THE PROBLEM WITH “PROOF TEXTS”: Becoming a Responsible Student of the Bible
The problem with “proof texts” is that you can find one to “prove” about any stand or position one chooses to take.
What do I mean by proof texts? That is finding a verse, or verses in the Bible that seem to back an idea or belief, and using the verse(s) as authoritative PROOF to your point.
We are all guilty.
We have all done it.
And it can be irresponsible, and sometimes doctrinally dangerous.
The problem with the use of “proof texts” to back a person’s position is that it shows a misunderstanding of how to approach the authority of God’s Word. The premise behind those who rely on “proof texts” to argue their position is that since the Bible is God’s infallible Word and has ultimate authority, then all statements in the Bible are packed with the authority of God Himself. Thus, my position is right and true because I am presenting authoritative, textual statements from Scripture that validate it.
However, one does not have to look hard to find examples of arguments or practices backed by “proof texts” gone awry.
A SLIMY EXAMPLE:
An extreme example is found in the small community of churches who practice the handling of snakes in their worship services. Yes, snakes!
They quote Mark 16:18, “they will take up serpents….
Note that this is a sentence clause, sandwiched within a broader statement. Yet, since it is scripture, and they believe in the authority of scripture as God’s inspired Word, then this sentence clause, extracted from the Bible is a “proof text” that backs their practice of letting loose a basket of venomous snakes in their worship service for congregants to grab and handle as proof of their faith!
THE EXAMPLE OF CEASE AND DESIST:
An example that is probably more familiar would be a “proof text” used by cessation theologians, that is, those who teach that the gifts of the Holy Spirit, namely the gift of speaking in other tongues have ceased in modern times.
The “proof text” they use is found in I Corinthians 13: 8. “…whether there are tongues, they will cease; .
Note again that this is a sentence clause extracted from a broader theme in scripture.
Though the topic that Paul is teaching on is LOVE,
….and though other statements are made such as, “prophecy (preaching) will one day cease” and “knowledge will vanish away”, ….
these so called theologians will acknowledge that both preaching and knowledge still have their part in the church today….only speaking in tongues has ceased according to them. They extract an isolated sentence clause to formulate a bad theological position.
And even though Paul continues in his teaching into the next chapter to tell the Corinthians “do not forbid speaking in tongues”, it does not matter to the cessationist. They have a “proof text” from the authority of God’s Word and it is proof of their position.
As you can see, problems can arise when we use the Bible as a weapon to back our arguments using isolated “proof texts”.
Here is what we should understand about the use of “proof texts”:
- Using “proof texts” to validate an argument is treating the Bible as a lawyer would a legal document. The lawyer presents his case citing law and legal precedence with the hope of winning his case. However, the Bible is not a legal document, it is more an authoritative book of faith and truth.
- We believe scripture is “God-breathed”, inspired by God and of the Holy Spirit. (II Timothy 3:16) Therefore every line, every verse comes to us from the will and heart of God by the avenue of the Holy Spirit. This does not, however, give us liberty to take a single verse, a handful of verses, or as I have seen some do, an isolated sentence clause, out of the Bible, and use it to back a doctrine, practice or idea.
“God is a strategic, orderly God. His Word is strategic and orderly.”
- We must take into account the COVERGENCE of Scripture. That is, that all the stories, accounts, decrees, promises, prophecies from Genesis to Revelation are inter-woven, intricately connected and converge to reveal a larger unfolding plan. Thus, no verse stands alone apart from the fullness of God’s plan and revelation for us!
In order to avoid the abuse of taking a text out of context and using it to back an idea whether it is truth or not, there are principles of interpretation that are commonly followed. I would like to introduce a summary of some of them.
Practicing these principles will help you become a responsible student of the Bible and also will help you critically analyze “proof texts” that may be presented to you by people who are hung up on a pet doctrine, or more importantly, those used by cults and false teachers.
- Scripture interprets Scripture
This is simple. When you come across an unclear verse, it must be interpreted by the verses that are clear. A verse, or even a handful of verses that seem to say one thing, must be weighed against the overall scripture itself. One verse will never make null and void the rest of the message of the Bible.
Some Calvinist site two or three verses of scripture to back their false teaching of eternal security, (once saved always saved). Yet, there SIXTY FIVE direct New Testament scripture verses warning against backsliding or addressing it directly. If scripture interprets scripture, the single verse, or handful of verses must succumb to the overwhelming majority of scripture.
- Two or Three Witness
The spiritual principle that by the mouth of two or three witnesses shall every word be established certainly applies to truth in the Word.
In other words, no doctrinal teaching should stand on one verse in the Bible which is not mentioned, clarified, reemphasized in any other location in the Bible.
The example given of the handling of snakes applies. Besides the sentence clause in Mark 16:8, there are no other scriptures that address believers picking up snakes as a sign of faith. There is no history in the early church, no accounts in the book of Acts, no other clarification. If anything, Jesus comes back and associates snakes and scorpions with demons and spiritual forces of the enemy (Luke 10:19). Since scripture interprets scripture, then we can conclude that taking up serpents was most likely a reference to authority over all the power of the enemy.
Many movements have developed practices centered around a passage of scripture that is mentioned only once, perhaps to one person or group, but never clarified or emphasized anywhere else. This is not a good approach.
- Consider the Author and the Audience
Who is writing the passage is just as vital as to whom he is writing it to. This will often reveal the WHY he is writing it. When we understand these, we understand the context in which a verse is given.
An example could be used with the verse in II Corinthians 9:7 that some use to “prove” that tithe is not a New Testament practice. “7 So let each one give as he purposes in his heart, not grudgingly or of necessity…”
So the argument from this verse: We are not taught to give 10%, but only what we purpose in our own hearts to give.
This is where the AUTHOR, the AUDIENCE and the WHY are important.
The author is Paul, who is preparing the Corinthian Church which he founded, for his upcoming visit.
The audience is the elders and leaders in the Corinthian church who are receiving instructions for the Apostle.
The WHY is what is important here.
Paul had asked several congregations to take up special offerings for other churches that were suffering financially. Paul boasted of how other congregations had responded well. He is telling the Corinthians not to disappoint him with their special love offering. Thus everything in the passage is dealing with the manner in which the congregation should collect this special need offering. Now verse 7 makes sense.
It is NOT a verse dismissing tithing in the regular offerings on Sunday morning. In fact, Paul tells the Corinthians to take up this offering before he even arrives so that there would be no offering taken when he would be present with them.
Understanding the Author, The Audience and the Why brings understanding to the verse and disallows a misuse of an isolated portion of scripture to prove a false point.
- Grammatical Principle
Before analyzing a verse, one should pay attention to the basic grammar used in the sentence. Not only in the native language you are reading it in, but sometimes even in the original language the verse was written. Grammar often reveals intent.
- Literal Principle
When possible, scripture should be taken in the literal sense. In other words, it says what it says, and means what it means. When doing so however, it is important to apply the first 4 principles given. Otherwise we would be inclined to believe that God has wings and feathers.
- Historical Principle
Do a little research using multiple commentaries and Bible dictionaries when reading a particular passage. This especially helps with reading Old Testament passages. With New Testament passages it can bring clarity as well. When Jesus describes the destruction of the Temple in Matthew 24 for example, knowing the history of how Titus of Rome fulfilled this very prophecy in 70 A.D will make the words of Christ come alive as you read the passage.
- Metaphorical principle
One must understand the many literary styles that the Bible employs. This includes metaphorical speech. Jesus used this technique heavily, as do the Psalms, Proverbs and many of the Prophets. Metaphors are used to bring illumination to a greater truth. It is helpful also to learn the types and symbols of the Bible. For example, gold is a symbol of deity, brass of judgment, silver of redemption, purple of royalty, red of sacrifice etc…. These symbols are pretty much consistent through the Bible and can bring greater understanding of scriptures, especially descriptions of the Tabernacle in the Old Testament and the revelations given in the book of Revelation.
- Practical Application
Reading scripture with the intent to discover what God is asking of you is most important. What actions should I take? What behaviors do I need to cease? What attitude should I be exuding? What command am I to obey? Ultimately scripture is a guide to right relations with God and man, and to holy living. Read to apply!
Remember, many false cults such as Mormonism, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Christian Scientist, Calvinist, Etc… cannot exist without extra-biblical writings, usually writings of a teacher or founder which they study and embrace. These writings then are “proven” by the use of “proof texts” in the scripture that seem to back up the teachings of their founder.
Responsible students of the Bible will not fall into such a trap, but will learn to apply sound approaches to analyzing, understanding and applying God’s Word.
Be diligent to present yourself approved to God, a worker who does not need to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth. II Timothy 2:15