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.