Jan31ThuProof-texting is antithetical to the gospel. January 31, 2019 by Donald E. Burke
When I was in Grade 9, my English teacher guided my class through Shakespeare’s play The Merchant of Venice. At a critical point in the play, one of Shakespeare’s characters says, “The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose.” I remember being surprised by this statement. It has haunted me ever since. But as I have reflected on this claim in the intervening years, I have concluded that Shakespeare actually got it right. The devil—or any one of us—can indeed cite Scripture to serve just about any purpose and support just about any position.
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That’s the problem with the Bible. Disputes over difficult theological and ethical issues are often fought by competing sides firing volleys of proof-texts at one another, trying to score cheap points and give their pet positions the appearance of scriptural authority. Even the devil, in Matthew 4:1-11, tests Jesus by quoting from Psalm 91. For his part, Jesus quotes a different verse back to the devil. Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness became a battle of biblical proof-texts.
The same battle continues to this day. A few months ago, a prominent American politician cited Romans 13 and Paul’s injunction to obey the laws of the Roman government to support the detention of refugees who enter the United States illegally, as well as the separation of children from their parents while in detention. On the other side of the controversy, there were those who cited the Old Testament prophets’ injunctions to care for the widow, orphan and alien (that is, the non-citizen who lived in Israel) to argue that such treatment of refugees is immoral and unchristian. How is one to decide such a complex issue when different biblical passages can be deployed to support competing positions?
The problem is not limited to this one issue. In fact, we can find verses in the Bible to support almost any viewpoint on most contentious issues. On matters of economics, legal issues and sexuality, it is possible to cite biblical passages that seem to contradict one another and support incompatible perspectives. I can even find a verse in some translations of the Book of Job that supports my distaste for eggs!
So if Scripture is so easily deployed to support almost any viewpoint and even the purposes of the devil, how can we even begin to use the Bible to discern a Christian way forward? Or to assist our discernment on matters of Christian faith and practice? I have several suggestions.
Check Your Motivation
First, finding a verse in the Bible to support a particular position, viewpoint or action is not sufficient justification for that position, viewpoint or action. In fact, because I believe that the Bible is God’s Word and not my word, my general stance is that finding a random verse or passage to support an opinion I already hold likely leads to the distortion of Scripture. The Bible is not a tool to support our viewpoints, but rather a means through which God shapes and corrects us.
That’s the point of the statement we read in 2 Timothy 3:16-17: “All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work” (NRSV). The purpose of Scripture in its entirety and in its smallest passages is the cultivation of our Christian faith. Scripture—rightly interpreted—informs us, corrects us and trains us in the ways of God in the world. The goal of reading Scripture is to prepare and equip us for service of God and our neighbour.
So when I find a verse that supports a viewpoint or attitude I already hold, I automatically suspect that I am hearing my voice rather than the Word of God. At the very least I have to consider the possibility that my own prejudice is muting God’s instruction. I tend to suspect my own motivations and take seriously their ability to distort my reading of Scripture.
Context is Everything
Second, because the devil can cite Scripture for his own purpose, we have to move beyond citing individual proof-texts from the Bible. We can find helpful guidance from within our own tradition as Wesleyans and Salvationists. Over his lifetime, John Wesley argued that any individual passage in the Bible should be interpreted within the context of what he called “the general tenor of Scripture.” What this means is that it is not individual proof-texts that have real authority; it is rather the general message, tone, instruction and purpose of Scripture that should guide our interpretation of individual passages. The meaning of individual passages is shaped by the overall message of Scripture, and an interpretation of any passage is compelling to the extent that it is consistent with that message.
Further, for Wesley, the purpose of Scripture was to stir Christians toward greater love for God and greater love for neighbour. Think about that for a moment. Perhaps that’s a standard of interpretation that will help us. How does our interpretation and application of our favourite proof-text or passage of Scripture, whatever it is, cultivate in us greater love for God and for our neighbour? If it doesn’t, then we probably need to step back and take a deep breath. We need to reconsider our interpretation and entertain the possibility that we are hearing our own word rather than the Word of God.
When I hear Christians citing individual verses of the Bible to support a position, I am skeptical. I ask whether this interpretation is consistent with the general tenor of Scripture. Does it stir up the love of God and the love of our neighbour?
The Living Word
Third, the interpretation of Scripture must always be done under the guidance and direction of the Holy Spirit. As Christians, we affirm that God not only inspired the Bible as it was written, but also that God continues to inspire the Scriptures as we read and interpret them. If we are to hear the words of Scripture as the Word of God, then we must do our best to ensure that our ears and hearts are attuned to the Holy Spirit. This requires that we be shaped and formed in our faith and by the Spirit. The words on the page are lifeless until God breathes life into them as we listen to them. Good people read the Bible well when they are guided by the Holy Spirit.
Finally, while the devil may be able to cite Scripture, the real test is whether we can live it. The value of citing proof-texts pales in comparison with the value of actually living out what we are taught in the Bible. That, it seems to me, is the real test of the validity of our interpretation of the Scriptures. Do we cite proof-texts or do we live according to the Scriptures?
Dr. Donald E. Burke is a professor of biblical studies at Booth University College in Winnipeg.
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