Tuesday, 1 November 2016

The Problem with Drawing Conclusions from a Few Bible Proof Texts

It is very common to hear people quoting a few Bible texts to try to prove a point.

What happens is that someone wants to persuade others that Scripture teaches a certain thing. So they find two or three biblical texts whose most natural interpretation seems to support their view. Then they quote these passages, and claim that they have proved what the Bible teaches.

The most natural interpretation is not always the right one

There is, however, a huge problem with this whole way of doing things. Importantly, it is not the case that biblical passages should always be interpreted according to the most natural sense of the words. This means that a few passages, if taken by themselves, could potentially give a misleading impression.

I suspect that some Christians who have read what I have just said will think that I must be mistaken, and would want to argue in this way:

God loves us and has given us the Bible for our good. So surely He doesn’t want it to be misleading. Therefore, if we are reading correctly, the most natural sense of any biblical passage should always be the right one.

I admit that this argument does at first sight seem to be very plausible. Nevertheless, it simply doesn’t fit with what we actually find in the Bible itself. If we look closely at what is in Scripture, there should be no doubt that sometimes the most natural interpretation of a passage is not the correct one.

Here are some examples of this:

Luke 16

In Luke 16:15 Jesus states: 
“That which is highly valued by people is hateful in God’s sight.” 
(Scripture quotations in this article are my own translations of the Greek text.)

It is not reasonable to take these words in their most natural way. If we did, we would have to say that everything that the majority of people value highly is hateful to God. But that is obviously not the case. We can think of many things that most people greatly value and that God actually approves of. For instance, helping someone who has been hurt in an accident is just one of many examples that could be given.

In the culture of Jesus and the biblical authors, it was customary to allow for unexpressed exceptions to a statement much more than we are used to in modern Western culture. So it is not a forced interpretation that allows for many exceptions to what Jesus says here.

Interpreting in this way, then, is not a particularly unnatural way of taking Jesus’ words. But it is certainly not the most natural way.

John 14

In John 14:11-12 Jesus says: 
11 Believe Me that I am in the Father and the Father is in Me.  Otherwise believe because of the deeds themselves. 
12 Truly, truly, I tell you, the person who believes in Me, the deeds that I do, he will do also . . .” 
The deeds of Jesus that He refers to in these verses surely include the miracles that He is found performing throughout John’s Gospel, as commentators widely agree.

So it would be a mistake to take these words of Jesus in v. 12 in their most natural way. If we did, we would have to say that every Christian should work the sorts of miracles that He Himself worked. However, that would contradict other biblical passages, especially 1 Corinthians 12:9-10, 28-29.

Instead, the idea in these words of v. 12 seems to be that being a believer in Jesus is all the qualification that people need in and of themselves to work miracles. For someone to actually work a miracle, God would still need to take the extra step of granting the ability to perform the miracle in that specific case. But believing in Christ qualifies us to potentially work miracles if God enables us. 

Understanding Jesus’ words in this way is not a forced interpretation. But it is definitely not the most natural interpretation either.

Colossians 1

In Colossians 1:19-20 Paul writes: 
19 For in Him [i.e., Christ] all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 20 and through Him to reconcile all things to Himself, having made peace by the blood of His cross – whether things on earth or things in the heavens.” 
In this passage Paul explicitly says that God was pleased “to reconcile all things to Himself.” And the “all things” he has in mind are described as “things on earth or things in the heavens.” There can be no doubt that he is including human beings in what is talking about. So the most natural reading of this passage is that all human beings will be reconciled to God through Christ.

However, Paul cannot have meant that, since it would contradict so much else in his letters. See, e.g., Romans 2:5, 9; 2 Corinthians 2:15-16; Galatians 6:8; Philippians 1:28; 3:19; 1 Thessalonians 1:10; 2 Thessalonians 1:6-9.

Instead, he must mean that all things will be reconciled to God apart from one unexpressed, exceptional group of beings, comprising some people and some angels, that will experience eternal destruction.

Given how the Bible often allows for unexpressed exceptions to things, this is not a forced interpretation of Paul’s words. But it is certainly not the most natural interpretation of them.

1 John 3

In 1 John 3:6 we are told: 
“No one who abides in Him [i.e., Jesus] sins. No one who sins has seen Him or known Him.” 
If we were to take these words in their most natural way, we would have to conclude that they are telling us that Christians live perfect lives. But this would contradict many other biblical passages. See, e.g., Matthew 6:12; Luke 11:4; Hebrews 12:1, 7-11; James 3:2; 1 John 1:9.

Instead, this verse contains a striking use of the figure of speech known as hyperbole. This is a term that refers to deliberately exaggerated language that is used for effect and involves no attempt to deceive.

What this verse really means is that relatively speaking and compared to people who do not abide in Jesus, Christians do not sin. The power of God within us draws us away from sinning, even though we will not reach anything close to perfection before death. 

Given how the Bible often uses hyperbolic language, this interpretation of these words is not really an unnatural one. But it is not the most natural one either.

Summing up

I could add many more examples to the above list. But I think I have succeeded in making my point. We should be in no doubt that some biblical passages should not be interpreted according to the most natural sense of the words.

There is a limit to how unnatural the right interpretation can be

Although there are more than a few places in Scripture where the most natural interpretation is not the correct one, there is a limit to how far from the most natural sense it is ever acceptable to go. It is never right to take an extremely unnatural interpretation.

In none of the passages we looked at above, for example, are the interpretations I gave forced. We can see how they fit with the text.

When we are interpreting a biblical passage, then, it is never the case that anything goes. The correct interpretation will never involve forcing things.

Usually the most natural interpretation is the right one

We need to be clear too that the number of passages where we should not interpret the text at face value is relatively few.

If God had inspired the Bible in such a way that the correct meaning was usually at odds with the most natural sense of the words, we would be in real trouble when trying to learn things. Thankfully, He has not done that. A large majority of the time, passages should be taken at face value. And we can be confident that the most natural reading of most passages on any given topic will be in line with the truth.

The potential to be misleading

Nevertheless, we should be in no doubt that there are more than a few places in Scripture where passages should not be taken at face value. And this means that quoting two or three texts according to their most natural sense has the potential to be very misleading. The passages chosen might sometimes be from a small minority of texts in which the most natural reading is not the right one.

Using a few passages to support rather than prove something

Of course, Christians will often want to cite Scripture to try to make a point, even though they don’t have the time or space to deal with every passage on the topic in question. That is perfectly understandable. If someone wants to cite a few texts and say that these help support the case they are making, then fair enough.

However, when there are many passages that are relevant for a topic, it is completely wrong for someone to quote two or three of them and then claim to have proved something. That is going much too far.

A major source of false teaching

I would suggest that the method of citing supposed proof texts that I have been criticizing in this article is one of the major sources of false teaching in the church.

What often happens is that someone finds a few passages that most naturally seem to teach something they want to believe. So they fixate on these passages while ignoring the many others that seem to teach something quite different. And then they spread their false teaching to others.

I think it is highly likely that even some of the main “Christian” heresies stem from this kind of process.

Why has God done this?

Why God chose to create the Bible in such a way that passages should sometimes not be taken at face value is really outside the scope of our discussion in this article. Nevertheless, I will say a few words on this point.

Importantly, I think the ministry of Jesus provides us with a kind of parallel to this feature of Scripture. When we read of Jesus’ ministry in the Gospels, we find that He is sometimes not open and direct about things.

For example, when He is asked a question, He often doesn’t answer it directly. See, e.g., Matthew 26:63-64; Mark 12:15-17; Luke 7:20-23; John 4:9-14; 14:5-7, 22-24; 18:33-36. It seems that Jesus sometimes wanted people to seek truth before finding it.

That is not to deny that Jesus often taught things plainly. But neither can it be denied that He sometimes chose not to make the meaning of His teaching immediately obvious to a casual listener. Instead, He seems at times to have operated in such a way that if people didn’t genuinely try to discover what was true, it was possible for them to reach wrong conclusions.

I think the Bible is similar to this. God has not created it in such a way that everything it teaches is immediately clear. Rather, we need to seek and pray and fight to understand it. And if people don’t do this, God has ordained things so that they will often reach false conclusions.

And, if we ask why God wants people to seek before finding truth, it seems to be part of the system of faith that He has set up in this world, where we believe without seeing and without full proof.

Final words

Regardless of exactly why God has created the Bible in the way He has, the key point I am trying to make in this article is simply that it is wrong to try to prove things by quoting a few biblical texts.

If we are serious about learning truth from Scripture, we need to be balanced, thorough and subtle in our interpretation of it. We need to weigh matters carefully and prayerfully.

Claiming to settle a matter by firing out two or three supposed proof texts, when there are many other passages that are relevant for that topic, is actually to abuse the Bible. And this whole way of doing things should therefore be abandoned.

See also: