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It’s incredibly common to find people proof texting to make their arguments. And of course many of us know that proof texting is supposed to be bad, but the tricky part is defining proof texting. It seems to be one of those things where you know it when you see it. Perhaps even harder than defining proof texting is articulating why proof texting is bad. After all, it can’t be bad to quote the scriptures, right? Don’t we want our arguments to be based on the scriptures? People so often will make baseless claims about God, Christianity, or the Bible without being able to cite chapter and verse. It seems that quoting specific verses would help to solve this problem, right?
So, what I hope to do in this article is 1) Provide a working definition of proof texting, 2) Articulate why proof texting is a bad method for reading and applying the scriptures, and 3) Point forward a new way for making arguments from the scriptures using as an example Jesus’ response to the Sadducees in Matthew 22.
What is Proof Texting?
So here’s my rough definition of proof texting: making an argument from scripture by quoting or referring to a particular verse or small section of scripture without this text being clearly a part of a wider theological, historical, or literary context or argument. This means that proof texting is not so much about quoting an individual verse or passage, but it is about a kind of theological argument. It’s a theological argument that goes something this: Such and such is the case because the bible says, [chapter and verse]. It’s a kind of argument that treats the scriptures like a legal text. If I’m reading some legal text, say a list of rules at the community pool, the rules communicate what they are trying to communicate without a wider history or context. That is, when rule #7 says “no running,” that means no running. It’s rather straight forward. I don’t even need to know what the other rules say to know that I can’t run. The individual rule communicates sufficiently by itself. Yet too often we treat the scriptures like this.
Now, it’s true that all of the scriptures are inspired. Every verse in the scriptures is the Word of God through which God communicates to his people. But individual verses in the scriptures do not work like the rules at the community pool. This is for lots of reasons, some of which are:
- Most passages in the scriptures are not lists of rules and do not make sense by themselves; they must be read as part of a larger whole, e.g. when you want to read a novel, you read the whole thing from beginning to end; when you want to read a poem you the whole poem, you don’t just read a single line by itself
- Even the legal texts in the scriptures (along with the rest of the scriptures) were all given initially to specific people in specific times and places, thus even if you find a direct command in the scriptures, it’s not enough to quote it, you must also demonstrate that this is a command that we are to follow here and now as well
- There are huge amounts of cultural distance between us and the initial hearers of the biblical writings, we speak a different language, live in a different place in time and history, have different cultural values and assumptions, relate to God differently, deal with different problems, etc. We must bridge this cultural gap if we want to understand what these texts are saying. If we don’t, we will project our cultural assumptions onto the text. (e.g. Often Paul will speak of women dressing modestly [see 1 Timothy 2:9], we assume that this is talking about sexual modesty, but Paul is actually referring to financial modesty, i.e. don’t flaunt your wealth by wearing fancy, ostentatious clothes)
- This cultural distance also includes theological distance, that is, the way we think and talk about God is not the same as the biblical writers and that’s okay; we just have to be aware of it. For example, when we use the word sanctification, we are referring to the process by which the Holy Spirit causes a believer to grow in virtue and holiness of living. However, when the NT uses “sanctify” (ἁγιάζω) it is much broader, often referring to both what we would call justification (being declared righteous by God) and sanctification (growing in Christlikeness through the work of the Spirit).
- Finally, the scriptures are part of a larger overarching narrative that form the background even to texts that are not narrative (psalms, laws, proverbs, letters, etc.). We must interpret these texts with a sensitivity to how they fit into this narrative lest we misunderstand them.
Also, it’s important to make clear what proof texting is not. Proof texting is not merely quoting an individual verse. Depending on how a verse fits into your argument, it’s not necessarily proof texting. Referring to an individual verse when the wider theological logic/narrative is clear and explicit is not proof texting.
Proof texting is also not just an invalid use of a particular verse. In other words, you can have a true biblical argument, but engage in proof texting to get there. For example, the common Lutheran argument for the real presence will merely quote Jesus’ words at the Last Supper, “This is my body,” “This is my blood,” as sufficient for settling the argument in and of itself without engaging with deeper questions of interpretation and surveying how other biblical authors talk about the Lord’s Supper in the NT, most notably Paul in 1 Corinthians.
A specific example of proof texting in action will be helpful.
Sometimes people will make the argument that Christians should not get tattoos based on Leviticus 19:28 which reads,
You shall not make any cuts on your body for the dead or tattoo yourselves: I am the Lord.
It seems pretty cut and dry, right? The Bible says it; that settles it, yeah?
Not so much.
The issue of course is that this verse is a part of the Sinai covenant that God made with the people of Israel after they had come out of Egypt. Christians and especially Gentile Christians are not called to follow all the rules and regulations of the Sinai covenant, cf. Acts 15. While Gentile Christians are called to follow certain moral laws such as those regarding sexual immorality, care for the poor, etc. These are the same things that the Gentile nations are condemned for by the prophets, cf. Amos 1. The nations are not condemned for following the Sinai laws, even if Israel is, cf. Amos 2. Thus, the Sinai laws are part of a special covenant that God made with a particular people in a particular time and place that do not apply to all people in all times and places. Of course, these laws are not completely arbitrary, it seems that tattooing in Israel’s day was associated with pagan worship, which Israel was supposed to separate herself from.
Thus, quoting Leviticus 19:28 against Christians getting tattoos is proof texting because the argument fails to take into account the wider historical and theological context that helps us to understand the place of this law in the large biblical narrative, namely that this law is part of the Sinai covenant that was never binding on Gentiles and is therefore not considered binding on Christians who now live in a new covenant. This is not denying that Leviticus 19:28 and other such verses are truly God’s Word, but it is recognizing that what God has to say to us in this word is not necessarily as direct and obvious as it may initially seem.
TLDR: Proof texting is making an argument by just quoting a Bible verse and calling it a day. Proof texting does not engage with wider and more complex questions about literary, historical, and theological context.
Why is Proof Texting a Problem?
It may or not be obvious at this point, but proof texting is a problem for several reasons.
First of all, it is an invalid way of applying the scriptures to issues of what we should believe and how we should live. The conclusions arrived at through proof texting may or may not be right, but proof texting as we have defined it is insufficient for actually establishing the truth of these arguments. That is, proof texting is just bad argumentation.
Second of all, proof texting gives a false sense of security to those who would value the scriptures as a norm for our doctrine and life. Someone can engage in proof texting and take comfort in thinking that that what they think is based on the scriptures, but in reality it may very well not be scriptural in the slightest. If we value the scriptures we must engage with them thoroughly and carefully. Authoritatively quoting Bible verses out of context actually demonstrates a lack of respect for the scriptures since such an approach fails to deal with the scriptures seriously or on its own terms.
Now I have heard some who would defend “proof texting” by claiming that in some instances proof texting can actually be appropriate, especially for simple, everyday Christians who do not have the theological training and background to engage deeply with the scriptures. Surely it’s enough for simple Christians to be able to have individual verses in their back pocket to defend what they believe.
In response to this, I think it’s important to distinguish proof texting from the concept of a sedes doctrinae. A sedes doctrinae (lit. “seat of doctrine”) is when a particular passage is used as the/a principal place where a particular doctrine is taught in the scriptures. For example, John 1 is a sedes doctrinae for the full divinity of Jesus, especially v. 1, “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” Having a sedes doctrinae for a particular teaching does not preclude being sensitive to the larger literary, cultural, and theological context of that passage. Remember the real issue with proof texting is not quoting individual verses, but in ignoring the wider contextual issues. Additionally, you do not have to be a scholarly exegete to understand that scripture has to be read in context. For example, the concept that Christians live in the new covenant is not a terribly complex or hard concept to understand. This is something that even simple Christians can understand at least at a basic level.
So, I agree that it’s helpful to have sedes doctrinae since we have to begin the conversation somewhere and it’s good to be able to put your finger in the text somewhere to be able to defend a particular doctrine. This is all quite good and helpful, especially for “simple” Christians. However, it’s a problem when teachers of the faith or more mature Christians use the same methodology as “simple” Christians and fail to engage in deeper reasoning than merely quoting a favorite proof text or sedes doctrinae.
A Way Forward: Matthew 22
In Matthew 22:23–33 Jesus is confronted by the Sadducees (a prominent Jewish group in the 1st century we know next to nothing about). One of the things we do actually know about the Sadducees is that they denied the resurrection of all flesh (more on that doctrine here). This was a pretty fierce debate in 1st century Judaism, cf. Acts 23, so the Sadducees ask Jesus to weigh in on the debate here.
They propose a hypothetical scenario in which a woman has been married to several men, but bore children for none of them. The Sadducees then ask whose wife she would be in the resurrection. You can see Jesus basically facepalm as he tells them point blank, “You are wrong” (v. 29). He then asserts that in the resurrection people will not be married at all, thus rendering their objection moot. Next Jesus moves on to defend the doctrine of the resurrection, since that’s the real issue here.
But what does Jesus appeal to? He certainly could appeal to Daniel 12:1–3, one of the clearest depictions of the resurrection in all of the OT. Jesus certainly uses Daniel elsewhere, e.g. “son of man.” He could appeal to Ezekiel 37, the vision of the valley of dry bones. He could appeal to Psalm 16, which Peter appeals to regarding Jesus’ resurrection in his Pentecost sermon (Acts 2). He could appeal to Job 19. But he doesn’t refer to any of these. Any of these passages could have worked for Jesus’ argument. All he would have had to do was just quote one of these passages and settle the argument. But this is not what he does.
Instead he appeals to the common line from the Torah, “I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” Jesus reasons, “He is not the God of the dead, but of the living.” As much as I would love to get into a lengthy analysis of the logic here, suffice it to say that Jesus seems to be asserting that the relationship that God has with the patriarchs (and by extension all of his faithful people) precludes them being left for dead to rot in their graves. The relationship that God has with his people demands that he at some point raise them from the dead. Any other answer to the question about what happens to the people of God is absurd.
Notice how different Jesus’ argument is from proof texting. Jesus could’ve proof texted. He could’ve quoted a text and been done with it. Instead he bases his argument on a deep and dynamic understanding of who God is and how he relates to his people. His argument assumes an understanding of the narrative of God and his people and it flows out of that narrative, and in my opinion, rather compellingly.
Now, of course, if you were writing a systematic treatise on the doctrine of the resurrection of all flesh, you’d likely want to refer to some of the texts that Jesus chooses not to use. But you can’t do better than letting the doctrine arise out of the character of God and the narrative of the scriptures and depend primarily on those things, instead of depending primarily on individual proof texts.
I’ll admit that this is a very different way of doing theology than we are likely used to. This is a more demanding way of doing theology. But I truly believe it is a much better way of doing theology and we should, as much as we are able, imitate the greatest theologian to walk this earth: Jesus himself.
 Many make the argument that the Sadducees rejected the authority of the prophets and the writings and instead only accepted the Torah (the first five books of the OT) as authoritative. Thus, the argument goes, Jesus appeals to the Torah since that’s the only part of the OT that the Sadducees believed. Why quote one of these clearer passages when his opponents don’t accept their authority? As far as I am aware, the only evidence for the claim that the Sadducees rejected the prophets and writings is this passage in the synoptic tradition. Presumably this solution is supposed to make historical sense of why Jesus would make such a strange exegetical argument. I think that Jesus’ argument actually makes a lot more sense than we give him credit for. I think that he actually could have quoted any of the other passages, but chose to go to the Torah.