Or “Say hello to my little friend!”</
What I mean by Proof-texting
There are four different ways to interact with Scripture within a discussion:
- Exegesis: Carefully breaking down the meaning of a text through grammar, definitions, and context.
- Quoting: Repeating word for word what a particular passage says.
- Referencing: Just naming the Book, chapter, and verses to which you are referring.
- Inferencing: Integrating Scripture into what you are saying without reference to origin, by summarizing, partial quotation, or other means.
Naturally, we would like to exegete whenever possible. However, anytime in which you quote, reference, or inference Scripture in order to demonstrate the validity of the point which you are arguing, you are in a sense proof-texting.
I feel that all good Protestants need to have a love/hate relationship with Proof-texting. Whenever I quote a portion of Scripture, I have an intrinsic desire to explain how I know it means what I believe it means. However, prudence demands that sometimes I have to just quote or reference the passage. This is especially true if I am making an argument from across all of Scripture. However, whenever I do that, I feel icky.
The problem is that most people do not really understand how language works. Human language is fascinating in its complexity and diversity of expression. Every word has a range of meaning, and figures of speech diversify their meaning even further. However, it appears to me that most people are under the impression that words have intrinsic meaning.
However, they don’t. Words are arbitrary symbols which are linked to certain categories of ideas, and these categories are broader for some words than others. Therefore, all words need to be defined by how they are used. This is called context. And the sentence itself isn’t sufficient to define a word’s context, for the same word can be used in the same sentence multiple ways.
However, whenever we simply quote, reference, or inference a text, we are necessarily separating that text from its context. This means that we are either assuming our listeners know the context (which is rare), or hoping that the meaning is apparent apart from the context (which again is rare). However, we can’t avoid it, for if we are going to make generalized points, we have to discuss more than one passage. Therefore, proof-texting is a bit of a necessary evil.
However, most Calvinists, indeed most of my fellow evangelicals, don’t seem to see it this way. Most “arguments” consist of rapidly firing a set of Bible references or quotes at someone like a machine gun from an old mobster movie. Indeed, it seems to be believed that the sheer volume of biblical passages should be sufficient to convince a person (as if quantity was more important than quality).
This is probably unsurprising considering our culture of sound-bites and flash over substance. Exegesis can be long, technical, and confusing. Things which are long, technical, and confusing generally don’t convince people. It is much easier for me to see two lists of Scripture and determine which one is longer than it is to analyze the individual passages in that list. I believe that those who do proof-texting believe they are honoring Scripture, and are attempting to demonstrate how their case is more biblical. But while such lists are useful as tools to enable to do more research after a conversation, within a conversation it is rare for these texts to be treated with the care and dignity that they deserve.
Proof-texting in Action
There is no way I can get through talking about proof-texting without mentioning the MGH. In 2008 I published an article expressing what I call the Machine Gun Hermeneutic or MGH. It is a form of an argument from verbosity. An argument from verbosity (or elephant hurling) is a kind of fallacy where you overload the listener with more information than can be assessed. It is unfortunate, but it is easier for a person to recognize superiority in quantity than it is to recognize superiority in quality, and elephant hurling can be fairly effective. The MGH in particular is overloading the listener with a series of Bible verses which the listener cannot practically assess. Calvinist websites and internet debaters do this often.
However, there are some inherit problems with these Calvinist verses. First of all, most of them do not say anything explicitly Calvinistic, such as Romans 8:29-30 or Ephesians chapter 1. However, any verse which says a word which Calvinists really really like to use, like election or predestination, is considered to be a “Calvinist” verse, whether those features are explained or not. This of course ignores the fact that Arminians use those words too.
A second reason is that the KJV was translated by Calvinists, and many subsequent translations are based off of the KJV. Take for instance Acts 13:48 which is usually translated with the word ‘ordained’ or ‘appointed’ for ‘tasso’, even though the word’s core meaning is ‘to position’, or ‘to set’. ‘Appoint’ or ‘ordain’ unnecessarily limits the scope of interpretation, as well as making it sound more “Calvinisty” (of course, even with using ‘appoint’ or ‘ordain’ it doesn’t prove Calvinism).
And the final problem, at least the final one that I’m dealing with here, is that there is a certain amount of arrogance to believe that we haven’t read these verses before. Take this video, which is a particularly heinous example of MGH (and straw man argumentation, but that’s for another time). It consistently claims that verses are being ignored, or rewritten. However, we have read the whole Bible, and I’ve never read a single portion of it that I felt was out of line with my theology. If I had, I would have changed my theology. The problem isn’t that one side ignores or is ignorant of certain verses; it is that we approach the Bible from different interpretive grids. (And ours is right of course ;-))
There is one more kind of proof-texting that really hurls my elephant. It is where you take a verse which is theologically neutral, and then inference it to sound “more biblical” than the other person. For instance, using Isaiah 1:18 to make it sound like you are using reason, unlike your opponent. Another example is to use Romans 9:20 to gain some kind of moral high ground (which usually entails the speaker confusing themselves with God, but I digress).
If you do this in the midst of a variety of other proof-texts, it makes it sound as if another text is supporting your claim. However, it’s not. If a text has nothing to do with the conversation, than it has nothing to do with the conversion. It is a form of enslaving the text to your theology, instead of submitting your theology to the text.
The End Result
Here is why this actually bothers me. When you search the Scripture for texts that sort of sound like your point of view so that you can win a debate, you are enslaving Scripture. As someone with a high view of Scripture, this bothers me immensely.
Scripture is supposed to transform our perspective. It is the Rule of Faith: the measuring rod upon which we test our beliefs. It is not a debate tool. Some people are so focused on using the Scripture to transform others that they forget to test themselves against it.
This isn’t to say we shouldn’t talk about Scripture when we have differences. Absolutely we should! But we should respect one another enough to know that the other side isn’t simply ignorant about our favorite passages. They’ve read them, and clearly understand them differently. Therefore, we should talk about the passages themselves, instead of merely seeing who can quote more of them. We all would be much better off.