Monday, August 16, 2004


Proof-texting is ingrained into the evangelical psyche almost from day one. When one is a child one learns an series of isolated verse intending to convey a particular truth. Later, youth are taught key verses supporting a particular doctrine. Proof texts also consistently find their way into mature theological reflection. It is hard to miss the massive litany which Louis Berkhof offers throughout his Systematic Theology. Further, the Westminster Confession's use of particular passages of Scripture to bolster its teaching was a matter of attention at the Orthodox Presbyterian Church's General Assembly. However common the practice is, one must question whether such a practice is wise?

The dangers of proof-texting are obvious. The Bible was not written as a loosely connected series of pithy statements (with the exception of Proverbs of course). Scripture is not composed primarily to assert and to systematically defend a series of doctrinal propositions. However, this fact is obscured by many individual's use of the text. One can understand the "system of doctrine" taught in Scripture very well, and apparently be able to defend such an understanding with an impressive salvo of Biblical statements; but in the end be absolutely unable to handle the Biblical text itself. Further, proof texting very often nets very opposite results. The Calvinist blusters his arguments with certain passages of Scripture, while the Arminian counters with his own cherished verses. Often doctrines are formed in isolation from the Bible; and in the end support is sought from Scripture. Rather than Scripture forming doctrine, the predetermined doctrine is imposed upon the Scripture.

Other dangers are less subtle. Often the doctrine derived from a text is dependent on a particular interpretation of that text. Hence, one's use of a passage may seem puzzling to all who do not share the same interpretive presuppositions. Other times only a verse or two is chosen, when those verses must be read in a much larger context. Also at times a verse chosen a proof for a doctrine is the end of a long chain of Scriptural or logical progression; yet if this chain of thinking is not explicitly spelled out, the proof offered by a passage is minimal. I think the these dangers in particular are very common in the Westminster Standards use of proof texts.

The question remains, should proof-texting be done away with? I would say no; however it needs to be practiced much more circumspectly. Learning key passages is a valuable pedagogical tool for youth or those new in the faith. To be handed a copy of the Bible and be expected to glean from that its key teaching on the first or even second pass is a daunting task. Having a neat summary appended with key passages which support each point is both helpful and desirable. Further, many passages do clearly teach certain doctrines, and quickly knowing where to turn in the time of need is an invaluable aid.

However, proper attention and respect must be given to the Bible itself. Greater attention needs to be given by the church as a whole on how to properly read and understand the Bible on its own terms. It is not enough to teach church members how to use the Bible to defend their doctrine, but to use the Bible to form their doctrine. The biggest problem I see in proof texting as it is commonly done, is that it ignores context. Chapter and verses are reference markers for ease in finding a passage; they must never be used as an occasion to abstract a phrase or sentence from its context. We must commit ourselves to be diligent to read a verse in its original context, not only by reading what precedes and proceeds a particular verse, but also by understanding as far as possible the author's intent and original audience's situation. Proof texting must become subject to exegesis, and not the other way around.