On Proof Texting

When I was a young warthog, in college to be precise, I was drinking beer with a co-worker and one of his friends at a little hole-in-the-wall called “Sportsman’s Pub.” I tip my hat to Pr. Ryan Loeslie, who joined me in holding the pool tables there for hours against any challengers. In any case, there sat across from me my coworker’s friend, who had recently become a Buddhist, which is for many Minnesotans in college, as any alumni of its University should be aware of, a relatively common occurrence.

This young man was railing against Christians. He was particularly interested in Christians believing what they were taught without thinking about it. “They only believe it because they were taught it by their parents,” I think is a direct quote.

I challenged him, not about Christians, but about Christianity, and the truth of Christ’s teachings. I said that the Bible is true. I argued something along the lines of there being many witnesses to Christ’s resurrection, and that all other religions only point us inside of ourselves, which is a foolish place to look for truth, while the Bible teaches us the truth about ourselves and about God.

The young man was likely unaccustomed to having his hapless lambasting of Christianity challenged as, eyes widening, he said with as much sincerity as one can detect in another’s voice, “I didn’t mean you! I meant those who just repeat what they are told without thinking. You’re different. You’ve actually thought through what you believe. I respect that.”

I had two responses to this. The first is what I actually said to him: “Just because people aren’t able to explain something doesn’t mean they haven’t accepted it sincerely.” My second response was what I thought in my head, remembering that I wasn’t wrestling against flesh and blood: “Thank you, devil! What a fine compliment! I’m so glad that I have been lifted up above those poor plebian little ones whom Jesus teaches me not to despise. Would you please join me in thanking the God you rebelled against, for not making me like other men, thoughtless and blindly following what God says without ever doubting it?”

Obviously, I want God’s Word to be understood, to be pondered, meditated on, and applied to our lives. Anyone who knows me knows how much I abhor the destruction of children’s imaginations by not giving them anything to think about.

This, however, is not the issue. The issue is what the truth is and who has it. Jesus says, “Of such is the kingdom of God.” He says that about little children. It is the Pharisees who want to silence the children from singing, “Hosanna!” to Jesus. “They don’t know what they’re saying! They’re just repeating the praises of their parents!”

The Pharisees were attacking the true doctrine about Christ. They attacked the truth by attacking the ignorant and weak. But they were not ignorant. God has made foolish the wisdom of the world and says, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them.” He is indignant at those who would say that laying his hands on the children’s heads and his words spoken to their little minds would be a waste of his time. On the contrary, they are worthy of his time more than we grown-ups are. His Father laughs at the rulers of the earth who set themselves against Christ, and Christ is opposed to those who would silence the little children for confessing what is true.

I have heard the cry against “proof-texting” from many in my life. “You just cite one passage without context!” I have heard it from earnest theologians urging us to learn how to defend the truth. But more often I have heard it from those who claim there is a greater context only to deny the truth that the “proof-passage” demonstrates.

Jesus uses proof-passages all the time. In fact, he teaches us to live by them when he teaches us His prayer, “Our Father, who art in heaven…” He begins our new life and faith in Him with a simple proof passage, “I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”

There is all our confidence. There is all our salvation. A simple Christian who works at Burger King can rely on that passage, unable to show himself eloquent or conversant in all the intricate arguments the devil has against these words, but nevertheless fully protected by these same words. He’s baptized into God. He knows who God is. Christ is his Savior. He knows the Father in the Son by the Holy Spirit. “Whoever believes and is baptized shall be saved.” This verse proves it. He accepts it because God said it to him.

The world considers the opinions of men to be on par with the Word of God. She gets angry when we don’t give credence to her arguments. It is good for us to learn to defend the truth against Satan’s lies, but it is not good for us to criticize Christ’s little ones who sing “Hosanna” without the ability to explain to the world’s satisfaction why they can do this. We don’t get our confession or our ability to confess from the world or our intellect. There is a simple reason for this. We didn’t get our faith by our own reason or strength. The Holy Spirit called us by the Gospel in baptism and continues to call us, poor sinners, with no strength in our wills or wisdom in our minds that could bring God to us or the truth closer to our hearts. But the Lord and Giver of life can and has and does bring God to us when he makes us like little children who are Christ’s model theologians in the kingdom of heaven.

By all means, learn the context, but don’t you give up that proof text. Without going into much detail about what exactly He meant when His Spirit spoke by the prophets, Jesus said, “The Scripture cannot be broken.” The only explanation He gives is, “If he called them gods to whom the Word of God came” (cf. John 10).

And there is the truth. The simple and smallest Word of God gives to the smallest, the least of Christ’s little ones, the right to be called the children of God and makes them partakers of the divine nature. And they have the right, they have the desire, they cannot but confess this truth. Not even Satan can silence them.

We desire people to understand and argue and convince. Let us never let this pious desire result in despising the true faith of Christ’s little ones who believe what God has said to them.

About Pastor Mark Preus

Mark Preus is pastor of St. Andrew’s Lutheran Church and Campus Center in Laramie, WY. He graduated from Concordia Theological Seminary in Fort Wayne with an M.Div. in 2008 and then obtained an M.A. in Classics at the University of KS in 2010. He was ordained at Faith Lutheran Church, Wylie, TX in August of 2010. He has been married to Becky since 2005. God has graciously given them four daughters and five sons. Pr. Preus loves to read and write poetry, especially Lutheran hymns, and talk theology with anybody who has an ear to listen. He also likes coffee too much and tobacco too much, as well as microbrew beer. He can also prove with reasonable certainty that Paul Gerhardt wrote most of his hymns while smoking and drinking beer.

You can find more of Pr. Preus's writings at his blog.


On Proof Texting — 8 Comments

  1. Thank you, Pastor Preus. It is always a joy, when you hear the Gospel proclaimed so clearly. The Gospel is a many faceted jewel, but each facet shines with the same light.
    Peace and Joy!
    George A. Marquart

  2. The biggest travesty to me is when “whomever” decided that adding numbers to the bible text would be instrumental is the teaching for the scriptures. The problem is the catch 22. It definitely helped in searching the scriptures for reference purposes but the travesty lays in making each verse the absolute Holy Gospel, when it isn’t. THat’s why context is King and not many verses can stand up to the scrutiny of being absolute gospel standing by itself.

  3. FWIW from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chapters_and_verses_of_the_Bible :

    Since at least 916 the Tanakh has contained an extensive system of multiple levels of section, paragraph, and phrasal divisions that were indicated in Masoretic vocalization and cantillation markings. One of the most frequent of these was a special type of punctuation, the sof passuq, symbol for a full stop or sentence break, resembling the colon (:) of English and Latin orthography. With the advent of the printing press and the translation of the Bible into English, Old Testament versifications were made that correspond predominantly with the existing Hebrew full stops, with a few isolated exceptions. Most attribute these to Rabbi Isaac Nathan ben Kalonymus’s work for the first Hebrew Bible concordance around 1440.

    The first person to divide New Testament chapters into verses was Italian Dominican biblical scholar Santi Pagnini (1470–1541), but his system was never widely adopted. His verse divisions in the New Testament were far longer than those known today. Robert Estienne created an alternate numbering in his 1551 edition of the Greek New Testament which was also used in his 1553 publication of the Bible in French. Estienne’s system of division was widely adopted, and it is this system which is found in almost all modern Bibles. Estienne produced a 1555 Vulgate that is the first Bible to include the verse numbers integrated into the text. Before this work, they were printed in the margins.

    The first English New Testament to use the verse divisions was a 1557 translation by William Whittingham (c. 1524–1579). The first Bible in English to use both chapters and verses was the Geneva Bible published shortly afterwards in 1560. These verse divisions soon gained acceptance as a standard way to notate verses, and have since been used in nearly all English Bibles and the vast majority of those in other languages.

  4. Thank you, Brother Preus, for defending a legitimate and salutary aspect of our catechesis. Has it ever occurred to those who belittle “proof-texting” that those who have listed the Bible verses after individual statements of the faith KNOW the context? Don’t they know that the LCMS catechisms of 1943 and 1991 are text books that are to be taught by teachers who know the context? The attack against proof-texting as you have indicated here is Satan’s ploy to deprive the Church of an effective method of teaching its faith (fides quae creditur).

  5. The misuse of providing proof texts (usually involving misquoting or twisting the text out of context) should not cast a shadow on its proper use. There is no passage in scripture that sinful man cannot pervert, likewise we know that God’s word is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. Through the Holy Spirit the word of god brings us to faith, maintains us in that faith, and sanctifies is through the living word of Jesus Christ.

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