Thou Shalt Not Proof-Text

What Proof-Texting Is

Proof-texting is “that process whereby a person ‘proves’ a doctrine or practice merely by aluding to a text without considering its original inspired meaning.”1 As Charles Simpson put it, “… proof-texting is like shooting an arrow into a wall and then painting the target around it. Religious proof-texters use one or two verses of Scripture to “paint” a specific doctrine and then arrogantly portray their position as Scripturally infallible.”2

Mark W. Foreman notes that, “Believers often search anxiously to discover some verse or passage they presume will prove a particular point, all the while ignoring the serious exegetical work involved in interpreting and applying Scripture. Often they force a verse to say something it was never intended to mean and which usually has nothing to do with its original and historical and literary context. Rather than treating the Bible as a historical document written to the specific needs and issues of the original audience, and to be interpreted and applied appropriately, it is instead treated as a divinely authoritative version of Bartlett’s book of quotations. This quote-a-verse mentality permeates the modern evangelical church and is problematic.”3

What Are Some Common Proof-Texts?

Craig Keener, F. M. and Ada Thompson Professor of Biblical Studies at Asbury Theological Seminary4, partnered with Seedbed to produce a three part video on “Bad Bible Proof-Texts.” Some of the passages examined include Psalm 50:10, Psalm 118:24, Song of Solomon 2:1, Joel 2:9, and Joel 3:10.

Why Should We Not Proof-Text?

Proof-texting would allow a person to make the Bible say whatever he/she wants it to say. A fine example would be the following which “uses” biblical texts to demonstrate that Jesus is not God.

“There is a direct statement about Jesus being the Son of Jehovah in the Psalms: “…He said to me, ‘You [Jesus] are my son, today I [Jehovah] have begotten you.” (Psalm 2:7)

Jehovah spoke to Jesus, in His pre-human existence, concerning the creation of Adam and Eve: “Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness ….'” (Genesis 1:26)

There were plans, from the beginning, to make Jesus a human as shown in Deuteronomy: “…he [Jehovah] will raise up for you a Prophet [Jesus] like me [Moses], an Israeli, a man to whom you must listen and whom you must obey.” (Deuteronomy 18:15, TLB; see also Acts 3:22)

During His ministry on Earth, Jesus stated that He taught not His own wisdom, but that of His Father, Jehovah: “For I have not spoken on my own authority; the Father who sent me has himself given me commandment what to say and what to speak.” (John 12:49)

There are a large number of Bible verses which can be used to prove that Jesus was not God, but the Son of God. The chapter of this thesis, “VII. Bible Verses Prove Trinity False”, lists over a hundred such texts.

The Bible, therefore, teaches that Jesus Christ is the Son of God. Jehovah said He would send His Son and Jesus made the statement that Jehovah was His Father. The Apostles taught these facts. The Bible does not teach that Jesus was Jehovah and neither Jesus nor His followers claimed otherwise.”5

Not yet convinced of the proposition? See also “90 Verses That Say: Jesus Is Not God Nor The Literal Son of God.”6

In addition, C. Michael Patton highlights four problems associated with proof-texting and they are i) the problem of interpretation, ii) the problem of understanding, iii) the problem of communication, and iv) the problem of arrogance. 7

What Then Should We Do?

So how do we avoid the dangers associated with proof-texting? The answer is proper exegesis and hermeneutics. When confronted with a barrage of texts allegedly proving a particular doctrine, go through the texts one by one and examine its grammatical-historical context. Milton S. Terry dubbed the Grammatical-Historical method as “… the method which fully commends itself to the judgement and conscience of Christian scholars. Its fundamental principle is to gather from the Scriptures themselves the precise meaning which the writers intended to convey. It applies to the sacred books the same principles, the same grammatical process and exercise of common sense and reason which we apply to other books.”8

As Gordon Fee and Douglas Stewart point out, “A text cannot mean what it could never have meant for its original readers/hearers … the true meaning of the biblical text for us is what God originally intended it to mean when it was first spoken or written.”9 Well known exegete Tremper Longman III once said, “when I interpret a text of Scripture, my goal is to understand the passage or book in its Old Testament context and from that understanding to bridge the gap to my situation today.”10

Mark Strauss’s Ten Steps for Exegesis11 provides a great guideline in what to do when interpreting a particular verse/passage. The ten steps are:

1. Identify the Genre (the Literary Form)
2. Establish the Historical and Literary Context
3. Develop a Thesis Statement
4. Outline the Progress of Thought in the Passage
5. Consult Secondary Sources (a Good Commentary)
6. Analyze Syntactical Relationships
7. Analyze Key Terms and Themes
8. Resolve Interpretive Issues and Problems
9. Evaluate Your Results From the Perspective of Wider Contextual and Theological Issues
10. Summarize Your Results

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the individual author, and they do not reflect in any way views of the institutions to which he is affiliated  and/or the other Laikos Theologos contributors.

Ways of Interpreting the Bible

[Articles in the Multiple Views series are intended to present various views held by Christians, in an objective and unbiased manner]

“Over the centuries, Jewish and Christian scholars have developed different ways of interpreting the Bible. Jewish rabbis living around the time of Jesus developed an elaborate set of rules to help them interpret their sacred texts. Among early Christian writers, there were two main schools of thought about biblical interpretation.

Those who studied the Bible in Egypt tended to favour more symbolic interpretations. Those who studied in what is now Turkey, however, preferred more literal, historical readings.

A monk called John Cassian (360–435 AD), took the discussion to the next level by bringing both kinds of interpretation together. He identified four ways in which the Bible could be understood: the literal, the symbolic, the ethical and the mystical. By the Middle Ages, these four methods of interpretation (or ‘senses’) had become fairly standard among Christians.” [1]

Cassian’s “explanation of the four senses of Scripture …, derived from Origen’s three senses, was the basis for the standard fourfold method of Biblical interpretation in the West until the Enlightenment.” [2]

Method, Example, and Challenges
A) Literal Interpretation – Historical-Grammatical-Literalistic Meaning  i) Method: Take every part of the text at its most literal meaning unless the immediate context makes this meaning impossible

ii) Example: “Temple” must be seen as a physical building

iii) Challenges: Sometimes the larger context of the literary genre suggests a broader range of meanings for a word or idea. Not every literary genre was intended to be taken literalistically. May lead to reading certain texts like historical narratives even when those texts were not intended as historical accounts.

B) Literal Interpretation – Historical-Grammatical-Rhetorical Meaning  i) Method: Seek the meaning intended by the original human authors in their historical contexts as conveyed through the Holy Spirit superintended their words and choice of genre. This does not exclude a later fulfillment of a text in a fuller and better way than what the original human author had in mind

ii) Example: “Temple” is seen as the physical building in historical genres and contexts; but in other genres, “temple” might, for example, symbolize the people of God as God’s dwelling place

iii) Challenges: In some cases, it can be difficult to identify the historical context correctly; in other instances, it can be a challenge to understand the nuances of a particular literary genre in its historical context, especially if a text combines different literary genres

C) Moral Interpretation – Ethical Meaning  i) Method: Seek the underlying moral in each biblical story.

“It involves reading between the lines of a Bible passage or verse to see how it applies to daily life. In Jewish circles this was (and is) known as midrash.” [1]

ii) Example: “Temple” might symbolize  the innermost part of the human soul.

In 1 Corinthians 9, the apostle Paul, “quotes a saying from the Old Testament … about oxen and then ‘explains’ what the text actually implied on an ethical level (i.e. that apostles have the right to financial support).” [1]

iii) Challenges: If historical-grammatical-rhetorical interpretation does not remain primary, can lead to reading Scripture as a series of stories to improve our morals instead of seeing that all of Scripture testifies to Jesus Christ and that human morals can never measure up to God’s perfect standard

D) Spiritual Interpretation – Tropological (Spiritual) Meaning  i) Method: Looks for ways in which parts of the story might prefigure or relate typologically to the life and ministry of Jesus

ii) Example: “Temple” might symbolize the people of God or the church, even in historical texts where this could not have fallen within the original author’s range of intent.

“The apostle Paul wrote that the story about Abraham and his two wives, Hagar and Sarah, could be read allegorically. He interpreted it to refer to the difficult relationship between Jewish people and Christians of his time (Galatians 4.22–31).

This type of interpretation was popular in the early Church. Many, for example, gave Christian meanings to details from the book of Joshua (e.g. ‘crossing the river Jordan to the Promised Land’ was about baptism, the ‘red rope of Rahab’ symbolised the blood of Christ etc.)” [1]

iii) Challenges: If historical-grammatical-rhetorical interpretation does not remain primary, can allow the interpreter to read ideas into the text completely unrelated to the original author’s intent, allowing the interpreter rather than the intent of the author to dictate the meaning of Scripture

E) Spiritual Interpretation – Anagogical (Heavenly) Meaning  i) Method: Looks for ways in which parts of the story might relate allegorically to the believers union with God

ii) Example: “Temple” might symbolize union with God in heaven.

iii) Challenges: If historical-grammatical-rhetorical interpretation does not remain primary, can allow the interpreter to read ideas into the text completely unrelated to the original author’s intent, allowing the interpreter rather than the intent of the author to dictate the meaning of Scripture

[1] https://www.biblesociety.org.uk/explore-the-bible/bible-articles/how-can-the-bible-be-interpreted/ (accessed on 15th June 2017)

[2] Richard Lischer, “The Company of Preachers: Wisdom on Preaching, Augustine to the Present” (2002), p.182

Sources:

  • Rose Guide to End-Times Prophecy (2011), pp.22-23
  • Richard Lischer, “The Company of Preachers: Wisdom on Preaching, Augustine to the Present” (2002)
  • BibleSociety.Org’s “How Can The Bible Be Interpreted?”

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