The Prevalence of Prooftexting

The Prevalence of Prooftexting.

Last week, Steve Jobs, CEO of Apple, gave a keynote address revealing Apple’s iPad 2. Now I’m no PC-loving, Mac-bashing tech head. I am a Mac fan and have used Macs for over 10 years now. That said, it was unfortunate to see Steve Jobs make so many fact-twisting statements in the keynote address. (See Fortune Magazine’s Seth Weintraub’s article, here). Weintraub’s article highlights the sad and unfortunate reality of prooftexting, a practice that seems so common that most people aren’t even aware of it. This is particularly and tragically common with preachers, Bible teachers and writers.

Prooftexting, as I intend in this post, happens when a word, phrase, sentence, verse – or longer – is taken out of its context and made to mean something it doesn’t mean in its context. One dictionary definition of a prooftext is “a passage of the Bible to which appeal is made in support of an argument or position in theology.” That is not to suggest that it is inappropriate to cite scriptural verses. Rather, the problem arises when one cites the passage in a way that misrepresents its meaning.

This is related to the concept in biblical interpretation known as eisegesis, a term from Greek meaning “to draw in/into” and refers to the practice of reading into a text a meaning one wants it to mean. This is the opposite of exegesis [from the Greek meaning “to draw out”] which is the process of discovering – or drawing out – the meaning of a passage in its context.

I once knew an atheist who said to me, “Even the Bible says that ‘there is no God!’” I searched and found out that it was true! There are about 15 places in the Bible where it says, “There is no god.” However, if he were to have read the context he would have understood that it meant something else entirely:

“The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God’ They are corrupt, their deeds are vile; there is no one who does good.”  (Ps 14:1 NIV; cf. Ps 10:4; 53:1).

He had sadly chosen to believe something to be untrue by taking that phrase out of its intended context.

Context matters.

Regrettably, some prooftexts are not as easy to spot. I have heard some attempt to make the case that Jesus is a “light” for all people (hinting this means all will be saved) without condition of faith by quoting a passage like John 1:3–4:

“Through him [i.e. Jesus] all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. 4 In him was life, and that life was the light of all people” (John 1:3–4 NIV).

They argue that Jesus’ light was for everyone, not just for those who have faith. While this may sound beautiful and expansive it does not accurately reflect what the writer was talking about for only a few short verses later he talks about people’s reception of that light. Let’s read the context:

“Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. 4 In him was life, and that life was the light of men. 5 The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it. 6 There came a man who was sent from God; his name was John. 7 He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all men might believe” (John 1:3–7 NIV emphasis mine).

This last verse is significant. Might believe? The verb for “believe” is in the subjunctive mood. What does that mean? It means that the action of the verb is a possibility not a certainty. John the Baptizer came to witness to this light so that all people might believe. In this instance, then, doesn’t it suggest that some of mankind will not believe? If it is only a possibility they would believe then would that not also mean it was possible for them to not believe? Is it not a certainty that everyone will believe that Jesus is the light? Let’s read a little further:

“He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light. 9 The true light that gives light to every man was coming into the world”  (John 1:8–9 NIV).

So Jesus, as “the true light” will give light to every person? Does this mean that everyone will believe in him? Does this mean that all mankind will receive him as the light? Is that what these verses are teaching? Or shall we read further?:

“He [i.e. Jesus] was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. 11 He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. 12 Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God — 13 children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God”  (John 1:10–13 NIV).

Taking the passage as a whole we would have to conclude that Jesus was the light for all mankind. However, not all mankind receives the light. Not everyone “receives” or “believes” in the light, Jesus. Some choose darkness. The verses quoted above, with or without good intentions, were nevertheless victim to prooftexting. The point in all of this is to stress the importance of reading the whole context to grasp the intended meaning.

Tips for Recognizing Prooftexts

What can a person, especially one new to the Bible, do to identify whether what they hear or read is true and not a prooftext? Here are two tips (for now, will include more in later posts):

Look it up. Find the reference and read the whole passage in context. Listen carefully. If it is in a sermon follow along in a Bible and read the verses that precede the passage and those that follow the passage. Don’t merely follow along with verses that are listed on a PowerPoint slide. Get into the text itself. When reading a book, be cautious with quotes without a reference (i.e. the book, chapter and verse). If a writer or speaker says, “Paul wrote…” or “Jesus said…” and do not provide a reference, use a concordance to find where that statement can be found.

Ask questions. In particular ask yourself, “Is that what that verse is really saying?” Don’t be afraid to challenge the speaker or writer. This does not mean that you have to live in an unhealthy world of perennial skepticism. But you can ask questions to test the veracity of what is taught.

A Biblical Model

A good biblical model for this approach can be found in the citizens of Berea. Paul and his missionary companions came to this city after being violently driven out of town by the Jews in Thessalonica (this story can be found in Acts 17). The reaction of the Bereans to Paul’s message stands in stark contrast to that of the Thessalonians:

“Now these Jews were more noble than those in Thessalonica; they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so” (Acts 17:11 ESV).

It’s hard to imagine Paul being offended at people who turn to the text of scripture to verify his message. In fact, it is this trait – the turning to the text, reading it and understanding it in its own context – that is credited as “noble character” (Acts 17:11 TNIV). And it was this practice that developed faith: “Many of them therefore believed, with not a few Greek women of high standing as well as men” (Acts 17:12 ESV).

Following the examples of the Bereans seems an appropriate safe-guard against the error of prooftexting.

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