“What does it mean to be biblical?”
My professor asked this question regularly in my Biblical Theology class. The answer seems simple. “If the Bible says it, then it’s biblical”. But does that mean every application of the Bible is ‘biblical’? If you’re quoting the text, it is technically ‘from the Bible’, but that doesn’t make it biblical. Rather, when we use Scripture, we must take it within the context of Scripture itself. We must use a Biblical Theology, something that determines how all the books fit together. I’m not talking directly about dogmatics or systematic theology (though those come into play). I’m talking about how one views the Bible as a whole and in its parts. There’s varying opinions about how the Bible relates to us and itself (the relationship between the New and Old Testament for example). I won’t tackle all of that here (for a helpful book on Biblical Theology, read Klink and Locket’s Understanding Biblical Theology). But part of having a Biblical Theology is having an understanding of how to interpret a single text.
Why We Proof Text
There’s several reasons why we proof text. We may be lazy and not look up the meaning of the passage. We may just want to make a point and a specific passage serves our purpose. We may want to use a passage to prove that scripture is either inconsistent or show that it doesn’t apply to us today. People quote the OT laws to prove that the Bible is outdated, pertains to an older culture, and the most we can get out of it is moral guidance.
Another reason we proof text is part of the the digital generation. We’re used to getting small bits of information. Blogs have replaced the long cherished essays. Tweets are our primary news sources. These things aren’t bad in themselves; I’m a big advocate for Twitter. But they also train us to not do our full research, to look for the immediate piece of information. How often do you read the headline or skim through an article to find the good part? We have so much to consume, that we get a broad and shallow understanding of the world, of the Bible, instead of in depth analysis.
But I think one of the biggest causes of proof texting is a lack of biblical and theological literacy. How well do you know how the Bible fits together? When a pastor reads a passage, or a popular book mentions Paul, do you know the passage they’re talking about? Even if you know the specific passage, do you know the context, its place in Scripture, or the theological truths that guide our interpretation?
Ken Birding recently wrote an article that looks at biblical illiteracy in the church today. It’s not just that people aren’t reading the Bible anymore, it’s that we hardly know it at all! We’re impressed when someone knows the order of all the books of the Bible when we should be able to call to mind where God makes covenants, the works of the prophets, or where Jesus talks about what parable in context. When someone quotes scripture, we should have the context come to the forefront of our minds right away, so we can tell if they’re using it correctly or not. Instead,speakers must present all the necessary context themselves, spoon feeding us hearers and readers.
Often, we not only don’t know the context of a passage, but we don’t even read the passage when it’s quoted! Fred Sanders notes that we skip the Scripture quotations themselves to see what the pastor, writer, or theologian is doing. We’ve gotten to the point that we revere the words of men over the Word of God!
It’s easy to say “I’ve read it before, why should I read it again?” But have you really read that passage? Many of us haven’t read the whole Bible , and one read through isn’t enough. Spurgeon once said that Scripture is “shallow enough for a child to wade in and deep enough to drown an elephant.” Do not be so arrogant to think that you have read it enough to master its infinite depths, but don’t be afraid that you can’t understand anything.
The Dangers of Proof Texting
How many times have you heard people uses verses like these to prove a point:
“Do not judge so that you will not be judged” -Matthew 7:1
“Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved” -Acts 16:31
“And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God” -Romans 8:28
“The women are to keep silent in the churches; for they are not permitted to speak, but are to subject themselves”-I Corinthian 14:34
I could go on, but there are just a few examples. On one level, these verses contain truth in themselves. But often times we use them as proof texts. When someone acts out in the church, they claim that we’re not supposed to judge at all. Why do we need to act Christianly as long as we believe? Won’t everything work out for my own good since I love God? Shouldn’t women just remain silent in church?
All of these are the result of proof texting, of taking verse out of context. That doesn’t mean we can’t quote a single verse of Scripture. The New Testament authors did that all the time. But when we use the Bible, we need to quote it within it’s context.
Recently, I took a class on the New Testament use of the Old Testament. Before, I would just gloss over the scriptural references, I just assumed that they were being used right. It is scripture after all. However, this class made me look at the OT context, and I learned that the NT authors always had the context in mind. This not only showed me that they used it within context, but that the context strengthened their arguments and brought more significance to their use. Proof texting does the exact opposite. It is weakened by the context it is pulled from. Proof texting can sometimes lead to claims that are totally off from the meaning of the text. Even Satan used proof texting.
So how do we avoid proof texting? By using context. Check out my blog next week for a run down of how to read Scripture ‘biblically’, or in context.