Persistent Proof Texting

DSCF0352My students know that I have an unending campaign against the practice in biblical interpretation we call “proof texting.” This has nothing to do with your phone or your Twitter account. Proof texting is taking a Bible verse in isolation from its context and using it as a validation (or “proof”) for a theological argument. The practice of proof texting comes from these somewhat questionable assumptions:

1. That all books, chapters, and verses of the Bible have an equal and independent authority. This is the mistake of what is called the “flat Bible,” that no text is more important than any other text. Of course we do not really operate that way in our Bible reading. Are verses in Obadiah (that condemn the ancient Edomites for their glee and participation in the destruction of Jerusalem in 587 BC) of the same theological value as the promises of Romans 8, Luke 2, or 1 Corinthians 15? Are the genealogy lists of the first chapters of 1 Chronicles of equal authority and value to the great psalms like Psalm 23, Psalm 32, Psalm 110, or Psalm 118?

2. Related to the “flat Bible” fallacy is the approach to the Bible that treats it like a dictionary where each verse is a separate entry that stands alone. My old teacher, Walter Kaiser, referred to this as the “treasure box” approach to Scripture, likening it to a box full of jewels that one could reach into and pull out a single treasure many different times. The truths of the Bible depend on the context of the verses. It is not a box of loose jewels but a magnificent crown where every precious stone has its place and plays its part.

3. The assumption that because the Bible speaks to us (and it does), that there are no historical or cultural factors that must figure into our understanding. We sometimes think the Bible speaks to our contemporary situations without any filters. If the Bible tells slaves they must submit to their masters, then, by golly, we should be submissive and uncomplaining employees no matter how horrible our jobs or our bosses.

Yet the practice of proof texting is ingrained into many Christian leaders and preachers. I feel it in myself all the time. I was taught in sermonizing that if you wanted to make a point, the best method was to find as many verses to support that point as you could and quote them without regard to context. I find myself doing this all the time. Let me give you an example from a writing project I was working on this weekend.

In Luke 17:3, Jesus teaches,

If your brother or sister sins against you, rebuke them; and if they repent, forgive them.

This seems to be straightforward instruction on how to deal with offending people: confront them, expect an apology, then forgive them. Yet we know that this doesn’t work very well in many situations. It doesn’t work well in most job situations, where co-workers do not like to be corrected and are sometimes loathe to apologize for anything. There are two problems with taking this verse in isolation as a universal formula for human relationships:

1. Jesus is talking to his disciples. If anything, these are words for relationships within the Christian community, not for all relationships. To expect a non-believer to repent when confronted is not part of his teaching. Furthermore, there was nothing particularly new in this formula for Jesus’ first century Jewish hearers. This was somewhat standard practice in their communities.

2. The real danger is taking this verse in isolation from 17:4:

Even if they sin against you seven times in a day and seven times come back to you saying ‘I repent,’
you must forgive them.

What he is saying in this verse is that his followers must be extravagant forgivers, ready forgivers, willing forgivers. There are not to be limits on how often we forgive. This is what the teaching is about. But, what about those who sin against you and don’t repent? Should we forgive them? Jesus is really silent on this here. His point is to push his hearers to greater forgiveness, not to give a legalistic formula with hard boundaries.

So, don’t proof text Luke 17:3. In fact, let’s stop proof texting altogether.

Mark Krause
Nebraska Christian College

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