Proof-Texting: A Preface to Foundations

Within the realm of biblical hermeneutics, one of the most common issues that exegetes will face is the problem of proof-texting, or the act of using X amount of scriptures and/or quotes from men and women seen as authorities on the scripture (Church fathers, theologians, pastors, authors, etc.) to support their view, leading to many scriptures and/or quotes being taken out of their proper context.  Naturally, this is a big issue facing many denominations, doctrines, and points of view, because many people want their viewpoints to be the right viewpoint, and will do whatever it takes to make that happen.  Many ministers and teachers have used the following anecdote to describe proof-texting in a humorous way.

A man dissatisfied with his life decided to consult the Bible for guidance. Closing his eyes, he flipped the book open and pointed to a spot on the page. Opening his eyes, he read the verse under his finger. It read, “Then Judas went away and hanged himself” (Matthew 27:5b) Closing his eyes again, the man randomly selected another verse. This one read, “Jesus told him, ‘Go and do likewise.'” (Luke 10:37b)

Though, outside of their context, the verses could easily be construed as a command to commit suicide, the verses are ripped from their place in the stories they were told and in fact have nothing to do with one another.

This presents two logical fallacies that occur when in practice: the straw-man argument, and the appeal to authority.  A straw man argument is a fallacy that takes place when a debater will sum up his opponents argument in an easy-to-dismiss statement and refutes said statement without even acknowledging key points that his opponent made. You’ve probably done this before in an argument with a friend, a family member or spouse, usually by following up their point with “So what you’re saying is…”  This is not a good thing to do in academic, or even interpersonal debate.  You’re only making yourself seem superior to the individual in question by demeaning his argument to something without basis, when, oftentimes, your opponent has given a good argument as to their stance.  Don’t do this.

The appeal to authority is equally as bad, as it does a disservice to you (by giving a shallow standpoint for your argument) and a disservice to the author you cite by missing the point they made in whatever writing you quoted out of context.  In a way, it’s what the man in question above is guilty of, claiming that God told him to, but let me give you a different example.  Let’s start with a quote from Gandhi.

I do not consider Hitler to be as bad as he is depicted.

Yes, Gandhi actually did say that he didn’t think Hitler was that bad in a letter to a colleague.  From this perspective, one could almost call Gandhi a Nazi sympathizer (and I’m sure someone has tried to make him look that way).  However, let’s look at the REST of the quote.

I do not want to see the allies defeated. But I do not consider Hitler to be as bad as he is depicted. He is showing an ability that is amazing and seems to be gaining his victories without much bloodshed. Englishmen are showing the strength that Empire builders must have. I expect them to rise much higher than they seem to be doing.

Now, from this perspective, we can understand a little bit better what Gandhi meant.  He saw Hitler’s charisma and methods at the time they were occurring (the letter was written in May 1940), before the enactment of blitzkrieg and knowledge of the Holocaust was commonplace.  He also was seeking to compare and contrast the Germans with the English in their military tactics.

One quote out of context can make a Nazi sympathizer out of a Satyagrahi.  Don’t do this.

So why am I talking about this, and what does it have to do with nonviolence?  Well, as I’m sure you noted so carefully, the title of this post labels it a preface, a disclaimer, if you will, to my next series.  I want to show you a biblical perspective of nonviolence through the eyes of a Christological (Christ-centered) hermeneutic (biblical interpretation) and through the Sermon on the Mount.  I’m going to do my best to show different passages that people like me tend to focus on, demonstrate its consistency with the Old Testament, the culture of Jesus time, and the actions of his church that succeeded Him.  I am going to do this the best that I can, and hopefully avoid the above mentioned issue of proof-texting.

One final note: people have written in depth studies, books, and articles on this subject; I have a blog.  I’m going to try to break things down in a simple and concise, yet solid way to explain my position biblically, and when I can’t do that, I will point you to resources that can.  That’s really the best way I see to handle this. Anyway, looking forward to this series, which I’ve decided to entitle Foundations.  Hope you guys enjoy this one.

In keeping with this post, however, let me see if I can garner some responses from you: have you ever been guilty of proof-texting, or seen someone who is? How can we, as Christians, avoid proof-texting, and make sure our beliefs are solidly placed in the themes and teachings of Christ, and not just on a few quotes?


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