Facing the Proof Text Method by Henry Neufeld
I suggest that the use of proof-texts is a manifestation of laziness and the desire to get something for nothing. People do not wish to spend the time firmly grounding their understanding in what various Bible writers actually teach. They would much rather have a short list of texts that support precisely what they have decided to believe anyhow. Thus, the use of proof-texts tends toward hypocrisy. To the uninformed, the purveyor of proof-texts can appear to be wonderfully informed and a deep scholar of the Bible. In fact, the result of reliance on proof-texts is a moral certainty and overbearing arrogance that is not supported by one’s study or learning.
But first let me define what I mean by proof-texting. By proof-texting I mean the use of individual scripture texts to produce apparent support for a doctrinal position without adequate regard for the contexts of the individual texts which may indicate differences and nuances. I do not include the use of texts for illustration or the use of texts which are properly taken in context and limited appropriately in what one tries to prove from them. In particular, I’m referring to the creation of entire doctrines which one demands that others believe or commands which one then demands that others obey, taken from a tissue of the words of texts but ignoring the meaning of those texts in their original contexts.
Because users of proof-texts very rarely discuss principles of interpretation, it’s very hard to get at their thinking on these matters, but I’ve formulated some rules which I believe by observation that they follow so that they can claim to be “just doing what it says in the Bible.
a.. The True Result b.. Text Trimming c.. Total Doctrinal Filter d.. All Passages are Equal e.. Stick to the Subject The True Result
When a proof-texter is confronted with his invalid exegesis, he may simply ask what’s wrong with the doctrine he was teaching from the misapplied text. In this case, any process which produces a true answer must be an acceptable process. Any math teacher can tell you to the problem with this-a process can accidentally produce a wrong answer. You need one that consistently produces a right answer. Now because of the extent of bad exegesis in sermons and teachings, I often don’t worry about the details in other people’s work. But each individual should be concerned with the accuracy and consistency of his own work.
Let’s look at an example. Frequently we hear Ezekiel 18:20, normally in the KJV, “The soul that sinneth, it shall die.” This is taken as a proof text meaning that sin results in death or that the punishment for sin is death. What’s wrong with that? Well, in the passage in question (read the whole chapter!) the argument is quite different. Ezekiel is saying that children will no longer be punished for their parents’ sins. In that context, the statement is that it is the one who sins who will die, and not somebody else. As a Christian you can use Romans 6:23 to indicate what the wages of sin actually are. Ezekiel is concerned not with the wages, but with who gets paid.
Text Trimming This is the special proof text process whereby one makes the text mean less than it says in order to be able to claim to be following it totally. Let me bring two examples. (All examples are ones I have either heard personally or seen in writing.) Exodus 21:15 & 17 talk about a person who strikes or curses father and mother, and commands that they be put to death. I have heard many Christians claim that we should follow these passages, but they didn’t actually mean to follow them. Instead, they suggested that we should strictly discipline our children. Now I don’t want to provide an argument for actually applying the literal words here. In fact, I hope anyone who does believe in taking the Bible seriously has a way not to apply this to the present day. But to claim to take the Bible literally and at face value, and then to claim that these two texts command us to discipline our children (how much apparently being determined kind of randomly) is simple denial. (Note that both in Judaism and Christianity we have approaches to understanding texts like this that take the literal text seriously, but deal with application in a more appropriate way. These methods are not called “literal,” however, and they should not be.)
Now look at the commands of Jesus in Matthew 5:29-30 to cut off one’s right hand or to pluck out one’s eye if it offends you, or causes you to stumble. I had a lengthy conversation with someone who claimed that all commands in the New Testament (he avoided all examples in the Hebrew scriptures) were to be taken at face value. His particular claim was that we should understand them the way an American high school student would be likely to understand them. This type of interpretation applied to oaths (you can’t take any oath at all), to giving alms (nobody must know under any circumstances whatever, even the IRS for a tax deduction), but when we came to this verse, he used verse trimming. He believed this verse meant one should stand by one’s faith in the face of persecution, in which someone might cut off your hand or tear out your eye. Now that’s an interpretation I doubt most American high school students would come up with!
He had trimmed what the text of the verses actually said so that he could avoid its literal implications without ever admitting that he was interpreting in a non-literal way. He no longer saw the literal meaning at all. He had become accustomed to calling his interpretation literal.
Total Doctrinal Filter The total doctrinal filter forces all texts to conform to a particular doctrinal standard whether they do or not. For example, I know someone who states unequivocally that no person can possibly be righteous. When I point out certain Biblical characters who are described as righteous, such as Job who was “blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil” he will say that this refers to the fact that Job was covered by the righteousness of Jesus.
Now Job 1:1 doesn’t say anything like that. It appears in context to be discussing Job’s character, describing him as perfect and upright, then stating specifically that he feared God and turned away from evil. It clearly does not state that some theological formula has been intoned over him so that it is no longer his character in question, but rather that of Jesus. The very foundation of the book is that Job is righteous, and thus his suffering undeserved.
This doctrinal filter clearly holds a place of higher authority than the statements of scripture itself. The writer of Job does not get to have his say-he is pre-empted by theology extracted (improperly) from the works of Paul.
All Passages are Equal Most people involved in discussions of scripture will have encountered this approach, which often is combined with the corollary that all passages can be strung together at will. It is one of the many ways that context is avoided.
A typical example is when someone asks what Jesus had to say on a certain topic, and someone promptly quotes Paul. What did Jesus say about salvation? “Now we know that a man is justified by faith and not by the works of the law” (Romans 3:28). We asked for something Jesus said, and we got Paul back. What’s wrong with this? Wasn’t Paul inspired? I do believe that Paul was inspired, but no amount of inspiration would make Paul into Jesus. No amount of inspiration would take Paul’s historical context and make it the same as that of Jesus. And for some reason, Jesus never said anything close to what Paul said in Romans 3:28 and there’s probably a reason for that, and we ought to look for it. We lose much meaning by ignoring who said what and when.
Another case is the passage from Genesis 15:6, that Abraham believed and it was counted to him as righteousness. Does Paul use these words in the same way and with the same meaning as they were used in Genesis? It’s beyond the scope of this paper to answer that question, but it would probably be a good idea to let Genesis speak and then let Paul speak, and to realize the difference between the two, and then make the decision. (Note that James takes an apparently opposite view of this passage in James 3:23. What are we to do with that one?)
Stick to the Subject This is the prime defense, which is why I have left it until last. Every proof-texter in the business wants to make sure you stick to the subject, specifically the subject he has chosen to discuss. There is a good reason for this. If you start applying the proof-text method to all sorts of scriptures other than the ones he has chosen, you will get quite different results. Subconsciously, the proof-texter is nervous about the weakness of his approach.
The prime way to respond to proof texts is to identify the method being used, and then use it on other texts, especially texts that produce ridiculous results, such as Exodus 21:15 & 17, and Matthew 5:29-30. Or compare the responses to Leviticus 18 and 19, using the proof text method. You should, in fact, refuse to stick to the subject-the subject the proof-texter has chosen-and force him to try to apply his methods to other subjects. He won’t want to do it, because he knows it won’t work.
Conclusion In conclusion, the use of the proof texts is a method that can be twisted to support a variety of viewpoints, that encourages spiritual and intellectual laziness, and produces a form of certainty without an adequate foundation. We need to make our Bible study (or the study of any text) serious by taking the time and effort to hear what the writer is actually saying, rather than abusing his words to support whatever structure we have already built.