Facing the Proof Text Method

by Henry Neufeld


When I was in elementary and High School, I attended a private, Christian school with its focus on the Bible as the foundation for study. Amongst the many requirements that we had, especially in the area of Bible study was memorization. We memorized chapter after chapter of the King James Version of the Bible.

When I was in elementary and High School, I attended a private, Christian school with its focus on the Bible as the foundation for study. Amongst the many requirements that we had, especially in the area of Bible study was memorization. We memorized chapter after chapter of the King James Version of the Bible.

But there was one type of memorization that was unusual-we had numerous groups of four texts, each grouping in support of a particular doctrine of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, the denomination to which the school’s owners belonged. For example, we’d have four texts on the Sabbath to memorize, each verse supposedly proving that one ought to rest and worship on Saturday rather than Sunday. Then we’d have four texts on the state of the dead, intended to prove the doctrine of soul-sleep, the idea that when a person dies they don’t go immediately to their eternal reward, but rather wait until the resurrection. Four texts would show that Jesus was going to return soon and that we ought to take this literally. Then the next year, there would be “four more texts” on each of the various subjects to memorize.

The owners of the school and those who taught in it were convinced that if we simply had enough of these proof texts solidly engraved in our memories, we would be able to resist the waves of false doctrine that were said to be preparing to roll over us as we went out into the world. We would clearly know what the truth was because, by the time we had memorized all of them (and few students stayed at the school long enough to do so), we would have memorized as many as 20 scriptures that “proved” that particular doctrinal position.

I appreciate the efforts of that school, and I’m glad I had a chance to attend it, because it gave me the opportunity to learn the proof-text method very, very thoroughly, generally better than most of its practitioners. Thus I can recognize it instantly and respond to it as necessary.

I’m writing this essay in response to various questions I have been asked about Bible study. I suggest that the use of proof-texts is a manifestation of laziness and the desire to get something for nothing. People do not wish to spend the time firmly grounding their understanding in what various Bible writers actually teach. They would much rather have a short list of texts that support precisely what they have decided to believe anyhow. Thus, the use of proof-texts tends toward hypocrisy. To the uninformed, the purveyor of proof-texts can appear to be wonderfully informed and a deep scholar of the Bible. In fact, the result of reliance on proof-texts is a moral certainty and overbearing arrogance that is not supported by one’s study or learning.

But first let me define what I mean by proof-texting. By proof-texting I mean the use of individual scripture texts to produce apparent support for a doctrinal position without adequate regard for the contexts of the individual texts which may indicate differences and nuances. I do not include the use of texts for illustration or the use of texts which are properly taken in context and limited appropriately in what one tries to prove from them. In particular, I’m referring to the creation of entire doctrines which one demands that others believe or commands which one then demands that others obey, taken from a tissue of the words of texts but ignoring the meaning of those texts in their original contexts.

Let me use an example. If someone were to write a biography of me, he could truthfully state that Henry Neufeld accepted Jesus as his personal savior and received baptism in water by immersion. We can also say that I did this at the age of nine and overcame the objections of my parents and church leadership because I felt that it was in obedience to the commands of Jesus.

Now if the next generation were to read that passage in my biography and apply the proof-text method to it, they might well conclude that I believe as some do that water baptism is a requirement for salvation. They would of course be wrong. I don’t believe anything of the sort. But the key statements are there. I underwent baptism, I did so at the time that I was saved (or received salvation in one sense of the term), I did so because I believed that I was obeying a command of Jesus, and I did it all in such a way that the events were connected.

Now I think most people will be able to see easily that the conclusion that I believe that baptism is a requirement for salvation is not a necessary conclusion based on these facts. Based on the statements above, I might believe that. You can’t be certain that I don’t. But it is not actually stated. It is not even implied.

The difficulty is that by taking words outside of their immediate context or even their broader context will tend to make something seem extremely plain that may not have been intended in the first place. So the fact is that it’s very easy to take statements out of context and create an entire set of doctrinal beliefs from them which are not a valid conclusion based on the intent of those statements.

As a scriptural example, let’s take a look at Acts 2:38. “So Peter said to them, ‘Repent, and let each one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus for (Greek eis) forgiveness of your sins and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.'” Now there are some people who get a number of key doctrines right out of that text. They believe that one must be baptized in order to be saved. They believe that baptism results in forgiveness of sins, thus if one is not baptized one cannot be forgiven. Further, many believe that one must be baptized only in the name of Jesus, or that baptism is not efficacious.

When you’re building these kind of doctrinal sand castles from a single text, you need to be very careful that you have read the text correctly. For example, salvation is said to occur before baptism. Does salvation occur separately from forgiveness of sins? The medium of baptism is not, in fact, mentioned. Perhaps I should tie the text to Mark 1:8, which says that Jesus will baptize “in the Holy Spirit.” Perhaps here there is no water baptism intended, but rather the person who accepts Jesus is immersed in the Holy Spirit, and thus receives forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit.

Someone will, of course, mention that it says, “…baptized for forgiveness of your sins…” Doesn’t this mean that the baptism causes the forgiveness of sins? Well, not exactly. The Greek word used here, eis generally meaning “into” can indicate purpose, but it can also simply indicate result. Further, in studying the text, one needs to ask which of the prior events results in forgiveness of sins-repentance or baptism? Perhaps it is, in fact, both that result in this forgiveness. But it doesn’t say that if you don’t get baptized, you won’t get forgiven, it doesn’t say that it must be in water, and it doesn’t say that no other name need be mentioned. Of course, the proof-texter counts on you not actually knowing any verses that are not on his plan.

We’ve already seen one verse that suggests that there might be more to this baptism thing than we find in this one text. Mark 1:8 suggests that it is possible for one to be baptized “in the Holy Spirit.” It might be difficult to describe a process for that, but one doubts that it involves dunking someone in water. Thus on the first point, that this is a case of water baptism being required for salvation, there is at least some reason to do a little bit of thinking.

What about the matter of names? If we turn to Matthew 28:19 we find the instruction to baptize “in (or into) the name of the Father, and the Son and the Holy Spirit.” So at least we have some indication that we might need to think some more about this matter of uttering names at the time of one’s baptism.

But what about forgiveness? Surely we can be certain that forgiveness of sins only occurs as the result of believing on Jesus and repenting! How about Matthew 6:14-15. “For if you forgive other people their transgressions, Our Father in heaven will forgive you. If you don’t forgive other people, neither will your Father forgive your transgressions.” Oops! First, it looks like we have a case where belief in Jesus is not even mentioned, and also where another condition, not mentioned in Acts 2:38 is placed on forgiveness.

And what about the thief on the cross? Jesus apparently indicates (Luke 23:42-43) that the thief is saved, and does so at a time when he has no chance to do anything except suffer and die. Now here’s where the total doctrinal filter can kick in. I was once told that we are not told explicitly that the thief hadn’t been baptized previously, and we know from our proof text (Acts 2:38) that he must get baptized, so we can assume that he did at some point. Of course, the text itself doesn’t say or imply anything of the sort. But once the doctrine is settled into the proof-texter’s mind the things that are actually in the text are obscured by the previously created doctrinal filter.

And we haven’t even gotten to the issue of how rituals relate to actual spiritual experiences in various parts of the Bible. That is something that might enlighten us about the issue of baptism especially.

Now please don’t take the texts I’ve added into the pot and do more proof-texting to create a new doctrine. I used those texts to illustrate the problems with one particular interpretation, not to propose another.

Various groups of Christians have different ways of sorting the Old Testament commands. The Seventh-day Adventist Church, in which I grew up, divides the law into two separate sections. First we have the moral law, which is eternal. SDAs equate this to the ten commandments. Second we have the ceremonial law which is basically the entire remainder of the commands which were, according to this doctrine, nailed to the cross. By this division of laws Seventh-day Adventists are able to divide the commands in a manner that is at least consistent. It may in fact be wrong, but it is at least consistently wrong. Nonetheless you will frequently find Seventh-day Adventist preachers using laws that were supposedly nailed to the cross as though they were binding. The problem is that many Christians have no rational basis on which to divide between the commands that they believe they should keep and the commands that they don’t.

Let’s take, for example, the variety of commands in Leviticus chapter 18 & 19. In chapter eighteen we have a number of commands that relate to sexual morality with especially verse 22 which is commonly used in reference to homosexual behavior. Many Christians view these commands regarding sexual morality as still binding but it’s interesting that if you switch to chapter 19 and point to verses 33 and 34, you’ll find a command that if an alien is residing amongst you, you shall not oppress him. It’s interesting that many of the right wing politicians in the United States have managed to apply the commands of chapter eighteen about sexual morality to American politics, but have not complied with Leviticus 19:33 & 34. In fact it has been viewed as a positive and “Christian” thing to treat aliens in the United States differently from citizens, something which is here forbidden by the Biblical command. On what basis does one distinguish the two commands?

Because users of proof-texts very rarely discuss principles of interpretation, it’s very hard to get at their thinking on these matters, but I’ve formulated some rules which I believe by observation that they follow so that they can claim to be “just doing what it says in the Bible.

  1. The True Result
  2. Text Trimming
  3. Total Doctrinal Filter
  4. All Passages are Equal
  5. Stick to the Subject

The True Result

When a proof-texter is confronted with his invalid exegesis, he may simply ask what’s wrong with the doctrine he was teaching from the misapplied text. In this case, any process which produces a true answer must be an acceptable process. Any math teacher can tell you to the problem with this-a process can accidentally produce a wrong answer. You need one that consistently produces a right answer. Now because of the extent of bad exegesis in sermons and teachings, I often don’t worry about the details in other people’s work. But each individual should be concerned with the accuracy and consistency of his own work.

Let’s look at an example. Frequently we hear Ezekiel 18:20, normally in the KJV, “The soul that sinneth, it shall die.” This is taken as a proof text meaning that sin results in death or that the punishment for sin is death. What’s wrong with that? Well, in the passage in question (read the whole chapter!) the argument is quite different. Ezekiel is saying that children will no longer be punished for their parents’ sins. In that context, the statement is that it is the one who sins who will die, and not somebody else. As a Christian you can use Romans 6:23 to indicate what the wages of sin actually are. Ezekiel is concerned not with the wages, but with who gets paid.

Text Trimming

This is the special proof text process whereby one makes the text mean less than it says in order to be able to claim to be following it totally. Let me bring two examples. (All examples are ones I have either heard personally or seen in writing.) Exodus 21:15 & 17 talk about a person who strikes or curses father and mother, and commands that they be put to death. I have heard many Christians claim that we should follow these passages, but they didn’t actually mean to follow them. Instead, they suggested that we should strictly discipline our children. Now I don’t want to provide an argument for actually applying the literal words here. In fact, I hope anyone who does believe in taking the Bible seriously has a way not to apply this to the present day. But to claim to take the Bible literally and at face value, and then to claim that these two texts command us to discipline our children (how much apparently being determined kind of randomly) is simple denial. (Note that both in Judaism and Christianity we have approaches to understanding texts like this that take the literal text seriously, but deal with application in a more appropriate way. These methods are not called “literal,” however, and they should not be.)

Now look at the commands of Jesus in Matthew 5:29-30 to cut off one’s right hand or to pluck out one’s eye if it offends you, or causes you to stumble. I had a lengthy conversation with someone who claimed that all commands in the New Testament (he avoided all examples in the Hebrew scriptures) were to be taken at face value. His particular claim was that we should understand them the way an American high school student would be likely to understand them. This type of interpretation applied to oaths (you can’t take any oath at all), to giving alms (nobody must know under any circumstances whatever, even the IRS for a tax deduction), but when we came to this verse, he used verse trimming. He believed this verse meant one should stand by one’s faith in the face of persecution, in which someone might cut off your hand or tear out your eye. Now that’s an interpretation I doubt most American high school students would come up with!

He had trimmed what the text of the verses actually said so that he could avoid its literal implications without ever admitting that he was interpreting in a non-literal way. He no longer saw the literal meaning at all. He had become accustomed to calling his interpretation literal.

Total Doctrinal Filter

The total doctrinal filter forces all texts to conform to a particular doctrinal standard whether they do or not. For example, I know someone who states unequivocally that no person can possibly be righteous. When I point out certain Biblical characters who are described as righteous, such as Job who was “blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil” he will say that this refers to the fact that Job was covered by the righteousness of Jesus.

Now Job 1:1 doesn’t say anything like that. It appears in context to be discussing Job’s character, describing him as perfect and upright, then stating specifically that he feared God and turned away from evil. It clearly does not state that some theological formula has been intoned over him so that it is no longer his character in question, but rather that of Jesus. The very foundation of the book is that Job is righteous, and thus his suffering undeserved.

This doctrinal filter clearly holds a place of higher authority than the statements of scripture itself. The writer of Job does not get to have his say-he is pre-empted by theology extracted (improperly) from the works of Paul.

All Passages are Equal

Most people involved in discussions of scripture will have encountered this approach, which often is combined with the corollary that all passages can be strung together at will. It is one of the many ways that context is avoided.

A typical example is when someone asks what Jesus had to say on a certain topic, and someone promptly quotes Paul. What did Jesus say about salvation? “Now we know that a man is justified by faith and not by the works of the law” (Romans 3:28). We asked for something Jesus said, and we got Paul back. What’s wrong with this? Wasn’t Paul inspired? I do believe that Paul was inspired, but no amount of inspiration would make Paul into Jesus. No amount of inspiration would take Paul’s historical context and make it the same as that of Jesus. And for some reason, Jesus never said anything close to what Paul said in Romans 3:28 and there’s probably a reason for that, and we ought to look for it. We lose much meaning by ignoring who said what and when.

Another case is the passage from Genesis 15:6, that Abraham believed and it was counted to him as righteousness. Does Paul use these words in the same way and with the same meaning as they were used in Genesis? It’s beyond the scope of this paper to answer that question, but it would probably be a good idea to let Genesis speak and then let Paul speak, and to realize the difference between the two, and then make the decision. (Note that James takes an apparently opposite view of this passage in James 3:23. What are we to do with that one?)

Stick to the Subject

This is the prime defense, which is why I have left it until last. Every proof-texter in the business wants to make sure you stick to the subject, specifically the subject he has chosen to discuss. There is a good reason for this. If you start applying the proof-text method to all sorts of scriptures other than the ones he has chosen, you will get quite different results. Subconsciously, the proof-texter is nervous about the weakness of his approach.

The prime way to respond to proof texts is to identify the method being used, and then use it on other texts, especially texts that produce ridiculous results, such as Exodus 21:15 & 17, and Matthew 5:29-30. Or compare the responses to Leviticus 18 and 19, using the proof text method. You should, in fact, refuse to stick to the subject-the subject the proof-texter has chosen-and force him to try to apply his methods to other subjects. He won’t want to do it, because he knows it won’t work.

Conclusion

In conclusion, the use of the proof texts is a method that can be twisted to support a variety of viewpoints, that encourages spiritual and intellectual laziness, and produces a form of certainty without an adequate foundation. We need to make our Bible study (or the study of any text) serious by taking the time and effort to hear what the writer is actually saying, rather than abusing his words to support whatever structure we have already built.

Henry Neufeld is the owner of Energion Publications. He has BA and MA degrees concentrating in Biblical Languages, and has done post masters work in Linguistics. He is the author or co-author of a number of books, including Learning and Living Scripture and When People Speak for God. Learn more about Henry.