Apr 19, 2010

On Proof Texting

In my discussions with Arminians, over the past couple years, on blogs, I have been accused of "proof texting" when I have cited verses that prove my biblical tenets, particularly as regards predestination and Calvinism. This was said as a negative, of course, implying that "proof texting" is a bad thing. Since I was accused of "proof texting," I decided to do some research on the term (which was new to me), one that seems to have been coined in recent years. What is "proof texting"? Why is it considered a negative thing? Clearly it is used as a pejorative, to bias one against the use of texts by one's theological adversary, and as a debate tactic, in order to "poison the well" against an opponent's argumentation and proof. Before I comment further on this expression, let me cite one writer on what it means to be guilty of "proof texting."

In an article titled "Facing the Proof Text Method," Henry Neufeld wrote:

"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."
(emphasis mine - SG)


Thus, those who scream "proof texting" are alleging that one is citing a verse "out of context," offering verses that only seem to affirm the proposition, prima facie, but which does not really mean what it appears to say. Now, it is easy to yell "proof texting" but another matter to prove what the term is intended to affirm. Those who have used the perjorative against me have all failed to show how the text I cited did not mean what it said but simply left the debate with the charge of "proof texting."

John Frame had these good words to say about the matter.

"Proof-texting" has become almost a term of reproach today, but that was not always the case...A proof-text is simply a Scripture reference that is intended to show the basis for a particular theological assertion.

The danger in proof-texting is well known: proof-texts are sometimes misused and their contextual meaning distorted in an attempt to use them to support teachings they do not really support.

But it has never been shown that texts are always or necessarily misinterpreted when they are used as proofs for doctrines. And after all has been said, theology really cannot do without proof-texts.

Any theology that seeks accord with Scripture (that is, any theology worthy of the name) has an obligation to show where it gets its scriptural warrant. It may not claim to be based on "general scriptural principles"; it must show where Scripture teaches the doctrine in question.

In some cases, the theologian will display this warrant by presenting his own contextual exegesis of the relevant passages. But often an extended exegetical treatement is unnecessary and would be counterproductive.

The relationship of doctrine to text might be an obvious one once the text is cited (e.g., Gen. 1:1 as proof of the creation of the earth), or it may simply require too much space to go over the exegetical issues in detail.

To forbid proof-texts would be to forbid an obviously useful form of theological shorthand.

Obviously, we should not cite proof-texts unless we have a pretty good idea of what they mean in their context. We do not, however, have an obligation always to cite the context with the text, and far less do we have an obligation always to present an exegetical argument supporting our usage of the text."
(John Frame, The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God, p. 197 - emphasis mine - SG)


If one condemns the citing of texts to prove doctrine, then one must condemn the New Testament writers, for they were in the habit of quoting texts to prove doctrine. Did not Paul do this in Romans 3: 9-18?

I can find clear statements and propositions that affirm, for instance, the eternal security of the believer and I cite them. On the other hand, I can find no passage that denies, in a clear straight forward manner, the eternal security of the believer. All the deniers can do is to cite a verse and try to make it teach such, by twisting and distorting the passages. They will often say, the words imply, or infer such.

Also, I often find those who charge others with "proof texting" (citing texts to uphold a doctrinal belief) guilty of doing the same!

So, I will continue to cite verses which affirm scriptural doctrine and those who cry "proof texting" will be called upon to demonstrate how the context shows that the verses do not mean what they say.

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