On the Nature and Necessity of Proof-Texting

I can’t tell you how many times I have heard someone in the church warn against proof texting. Proof-texting, of course, is that method of defending theological truth by means of appeal to one particular verse of the Bible. I readily admit that often proof-texting is abused and used to draw faulty conclusions. This is most evident in the false teaching of the cults and heretical sects of Christianity–specifically with regard to their doctrine of God, Christ, man and salvation. Within orthodox Christianity, it is seen in the realm of eschatology and ecclesiology.

But is all proof-texting wrong? I wonder if there hasn’t been an over reaction to the abhorrent theology of the cults and sects, and to the aberrations of sound theology in the dispensationalist and postmillennial camps of Christendom. Everyone practices proof-texting of some kind, and it is entirely right to do so. The Apostle Paul did it relentlessly. One only has to consider his method of defending justification by faith alone in Galatians 3, or his explanation of individual, eternal election in Romans 9, or his eschatology in 1 Corinthians 15. In fact, it could be argued that Paul defends every doctrine of Scripture by proof-texting from the Old Testament. The use of the OT in the NT is a systematic application of contextual proof-texting. So what is the principle that needs to be established before we can practice a biblical proof-texting? This answers to this question could fill, and have filled, volumes. It seems, however, that a very basic answer can be given based on discussions of exegesis being governed by systematic and biblical theology.

The relationship between these three theological approaches (or ‘sciences’ as they are so commonly called) has formed the basis for endless discussions in our day. In the spirit of brevity I would simply like to focus on Paul’s proof-texting in Galatians 3.:1-14. There are no less than six direct proof-texts that Paul brings forth in his defense of justification “by faith” not “by the law.” The first is a reference to the example of the justification of Abraham (Gal. 3:6) from Genesis 15:6: “just as Abraham ‘believed God and it was accounted to him as righteousness. ” (NOTE: Justification is not simply “table fellowship” as some have surmised because Abraham is not sitting at the table with anyone but God). The second is also from the Abraham narrative (Gal. 3:8), specifically from Gen. 12:3, and relates to the Gospel in the OT: “the Scriptures forseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith preached the Gospel to Abraham beforehand saying ‘In you all the nations shall be blessed .” The third is in the context of the requirement of the law (Gal. 3:10) given to Israel in Deuteronomy 27:26 : “Cursed is everyone who does not continue in all things written in the book of the law to do them .” The fourth is a declaration about the nature of faith as the instrument, or means, of righteousness (Gal 3:11), and is taken from Habakkuk 2:4: “The just shall live by faith .” The fifth is a contrasting statement about the nature of the law, as a means of life, (Gal. 3:12) from Leviticus 18:5: “The man who does them shall live by them .” The sixth, and final proof-text in this section (Gal. 3:13), is part of a verse from Deut. 21:23, describing the nature of the curse of the law and the public manifestation of the curse: “Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree .”

It would be impossible, in this short post, to deal adequately with all the intricacies and exegetical issues surrounding each of these OT verses in their NT context. But the issue of context (i.e. specifically theological context) is the major issue that must be discussed. Paul does not proof-text at random, with no coherent relationship to a theological grid or system. Paul draws from the Old Testament revelation in order to support the biblical-theological and systematic theological truths he is setting forth. The Biblical theology (the progressive revelation of redemption) of the passage, from Abraham to Moses to Christ, is clearly the larger context of the passage. Paul is interested in defending the reception of the blessings of Abraham (i.e. justification and the reception of the Spirit) to Gentiles, as well as Jews, in their relationship to the Person and work of Christ. The entirety of the passage deals with the contrast between faith and works, law and Gospel, blessing and cursing.

The first two OT quotes are meant to root the concept of “justification by faith alone” in the first clear manifestation of the Gospel. There is one Gospel and one way of salvation. This was true of the first Jew, Abraham. The law had not yet been given, and Abraham was already justified. How was he justified? Paul reaches back to Gen. 15:6 to prove that it was by faith , not by what he did. Paul makes it clear that Abraham had the “Gospel” preached to him, when he alludes to Gen. 12:3. As he unfolds the relationship between the law and the Gospel, Paul now enters in on a discussion of the nature of the Law. The Judaizers were trying to get Gentile and Jewish converts to believe that it was necessary for them to keep the law, in addition to having faith in Christ, so that they may be accepted by God and ultimately saved. The final three OT proof-texts deal with the demands of the law and the penalty for failing to meet those demands.

Now, it could be argued that the OT texts that Paul appealed to in Galatians 3 could, each on their own, be pulled to defend any of the truths of the overall context of Galatians 3:1-14. Their meanings are not dependent on the further revelation of Galatians 3. It certainly helps us get a better grasp of their meaning as we see them woven together in their redemptive historical context. But, the truth and theological meaning of each verse is embedded within the particular verses. Here is the conclusion: Proof-texting is not only not illegitimate, it is actually supported and demanded by Scripture. The more important question concerns the biblical-theological and systematic moorings of the verses themselves. What is the meaning of the verse in its original context? What is the meaning of the verse in light of previous revelation? How does this verse relate to Gen.3:15 for instance? How does this verse relate to what we know about God, Christ, sin, salvation/judgment from the rest of the Scriptures? In short, everyone practices proof-texting (or at least everyone should).; but, is the proof-texting you are practicing accurate in relationship to the biblical and systematic theological truths of the Bible. The problem with the proof-texting of the cults and sects, as well as those with faulty eschatology and ecclesiology in Christian circles, is that their biblical-theological and systematic foundations are missing or wrong. If they were accurate it would be very beneficial to “proof-text” all day long. While these are not always easy issues to grapple with, we should not be ashamed of quoting particular verses to prove a particular doctrine. The problem is not in proof-texting, it is in the theology with which each group or individual approaches particular verses. Every word of God is inspired, as well as every verse. In John 10:35 our Lord quotes one word of Scripture (‘gods’), from Psalm 82, thus showing that every word is inspired and useful for doctrine, reproof, correction and instruction in righteousness. Certainly He does so with the proper theological support. But would we rebuke our Lord for proof-wording? Praise God that He has given us the example of His Son, together with the NT prophets and apostles, to follow. We must defend the truth “line by line and precept upon precept,” but we must make sure that our line and precepts are governed by the theological truths of the whole of Scripture. We must be “workman that need not be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.”

3 Responses

  1. Timothy Dietz

    I guess this may have been prompted by our conversation last week. This is very helpful for me. Would you say that an accurate summary of this concept is that the place for proof-texting is that of validation and confirmation of doctrine? (and also to hide the word in our hearts?) Meaning that your system of theology is developed from the whole counsel of the Word and then proof-texting is added on to further validate claims and show a quick proof of the doctrine? In this way, doctrine developed only from a proof-text and then validated with it would be circular, and something to be avoided. So my next question is, and it is really just a question of where to point me for further investigation, how many proof-texts need to be strung together for a doctrine to be considered to be based on the whole counsel of the Word? Or maybe I have missed something.

  2. Michael Simone

    Nick, you lose me in citing those texts in Galatians as ‘proof-texts.’ One usually thinks of ‘proof-text’ing as citing some text without respect to either the context or the narrative flow the text wants to evoke.

    So here in this passage, one of the most complex passages in Paul’s corpus.

    Paul makes quite a claim, an amazing one, that anyone who relies on the Law is cursed when, in fact, the Law understood that no one could keep the Law because it had a host of cultic specifics to deal with such imperfections. (Paul himself says he did just fine according to the Law in Phil 3. When he sinned inadvertently, he made sacrifice, etc, as the Law allowed so his conscience was not disturbed. Etc.)
    Then he seems to cite the OT against itself in vs 11 and 12!

    Then, he makes another amazing claim, that Messiah becomes the curse the Law utters for the nation, the curse of exile (Deut 27-30)! So, when Deut 21 proscribes leaving a hung body on a tree, he re-narrates this in light of the cross and that curse transfers from the Nation (land) to the Messiah.

    And, finally, he interpolates the Spirit as the gift given through Jesus faithful obedience when the blessing to Abraham doesn’t say anything about the Spirit, but rather the land.
    These are astonishing reinterpretations!

    It’s not my purpose to outline the narrative flow and deep evocations(for a Jew if the time) of these citations. If we take them at face value, they’d be laughed at by one of his detractors as silly exegesis and misrepresentation. But, if we realize that these small statements have deep, powerful contexts in view and are shorthand ways of evoking those contexts we’re on firmer ground.

    This isn’t prooftexting. Biblical, narrative theology, has much deeper footing.

  3. Michael,

    Did you read my post? The whole argument had to do with using a single verse or a few verses from an OT passage with regard to their immediate context. Are you wanting to prove a point, because I can’t really figure out what it is? Are you trying to promote N.T. Wright’s arguments from “Climax of the Covenant,” or do you just have an issue with Reformed interpretations of Galatians 3?

    BTW, in Gal. 3:14, Paul does explain the blessing of Abraham with the epexegetical clause, “that we may receive the promise of the Spirit by faith.”

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