- List All

  • Web   The Point


+ Theology/Religion + Culture + Marriage & Family + Politics + Academia + Human Rights
Christianity Blogs - BlogCatalog Blog Directory
Religion Blogs - Blog Top Sites
Link With Us - Web Directory

« The Point Radio: Summer Reading | Main | ’Newsweek’ editor: Obama ’sort of God’ »

June 09, 2009

The Dangers of Proof-Texting and Other Smart Words

Bible2 A few weeks ago, I posted a short blog post about the pictures from the Hubble telescope, the wonders of the universe, and as LeeQuod puts it, "a small dig at the New Atheist types," i.e. the problem of materialism. An interesting discussion ensued. 

Under that post, Rolley recently answered a question posed by Ben W., who had raised the question of the Church's seeming indifference to the problem of slavery. Rolley discusses the problem of proof-texting versus principles, and I thought everyone might benefit from reading his comments.

(Image courtesy of Bible.ca)

AddThis Social Bookmark Button


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference The Dangers of Proof-Texting and Other Smart Words :


Kim Moreland

Hey all, Glenn Sunshine posted a response about the Church and its condemnation of the slave trade on the old post, so make sure to click on the link and read his answer.


A couple of quick thoughts:

1. A long time ago I did a quick study on slavery both in ancient Israel, and in the Roman Empire. I'm no Jason Taylor so I can't repeat it all these years later, but I found it fascinating. Israel in particular had different types of slavery, including one that's the rough equivalent of today's "employee", and several that really meant "someone working off a debt". There was even the touching example of a bond-slave ("doulos", in Greek) who voluntarily served a family, for life, after the debt was paid. In all cases, even foreigners captured in war, the slaves had rights, described in detail in the Bible for each class of slave. Contrast that with how the Romans would use slavery to conquer and assimilate a people, and gave them generally no rights.

2. From what I recall of the works I've read about John Newton, it was Africans who were capturing other Africans and selling them to the Europeans. Often it was tribal retribution. Yet this is uniformly presented as whites enslaving blacks. Somewhere I saw that more blacks had black slaves than whites did, over the centuries. So this was not exclusively a Christian problem.

3. I agree with Rolley that principles are better than proof-texts. My hesitation is that I've been in churches where the principles diverged from Scripture, or were based on poor exegesis, or had convenient exceptions for those in power, etc. And televangelists rely heavily on principles to be able to fleece their flocks. So while principles are better, they're no substitute for continual study of the Scriptures, and prayer, for an individual. In discourse with others, Rolley is spot-on.

Jason Taylor

The Romans were swamped with captives toward the later part of republic. It rather distorted economy and culture. For instance there was much discontent caused by legionaries coming home and finding that their farms had been driven out of production by competing with large plantations.

Roman domestics like most domestics got on better then field laborers and were commonly allowed to moonlight for money to buy their freedom. Some were freed on their masters death and were made heirs-which is likly what the Bible was refering to when it said, "you are no longer servants but sons." It is inefficient(and unsafe when you think about it; when provoked enough the butler might do it after all) to treat domestics too badly slave or free though despite that, it has been common for female ones to be abused and in some cultures it was considered almost part of her duties. But despite things like that it was usually harsher on a field laborer.

State slaves were generally treated worse then private ones and could be used for things like mine work.

Kim Moreland

Isn't it true that they generally died young because of being over worked?

Jason Taylor

Not unlikly. Of course that depended on how much enlightend self-interest the master had. And if the price was low enough for them to be "replaceable".

A considerable number of slaves simply in transit. The Hindu Kush mountains translates as "Hindu Killer" because of all the captives that died while being transported through.

Ben W

A short reply. First, it seems that there are mainly two types of responses to my question: Rolley's answer that we should look to principles, rather than proof texts, and answers that imply that the Bible is silent on the issue because it wasn't as culturally relevant for early Christianity as it was for mid-1800s Americans (apologies if this seems to distort your position, Jason, as I'm not sure if you're simply giving a historical background or making an argument).
The two positions are not necessarily contradictory, but either one can be used to address God's seeming silence on the issues of personal liberties. I I agreed with much of Rolley's beautifully written post, and I think that if you could convince me that embryos were people (or induce a reasonable doubt that they couldn't be), I would be as heartily supportive of limiting abortion as any.


Ben W wrote: "I think that if you could convince me that embryos were people (or induce a reasonable doubt that they couldn't be)"

One of the great pleasures of interacting with you, Ben, is that you are always not only reasonable, but also open-minded.

Consider this case, and tell me what you think:

The difference, in the eyes of the law, is whether or not the organism (to choose a word that is neither child or fetus) is a human is whether or not it has taken its first breath. How does the act of inhaling transmogrify someone into a person? And what is the implication for someone kept alive by a ventilator (as many premature "babies" are)?

And, note that in the news article it's an unborn *what* - throughout the text, the term "fetus" is never used. Why?

Further, consider motive - what did this murderer hope to gain by killing the pregnant woman? What good is a fetus, as such, if you expect it to live - versus something of value to anyone (as a baby is)?

I'm happy in the knowledge that you'll ponder this, and respond with something thoughtful as usual.

jason taylor

Actually Ben that was more a background not an argument.

jason taylor

In any case, I didn't say it wasn't culturally relevant for early(pre-Constantine) Christianity. I said it wasn't as culturally relevant to Medieval Europe.

Ben W

(continuing from where I accidentally hit "post"):

It's also quite true that many Christians focus primarily or solely on revelation through Scripture, which leaves much more limited room for mankind to grow. Likewise, if God "left room for growth" by not including what we now see as major moral issues in the Bible, then the Scripture isn't the "100% complete guidebook", as I heard so often in my youth. On the other hand, I think that if we follow the first two commands to the fullest extent, and search our hearts and minds carefully so as to know our own biases, that we'll do just fine.

This leaves me somewhat confused about the state of Christianity in America, as many of the most conservative Christians are also vehemently anti-welfare. (more on this later)

Rolley, calling Ben W

Ben W,

The question is not whether scripture is the “100% guidebook” – it most certainly is. The question is, how is that guidebook to be used?

Too often we have concluded the bible is chiefly a book of instructions, a “Spirituality for Dummies” handbook, if you will. But think with me – if that were the case, wouldn’t Israel have been ready to meet Jesus the Messiah with open arms when He arrived on the scene? Not a very good instruction book if it instructs almost no one in its most important point.

The bible was written not to prepare the head so much as the heart. By that I mean, God’s intent was not to satisfy the intellect by providing ironclad answers, but to force us to feel our need for a Messiah. And in that regard it did and does a very good job.

Paul alludes to this principle of interpretation in Galatians when he says “But before faith came, we were kept under the law, shut up unto the faith which should afterwards be revealed. Wherefore the law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith.” (Gal 3:23-24).

The law (the OT), Paul says, was given to force us (i.e. to “shut us up”) to the conclusion that we need a Sacrificial Messiah-Lamb to save us from guilt, not an Arnold Schwarzkopf to deliver us from earthly oppressors.

So the question becomes, “how did the bible (the NT) use the bible (the OT)? To be a guidebook? Yes, but much more than that. As Paul declares, the NT sees the OT as, above all, our spiritual tutor to lead us to Christ. That is, it is a compendium of words leading us to the Word par excellence. The most important things God has to say to us cannot be contained or expressed in mere words, in what Paul elsewhere calls “the letter of the law.” They can only be adequately conveyed by a Person, the Word Incarnate, what he calls, “the Spirit”. (See 2 Corinthians 3)

The reason so many Christians to this day are fuzzy on big moral issues like abortion is because they are using the bible as a huge checklist, as if there were a verse or two for every issue that God considers important, and if the verses aren’t there, the issue just isn’t all that important.

But in so doing, they stumble over the letter of the law, just like James and John did when they said, “Lord, wilt thou that we command fire to come down from heaven, and consume them, even as Elias did?” You will recall that Jesus “turned, and rebuked them, and said, Ye know not what manner of spirit ye are of.” (Luke 9:54-55) Now note -- James and John were faithful to the letter of the law, trying as they were merely to follow biblical precedent. But Jesus said they missed the spirit – the point, the true intent, the essential message of the scriptures, and that is, as you rightly discerned, Ben (to your everlasting credit) – namely, that “the whole law is fulfilled in one word/Word, that thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.” (Galatians 5:14) James and John, like so many of us, follow the letter of the law, but not the Life of the Lawgiver, and yet that was the whole point of the law in the first place!

So, if it is true that, as you said, “many of the most conservative Christians are also vehemently anti-welfare” (which I will take the liberty of equating with being “vehemently uncompassionate”), then the fault lies not with the scriptures, but with the way the scriptures are being used. We’ve mastered the letter of the law, but we’ve missed the spirit.

In the final analysis, there are only two commandments, and they are alike -- love God and people above all. That is the whole Word of God to us condensed, and paradoxically, shed abroad, in a Single Life -- Jesus. And if that is the message, if that is the spirit of the law, if that is the point of the scriptures and the life, death and resurrection of Christ, then how can we as followers of Love Incarnate not be passionate about Love's responsibilities, with or without a verse of scripture, a proof-text, to validate our passion and compassion? If we have to have a proof-text for everything, then how do we differ from those who live according to the letter of the law, which incidentally Paul says, not only does very little good, it actually "kills". (2 Cor 3:6)

And we wonder how Christianity in America has permitted 50 million plus abortions.

Jason Taylor

Anti-welfare is an argument against policy not against genorousity, Ben. It is believed that welfare is often inefficiant, and creates a dangerous dependancy that not only threatens the general morale of the public but is likly to keep the poor in their state permanantly by taking away incentive toward improvment. As well as giving a dangerous ammount of power to the government in areas outside it's jurisdiction.

Now you can disaggree with that, and that would be fine. But to talk(as presumably you don't but many do, Ben)as if Christians are against compassion for the poor because many are against welfare is a false accusation and a most irritating one. Government welfare and compassion are not synonomous.

In any case it is a conservative position not a specifically Christian position per se. A Christian Conservative is against welfare because he is at the same time a political conservative not a Christian.

Jason Taylor

To compare with your "vehemantly anti-welfare" thing ask yourself what you would think if I said you must not have compassion for starving peasants because you are not in favor of conquering and re-imperialising Africa? It is obvious that any charitable venture can only help individuals. And it seems equally obvious that the only way to actually stop the problem instead of bandaging it is to replace the current order. But you and I would both see doing such a thing on such a scale as both impractical and immoral. But should I say that you are pro-famine because you are anti-imperialist?

Ben W

LeeQuod, I certainly don't believe that fetii/embryii have no value, only that the value is more subjective than living human beings. Of course, the article is emphasizing the barbarism and outrage of the crime, and it would be insensitive to the parents to call the unborn baby a "fetus". The crime itself was horrible - a woman kills a pregnant woman and cuts out the baby to call it her own? Why bother trying to consider the reasoning behind this crime? There is no reason; it was done out of insanity or extreme jealousy.

I don't believe that the act of breathing transmogrifies an human-DNA'ed organism into a person, but that there is no personhood without at least a somewhat developed brain. I think you may also be confused about "the eyes of the law", since Roe v. Wade certainly doesn't say that first breath is when a person becomes a human. Prior to RvW, the laws differed by state. After RvW, the legality of abortions has to do with the three trimesters: in the first, states cannot interfere with a woman's access to abortions, in the second, the state can regulate abortions "in ways that are reasonably related to maternal health", and in the third the state can choose to restrict abortions of a viable fetus except where it endangers the life of the mother.

The law puts the rights on the side of the mother, up until the child becomes viable - not until the child becomes of a certain mental level.

"But", you might say, "what about babies that are kept alive on ventilators"? Generally, the law also considers them viable. And although it might seem that with medical advances, we will be able to keep a fetus alive outside of the womb at earlier and earlier stages, 20 weeks is as far as we will ever consistently get with a ventilator - before 20 weeks, the lungs have barely developed. If we can someday keep an embryo alive from conception in a machine.. well, that certainly would raise other ethical questions.


Ben W wrote: "...there is no personhood without at least a somewhat developed brain."

(insert snarky comment about some politicians failing to qualify)

So, Ben, I need a bottom line from you - a second trimester human organism killed inside a woman's body by an abortionist is not a person, so it's not murder, but that same organism killed while lying in a bed in a neonatal intensive care unit *is* a person, so it *is* murder?

Rolley Haggard

First, let me say in all seriousness and humility that I am not worthy to be Chuck Colson’s footstool. And I mean that.

But that said, even as I might enter into lively conversation with my own wise and beloved father, so I, indirectly by means of this post, would submit the following response to Chuck’s 6/17/09 BreakPoint commentary (“In His Image”), which, if you will patiently bear with me, I think is apropos, if a bit laggard, to the fast-becoming-ancient discussion here.

The point I would again make is that principles can be much more powerful and effective than proof-texts in clarifying our Christian duty and privileges.

Let me illustrate (or at least try to) from Chuck’s commentary.

Chuck (and many others) often make(s) the point that (quoting from his commentary), “Because we are created in the image of God, human life is sacred.”

This is so, so true. But it is also weak. Weaker than it should be. Weaker than it needs to be. Weak, because it depends for its persuasive power chiefly on proof-texts such as Genesis 1:27, 9:26 etc, whose full import is tantalizingly obscure. The apostle Paul said, “if the trumpet does not sound a clear call, who will get ready for battle?” (1 Cor 14:8).

On the other hand, there is a stunningly clear principle that is “mighty through God to the pulling down of strongholds”. (2 Cor 10:4) That principle is found in the cross.

I’ll re-introduce that principle, which I’ve discussed before, with a question. Those of you who are parents -- do you love your son or daughter, even the wayward ones, because they are made in the image of God? Or do you love them because they are infinitely precious?

You don’t even have to think twice to know the answer to that.

What is my point? Just this – we all instinctively sense that at least some human beings are sacred. But how do we know for sure that God Himself considers all human life to be sacred? Not chiefly because a proof-text here and there hints at, suggests or implies it. We know human life is sacred -- we know that people are infinitely precious -- because what is written on our hearts is affirmed and proven by the cross of Christ where, as the Second Adam, Jesus died for the whole human race.

Proof-texts fail to prove it because nowhere do we find a verse that says, “people are infinitely precious to God.” But better than all the proof-texts that can be marshaled, we have the principle, enshrined in the unequivocal message of the cross that God literally, LITERALLY, loves us more than His own life.

Can anyone credibly deny that that is the literal message, the essential principle, of the cross? And yet how often is that statement, in undiluted form, found in any of our confessions? How often is it sounded from our pulpits? How often is it the theme of a song or a testimony or a topic in our small-group meetings? How often does the statement proceed from our lips or enter our ears that “God loves us more than His own life”? Do we fear we might overstate God’s love? Do we fear that because we don’t have a proof-text to back it up we are going beyond what is written, going beyond what God has revealed, going beyond what God has declared?

If so, we are like the Alaskan tourist who narrowly escaped being mauled by a grizzly bear. “Didn’t I tell you to pay close attention to the sign?” the exasperated park ranger asked him. “The sign said, “Watch out for Bears”!

“I WAS paying close attention to the sign,” the tourist replied. “That’s why I didn’t see the grizzly bear.”

To date our strongest arguments regarding the sacredness of human life – namely that we are created in the imago Dei – are inadequate to inspire in us the same value for human beings that God has because they are based on proof-texts that were intended to point away from themselves to the mighty cross.

Enshrined in the cross is the principle that God loved us, and loves us, literally more than His own life. That is how precious every human being is to God. Knowing that, we need no proof-texts to inspire and buttress our passion to defend the unborn, to rally against slavery and human trafficking, to oppose embryonic stem-cell research, euthanasia, social injustice, or any other phenomenon inimical to the life, health, dignity and well-being of any person.

The cross, far more than proof-texts, says that God cares about one thing – people. To be lucid on everything but this is to get the letter but miss the spirit of all revelation.

If this is not true, then someone, please, put me in my place. But if it is true, why are we sounding a muted trumpet?

Kim Moreland

Wow, Rolley, what powerful words and I think you've nailed it.

The comments to this entry are closed.