The Danger of “Prooftexting”

We’ve all been there: a friendly question turns into a pointed question; a well-meaning discussion turns into a heated argument. Words flow like a dam-burst, and the damage might as well be subject to an agency for interpersonal disaster relief. But what if we could prevent the cracks in the dam in the first place?

Those cracks in the dam have a familiar name in Christianity, especially more conservative forms; that name is “prooftexting.” This word refers to the practice of providing “proof” for one’s theological position by pointing to specific verses of “texts.”

The first danger in doing this is in presupposing a harmless guise for the practice in the first place. Do you not understand a core concept that could help you? Please look at such-and-such verse. Do you need help in a time of trouble? Save yourself at lot of time and unnecessary stress by looking at this other verse. It may be that offering help is one’s true motive in guiding to specific verses of the biblical writings, and in many cases it may in fact help positively, if only for a moment. For better or worse, however, the line that too often becomes crossed is one of motive.

Too many damaging sects, heresies and abuse occur because often times this practice of picking single verses without including their contexts achieves the intended ends. The latest one to be acquiring quite a bit of interplay lately is one surrounding (not surprisingly) the issue of abuse in supposed Christian families. Termed the Quiverfull Movement, the spirit tends to be one of unchecked control and power, while those who buy into its greatly exaggerated takes on biblical notions of social norms fall victim to oppression, violence, lack of real spiritual identity and, unfortunately as was the case with one victim in particular, Vyckie Garrison, a proclivity to repeat the same methods to argue against the Christian faith entirely.

To take her example, which is a necessary one for many people to prayerfully consider and digest, Garrison fell into a system that turned what ought to have been a meaningful marriage into a power relationship. Every aspect of her life was dictated, controlled, manipulated, and measured by her willingness to acquiesce to such expressions. While it’s true that abuse can and does happen in any culture and/or any relationship dynamic, a relevant point of address for us as the Christian community needs to be the potential for using the bible as a means to an end, and in fact a selfish means to a selfish end, rather than allowing the entirety of Scripture to form our basis for life and doctrine. If any of you do look at Garrison’s article (and to be fair, one should be forewarned that it can seem a little heavy on propagandist techniques itself—but this is further evidence of the damage suffered), please take special note of how often the problems are backed by single verses, taken out of context, and stacked so as to look coherent, when in truth the verses have nothing to do with either the issue they are used to support or even the other verses with which they are paired.

 

This calls for serious consideration as to how we interact with the bible, how we interact with others, and how we interact with both together at the same time. Seeking confirmation from the Lord about our positions won’t rest on something that can be taken as shaky. One may argue that Jesus often used single verses in address, and if one were to look strictly at the biblical text (again, something wildly akin to prooftexting in the first place), one would seem to be correct: during both the temptation in the desert with Satan, and while hanging from the cross, Jesus seems to utter single, isolated verses to communicate unalterable truth. What would be the problem in our own use of such a tactic?

  • We’re not Jesus; imitating the exact same external behavior does not reveal the true, complete and internal truth of being at one with him.
  • When Jesus used it, there had been established at the time a serious cultural understanding of biblical context; in other words, for example, when Jesus cried out “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” (Mt. 27:46), those who would hear both these gospel texts read aloud, and him directly at the time, would have been mentally immersed in the entirety of Psalm 22. If someone weren’t particularly able to remember all of Psalm 22, first of all they would have been a rare form of Jew, and second of all they would miss tons of information pointing to the crucifixion of Jesus as prophetic fulfillment, thereby evidencing Jesus’ own prior claims.

 

The concept here, and perhaps the irony in its foundations for the Quiverfull Movement, is that prooftexting is a form of abuse itself: spiritual abuse. It either forces people called to be free in Christ into a situation they cannot freely live out, or it softens them up to accept such force when and if another person chooses to use it. In order to avoid prooftexting, a few different conditions need to coexist:

(a) We need to keep ourselves and our hearers aware of everything that surrounds the verses to which we’re drawn, whether that’s in speaking with someone else, or in speaking to ourselves through times of devotion.

(b) We need to be open to being mistaken, which would be nothing more than honest humility, and require the same attitude of others as a prerequisite for consideration.

(c) We need to require full and reasonable explanation for anything we propose, and anything that is proposed to us.

(d) We need to respect the convictions of others after our interactions.

Am I guilty of prooftexting? Probably more often than I’m allowing myself to remember, yes. I’d be surprised to find anyone other than Jesus and the Apostles who hasn’t been. But I am just as serious now, if not more than I used to be, about living an earnest faith, and ensuring, by God’s gracious prompting and sustaining alone, that anyone can experience the freedom to do the same. If we are serious about Christ being God incarnate, serious about love being the rational answer to all evils and ills, serious about the hope that faith in Christ brings to any and all who might possess it, we are also by-definition serious about the honesty, liberty and respectability our faith commands.

+MSH

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