Problem with Proof-Texting

Derek Ouellette —  March 24, 2010 — 6 Comments

What is “Proof-Texting”?

Proof-texting is a practice in which, if two people are discussing a subject of theology, one or both of them will provide a lists of verses or passages from the bible as “proof” which supposedly makes or “proves” their case; hence the term “proof-texting”.

We have all done it, you have done it and so have I. But there are problems with treating the biblical text this way in any theological study and dialogue, and I want to just highlight a few of them.

Simple and Assuming:

For starters, proof-texting is a very naive approach to handling and discussing the bible. When a case is supported with a proof-text the underlining assumption which is being made is that these texts being used as proof do not require interpretation to be understood. Worse yet, a further assumption being made at the same time is that the person using the text to support their case is not interpreting them, they are simply “reading the text and taking it at face value”. This is naïve because it oversimplifies reality and is simply untrue.

Perspective Matters:

Everyone who reads a biblical text (or any piece of literature for that matter) is coming at it from a certain angle. Authors they’ve read, sermons they’ve heard, friends they’ve spoken too, homes they were raised in, arguments they’ve been persuaded by, and traumatic life experiences (not to mention genetic inclinations as well; natural tendency to think compassionately et cetera); all of these have contributed to the way a person may think about a certain subject. These are called “worldviews”; we all have them and the first step to maturity is to acknowledge this reality. (No one grew up in a bubble.)

Our worldviews function much like this “Cafe Wall” optical illusions…

… We become so accustomed to seeing things a certain way that we fail to notice when things are crooked verses when they are actually straight. (The horizontal lines are perfectly parallel.) A friend of mine wrote a great blog on how and why perspectives matter in which he included this picture of two tables which are exactly the same length:

And for good measure I could add this photo of a young woman looking away… or is it a profile picture of an old lady?

These pictures illustrate the fact that how we see things really does matter. Things are not always as they at first appear. This is why acknowledging that we see things through the spectacles of our worldviews matters so much, because it will challenge us to stop, and take a closer, more critical look.

The second step to maturity is to recognize that other people have worldviews of their own and (frankly) they are probably different from ours. This means that instead of stringing together a list of bible verse to support our case, that while we have obviously been convinced by these “proof-text”, others may not. We should not consider other people “stupid” for not agree with the “evidence” which we see as being so “plain” and “clear”. They may be plain and clear to us because of the lenses which we read them with, our worldviews. But other people with different worldviews will not so uncritically accept our understanding of those passages.

Critical Reading Matters:

When we read a text through our worldviews we tend to read them uncritically, “look, how could you disagree with me, the bible says it right here in this verse, and here and here.” Problem though is seldom with the “proof-text”, it is almost always with the interpretation! You are interpreting the text through your worldviews whether you know it or not (which is fine), but when you simply enlist text into your service to support your argument you are failing on two fronts: a) to critically read the text and b) to recognize that the person you are discussing with who has a different set of worldviews is reading the text critically. The end result is that you will remain wholly unconvincing and quite possibly self deceived. (Most people will not give up their worldviews just because you say they are wrong accompanied by “proof-text” evidence; would you?)

Moving Beyond Proof-Text to a More Robust Approach:

The answer to this whole dilemma is to discard the practice of proof-texting altogether and take up the bible’s own charge, that we are to study to show ourselves approved (which means our study should shape our character), that we should rightly divided the word of truth (meaning that we should study the scriptures utilizing all of the tools available to us), and that we should teach others, meaning that instead of listing “proof-text” and assuming that because we have been convinced by these string of passages, other will to, instead of doing this we are called to expound on each one, show how they are connected, listen to opposing argument and refine our views in light of good opposing arguments (if necessary).

Proof-texting is fun when you and all your buddies agree on what that text means and on the theological points of views under discussion. But it shows a lack of maturity when proof-text (as such) is used in the context of debate or study.

Present your case, don’t assume it!

Derek Ouellette

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a husband, new dad, speaker, writer, christian. see my profile here.
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  • Joel de Witte

    Who are you to say that using proof-text is evidence of lack of maturity. Even jesus was doing this in luke 24:27 where Jesus himself explains from all the scripture “the things concerning himself” in this verse the theme is likened to be Christ!

    second of all, consider the next text:

    2 peter 1:20 knowing this first that no prophecy is of any private interpretation. the word interpretation means explanation. In other words no prophecy of the scripture is of any own interpretation.. or can really explain itself, only from the context .

    There is a reason for that: What does the bible say about prophecy??
    1 corinthians 13:9 for we know in part and we prophecy in part.

    now if we only prophecy a part or one side of the story, how can you come to a right interpretation of the whole.

    i prefer not to use the word critical in order for us to examine if the word of God is true indeed.
    i believe the right attitude is given in the book of Acts 17:11 dealing with Christ dead and resurrection.

    PS: i am from Holland and sorry to say is english not my first language.

    • Joel de Witte

      because of the fact that we prophesy in part we have to take heed of the given principle in God’s word to understand scripture = isaiah 28:10, 1 corinthians 2:13, in order for us to understand the real purpose of the scripture= 2 tim 3:16 and hebrews 4:12