Grant Osborne, author of The Hermeneutical Spiral writes that “the basic evangelical fallacy of our generation is ‘proof-texting,’” which he describes as “that process whereby a person ‘proves’ a doctrine or practice merely by alluding to a text without considering its original inspired meaning” (Osborne, G.R., 2006). This error as Osborne describes it has played into the propagation of numerous “folk theologies” which have no grounding in Biblical truth (Olson, R., 1999). While acknowledging the value of Scripture memory programs, Osborne also cites the potential problem of utilizing Scripture memory programs without more in-depth training for Christ-followers in Biblical hermeneutics. The concern he expresses is of the initial face-value of a word, phrase or even a biblical narrative which may evoke a misleading message to the unskilled interpreter apart from intentional and thoughtful Bible study and interpretation.
Yet proof-texting may prove to be a practice that emerges in both positive and negative forms. In keeping with Osborne, negative practices can be seen in less-educated (or Biblically ignorant) cultures in which emotionalism, traditionalism and even superstition may prevail. Such are the environments of “folk theologies” ranging from snake handlers to extreme prosperity teachers and preachers. In such settings defensive measures often may motivate the misinterpretation and overreach of Bible users.
Some evangelical scholars, however, argue that “proof-texting is not necessarily problematic” and, further, contend that “historically it has served a wonderful function as a sign of disciplinary symbiosis amongst theology and exegesis” (Allen and Swain, 2011). They note that “proof-texts” (dicta probanta) were originally viewed as parenthetical references or footnote/endnote references to biblical passages “that undergird some doctrinal claim made … in a dogmatics textbook, a catechism, or a confession of faith.”
The oft-cited old adage concerning “proof-texting” is: “A text without a context is a pretext for a proof text.” Allen and Swain cite “three primary charges” leveled by the critics of “proof-texting”. They include: (1) The charge that “proof-texts fail to honor the specific contexts of biblical texts”; (2) that “proof texts too easily suggest that doctrinal language is the biblical language with no sensitivity for the horizon of the interpreter or the hermeneutical task involved in working with the biblical language”; and (3) that “proof texts interact with ecclesiastical history rather than biblical history.”
Interestingly, one of the major supporting principles Allen and Swain use to support their defense of proof-texting is this: “All of the charges brought against the use of proof-texts in Christian theology could be lodged against the Bible’s own use of the Bible”. They offer these counter statements to the “three primary charges” against proof-texting:
With respect to the first charge: 2 Cor 6:16-18 cites and/or alludes to a litany of OT passages (including Lev 26:12; Isa 52:11; 2 Sam 7:14) in support of the claim that “we are the temple of the living God,” but gives no indication of the distinct literary and historical contexts within which those passages are found. With respect to the second charge: Gal 3:14 equates “the blessing of Abraham”—presumably the blessings of Gen 12:3 and 15:6, which are cited in Gal 3:6 and 3:8—with “the promised Spirit.” However, the Book of Genesis does not record any explicit promise regarding the Spirit’s coming, a promise more clearly enunciated in much later prophetic texts (e.g. Joel 2:28; Isa 44:3; 59:21). Here, then, we have an example of a text being used in a doctrinally more specific sense than its original context, taken by itself, allows. With respect to the third charge: Hebrews 1 collects a series of OT texts, primarily from the Psalms, as witness to a single doctrinal theme, the Messiah’s divine sonship. However, the deity of God’s Son does not seem to be the main theological focus, if it is a focus at all, in any of these texts. Is the author of Hebrews allowing his own doctrinal interest, namely, establishing the deity of God’s Son, to drive his collection and probative use of Scripture? (Allen & Swain)
It seems the term “proof-texting” may have become a bit of an unexamined darling in the world of biblical hermeneutics. I have often heard students speak disdainfully of it primarily because of their narrow definition associating it with merely searching for texts that support your one’s doctrinal opinions, assumptions or predilections. Allen and Swain, however, warn of the mistake of overstating the role of proof-texts and missing a potential vital function they serve and have served in Biblical interpretation. They cite the works of Thomas Aquinas and John Calvin as proof, noting that for “these theologians, proof texts did not subvert exegetical care—[rather] they symbolized and represented its necessity.” They appeal to biblical scholars today to insist upon “rigorous exegesis” to support any such proof-texting and urge them to “engage it conversationally and not cynically.”
Allen, R.M. and Swain, S.R. (2011). In Defense of Proof-texting. Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, 54, no. 3, 589-606.
Olson, R. (1999). The Story of Christian Theology: Twenty Centuries of Tradition and Reform. Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP.
Osborne, G.R. (2006). The Hermeneutical Spiral. Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP, 387.