The Perils of Proof Texts
Updated: Feb 7, 2019
We live in the era of the minimization of information; the era of the soundbite, the snippet, the meme. We don't have the time to engage in nuance, wrestle with complexities, nor to mine deeper in search of greater understanding. Instead we try to boil our communications down to their simplest structure, to give and receive them in an easily digestible form.
Because of this we also live in an era of oversimplification, misdirection and misrepresentation. In reducing what we are seeking to convey we are less likely to get a richer taste as we are to lose any taste of the intended substance at all. It may well become easier to digest, but it may also cease to have any nutritional value.
The fruit of this era is as keenly felt within the church as within the world at large. We are spoiled with an embarrassment of riches - Bible translations and Bible tools galore enabling serious study at the click of a mouse - and yet somehow their availability has become little more than a security blanket while we seek warmth in the arms of simplicity. Nowhere is this seen more clearly than in the ubiquitous, Evangelical, single-verse proof text.
So in Philippians 4:13, Paul's carefully constructed letter to the Philippian church is seen as concluding not with a call to contentment, but with cheerleaders, pom-poms and the assurance that "You can do it! You can do it! You caaaaaaaan!" Any connection to the letter's central exhortation to think like Christ, its application to the warring sisters earlier in that same chapter, let alone the context of the surrounding verses, is lost; and thus it can be easily adopted and transformed into an athlete's mantra, an Oprah-esque soliloquy or simply some chicken soup for the pseudo-spiritual soul. Apart from the mention of "Christ" it bears no distinction from similar soup slurped up by the nullifidian who cares nothing for that Christ Himself. And so, even for the Christian, that "Christ" is often drained of all depth of denotation; in the glorious hymn of chapter two Paul’s application of Yahweh’s claim that all tongues will affirm Him and all knees bow to Him (Isaiah 45:23) to that Christ is forgotten. Sufficiently distracted from His deity we are left with little more than a “Christ” who is a personal trainer fluent in Christianese.
Of course that verse is so widely and ridiculously badly misunderstood and misapplied that it is an easy and obvious target, yet other examples abound. Whether we are limiting God’s presence to a sufficient turnout on the basis of Matthew 18:20, or providing false assurance of the alleviation of suffering on the basis of Romans 8:28 or Jeremiah 29:11, as we discard context we are paving a road from truth to error, no matter how noble our intentions.t
All that said, it’s not that truth is a casualty every time a text is wrenched from its context and placed in solitary confinement. More often than not the central truth is untouched. And yet, even so, something is lost. When we, with a shrug of the shoulders and a murmur of “meh,” embark on the endless quest of oversimplification and reductionism, while we may occasionally and accidentally destroy the very truth we seek to know, more often than not we simply lose depth, substance and nuance while retaining the essence of what the verse is trying to convey.
So does this really matter that much? If the main truth remains, does it really matter that a few other peripheral truths fall by the wayside? I argue strongly that it does indeed matter. And this loss is at the very heart of what I am addressing here.
Some verses become half-truths. When Ephesians 4:25 is used as a proof text against telling lies apart from the context of verses 17-24 we miss that the falsehood referred to is a life lived as a misrepresentation of God’s transforming work in us; when Romans 8:1 is used to proclaim our justification ignoring both the preceding and following verses, we miss the wonderful truth of our liberation from the wrestling of our two natures by the empowerment of the indwelling Holy Spirit.
Some verses lose depth. When John 3:1 tells us there was a “man of the Pharisees” and we ignore the last paragraph of chapter 2 and its threefold repetition of “man” (gender neutral translations really don’t help keep the connection here), we lose that this man is a representative of the type of man just referred to: one who seemingly has a faith of sorts in Jesus, but one that Jesus, knowing his heart, has no faith in. When we read in (or sing) Psalm 42:1-2 that, like a thirsty deer, our soul thirsts for God, without the following verses it becomes a hymn simply of our desire to know more of God and we miss that the psalmist’s desire for God is to reach out to him in his lamenting.
And some verses are so glorious that even when removed from their natural surroundings, like animals in a zoo, their magnificent truths shine resplendently. They are clearly seen even behind the bars of their cages, constructed for easy viewing as we pass by from one isolated exhibit to the next.
2 Corinthians 5:21 is a gem. That splendiferous substitution - His righteousness exchanged for our sin - is vivid even apart from its context. It is one one those verses that does actually stand well alone; it refuses to be unbound from its proclamation of that truth even when it is removed from its context. But even this jewel is richer still when we see it in its intended habitat. Our reconciliation with God, the old becoming new, and our work as ambassadors in the reconciliation of the world, all in the preceding verses, does not merely add additional information but gives greater clarity to verse 21 too. When we read “for our sake” we know that the “our” is not merely us who are saved, but those we are appealing to; “the righteousness of God” that we have become is not a reference to some mere ticket to Heaven upon death but to a transformation that is such that we are a “new creation”.
You may well have heard the oft quoted axiom, “A text without context is a pretext.” Or its more informal cousin, “The Bible can mean whatever you want if you take out of context.” This is why context is so crucial. Just as a property is all about location, location, location, so understanding the Bible is all about context, context, context.
So, as I pastor Calvary Baptist Church here in Burbank, California, it is my job to teach the Bible. It is not my job to entertain, to tell stories or to make people laugh. It is not my job to teach from the Bible, using a few verses as a springboard to say what I have previously determined to be true. Though in that format the Bible is utilised initially, and perhaps a few additional verses are used as proof texts later on, I would not even define such as “Bible teaching.” I simply have to teach the text, the whole text and nothing but the text. I have to understand it in its context, explain it and apply it.
So I start in a book of the Bible with the first chapter and the first verse. Week by week I slowly unpack it, a verse at a time, trying to feed souls with the truths that abound within it. It sounds simple, and in one sense I suppose it is. Yet it is frustratingly rare in this day and age.
When we do this as a church here in Burbank, book by book, week by week, we find that God does his work amongst us. We don’t need “3 steps to this” and “5 ways to that” kind of sermons. I don’t need to preach an agenda - I let the text before me be my guide. And yet, time after time, we find that God’s Spirit providentially brings the right truths to the right people at the right time.
He doesn’t need me be to be clever in my teaching, thinking up some topical subject to draw people in; He just needs me to be faithful to preach His Word. And, if I can keep myself out of the way, keeping the actual text of the Bible front and centre, His Spirit does the rest.
"I can do all things through him who strengthens me."
“Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” Phil 2:9-11
“By myself I have sworn; from my mouth has gone out in righteousness a word that shall not return: To me every knee shall bow, every tongue shall swear allegiance.”
“For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.”
“And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.”
“For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.”
“Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another.”
“There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”
“Now when he was in Jerusalem at the Passover Feast, many believed in his name when they saw the signs that he was doing. But Jesus on his part did not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people (lit. men) and needed no one to bear witness about man, for he himself knew what was in man. Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews…” John 2:23-3:1
“As a deer pants for flowing streams, so pants my soul for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.” Psalm 42:1-2a
“For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”