When I was in college, it was common for each professor to hand out a syllabus outlining and summarizing his course. I remember one syllabus in particular, which included a statement something like this: "Show up for class every day, and you will pass this course." I thought, "That sounds simple enough. I don’t often skip class anyway, so I guess I’m guaranteed an easy passing grade."
I could show up for class every day, I thought, and work on whatever pressing homework I had in my other courses. This course’s class period could become a study hall of sorts since all I had to do in order to pass was to "show up" every day. I could even use some of the time to catch up on sleep when my homework was finished. If the professor attempted to fail me at the end of the course, I could simply show him where his own words guaranteed me a passing grade just for showing up.
Of course, my thinking was foolish. There were many requirements for passing the course; the professor’s exhortation to come to class was simply intended to instill in the students the impact his lectures would have in learning the material necessary to pass the course. It was not a guarantee of a passing grade. But it was surely the professor’s experience that those who attended class regularly had a much higher pass rate than those who did not.
This story has parallels in modern day apologetics.
"Proof" in Chapter and Verse
As an apologist at Catholic Answers, I often talk to non-Catholics who question various teachings of the Catholic Church. It is not uncommon for such a person to bring up a Bible verse—the textual "proof" of his assertion—which he firmly believes invalidates whatever Church teaching may be in question.
For example, when questioning Church teachings about the importance of works in the life of a Christian, a verse we frequently hear to refute those teachings is this one: "Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved" (Acts 16:31). This verse is then followed up with comments expressing the person’s understanding that that’s all there is to it—believe in Jesus and you’re assured of going to heaven. After all, the Bible is the inerrant word of God: If that’s what the Bible says, then that’s all we need to know—a simple-but-certain guarantee of salvation for believing.
When I hear such an argument, I can’t help but remember my college syllabus and wonder if the person might imagine himself some day standing at the pearly gates with that verse on his tongue ready to tell St. Peter, "I believed in the Lord Jesus so I have guaranteed entry into heaven." Would St. Peter then reply, "What about everything else the Bible says? Did you apply all that in your life, too?" Actually, instead of Peter, it might be Jesus who says, "I never knew you; depart from me, you evildoer" (Matt. 7:23).
You see, this is the danger of erroneously understanding and inappropriately quoting a Bible verse or passage without considering its full meaning in proper context. This is proof texting in a bad way.
When explaining the possible hazards of proof texting from the Bible, I sometimes use an obvious, extreme example of bad proof texting to make my point. For example, according to Scripture, "There is no God."
That’s it. I guess we can close our Bibles and go home now because the Bible itself tells us that there is no God. It’s right there in Psalm 14.
Of course, if you open your Bible back up and read the verse in its entirety, a whole new contextual understanding is revealed: "The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God’" (Ps. 14:1; see also Ps. 10:4; 53:1; 2 Kgs. 5:15).
Those first six words put a completely different spin on the stand-alone phrase "There is no God"—you’re a fool if that’s what you believe!
Context is Key
The first thing to consider when someone quotes a proof text in a bad way is the immediate context within which the text appears. For example, in the case of the person who quotes "Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved" (Acts 16:31), let’s look at that verse within its full context (Acts 16:25-34):
[A]bout midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them, and suddenly there was a great earthquake, so that the foundations of the prison were shaken; and immediately all the doors were opened and every one’s fetters were unfastened. When the jailer woke and saw that the prison doors were open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, supposing that the prisoners had escaped. But Paul cried with a loud voice, "Do not harm yourself, for we are all here." And he called for lights and rushed in, and trembling with fear he fell down before Paul and Silas, and brought them out and said, "Men, what must I do to be saved?" And they said, "Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household." And they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all that were in his house. And he took them the same hour of the night, and washed their wounds, and he was baptized at once, with all his family. Then he brought them up into his house, and set food before them; and he rejoiced with all his household that he had believed in God.
When we read the whole story in which the proof text appears, we see that Paul went on to teach the gospel to the jailer and his family and then baptized them all. Clearly, simply to believe in Jesus was not all that Paul had in mind. Belief in this context required at least being baptized. This is probably why Paul "spoke the word of the Lord" to them, to teach them what it really means to believe in Jesus, i.e., to follow his commands.
More than the Sum of Its Parts
Sometimes considering the immediate context of a proof text isn’t sufficient to understand it fully. In such a case we can sometimes cite other proof texts to prove that the original passage is not best understood as a stand-alone quotation. To this end it might help to point out that Jesus, quoting Deuteronomy 8:3, emphasized the importance of all of God’s word: "It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God’" (Matt. 4:4). If the Bible is the word of God, then every word of it must be important, and we must consider all of it together as a whole. We must be careful not to single out just bits and pieces of it to formulate our faith.
Going back to the proof text "Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved," we can look to other places in Scripture which also discuss what is necessary for salvation to see the fuller picture of what is required.
For example, consider these verses:
- Not every one who says to me, "Lord, Lord," shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven (Matt. 7:21).
- [H]e who endures to the end will be saved (Matt. 10:22; see also 24:13; Mark 13:13).
- He who believes and is baptized will be saved (Mark 16:16).
- [U]nless you repent you will all likewise perish (Luke 13:3).
- Unless one is born anew, he cannot see the kingdom of God (John 3:3).
- [H]e who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day (John 6:54).
- [I]f you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved (Rom. 10:9).
- [E]very one who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved (Rom. 10:13).
- [F]aith apart from works is barren (Jas. 2:20).
- Baptism . . . now saves you (1 Pet. 3:21).
Isolated as stand-alone proofs, one could erroneously argue that just any one of these verses contains all that is necessary for salvation: Do the will of the Father; endure to the end; believe and be baptized; repent; be born anew; eat Jesus’ flesh and drink his blood; confess that Jesus us Lord and believe that God raised him from the dead; call upon the name of the Lord; have faith alive with works; be baptized. Many more could be added to this list.
The truth is that all of these things are normatively required for salvation, and none of these verses should be quoted as a stand-alone formula. To be understood fully, they must all be considered within the context of each other and the rest of Scripture.
But sometimes even considering all of Scripture may not be enough to correct an erroneous proof text. That’s because Scripture itself is not completely sufficient for understanding the Christian faith in its fullness because it does not contain all of God’s revelation. John tells us, "there are also many other things which Jesus did; were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written" (John 21:25).
So, how can one refute a proof text if the Bible itself is insufficient in doing so? If every word of God’s revelation is important and must be considered, but not all of it is included in the Bible’s written word, where can it be found? Quite simply, it is found with those whom God entrusted the fullness of his revelation—the authoritative hierarchy of his Church—with whom has been entrusted "the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints" (Jude 3).
Ultimately, if we cannot adequately treat a proof text using Scripture itself, we must trust in the teaching of the Church.
So when someone offers a single Bible verse to prove a point which you know to be incorrect, first consider the proof text within its immediate context, then consider what other proof texts and the entirety of Scripture have to say on the topic. And finally, rely on the Church’s authoritative teaching to settle the matter definitively.