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.
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:
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.