order to prove a point.

For a while now, I have wanted to write a piece on proof-texting. But my friend Tim Chastain, author of the blog ‘Jesus Without Baggage’ has gone and beaten me to it 🙂 Good on yer, Tim!

Without more ado, here’s his excellent piece which says all I ever wanted to say, and more!

How Proof-texting is Ineffective and Disrespects the Bible

As a progressive blogger people often disagree with me—sometimes vigorously, and this is as it should be. I believe any statement, conclusion, or opinion I share is open to challenge. Exploring disagreement can be a very valuable experience; often I gain insights or learn something new from those who express opposing opinions. How much can I learn if I interact ONLY with those who already agree with me? I need to hear and understand the perspectives of those who think differently.

There are various ways to discuss disagreement, but today I would like to mention one particular method (used by many fundamentalists and evangelicals) that I consider totally ineffective and without value whatsoever—proof-texting. I assume most of us have experienced proof-texting.

What is Proof-texting?

Proof-texting is citing a biblical passage in defense of a belief. Sometimes it will include a short text of a passage along with the book, chapter, and verse reference, but often the proof-text will be only the chapter/verse reference without any text at all as though the biblical reference alone is sufficient as authoritative proof—without need of the actual words.

Now there is nothing wrong with citing biblical passages in support of our views; in fact, I cannot see how we can avoid it or why we would want to. But proof-texting is different in that there is little or no exploration of, or elaboration on, the text itself. The text is its own authority simply because it exists and it requires no explanation or interpretation beyond the short text itself.

It seems that any verse in the Bible, or even a phrase separated out of a verse, is a stand-alone truth slogan—a nugget of authoritative truth in concise form. It has no need for context, reflection, or explanation because it is self-evident and requires no elaboration.

The essence of proof-texting is quoting or referencing passages without elaborating on them due to the understanding that the proof-text carries its own clear, undeniable authority.

Frequently, a person will make a point followed by a number of chapter/verse references pulled from throughout the Bible and listed, without discussion, as proof of their point (with or without the texts themselves). Such a list of references is considered devastating against an opposing view, and the recipient is expected to accept them as listed; the proof-texts are the final conclusion to the discussion and that there is no escape from their ‘truth’ and applicability.

Many conservative believers are fond of this method of argument in debates. But I find proof-texting totally ineffective based on two very important failure points.

Proof-texting is Based on a Faulty Presupposition about the Bible

Proof-texting assumes that each passage, verse, or segment of a verse is a propositional truth statement. It is clearly stated in the Bible and needs no context or explanation because the statement is clear and self-evident as it is. The name for this assumption is inerrancy: anything written in the Bible is God’s own clear truth without error and is not open to question. But let me emphasize that this view is a mere assumption; inerrancy is not even taught in the Bible but is a presupposition that some people bring to the Bible.

The idea is that ‘God said it; I believe it; that settles it.’ But this does not consider that the Bible was written over thousands of years, in many places and cultures, in many situations, by many individuals who didn’t understand things the same way.

One big problem with proof-texting is that it only works in arguments between inerrantists who both hold to this assumption; proof-texting is of no benefit in discussion with a person who does not hold to inerrancy.

I do understand the perspective of those who use proof-texting. They have been taught a doctrinal system in which each thought and phrase in the Bible is an ‘absolute truth’. I was taught the same thing, but I discovered many of these ‘truths’ are not so much what the biblical writers say but what some believers along the way interpreted them to mean.

I might respond to a proof-text that includes the text (after placing it in its biblical context), but more often I ask for clarification on what the proof-texter intends me to understand from the text. The bottom line is that I do not find proof-texting persuasive.

There is a second big problem with proof-texting.

Proof-texting Ignores Context

I think the biggest difficulty I have with proof-texting is that the method does not consider the context of the individual passages—and the point of the context cannot be reduced to a few words extracted from it. Proof-texting assumes that the passages are relevant to the topic when in fact the authors might be addressing quite different issues, and it also assumes that the intent of each short snippet is self-evident, which it is not.

Lists of proof-texts tend to harmonize passages without letting each passage speak for itself within its own context. The individual passages might seem to speak to a common theme, but their significance can only be determined by the context within which they are found. Biblical verses are not slogans, or even arguments, that can be detached from the situation in which they are written. The intent of a proof-text can often be easily debunked simply by reading the context in which it is found, as we noticed in a previous example.

The richness of the Bible does not consist in unrelated proof-texts that can simply be strung together like beads or put together like puzzle pieces; rather it is in understanding the passages in light of the lives, culture, and understanding of the writers–and especially in the light of Jesus.

Click the graphic below to go to the original post:

Series Navigation<< God’s Autobiography?On Biblical Literalism >>

4 thoughts on “On Proof-Texting

  1. Tony, when I saw your title I was eager to hear your thoughts on proof-texting.

    sorry I stepped on you plans for a post on the subject. However, I am sure you have thoughts I did not express. I would love to hear them–perhaps in post or otherwise. It is an important issue for me as well, and I am always open to other thoughts on it.

    Thanks for the reblog.

    1. Hehe thanks that’s generous of you Tim 🙂 I will have to look through my notes and stuff to see if there’s anything else to add! But you weren’t stepping on my toes; I think that these days the Spirit is saying so much similar stuff to so many of us that as long as one of us gets it ‘out there’, that’s all that matters 🙂

      And I love reblogging your stuff!

  2. For completeness’ sake, I will also include this addition. I did indeed write back to Tim in response to his request in the comments above, regarding other aspects on this subject. Here is the point I raised:

    “There was just one such point.

    “It’s that proof-texting actually disrespects the recipient of the
    proof-text salvo.

    “First, it assumes that the recipient does not know their Bible, and
    needs to be ‘reminded’ or even told as if they haven’t read it at all.
    Granted, this is sometimes the case, but a proof-text is rarely couched
    in such terms that show respect for the recipient’s prior learning. A
    better way would be like Jesus did in saying, ‘But haven’t you read
    [this verse]?’

    “Second, it assumes that the recipient has to interpret that Scripture in
    exactly the same way as the proof-texter. Simply remembering that there
    are tens of thousands of Christian denominations is sufficient to
    illustrate that such an agreement on interpretation is not always achieved!

    “Thirdly, it does not allow the Spirit to have spoken Her own words to
    the recipient independently; this is as distinct from the above point
    about our own interpretation. It’s all very well us having different
    interpretations, but God has to be free to give us what He wants us to
    hear from any Scripture, and this may well be different from what others
    hear on the same Scripture, or even what the same person hears but at
    different times. Sure, it’s like doing the ‘God said it!’ claim, but
    actually that’s exactly what has happened!

    “In these ways, the autonomy of belief of the recipient of the proof-text
    is disrespected. But usually autonomy is not what the proof-texter is
    bothered about; usually it’s conformity!”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.