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Proper Use of Proof Texts

Lately I've given a little thought to the idea of proof texting (i.e. citing only a few Bible verses to support a doctrine or point). My slightly PoMo/Emergent side (hey, I scored pretty high on the survey!) has always been slightly suspicious of proof texts. However, I've come to the conclusion that they have their purposes, which I'll try to outline.

Biblical proof texts derive a great deal of their meaning from the larger context (or "metanarrative"...5 more Emergent points for me!) of the entire Bible. The larger narrative (the story of God's redemption of human kind, for example) provides the context in which to understand a single verse. However, because this larger narrative is composed of individual verses, each verse (potentially) contains a point of truth for the whole narrative, and thus (potentially) a single verse can be cited as stating one particular truth. So the value of proof texting is that it can concisely point out one particular detail of the overall narrative. The danger with proof texting is that it is not terribly valuable in apologetics or polemics, where someone is likely to reject your understanding of the narrative, since often the over-arching narrative is important for interpreting the proof text in question. Unless both parties are operating within the same narrative, it seems likely that they can completely disagree as to the point of a proof text.

To use an example, when the Westminster Confession says "Not only those that do actually profess faith in and obedience unto Christ, but also the infants of one, or both, believing parents, are to be baptized," and cites Genesis 17:8 in support ("And I will establish my covenant between me and thee, and thy seed after thee in their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be a God unto thee, and to thy seed after thee"), this verse is only going to provide support for infant baptism to someone who accepts the "narrative" of covenant theology. A dispensationalist can affirm the truth of this verse, but disagree about its impact on baptism within the church. If someone's over-arching narrative differs from yours, and they can twist any verse to fit within their own understanding of the narrative, the proof text will be useless in proving your point.

All this to say that I think proof texting should be used when working with someone with whom you share the same understanding or "metanarrative", and polemical debates are better resolved by presenting the big-picture, metanarrative to the opposing party rather than proof texts.

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I see your point, however, I would say that proof texting is bad hermeneutics. Perhaps it has a use in supporting an idea, theme, or doctrine, but more often than not it makes for lazy sermons and Bible study.

What do you propose as a replacement?

For example, in providing support for the idea that the church is a continuation of Israel, I point to Galatians 3:14 and Ephesians 2:11-22. However, when presenting these passages as an argument to my dispensationally minded parents, I do so within the overall narrative redemption: that through Israel God intends to bring redemption and blessing to the whole world. But it seems unecesary to have to spell out this overall framework to someone who already understands and agrees with it.

But you're still arguing for an idea, so it works. I propose good hermeneutics when studying the Bible. When doing a theme study, proof texting works. But it should not be used to say, teach the story of Rahab.

Rahab ought be taught, studied, and learned within the context of its story within the book of Joshua, rather than as simply one in a long line of "Bad Girls of the Bible."

I suppose you could say that with the rampant overuse of proof texting and the laziness it often incurs, I am not a fan of theme studies, as you could then say, "we're going to learn about faithfulness today," and then pick out a random selection of stories that illustrate faithfulness. That is what Sunday School has often been in the past and present and unfortunately, the future.

Proof texting has its place. But it is misused when we should be studying the text in its entirety within the framework God created and instead decide to "Life Application Bible" our way through it. So if you are proving a point, go for it. If you are intending to study, proceed with caution.

I personally think that proof-texting can work very well and very poorly. You have provided some examples of when it doesn't work, but I think that it can work very well when someone is trying to answer a question on which there is not much material.

So, if someone asked whether or not people would be married in heaven, I wouldn't know how to construct a "metanarrative" to answer the question, and would simply refer them to Matt. 22:23-33.

The way I see it, proof-texting only becomes a problem when too few verses are used. So, for the infant baptism question, that Genesis verse simply doesn't slam-dunk the paedobaptist case only because there are too many other verses that have ramifications on what that verse says.

Similarly, Lindsey's point against proof-texting something like "faithfulness" (on which I stand with her) is that there is simply far too many nuances of faithfulness to adequately, once-for-all nail down what it means. Instead, I think it would be better to take one passage about faithfulness and pull out of that text what faithfulness means. Then, if you are determined to do a series or something, go to another passage, and pull out that meaning, comparing and contasting the latter's meaning with the former's.

In short, I am a fan of exegetical hermeneutics and preaching. When there isn't much to exegete, of course proof-texting may be used. The problem is that few issues (and especially not the complicated infant baptism issue) have little to exegete.

(As a side note, I think that I have definitively come down on the side of credobaptism--it would take a long time to explain, and I'm always open to new points and ideas, but I think that I've reconciled how it works in my mind. Give me another week, though, and I'm sure I will be back to the sea of confusion I have been in for the last year or so.)

Jacob, having spent 1/3 of a semester reading, writing papers on, and discussing infant baptism, I would like to hear your thoughts.

I tried to write something to spell out my thoughts conclusively, but such a task quickly proved to be too large to accomplish in a blog post. Also, my thoughts are mainly in response to certain challenges against credobaptism (the best and most recent I have heard) that have floated through my mind, and I'm not sure if you would find my thoughts that applicable to what you have been thinking.

That said, if you would spell out your questions, I could perhaps weave in what I am thinking in response. Otherwise, I might write a lot without addressing anything you find interesting.

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