The proof text.

by K.W. Leslie, 27 June

If we’re gonna refer to the bible, let’s be sure we’re doing it right.

Proof text /'pruf tɛkst/ n. A scriptural verse or passage, used (or misused) as evidence to support the idea one wishes to teach.
2. v. Using (or misusing) the scriptures as a reference.

Y’know how sometimes I’ll mention a biblical idea, like God saving us by his grace, Ep 2.8 and do exactly what I just did there: Tack on a link to a bible verse which proves my point. It’s called proof-texting. If you weren’t sure whether that idea was backed by the bible, I pointed you to the bit of bible which confirms it.

I know; the word texting can confuse people. Especially if you’ve always thought of texting as sending a Short Message Service file from your phones. (Didn’t know that’s what SMS meant, didja?) I made the mistake of not clarifying that when I was instructing kids in how to proof-text properly. Some poor lad thought every time he referred to the scriptures, he had to send a text message—and wasn’t sure where to send it. To me? (No.)

And I also know: There are Christians who use the term “proof-texting” only when they mean wrongly referencing the bible. To them, “bible references” are proper quotes, always in context, and therefore good; “proof texts” are always misquoted, therefore bad. First time I ever heard of proof-texting, the term was introduced to me by a youth pastor who warned us kids to never proof-text. Which really alarmed me when a visiting speaker taught us we should always proof-text. For a while there I worried my church had invited the Antichrist over to mislead us all.

See, a lot of people proof-text wrong. Did it myself: When I was a kid, my youth pastors actually used to let me lead bible study groups, or even preach, from time to time. (I knew a lot of bible trivia, and they confused this with maturity.) To prepare, I’d bust out my handy Nave’s Topical Bible, which lists all the verses which touch upon almost any given Christian topic. Problem is, unless you’ve got a computer version (and sometimes even then), Nave’s verses are provided without context. And I didn’t care about context: I had my own opinion on the subject, and arrogantly assumed God felt the same way. I just wanted verses which proved me right. If they obviously didn’t, I might change my tune. But this wasn’t always obvious.

Since my youth pastors kept letting me preach, I assume I didn’t go too far afield with my out-of-context proof texts. Then again, most of the youth pastors likely did the very same thing with their own sermons. To this day I catch preachers doing it. They’ll download sermon outlines, won’t double-check the references, and misquote bible like crazy. The reason I catch ’em is because I was taught in seminary to always check references. And this bit of wisdom, I pass along to you: Always check references. Always always always.

Even when you think you already know that reference—’cause you might be wrong. As we usually are.

Exegesis saves!

Exegesis /ɛk.sə'dʒi.sɪs/ n. Careful examination and interpretation of a text (particularly bible), through its grammar and historical background.
[Exegetic /ɛk.sə'dʒɛ.dɪk/ adj., exegetical /ɛk.sə'dʒɛ.dək.əl/ adj., exegete /'ɛk.sə.dʒit/ v., n.]
Eisegesis /aɪ.sə'dʒi.sɪs/ n. Opposite of exegesis: Reading one’s biases, agendas, or prejudices into a text (particularly bible).
[Eisegetic /aɪ.sə'dʒɛ.dɪk/ adj., eisegetical /aɪ.sə'dʒɛ.dək.əl/ adj., eisegete /'aɪ.sə.dʒit/ v., n.]

As you can see from the definitions, there are two ways people dig proof-texts out of a bible. There’s eisegesis, my method in high school; and there’s exegesis, my method now. Obviously I’m gonna push exegesis.

The reason people don’t bother with exegesis: It’s homework.

Seriously. Remember when you had to do your homework back in high school or college? Get out the reference materials and look things up? Prove your point with references and footnotes? That. It took time. And people don’t wanna take time. They hated homework. Once they graduated, they swore off homework forever. They don’t even do their homework on the candidates they vote for… but that’s another rant, and I won’t go there today.

But that’s how we learn what any given passage of scripture really means:

  • We read its context—the whole paragraph it’s in, or the whole chapter, or even the whole book.
  • We look at the words of the original Hebrew or Greek. Or, if we know neither of those languages, we compare a bunch of different translations to learn the consensus.
  • We learn the historical background of its author, or the people it’s to, or the things it’s about.
  • We might read some biblical commentaries, and find out what fellow Christians think of it. (And just to make sure we’re not just reinforcing our own biases, it wouldn’t hurt to read commentaries written by Christians who don’t share our church background.)

Like I said, homework. It’s how bible scholars were trained to read bible. It’s how every scholar is trained to read. Literature scholars do it with Shakespeare and Cervantes. Historians do it with old letters and books. Lawyers do it with the Constitution. If you attended a decent high school or university, you learned to read books this way.

And you might’ve hated doing all that work, or never saw the point. That’s why people go with the quick ’n dirty method of eisegesis. (Hey, works for lawyers!) Begin with your conclusion. Find verses which back you up—or are close enough. Can’t find any? Dig through a few different translations, ’cause maybe they phrased it in a way which works better for you. Since you’re so certain God thinks like you do, and his word is living and active, He 4.12 you’re pretty sure he won’t mind if you stretch his words like Silly Putty to suit your message.

Except that’s not what “living and active” means.

Yep, I just slipped you an example of eisegesis. Properly, “the word of God is living and active” means God’s word is meaningful, powerful, and relevant to the present day. Improperly, it means God’s word is magic. It means whatever we wish it to mean. Grammar? Boring and takes too long. History? Boring and don’t need it. Reading comprehension? Boring and unnecessary. Everything we learned in school was easily forgotten, and never to be brought up again. Not only that, people even accuse such book-learning as interfering with the Holy Spirit’s process of magically repurposing the scriptures to suit our whims.

This is why so many Christians figure “proof-texting” means misquoting the bible: Eisegesis is epidemic. Preachers drop dozens of verses to “prove” their preaching—knowing we’re never gonna bother to look up all those verses, and needn’t bother ’cause none of them are valid.

There’s an old bible-scholar joke: “Exegesis saves.” No, not saves us from sin and death; that’d be Jesus. Exegesis saves us from being wrong. When we do our homework as we ought, we discover what the Holy Spirit really meant to say through the writers of the bible. We get out of his way.

And our hermeneutics professors don’t flunk us… or tweet some of the dumber things in our papers on “Bible Students Say.”

Robbing God.

Let’s say you wrote an essay. Say, a passionate commentary about why we need to protect children from the evils of pornography. You wanna tighten the laws, make it so kids can never get their hands on porn, and make it so adults would get in big trouble if they circumvented these laws.

Now, let’s say there’s a famous pro-porn advocate. Someone who doesn’t have kids, and finds the idea of warping ’em with porn endlessly entertaining. (You know, like those twisted souls in high school who liked to feed their dog beer and watch him walk into furniture, just for fun. If you knew no such people in high school, good. But I did.) Say this degenerate got hold of your article, said, “Look! This person totally supports me,” and publicly quoted your essay—but entirely out of context. Worse: Now more people only know you from the out-of-context quotes—and think you’re a really nasty pervert.

I would hope you’d be outraged by the idea.

This is exactly what eisegetes do. Such people take God’s point of view, ignore him, proclaim their own point of view, and makes it sound like it’s God’s idea, not theirs. People don’t bother to double-check the references, and just assume the preacher is quoting bible properly, and God does think like that. After all, what preacher would knowingly lead us astray?

Thus God is robbed of his voice. Robbed of his authority and power. The eisegete stole it and nullified it. Yeah, it’s the work of a fake Christian, who doesn’t care what God teaches. Not enough to make certain.

Here’s the sad thing: A lot of these preachers honestly have no idea this is what they’re actually doing. I never did, back when I was doing this. I saw plenty of other Christians use the Nave’s Topical Bible method, and thought it was okay to do likewise. Nobody ever sat down and taught me the whole “living and active” stretchy-bible idea. But I saw it in practice. Monkey see, monkey do.

There are Christians out there who’ve never heard a properly-researched sermon. Whenever their pastors quote the bible in context, it’s only by osmosis: They heard it from someone else who did their homework. Or they learned the proper context secondhand, thirdhand, twentiethhand… but never firsthand. Either they never learned to properly study the bible, or did but figure they know best and exegesis takes too long. So that’s how they feed their congregations: They pick all the fruit out of the fruit salad, ’cause all anyone really wants to eat is the marshmallows, corn syrup, and Cool Whip.

If we’re gonna base our beliefs, our lives, on God’s word, we’d better make absolutely sure we understand the scriptures correctly. (Or as correctly as we can get through proper study.) We can’t afford to make life-altering choices based on out-of-context bible. It’s the fastest way to go horrifically wrong. It’s how cults start.

So do your homework. When you’re doing bible study, actually study. When you’re gonna teach from the bible, study. And when your preachers quote the bible, make sure they studied: Fact-check their proof texts. Look those verses up on your phone. Make sure they’re not misquoting a thing. Make sure they’re not leading us, nor themselves, astray.

Humble, mature Christians appreciate when we’re told, “You said this, but I think you got it wrong.” Yeah, sometimes we’re irritated with ourselves for making mistakes—especially dumb ones. But speaking for myself, I’m glad when people catch when I’ve linked to the wrong verse, or catch errors in my translations. I don’t wanna be wrong if I can help it. You help me get it right! It’s exactly what we Christians are supposed to do for one another. So don’t worry if you feel like a nit-picker when you come to your pastors with any mistakes you’ve caught. It reminds them to do their homework. If they do do their homework, they’ll appreciate it’s not for nothing.

Worry instead when they dismiss you out of hand, or even accuse you of evil intent for daring to oppose them. Worst case, you’ve got a wannabe cult leader. But more often, you’ve just got an immature, proud Christian running your church. Which ain’t good. Either way, might be wise to change churches.