So what is prooftexting? When I was younger, it seemed to me that prooftexting was a good thing. It is, at its root, finding biblical support for a theological or doctrinal idea. What could be wrong with that? Plenty, as it turns out. This article will explore some reasons why and some examples.
First, prooftexting is problematic because it seeks to justify an idea as taught in the Bible that was likely formed without the Bible. Now I’m not an advocate of the view that says the only truths we can know about God are explicitly taught in His Word. However, I do think if you want to claim the Bible teaches something, you cannot decide what it teaches beforehand and then go try to find it in the Bible. Most often, this is what is being done with prooftexting.
Second, prooftexting is often done without any (or at least with very little) regard for the context and intent of the passage. The most egregious (and, sadly, most common) examples of this include what is often called “shotgun prooftexting,” where people mention a teaching or idea and follow it up with a series of references, sometimes containing no quotations (or just a brief phrase) and no explanation whatsoever. Some very prominent and popular theologians do this an alarming number of times in some very popular systematic theology books. What follows are types or kinds of prooftexting.
1. “So what do you do with…?” Prooftexting
This is most often done as an attempt to prove a doctrinal or theological position without actually giving a positive explanation of the text. The onus is squarely placed on the opponent; the underlying claim is that if the person does not have an adequate explanation, then the questioner wins by default, without having to do any work whatsoever. The problem presents itself immediately with a counter-question: Suppose I don’t do anything with it. Now what? Well, now it’s up to the original questioner to do more work, that’s what. Merely saying, “What do you do with Psalm 90:2?” won’t cut it as an argument.
2. Quoting-the-verse Prooftexting
This is done usually with one sentence or so of explanation (which really amounts to a claim) and then the quotation of a verse, or even just part of one. So, continuing to use Psalm 90:2, here’s what it would look like: “Timeless views of God are unable to be reconciled with the plain teaching of Scripture. Psalm 90:2 says, ‘From everlasting to everlasting, thou art God.’” This type of prooftexting, like all others, is a failure to acknowledge theological and philosophical presuppositions, a failure to draw inferences, and a failure to consider the exegetical study of the actual text. It doesn’t make the view that God is in time right or wrong, but it does mean merely doing this isn’t going to work.
3. Shotgun (Citation) Prooftexting
One would think this wouldn’t be as prominent among professional theologians, but it is surprisingly common. The idea is that if one shows several, if not dozens, of Scripture references that seem to teach the idea, then how could any Bible-believing, God-fearing Christian disagree? There are a few reasons why this doesn’t work: first, because it’s not always (or even usually) clear on why particular passages are being used (or how they are being used). Since no explanation is given, it’s up to one’s imagination far too often. Second, it shows literally no work in trying to understand the intent of the text. The defense for this is often “Well, this is the obvious and clear meaning of Scripture,” but that’s a lazy-man’s defense (in most cases). Third, it has no regard for the immediate and broader context. If you don’t know the message of the book nor the immediately surrounding contents of the book where the reference is found, you could be mistaken in your interpretation: what was once clear and obvious becomes clouded, and, eventually (sometimes), it becomes clear that what you once thought the passage taught is false. Shotgun prooftexting is the worst, because it can’t even be bothered to tell you which part of the reference supports what they claim. If you have other examples, feel free to chime in!