The Theology of Proof Texting

Frank Viola, of whose book Reimagining Church I wrote an incomplete review last year, has just posted a link to an online (PDF) version of part of a chapter from an earlier book which he wrote with George Barna, Pagan Christianity. The chapter is called Reapproaching the New Testament: The Bible is Not a Jigsaw Puzzle.

Proof texting is a phenomenon I am very aware of. I know very well how it is used by preachers and others, including bloggers, sometimes apparently allowing them to “prove” almost anything they want to prove from Scripture. I have criticised this approach before; indeed it underlines the fundamentalist approach to the Bible which I discussed in this blog series. But I have never before seen any attempt to justify proof texting theologically. That is not of course what Viola and Barna are doing, but in at the beginning of their chapter (pp. 2-3 of the PDF) they give an interesting explanation of the theology behind it:

The approach most commonly used among contemporary Christians when studying the Bible is called “proof texting.” The origin of proof texting goes back to the late 1590s. A group of men called Protestant scholastics took the teachings of the Reformers and systematized them according to the rules of Aristotelian logic.

The Protestant scholastics held that not only is the Scripture the Word of God, but every part of it is the Word of God in and of itself—irrespective of context. This set the stage for the idea that if we lift a verse out of the Bible, it is true in its own right and can be used to prove a doctrine or a practice.

When John Nelson Darby emerged in the mid-1800s, he built a theology based on this approach. Darby raised proof texting to an art form. In fact, it was Darby who gave fundamentalist and evangelical Christians a good deal of their presently accepted teachings. All of them are built on the proof-texting method. Proof texting, then, became the common way that we contemporary Christians approach the Bible.

As a result, we Christians rarely, if ever, get to see the New Testament as a whole. Rather, we are served up a dish of fragmented thoughts that are drawn together by means of fallen human logic. The fruit of this approach is that we have strayed far afield from the principles of the New Testament church. Yet we still believe we are being biblical.


After an introduction to how the books of the Bible are arranged and divided, Viola and Barna list eight ways in which “We Christians have been taught to approach the Bible”. All of them are varieties of David Ker‘s Alexander’s Sword method. They continue (p. 10):

Now look at this list again. Which of these approaches have you used? Look again: Notice how each is highly individualistic. All of them put you, the individual Christian, at the center. Each approach ignores the fact that most of the New Testament was written to corporate bodies of people (churches), not to individuals.

But that is not all. Each of these approaches is built on isolated proof texting. Each treats the New Testament like a manual and blinds us to its real message.

A bit later they write (p. 12):

You could call our method of studying the New Testament the “clipboard approach.” If you are familiar with computers, you are aware of the clipboard component. If you happen to be in a word processor, you may cut and paste a piece of text via the clipboard. The clipboard allows you to cut a sentence from one document and paste it into another.

Pastors, seminarians, and laymen alike have been conditioned by the clipboard approach when studying the Bible. This is how we justify our man-made, encased traditions and pass them off as biblical. It is why we routinely miss what the early church was like whenever we open up our New Testaments. We see verses. We do not see the whole picture.

There are a few factual errors in the extract. For example, in 1227 Stephen Langton was not “a professor at the University of Paris” but Archbishop of Canterbury; a Wikipedia article suggests that in fact he divided the Bible into chapters in 1205, when, according to another Wikipedia page, he actually was a lecturer in Paris.

But these minor points do not detract from the strong message of this chapter. Viola and Barna clearly show how fundamentally flawed is the typical evangelical approach to Scripture, and so by implication how fundamentally flawed are many of the conclusions derived from it. As evangelicals we really do need to find a better way of understanding the Bible, if our claim to take it as the inspired and authoritative Word of God is to be meaningful and intellectually honest.

14 thoughts on “The Theology of Proof Texting

  1. I like Viola and Barna’s writings on the organic church model. I have been reading your blog now for about a half a year, so I enjoyed now going back and reading the review and interaction with Witherington’s review that you made in earlier blog entries.

  2. I think, Peter, I’ll have to wrap my head around what Barna and Viola define as “typical evangelical approach” to Scripture before diving into this fully. But with toes in water, it seems to me that the premise and conclusions to the premise itself can (and will) be used as a weapon against making use of Scripture, the new problem being that such an argument and “many of the conclusions derived from it” are as well “fundamentally flawed.”

    Does that make sense to you? I’d have to take some time which I don’t have right now to back that all out.

  3. Jay, I’m glad to be helpful.

    Rob, I think I see the issue. It would be very nice to learn that this “typical evangelical approach” is not really so typical. It may be more typically American than British, but I have certainly come across it in England.

    One problem with what I have seen of Frank Viola’s work is that it is largely negative, critique of traditional ways of doing things without offering detailed positive alternatives. Maybe this negativity has been partially rectified in his fourth book From Eternity to Here, which I haven’t read. It should be all the more completely rectified in his planned fifth book, for which he has written this “teaser”:

    In short, after people read books 1,2,3, and 4, the common question I receive is …

    Where do I find this?

    How do I start something like this?

    How is it sustained?

    Is it really possible, and if so, what are the ingredients that make it work?

    The fifth book answers all of these questions in great detail. It’s a tremendously PRACTICAL book. Almost a manual of sorts. That’s all I will say about it right now.

    More will follow in the days to come.

    Unless I have missed it, nothing more has followed yet, in the three months since those words were written. But let’s let Frank Viola get on with writing the book!

    But then I don’t think I would look to Frank for a definitive take on interpreting Scripture. I don’t think that would be his area of strength. I’m keeping my eyes open for a good positive middle way between proof texting and effectively abandoning Scripture as unable to speak to us today.

  4. Shalom Peter,

    I like your site. Gentle wisdom is much more appealing than strident theology.

    In gaining understanding of God’s Word, man has somehow lost kingdom perspective. Kingdom of God is, for all practical purposes, politically incorrect.

    Do you know when believers stopped seeking first the kingdom of God and began focusing on Church and church doctrines?

  5. Thank you, Bill. I can’t precisely answer your question. I know that already while the New Testament was being written there were believers moving in these kinds of directions, who had to be rebuked by the apostles. See for example Colossians 2:16-17 which seems to refer to people more interested in ceremonies than in the kingdom.

  6. Having just read the PDF sample, I must admit that I find it difficult to take anyone seriously who tells me with a straight face that, “The New Testament is made up mostly of the apostle Paul’s letters; in fact, he wrote two-thirds of it.”

    How on earth did they reach that conclusion? (More importantly: do they use similar methods in all their “research”?) Even if we just count the chapters we’d only get about one third down to Paul; a quick page count suggests it’s actually nearer a quarter. Unfortunately, that never-let-facts-interfere-with-an-interesting-theory approach seems pretty typical of the whole thing.

    Thus he refers to eight ways in which “we Christians” have been taught to approach the Bible. However, in over 30 years of being a Christian, I’ve never used any of those, and I doubt I know anyone who has; nor have I ever heard anyone advocate them, let alone teach them.

    So I’m afraid I just don’t get it. Indeed (to quote something you said in your earlier post): “I wonder if my reaction is so different […] because of differences between the British and North American church scenes? In other words, is “American Christianity” really that “fundamentally” different?

  7. John, I did say that there were some errors of fact. Viola and Barna’s main point still stands even though Paul wrote a third or a quarter of the New Testament. Perhaps they meant to write that Paul wrote two-thirds of the letters, which is not quite true by number of letters but an over-estimate from a page count. That would explain these words:

    Look at how your New Testament is arranged. What do you find? Paul’s longest letter appears first. It is Romans.

    But I agree that their approach is not very scholarly. It isn’t intended to be.

    Have you really never heard anyone using any of these eight methods? Never heard anyone

    look for verses that will prove [their] particular doctrine


    look for verses that “preach” well and make good sermon

    If so, what kind of British church circles do you move in? Certainly not at all the ones I do.

  8. Pingback: Gentle Wisdom » Proof texting and communion in one kind: the same kind of error

  9. “If so, what kind of British church circles do you move in? Certainly not at all the ones I do.”

    Well, from what you say, it would seem very sheltered ones, although I do have some experience of both denominational (C&E, URC, Methodist, Baptist, Presbyterian, Elim, Brethren) and non-denominational churches, in a various places where I’ve lived (Isle of Man, Liverpool, Cambridge) or visited (from Inverness in the North to Somerset in the South).

    I suspect that many “church-goers” never open a Bible at all, while others who have some “depth” to their faith at least read (if not study) the Bible occasionally, even if only by following some sort of “devotional notes”. But I really don’t see either group using any of the listed “ways of approaching the Bible”.

    Of course, not only have I heard of people looking for verses (or passages) to support a particular doctrine, I’ve done it myself. Hasn’t everyone? If someone asks why I believe X or Y it’s not very helpful to tell them to go away and read through the entire Bible, they want some indication that what I believe is derived from the Bible. The point is, however, that’s not how I APPROACH the Bible. First, I read it all the way through (more than once) to see what it has to say for itself, and it is while doing so that my “doctrinal position” on various issues gradually adjusts and/or solidifies. Only with that background (having a general understanding of what “the Bible says”) can one pick out particular passages that illustrate those “doctrines” (whether by being taught or by being seen “at work”). To my mind, that’s an entirely different process from the one the linked chapter suggested.

    Similar comments would apply to preaching, although most preachers I’ve listened to regularly have either worked through particular books (warts and all), or (as at present) follow a lectionary and base what they say on what the set passage happens to be.

  10. OK, John, I understand better now what you mean.

    Yes, of course well taught preachers have a good general understanding of the Bible, and of the doctrines found in it, generally as formulated by their own particular church traditions. So when they preach these doctrines and cite as evidence a few proof texts, they are not basing their teaching just on those verses out of context, but also on the teaching they have received and on tradition, as well as on more general Bible reading.

    It is the less well trained preachers, and bloggers, who copy what they hear from the better trained ones and think they can prove doctrines from proof texts apart from that more general Bible reading and apart from any received tradition.

    Of course this also begs the question of how good is the biblical basis of those received traditions, or if they have been derived from proof texting in past centuries. For example, it seems clear to me that Augustine developed his doctrine of original sin by proof texting, based on dubious exegesis, in ways which work against the wider context of the Bible. I described one example of this, Romans 5:12, in a post from two years ago; other verses which Augustine used as proof texts out of context are Psalm 51:5 and (to “prove” that faith is a gift) 1 Corinthians 4:7.

  11. To shed a little more light on the subject, let me present this excerpt from a speech by N. T. Wright

    “From the perspective of these three integrations, we can see how mistaken are the readings of both the neo-Gnostic movement that is so rampant today and the fundamentalism that is its conservative analogue. Indeed, if an outsider may venture a guess, I think the phenomenon of the religious right in the U.S. (we really have no parallel in the United Kingdom) may be construed as a clumsy attempt to recapture the coming together of God and the world, which remains stubbornly in scripture but which the Enlightenment had repudiated, and which fundamentalism itself continues to repudiate with its dualistic theology of rapture and Armageddon.”

    Kingdom come The public meaning of the Gospels June 17, 2008

  12. Bill, I don’t quite see the relevance of this. Are you suggesting that the religious right are into proof texting? Maybe. But I think what is clumsy about their attempt is more that they tend to take principles intended for the Old Testament people of God and mis-apply them to a modern state.

  13. Peter,

    My thought was believers interpret the Bible through the lense of their Biblical Worldview. Those of the religious right who are dispensationalists filter everything through dispensations. As a result they prove the kingdom of God will not come until Jesus returns for the Millennium. They also prove the Jews are still under the Old Covenant and are not prospects for the gospel of the kingdom.

    This is quite a departure from the gospel of the kingdom.

  14. Bill, thanks for the explanation. I have got it now. But you are thinking of a different kind of religious right: not the ones who are trying to impose Old Testament moral standards on modern society, but the even more dangerous ones (but aren’t these the fundamentalists in the Wright quote, not the religious right?) who are trying to provoke Armageddon to bring Jesus back more quickly. Well, their entire dispensationalist edifice is built on proof texting of a kind which is used to overturn the clear thrust of Scripture taken as a whole. Yes, I need to write more to justify that summary.

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