The Art and Practice of Biblical Proof-Texting
by Larry Downing, January 22, 2017: I must have been seven or eight years old the day a neighborhood kid asked why I went to church on the wrong day. My answer to my friend’s question is lost in the mist of time. What have lain dormant, but still recoverable, are the residuals of the argument that ensured. I set out on a logic path that I was sure would prove to my neighbor that Saturday, not Sunday, was the “true” Sabbath. He, not I, was the errant one. To bolster my stock of fragmentary information, I recall walking up the driveway to my house and into my dad’s office, where he was laboring over some business matter. I explained to my father the essence of the argument with the kid down the road and asked him to help me out. He stopped his desk work, walked over to a nearby bookcase, pulled down a couple of books, and began paging through them, stopping now and again to write down texts as he turned the pages. When he had completed his list, he handed over the slip containing an array of Sabbath proof texts and instructed me to show them to my friend. Before I left his office, Dad told me to inform the kid that Sunday keeping was not in the Bible. I have no recollection of the books he consulted. I inherited his books and know that his collection included Cruden’s Concordance, Nave’s Topical Bible, and a collection of Adventist reference works, including Bible Studies for the Home Circle.
I ran down the hill to where my friend awaited and, in triumph, laid on him the truth about the “true” Sabbath. I do not remember whether my impressive collection of biblical knowledge impressed my friend, nor can I recall how the boy responded to the new light on the true Sabbath. I can say he did not join me at church the next Sabbath, nor can I, in pious zeal, proclaim that years later he came to me and confessed his previous error and had now become a Sabbatarian. I can categorically state that I did not present a hermeneutically sound biblical study. I had key texts that proved I was right and my friend was wrong! That, at the time, is what mattered most. I’m guessing I left the discussion feeling assured my arguments had bested his. After all, he had no Bible texts to prove his points. I, in my mind, had won my case! Or had I? One fundamental rule awaited discovery: It is not the purpose of scripture to prove one person or group right, and another person or group wrong. Scripture is not a doctrinal manifesto, nor is it a hammer to pulverize opponents.
From our earliest history, proof texts were part of the Adventist offensive arsenal (double meaning intentional). The little old lady in tennis shoes could “prove” she was right, and the one who dared take her on was wrong! Proof texts were considered an essential and reliable method to defend what we proclaimed, and we had our proof text to assure us we were on to something: “For precept must be upon precept, precept upon precept; line upon line, line upon line; here a little, and there a little:” Isaiah 28:10 (KJV).
There is one slight problem when this text becomes our guide to biblical interpretation: the text does not address biblical studies, nor is it a syllabus for textual interpretation. The wider context is Isaiah’s denunciation of wayward religious leaders, and a warning of what awaited those who violate God’s commands. More important than to debunk a process based on the misapplication of a key text is this: the proof text methodology is itself open to all manner of abuse.
There is a problem when Isaiah 28:10 becomes our guide to biblical interpretation: the text does not address biblical studies, but Isaiah’s denunciation of wayward religious leaders.
There is the timeworn, and likely apocryphal, account of the preacher who was opposed to women wearing their hair in a bun. He titled his anti-bun sermon, “Top Knot Come Down.” His proof text was Matthew 24:17… “When ye therefore shall see the abomination of desolation, spoken of by Daniel the prophet, stand in the Holy Place, (whoso readeth, let him understand; then let them which be in Judaea flee into the mountains: let him which is on the house top not come down to take any thing out of his house:” A creative emendation, energized by a quick imagination, transformed “…top not come down” to “Top Knot, Come Down!” The crusading pastor had his proof text that provided the ammunition to bring the straying sisters, and their errant hair fashions, back into line!
The story may be apocryphal, but the methodology that provided the hypothetical preacher his hermeneutical methodology is not unknown among even experienced preachers. It is not uncommon for pastors, and others who work with the biblical text, at one time or another to have been guilty of loading a text with pronouncements and conclusions that the text will not support.
The proof text method of biblical interpretation has a long and varied history that reaches back to biblical times and before. One well-known key text that was applied by first Christians to Jesus’ life is Hosea 11:1, “Out of Egypt have I called my son” (Matthew 2:15). It is unlikely that the first readers of the text understood the passage as a messianic prophecy. At a far removed time from when the “out of Egypt” words were written, a post-resurrection exegete reflected on Hosea’s words, called to mind the story of the holy family’s exodus to Egypt, collated the two Egypt accounts, and postulated, in Jesus’ return to Palestine after his early years in Egypt, the fulfillment of an ancient Messianic prophecy.
Those of us of a certain age and educational experience recall the King James Version Bible proof text memorization exercises promoted and practiced in academy Bible classes. One rationale for the requirement to memorize texts was simple: there will come a time when our Bibles will be taken away. As part of the end-time scenario, the faithful will be called before judicial powers and, in public forum, be required to answer for their faith. How could the Spirit bring to mind that which was not there to begin with? As safeguard against such eventualities, we were required to memorize a set of texts every week, and produce those texts on a sheet of paper that was checked by the teacher’s reader. The points awarded were in proportion to the accuracy of the student’s ability to reproduce the required texts. No one questioned whether the texts were taken out of context. (Such memorization has been of personal benefit over the years. When I wish to find a text, there is some chance I recall a word or two from the King James translation that was once a memory text. I can then look up the word in a concordance or on the web that leads me to the desired text.)
The memory texts, as I recall, were grouped into a somewhat jumbled configuration consisting of doctrine, promise, prophetic, and other topics. The doctrinal texts included those that provided ammunition to “prove” the Sabbath, the second coming, the non-immortality of the soul, validity of the Ten Commandments, the wages of sin, forgiveness of sin, Jesus’ love and other texts that prescribe or proscribe behavior and belief. The prophetic passages, gleaned from both Testaments, served to assure us that a time of trouble lurked round the corner, and after the Trouble, divine judgment awaited. Plagues, fire and brimstone, accompanied by writhing agony, were the fate of those who ignored or denied present truth.
Proof texts are still included in Adventist publications. The Sabbath School Quarterly and the Bible study guides produced by various Adventist media productions frequently rely on an array of proof texts. It is not unknown to have a question asked and the student instructed to read a specific Bible verse, at times including the notation “a” or “b” (for example, John 7:5a). I’ve pondered what penalty might befall the one who reads the entire verse.
Adventist studies rely on proof texts. It is not unknown to have the student instructed to read a specific Bible verse, including the notation “a” or “b”(for example, John 7:5a). I’ve pondered what penalty might befall the one who reads the entire verse.
Levity aside, the broader view is the desirable method. The serious Bible student does well to ignore chapter and verse demarcation and examine a passage in its immediate and larger context. We ill-serve others when we, by suggestion or practice, construct our biblical conclusions on individual texts or limited context. Far better to be wide in our reading than to take the narrow route. Should we persist in the long-established practice of gleaning here a little and there a little, what we have at the end is an accumulation of littles. How satisfying is that? More significant, the misapplication or twist of a verse to prove a point, even an important point, calls into question our integrity and violates trust. In the religious world, trust is the coin of the realm. When trust is absent, the game is over! Let the one who has ears to hear, hear.
Lawrence (Larry) Downing, D.Min., is retired after more than 40 years as a parish minister serving Seventh-day Adventist churches on both Coasts. He was also an adjunct faculty in the School of Business and the School of Theology at La Sierra University. He is married to Arleen. Together, they have three grown children and six grandchildren. Larry and Arleen reside part time in Rancho Cordova, CA and in San Luis Obispo, CA.