How Not to Study the Bible – Prooftexting

“The one thing the Bible is not is what it is so often thought to be – a theological outline with proof texts attached.” – Leland Ryken, How to Read the Bible as Literature, 9

How did Christianity end up reading scripture as a list of disjointed and disconnected proof texts? It was developed from a long history of using the Bible for winning theological arguments. Did someone defeat you the last time you talked about the Bible? Well, start searching for that one verse that refutes them and proves your point. Right? That is what many of us learned. But it does not make for healthy Bible study.

The reason we turn to scripture influences and informs the way we read scripture. If we have trained ourselves to open the Bible to win theological debates with others then we learn to proof text so that we can speak. But if we read scripture to find relationship and communion with God then we learn to listen so that God can speak.

About mattdabbs
I am a minister, husband, and father. My wife and I live and minister in Saint Petersburg, Florida. My primary ministry responsibilities include: small groups, 20s and 30s, involvement, and adult education.

10 Responses to How Not to Study the Bible – Prooftexting

  1. JamesBrett says:

    off subject, but just thinking… it’s odd when people say, “the one thing the _____ is not is…” because, frankly, there are a lot of things that the bible is not:

    – a theological outline with proof texts attached
    – a list of instructions for how “to do” worship
    – a bag of cotton candy from the national peanut festival

  2. The struggle is many have been so feed on this style of study that they do not recognize or know a better way. Even in “textual” classes it seems individuals are always jumping around to find “proof texts” to make a topical point. What we need is for people (preachers, teachers) to model good Bible study through how we present the word of God.

    I think your history of how we got to proof texting is a good summary, but I would add something. Within a religious group that respects the authority of the Bible (Evangelical Christianity) and holds to some view of the regulative principle (many within the Evangelical circle), then it becomes important to have Scripture to “back up” what we do. This results in people searching the Scripture to justify their practices, not worrying so much about the context, just making sure a verse is available to lend authority to what we have always done.

    http://www.studyyourbibleonline.com

  3. Tim Archer says:

    Very true, Matt.

    Dr. Tom Olbricht had a major impact on how I read scripture, helping me to let the Bible define for itself what is most important. Fee and Stuart taught me about genres. Even today I have to fight against old/bad habits.

    Grace and peace,
    Tim Archer

  4. Brandon says:

    Reading passages in their full context is infinitely harder than proof texting. We all heard some use a scripture in such a way as to leave us going “Do what?” Then again most of us has been in a situation where we were the ones doing the twisting.

  5. Jerry Starling says:

    Two experiences helped me learn how to read the Bible.

    The first was “journaling” as I read, especially in the gospels. I read asking what God is saying here, not “How can I use this text in my next sermon.”

    The second was reading the Pastorals, one each day except Sundays, over a 3 month period of time. This helped me to get into the mind and heart of Paul as he wrote to young preachers (who were maybe a little younger than I was at the time). I saw where his emphasis on “sound doctrine” was much different than mine had been. I saw his desire for purity in life and his emphasis on love. I began to see good works as the response of a grateful heart to the wonderful works of God on our behalf instead of as the means of our salvation.

    Those two experiences helped me considerably.

    I remember hearing Gerald Paden lecture one time on how to study the Bible. He told of when he was in Italy, he had a weekly discussion with a local priest. Each week they would select a different subject to discuss – and Gerald would scan the New Testament each week to see what the Bible had to say that would bear on the subject. At first, he may have been looking for proof texts – but over time he began to get into the heart of God and to see the broad sweep of the gospel message.

    It is this broad view of the gospel message that gives us a background for any particular passage. If my understanding and application of any passage does not fit the big picture of redemption, then chances are my view of that passage is warped. It is much more likely for my understanding of a single passage to be warped than for my comprehension of the big picture of redemption to be warped – if I have been diligent in trying to see that big picture.

  6. Hank says:

    Your wrong Matt…..and I”ll find that one verse which will prove it tomorrow (just kidding)

  7. the Bible is the story of God … Great post.

  8. Jenny says:

    Good point. It’s long bothered me that many Christians don’t even bother to peak at the Minor Prophets and Non-Pauline Epistles unless they’re looking for evidence to back up their claims. The Bible should be read through so that a concise message can be gleaned, which will guard against taking verses out of context when prooftexting does occur. And I’m also an advocate of journaling to connect ideas from one passage to the next.

    “How did Christianity end up reading scripture as a list of disjointed and disconnected proof texts? It was developed from a long history of using the Bible for winning theological arguments.”

    Isn’t “long history” somewhat of an understatement? Jesus engaged in a whole lot of prooftexting to defend His arguments and teachings. The early Christians, discussed in the New Testament, did a lot while preaching and arguing. Gospel writers did it to prove that Jesus was the Messiah. The Epistle writers did it to support their preaching and teachings. And 1st and 2nd century writers (and everyone else since) have followed suit.

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