Question: What is “proof-texting” and a “proof text”? Are these positive or negative terms (i.e., when we use them to describe ministry of the Word of God)?

The term “proof text” has an underlying positive meaning (but some negative connotations), while the activity of “proof-texting” carries mostly negative connotations. In other words, these terms function rather like the words “love” or “hate.” On the one hand, love expresses the finest form of devotion to God and care for another human being. And “hate” is part of God’s call for us to become like him: we are to hate what is evil (Romans 12:9). On the other hand, “love” can also bear a freight of negative meanings and negative connotations—standing for infatuation, or for sexual lust, or for devotion to anything from chocolate-chip brownies to violence. And to “hate” another person is the gravest of sins. The particular meaning of a word or a term arises in the context of the sentence or paragraph, in the context of the author’s intention or tone of voice. In irony, for example, a word means its exact opposite: “I just love it when someone gossips about me.”

The positive meaning of “proof text” captures how both Christian truth and wise ministry orient to the details of Scripture. So, when our Lord says, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and all your soul, and all your mind, and all your might, and you shall love your neighbor as yourself,” he gives us a “proof text” for the goal of wise living. This specific text helps you to remember what life is all about. Similar passages make the same point in various ways, adding various nuances and implications: e.g., 1 Timothy 1:5, Galatians 5:6,1 John 3:23, and, on a different scale, the combination of 150 Psalms (focusing largely on relationship to God) and the 31 chapters of Proverbs (focusing largely on relationships with others). These are proof texts that directly express one central theme of the entire Bible.

The negative meaning of “proof-texting” describes when a passage is pulled out of its context, meaning, and purpose, and is used improperly. Grotesque examples are easy to come up with. Some people use the Bible as a magic book of guidance (the equivalent of a deck of Christian tarot cards): “When I was deciding where to move, I flipped my Bible open and pointed, and my finger landed on Revelation 2:7, so I moved to Philadelphia.” Or Scripture is viewed as an exhaustive encyclopedia containing all knowledge: “In Psalm 102:4, the Bible teaches us about anorexia, and shows that anorexia is God’s judgment on a person.” Or a scriptural narrative is wrenched to presumably teach a normative message: “Just as Nehemiah first explored the broken-down walls of Jerusalem, so counselors should first explore the brokenness and pain of counselees,” or “The 10 unfaithful spies suffered from low self-esteem because they felt like grasshoppers compared to the people in the land of Canaan.” (I’m not making up any of these examples!)

More significantly, you will encounter countless subtler examples of proof-texting in the negative sense—whenever Scripture is misinterpreted or misused. For example, Genesis 1–2 describes God’s foundational call to fruitful, meaningful work and to fruitful oneness in marriage. It presumes that human beings are active agents. But in the wider Christian counseling world, this passage has often been used to justify an “empty-self” theory of psychological needs: “Genesis 1–2 shows that we all have a psychological need for a sense of significance and for a sense of being loved. Jesus meets these unmet needs.” In this case, the Bible’s description of our active call is inverted into a theory of passive emptiness. The human heart is reinterpreted as an empty repository of needs to be filled, rather than an active verb heading either in the right direction or the wrong direction.

Proof-texting can also happen when Christians seek to help and encourage other strugglers. In principle, wise biblical counseling will seek to unfold the specific, wide-ranging relevance of Scripture to life’s problems. But when someone “throws a Bible verse at a problem,” the criticism of proof-texting is just. Scripture is not being used wisely.

Let me give an example of how the same Bible text can be used either in a proof-texting way or in wise application. The phrase “Trust the Lord” is the deepest of all wise counsels. (The Scriptures call, invite, and command us to trust God in a hundred different ways. And God’s show-and-tell gives innumerable reasons to trust him. And the sins and sorrows of life are such that trust in God is our only hope.) But these words can be misused by “proof-texting” with a person who is struggling. Most of us have heard or overheard someone saying to a struggler, “You just need to trust the Lord,” as if that were all that needs to be said or can be said. Usually, more needs to be said for the relevance of this sweetest of counsels to be understood. Consider how this call, command, and exhortation can be used in a richer way that avoids the pitfall of “proof-texting.”

For example, scores of psalms call us to trust the Lord. As they do so, they always “locate” that call, so that it does not hang in a vacuum. They portray life’s troubles, inviting us to map our experience onto the psalmist’s experience. They recognize our temptation to forget God, to sin, or to be crushed under awareness of suffering or guilt. They reveal things about God that invite our heartfelt trust. They walk out how trusting God thinks, feels, talks, and acts. These details of how God meets us in our internal struggles and external troubles give the command a context. This makes the call to “trust the Lord” directly relevant and life-rearranging.

Or consider how Proverbs 29:25 puts things: “The fear of man lays a snare, but he who trusts the Lord is safe.” This sentence orients us to one of the heart’s instinctive disloyalties (we tend to take our cues from the opinions of other people). It orients us to the negative consequences of a false trust (life gets very complicated, tangled, and confused). It orients us to the Lord as the person in whom we will find flourishing and safety (the backdrop of promises and revelations of God in the rest of Scripture). And, by implication, many other significant factors can be reckoned with in learning how to take this passage to heart, e.g.,

  • the particular people or situations that you find difficult or intimidating,
  • the particular destructive emotions, thoughts, words, and actions that come forth when you misplace your core loyalty,
  • the particular ways that faith can now respond constructively to intimidating people and situations,
  • an understanding of your past that illumines when, how, and where patterns of fear of man became fixed characteristics,
  • an ability to anticipate future situations so that you can wisely and prayerfully plan how you want to respond,
  • the reasons for exceeding joy and gratitude as your Savior and Lord works to set you free of crippling patterns of fear.

The application of this call to trust the Lord becomes meaningfully located in your entire life context.

So, should we proof-text? No. But should we orient our lives to proof texts? Yes and amen.