Why Proof Texting Makes For Bad Theology

I recently heard it said that we live in a time where opinions are often poorly formed yet firmly held. In other words, we tend to feel strongly about the fact that we’re irrefutably right while having failed to do any kind of work to ensure that it’s actually the case. 

This trend is present within our churches just as much as it is in the society at large––even, and perhaps especially, when it comes to our particular theological views. The only difference is that the way we entrench ourselves in our views is by compiling large numbers of proof texts that seem to support our point.

This is what’s known as proof texting. 

The problem is when our proof texts are shallowly or poorly understood, and they don’t actually advocate for what the person citing them is arguing. Sometimes, they support a theological statement that’s actually opposite or non sequitur to the point we’re attempting to make.  

The prevailing wisdom is that the more bible verses you can quote, allude to, or cite in parentheses at the end of every statement, the more theologically powerful your argument is. But that’s just not the case. 

“The bible says it. I believe it. That settles it.”

When we make theological claims followed by a slew of proof texts, it’s often because we’re living under the assumption that “the bible says it; I believe it; that settles it.” But that just begs the question. Because that’s exactly what we’re trying to discern: what does the bible actually say about a given issue? 

Clarity to be found

To be sure, the bible is clear about a great many things. 

It’s clear about who God is, his essence and character. It’s clear that Jesus is the Messiah and the only hope for humanity. It’s clear that the way to salvation is by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, who rose from the dead and is himself God. It’s clear that Jesus is coming back, and that his church exists for the mission of spreading his good news

But then there are things that the bible is less than clear about. Not that we can’t arrive at the truth, or at least our best approximation of it. It’s just that things are a little more fuzzy. There’s room to argue, dispute, and disagree. 

Not so settled

It’s okay that we arrive at different conclusions. It’s also okay to be passionate about it. Most of these issues are deeply important. 

What is the nature of God’s sovereignty and how does it play a role in our salvation?

What can and should the role of women be in church leadership?

How does my faith inform how I vote

When should I let my children be baptized? 

How should a modern church be structured? 

None of these questions are inconsequential, and they all have deeply practical implications for the church. Not every believer or every church will look the same, because some of us will land differently than others. That doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Unity doesn’t require uniformity.

But, in short, these things are not settled.

When we fail to allow for such nuance and treat our own biblical theology as the only authoritative interpretation of scripture, we leave the realm of theology and enter the world of bible thumping. 

Unity doesn't require uniformity. Click To Tweet

The difference between bible thumping and good theological work

The term bible thumper is often used to describe people who use the bible as a battering ram in any conversation or disagreement. A bible thumper is typically knowledgeable in the scriptures and may have even memorized an impressive number of verses. 

But far from using scripture to reason with someone about a particular point of theology, they merely flex their knowledge through proof texting, in order to intimidate and minimize the validity of someone else’s view. 

Bible thumpers may sometimes be right, but they almost always go about it the wrong way. Not to mention the ironic arrogance with which they hold theologically flimsy viewpoints. 

Evangelicals can have a tendency to bible thump through proof texting.

Unfortunately, evangelicals sometimes think we’re doing theology, when really we’re just bible thumping. And when we get insulted or dismissed for being bible thumpers, we tend to congratulate ourselves about it.

We even have a proof text from Jesus’ beatitudes to justify our pride.  

“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” (Matthew 6:10-12)

But Jesus never tells us that we should rejoice when we’re insulted for legitimate reasons, only when we are falsely accused and reviled on account of our righteousness.

If you’re an aggressive bible thumper who thoughtlessly hurls verses at people in the comment section, you can’t exactly consider yourself persecuted for righteousness sake when they call you mean or ignorant. 

We should be “bookish.”

On the other hand, if you are thoughtful, studious, humble, and nuanced in your application of scripture and people still revile you, that’s where Jesus’ words are more applicable. And in my personal experience, more often than not, that “persecution” comes at the hands of the aforementioned bible thumpers in the comment section.

In the early days of the church (as early as the second century), Christians were always known as a “bookish” people. After all, we stake our lives on a library of 66 books. But being people of the book means more than having a leather bound bible case and multiple highlighters. We need to dedicate ourselves to correctly handle the word of truth (2 Timothy 2:15).

May we be known for our bookishness, which is different from being known for our proof texting.

May we be known for our bookishness, which is different from being known for our proof texting. Click To Tweet

Quantity of verses is a bad substitute for quality of interpretation

Maybe you aren’t a bible thumper, but you still might be suffering under the illusion that more bible verse citations makes for a stronger argument. I can appreciate the sentiment. If the bible is good, more bible is better. 

And to be sure, we should never advocate for a theological viewpoint based on an interpretation of one verse that contradicts the plain reading of another biblical passage. We should use scripture to interpret scripture.

But unless you’re willing to sit down, study, exegete, and ensure that you are properly understanding a verse within its historical, narrative, and grammatical context, the best thing to do is not cite it. That maintains your integrity, as well as the integrity of the text. 

Show me your work.

All this is why I tend to be suspicious of theological arguments littered with multiple verses in parentheses at the end of every statement. Not because I don’t like the bible, but because I doubt that the theologian citing them is utilizing them according to proper interpretation. And that goes for professional theologians as well as laypeople. 

What’s more is that it’s a lot of work to vet those interpretations, which in most cases is the very work that the people making the theological claim didn’t themselves do.

Do the work.

If you want to be about faithfulness to scripture and attach a bible verse or passage to every statement, you have a lot of work ahead of you. Because you need to not only understand those words of scripture in their context, but also explain and argue for that interpretation, as well as how it fits into your overall theological claim. 

If you’re tall to the task, your work will be incredibly robust. It will be the culmination of hours of study and wrestling with the text. It will be something that I think would really be worth reading, even if I don’t agree with the nuances of every interpretation or the conclusions you might draw.

My theological understanding will grow because of your work in a way that simply isn’t possible when you’re content to remain in the realm of bible thumping. But that only happens if we commit ourselves to move beyond shallow proof texting.

Unless you're willing to sit down, study, exegete, and ensure that you are properly understanding a verse within its historical, narrative, and grammatical context, the best thing to do is not cite it. Click To Tweet

The heart of the matter is authorial intent

At the heart of this conversation is the intersection between the biblical authors’ intent and our own. When we argue for a particular theological viewpoint or theological system, we’re often emotionally invested in being correct. Not in continuing the search for what is correct, but putting a flag in the ground and guiding others to discover what we have already found. 

But our underlying agendas often cause us to ignore the authorial intent of the text that we claim to hold in high esteem. In other words, we do violence to the scriptures in the name of defending the scriptures. 

Understanding who wrote the words

Every text in the bible has two authors. Ultimately God is the author of scripture. But he worked through various human writers. These writers had their own thoughts and insights that were inspired by the Holy Spirit. 

But in many ways, the words were theirs. They were trying to make a specific point with their writings. They were intending to deliver a specific message. They wanted to be understood. If they are the heroes of our faith, we should want the same for them.

So we need to be diligent about investigating exactly what that message is in order to honor both God and the human author.

Honoring the one who wrote the words

I once heard a seminary professor put it this way. Imagine that you’re preaching a passage out of Isaiah, and the prophet himself was attending your service. If Isaiah were to learn something new from your interpretation of the text he wrote, then you got it wrong. 

What’s more is that if you were using his words to say something different from what he intended to say, he would likely be offended. I certainly would be if someone used my words to say something counter to what I actually meant.

In other words, scripture can never say what it never said. It can be applied differently in different settings across history and culture, but the meaning and the author’s intent behind it are fixed. 

If we’re proof texting verses where the author’s intent doesn’t actually support our point, then we’re missing the point. 

If we're proof texting verses where the author's intent doesn't actually support our point, then we're missing the point. Click To Tweet

Not every decision or statement needs a proof text. 

Most of the time when we end up proof texting a verse or passage apart from its context or authorial intent, it isn’t because we’re trying to do anything nefarious. It’s because we don’t want to appear like we don’t understand the things of God. We perceive tentativeness about theological ideas as a lack of maturity. 

That’s what needs to change. 

As long as we can agree on the fundamental tenets of our faith, our theology is free to evolve with our increasing levels of understanding. Learning happens best through exploration and discussion rather than mere memorization and recitation. 

Memorizing bible verses is a good thing. Understanding them well is even better. 

And as you understand more of the scriptures, you will gain a sense of how to apply theology in practical ways, whether it’s in church leadership, with ethical issues at work, or when making decisions that require wisdom.

You don’t need to proof text every situation. 

That doesn’t mean that you will always get it right. You certainly won’t. But proof texting ten bible verses doesn’t make you right either. It just removes your sense of uncertainty. Nevertheless, it’s in that uncertainty that God is inviting us into a greater sense of faith, humility, and community as we wrestle through these complicated issues together.

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