In very general terms, ‘proof-texting’ is the practice of taking a verse or passage of Scripture (usually out of context) and employing it for the sake of justifying a particular theological (and sometimes ethical) claim or belief. For example:
Give, and it will be given to you. They will pour out into your lap a good measure–pressed down, shaken together, and running over. For by your standard of measure it will be measured to you in return (Luke 6.38)
I cannot begin to think of how many times I have heard this passage used by ministers when it comes to giving/tithing in the church. It also tends to be a favourite passage for captial campaigns, where money needs to be raised in order to fund a new building project; and it is implicitly foundational for the so-called ‘Prosperity Gospel’ (aka: ‘Health and Wealth Gospel’, unscriptural, false doctrine, skubalon–take your pick).
However, there is a problem: this passage in Luke’s Gospel is not about money (at all); it’s about showing mercy to others (period). It speaks to giving/tithing, campaigning and prospering if and only if it is ripped from its original context and if one relies solely on the (slightly) ambiguous terms and ideas in the passage. (I should point out that the terms and ideas are only ambiguous if viewed out of context; in context, they make perfect sense).
There is another type of proof-texting that is not so easily dismantled, primarily because it depends on the cumulative weight argument. Just recently, while listening to an overly smug evangelist* give his reasons for adopting a particular view of creation, I heard an example of this type of proof-texting:
Woe to you who make your neighbors drink (Habakkuk 2.15a)
Anyone want to take a free stab at how this verse was being used? The guy emphatically believed that this particular verse was evidence that drinking alcohol was evil. To support this idea, he (not surprisingly) appeals to other (proof-)texts that say the same thing: e.g. Proverbs 20.1; 23.29-31; Isaiah 28.7; Luke 1.15. (This is an example of the cumulative weight argument, which generally works best on those ill-informed or less read on the Scriptures).
While he might be able to make a general case from the verses he quotes, although it might prove difficult in view of the metaphoric and figurative language of the context, his specific argument–i.e. drinking is evil–cannot be supported by any of the texts he includes (especially Luke 1.15).** At best, from these passages the guy could make a case for the evil of drunkeness; but that was not his argument.
Less recently, I heard a conservative Chrisitian Seminary*** praise and advocate this type of proof-texting (i.e. the cumulative weight version) for its usefulness in doing systematic theology. Three problems are endemic to this approach; the first two are interrelated. First, in order for this to work an extremely ‘high view’ of Scripture must be presupposed. Second, the primary means for sustaining this presupposition is proof-texting, a method that can only work if a ‘high view’ is presupposed. The final problem I put in the form of a question: what would happen to the systematised theology if proof-texting was methodologically disallowed?
More to the point: is our systematic theology founded on what the text and context demands, or is it determined by proof-texted readings of particular ideas in Scripture that we wish to turn into a systematised theology, thus giving it the appeal of consistent coherence? Or, to be overly blunt: is our systematic theology nothing more than a proof-texted theology? If it is, then I think that’s a serious problem that needs to be addressed (and remedied).
(Part two of this post).
* I’ll leave the dude unnamed primarily because I don’t see the need for giving him any more attention than he truly thinks he deserves.
** The passage in Luke pertains more to a ceremonial vow for a particular type of role than a universal principle applicable to all people.
*** Also left unnamed, but for different reasons.