Sometimes verses of the Bible are misused as proof of something they do not prove. On the other hand, "proof-texting" has become a new "whipping-boy" for those who do not want to discuss the Scriptures specifically. Though Merriam-Webster defines "proof text" in neutral terms, most Christians have come to use it negatively. Zack Hunt claims, "Proof-texting is an intentionally deceptive practice that offers out of context proof while ignoring the greater witness of scripture..." Grant Osborne (The Hermeneutical Spiral) describes proof-texting as "that process whereby a person ‘proves’ a doctrine or practice merely by alluding to a text without considering its original inspired meaning." Another writes, "Proof-texting is when you start with a point you want to prove and then cherry-pick verses to support the point, regardless of the context and original meaning of those verses." If we accept these kinds of definitions, then proof-texting becomes an unredeemably bad thing. But is it?
Proof-texting can be a problem
The classic humorous proof-texting tale is as follows:
John was dissatisfied with the way things were going in his life. He decided to consult the Bible for guidance. John closed his eyes and flipped the Bible open, touching a finger to a spot on the page. He opened his eyes and read the verse under his finger, Matthew 27:5: "Then Judas went and hanged himself." Thinking these words seemed unhelpful, John randomly selected another verse using the same process, finding Luke 10:37: "Then said Jesus unto him, Go, and do thou likewise." Desperate, he tried again. This time he found John 13:27: "Then said Jesus unto him, That thou doest, do quickly."The above caricature aside, proof-texting actually comes in both positive and negative forms. Yes, taking random verses out of context is a bad thing -- whether as life guidance or doctrinal "proof texts". We've all no doubt been guilty of it at times. Let us repent and seek to study the Bible in toto and in context. We should not embrace all that comes under the umbrella of "proof-texting". We should not dismiss the legitimate criticisms. But...
Proof-texting has a place
R. M. Allen and S. R. Swain wisely call for a more judicious approach, writing, "All of the charges brought against the use of proof-texts in Christian theology could be lodged against the Bible’s own use of the Bible." ("In Defense of Proof-texting," Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, 54, No. 3, 589-606) For example, "With respect to the first charge: 2 Cor 6:16-18 cites and/or alludes to a litany of OT passages (including Lev 26:12; Isa 52:11; 2 Sam 7:14) in support of the claim that “we are the temple of the living God,” but gives no indication of the distinct literary and historical contexts within which those passages are found."
Allen and Swain advise us to "not commit the fallacy of confusing a method of citation with a hermeneutical procedure. Indeed, if there is an immediate lesson to be drawn, it is this: proof-texting (as a citation technique) has biblical precedent and therefore should not be too hastily dismissed." Amen.
Serious debate, not caricature
Someone memorably said, "A text without a context is a pretext for a proof text." But that really isn't what a true proof text is. It is a caricature of the basic meaning. All of scripture matters. Exegete and expound on each verse/statement in its context; understand and show how various scriptures are connected; listen to others who introduce scriptures that might give an alternate meaning; refine your views in light of all the Bible. But...
Don't ever discredit the use of Scripture as "proof texts". Don't chide people who produce texts of Scriptures to back up their doctrine and theology. We must first present texts so we know where we're coming from, and then we have a basis to discuss what these Scripture texts teach. Absent bringing the Scriptures into the equation we are tossed to and fro, adrift to be carried about with every wind of doctrine.
Isaiah 28:10 For precept must be upon precept, precept upon precept; line upon line, line upon line; here a little, and there a little:
* You may run across dicta probanta as a theological term meaning "proof text".
** The common and combative way of referencing proof texts is inequitable and insufficient. Be sure you realize the following, and do not be bullied into submission -- many objections to "proof-texting" come from those who do not hold the Scriptures as authoritative and therefore really disagree with the theology taught in the "proof text" more than they disagree with "proof-texting". It is a form of misdirection.
*** Proof texts are properly used as a form of shorthand. They are not intended as the last word on a topic, but as a beginning. This kind of use of proof texts can be seen in confessions of faith that point to texts believed to support the individual points made. See, for example, the First London Baptist Confession of Faith, 1644/1646.
In this divine and infinite Being there is the Father, the Word, and the Holy Spirit; each having the whole divine Essence, yet the Essence undivided; all infinite without any beginning, therefore but one God; who is not to be divided in nature, and being, but distinguished by several peculiar relative properties.**** "Many years ago, I was warned by a teacher of theology, that to appeal to the direct statements of Scripture as the foundation of a theological treatise was to be less than modern." (Joe Nesom in The Omniscience of God: Does the Lord Really Know Everything?) May we, by God's grace, be less than modern!
1 Cor. 1:3; John 1:1, 15:26, Exod. 3:14; 1 Cor. 8:6