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Parchment and Pen: The Problem With Proof-Texting

Parchment and Pen – The Problem With Proof-Texting by Lisa Robinson

For those who don’t know what proof-texting is – it is finding passages of scripture that supports whatever position you want to uphold. Typically what happens is that an assertion is made, which generates disagreement. The opposer will list a passage of scripture or a string of passages as proof that that assertion is wrong. I have noticed this to be a common occurrence in the blogosphere. But I do believe it happens quite often in face to face conversations.
Now, please don’t get me wrong. I do understand the need for Christians to support positions with the biblical text. Otherwise, whatever it is we are trying to assert or refute can get reduced to mere opinion. However, I have observed that submitting a string of bible passages to communicate that position can cause some problems that can undermine the reconciliation and convictions we are seeking to uphold.
Problem of interpretation: isolating passages by themselves does not address the meaning and how that relates to what is being refuted. Passages must be considered in their rightful context and then correlated to the overall witness of scripture. For example, the issue of Christians and alcohol came up recently, which generated a host of passages that either supported either the acceptance of alcohol or its prohibition. Proof-texting can allow support for both sides but something has obviously gotten lost if that is so. Also, a word doesn’t necessarily mean the same thing everywhere it’s used, which is why context is so important. To interpret properly, the word has to be examined according to how the author is using it. If we throw out a string of passages simply because we think it aligns because it is using the same word or the same concept, it is quite possible that we are comparing apples with oranges.
Problem of understanding: if there is a disagreement about a particular point being made, there needs to be an understanding of where the points of dissension are. Throwing out a series of passages does very little in reconciling competing viewpoints and given interpretive differences, can be comparing apples to oranges. Rather, an explanation as to how the passages are related or asking questions about why a certain passage is being used in support of a position can promote better understanding. Providing an explanation also forces us to examine our own understanding of the text and if we have possibly missed the point the author is intending to make or have taken something out of context.
Problem of communcation: proof-texting does not really promote dialogue. It does not address where the differences are occurring. When passages are identified that seem to conflict with our understanding, there needs to be a dialogue about why the passages listed stand in opposition to whatever position is being refuted and specific points of difference. And dialogue does not mean, ‘let me tell you why you’re wrong’. It goes back to understanding. Moreover, the interpretation and understanding factor ought to compel an examination of how we are communicating particular topics or passages.
Problem of arrogance: by throwing out a series of passages, especially if there is no explanation offered, can exude a confidence in one’s position that does not need explaining. It can communicate the idea that the proof-texter has it all figured out and the position that is being refuted would certainly not be made if the presenter really had an understanding of what the bible is saying regarding the topic. It can paint the proof-texter in light of having a superior knowledge of the topic.
I think the bottom line is that if we are sincere about understanding scripture more thoroughly and accurately, it behooves examination, understanding and dialogue. Theology is done in community through an exchange of knowledge and a willingness for better understanding, which throwing out of list of passages does not do.
I personally wish that there was a Proof-Texting Police Squad ready to issue citations :) What do you think?


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