Disarming scripture? On proof-texting young-earth creationism

An essential component of the way young-earth creationism proponents say Christians should read the Bible is something called “proof-texting.”

The term is sort of theologyspeak, so if you’re unfamiliar with the concept, Wikipedia offers a great definition: “Prooftexting (sometimes ‘proof-texting’ or ‘proof texting’) is the practice of using isolated, out-of-context quotations from a document to establish a proposition.”

The online encyclopedia also offers a humorous anecdote it says preachers have used to illustrate the dangers of proof-texting the Bible:

A man dissatisfied with his life decided to consult the Bible for guidance. Closing his eyes, he flipped the book open and pointed to a spot on the page. Opening his eyes, he read the verse under his finger. It read, “Then Judas went away and hanged himself.” (Matthew 27:5b). Finding these words unhelpful, the man randomly selected another verse. This one read, “Jesus told him, ‘Go and do likewise.'” (Luke 10:37b). In desperation he tried one more time. The text he found was: “What you are about to do, do quickly.” (John 13:27).

Of course, I like to be a little more blunt in my analogy.

Chewie_trooper

This word picture occurred to me because I really do tend to think of the Bible as a living thing. And when I see a young-earther rip a verse out of context, and use it to support a position that clearly does not align with that context, I can’t help but imagine the pain a living thing would feel from having a piece of itself torn out from where it belongs.

I’ll give you an example. The real-life inspiration for this meme was earlier today, when a would-be createvangelist attempted to use John 3:12 (“If I told you earthly things and you do not believe, how will you believe if I tell you heavenly things?”) to support the idea that Jesus spoke about scientific matters, and that we Christians who accept evolution are bad because we accept an understanding of the universe that does not match the prevailing cosmology of first-century Palestine.

Here’s what he said:

The earth is physical, and physical things make up what we call Science, the study of the natural world. If scientific things are not trustworthy out of Jesus Christ’s own mouth, how should we be able to trust the things which are beyond our finding out? Can we really trust in Salvation? Science can’t prove Salvation.

Now, if you’re unfamiliar with the context of John 3, this argument might appear persuasive at first blush. After all, Jesus used the phrase “earthly things.” It does not seem out of question that he is talking about, well, the earth — that is, the natural world, which is the domain of scientific inquiry.

But just for kicks and giggles, let’s expand our study a teensy bit. Here’s John 3:1-12.

Now there was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews; this man came to Jesus by night and said to Him, “Rabbi, we know that You have come from God as a teacher; for no one can do these [a]signs that You do unless God is with him.” Jesus answered and said to him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.”

Nicodemus said to Him, “How can a man be born when he is old? He cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born, can he?” Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be amazed that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going; so is everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

Nicodemus said to Him, “How can these things be?” Jesus answered and said to him, “Are you the teacher of Israel and do not understand these things? Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know and testify of what we have seen, and you do not accept our testimony. If I told you earthly things and you do not believe, how will you believe if I tell you heavenly things?”

Whoa! That’s weird! Much to our surprise — and, no doubt, to our young-earth creationist friend, also — the first part of John 3 does not involve Jesus discussing the finer points of baraminology, the vapor canopy and the floating forest.

Christ is, in fact, not talking about anything relevant to the realm of science. He is talking about being born again, of the Spirit, which — though it happens in this life, and is therefore an “earthly thing” — is entirely a spiritual (i.e., supernatural) experience.

When I was born again on Oct. 20, 2006, there was no physical, material or natural change that a doctor or scientist could have taken note of if they had examined me on Oct. 19 and again on Oct. 21. And yet, everything had changed, and I was a completely new person.

If anything, this passage shows the limits of science, and the vast superiority of the things of the Spirit and the supernatural things of God, but the destructive, ham-fisted hermeneutic of YECism forces them to see it as teaching that Jesus’ words are to be interpreted literally and then judged for accuracy against the findings of 21st century science.

It is a misuse of the text that is so absurd it would be almost laughable, if one did not take the Bible as seriously as I and many others in the GOE community do. At this point, you may be asking yourself, “What kind of person would do this? Who would take a passage from scripture and pretend like it says something that is obviously does not?” That’s a good question, and there’s only one answer: Someone who does not really give a rip about what the Bible actually says.

But, if I’m being honest, I can’t say it’s surprising that proof-texting would be the lifeblood of the YEC movement. Of course it is. The Bible is not a science book. It was written with the things of God in mind, not the things of modern science. If one wishes to use the Bible to address modern science anyway — as young-earth proponents must do to assure their legions of followers of their relevance — they have no choice but to find any verse whose words — rendered in a certain way and read in a certain light — might possibly kind-of vaguely sort-of fit, and ignore all of the immediate context that proves otherwise.

It’s a pretty crummy way to read the Bible, but what do they care? Their first allegiance is not to the Bible, but to their presupposed young-earth worldview. And if the Bible has to be sacrificed in service to that view — well, I hate to say it, but I think that’d be just fine with them.

The proof is in the proof-texting.

Tyler Francke is founder of God of Evolution and author of Reoriented. He can be reached at tyler@godofevolution.com.

  • When I was born again on Oct. 20, 2006, there was no physical, material or natural change that a doctor or scientist could have taken note of if they had examined me on Oct. 19 and again on Oct. 21. And yet, everything had changed, and I was a completely new person.

    This is a super tiny nitpcik on a post I think is really great. And I mean it in a completely friendly way 🙂

    I think we might actually be able to observe interesting things happening in the brain during spiritual experiences like this. Perhaps those brain states aren’t unique to spiritual experienced, and so they don’t really prove anything…but just wanted to point that out.

    • DON’T PROOF-TEXT ME!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

      Just kidding. Yeah, I think you’re right. And, I thought about that, as well, that a really thorough examination would have shown some differences: I would have been happier, more at peace, etc. But, overall, I think the point holds up fine.

      Thanks for the comment 🙂

  • Charles Weston

    It’s very similar to quote mining, which is another form of dishonesty.

    Also, good article at NSCE to answer the “were you there” nonsense:

    http://reports.ncse.com/index.php/rncse/issue/current

    • Yeah, Charles, that’s a really good point. I mean, really, quote-mining is an identical practice. The only difference is the source.

  • At this point, you may be asking yourself, “What kind of person would do this? Who would take a passage from scripture and pretend like it says something that is obviously does not?” That’s a good question, and there’s only one answer: Someone who does not really give a rip about what the Bible actually says.

    Oh. My. Dog. This.

    This is what makes the disease so insidious. It is actually a complete disregard for the totality of Scripture disguised as pious devotion to it. In my better moments, I remember that people in this world of interpretation have been taught it and have no other tools in their toolbelt. This is what faithfulness to Scripture looks like to them.

    In my worse moments, I just get angry about it. Oh, you take the Bible SERIOUSLY, do you? Well, why don’t you sit through three weeks of Philistine history? Why don’t you do a linguistic comparison of the Shema with Paul’s christological statements in 1 Corinthians? Why don’t you teach a Sunday School class on canonics? Why don’t you read the intertestamental source material that appears in the New Testament? You know, since you take the Bible so SERIOUSLY and all, despite giving it all the effort you’d put into reading a Louis L’Amour paperback.

    • This is what makes the disease so insidious. It is actually a complete disregard for the totality of Scripture disguised as pious devotion to it.

      Exactly. But our culture has become so perception-based — as opposed to reason-based — that it works. Say, waitaminute, didn’t a certain New Testament Messiah say a couple of things about judging things based on appearances rather than sound judgment?

      And I know just what you mean about getting angry. My antidote? Romans 14. Romans 14 all day long.

      • My antidote is getting angry at their pastors, but Romans 14 is probably better.

        • A bit of both is probably warranted sometimes. The pastors are ultimately a big part of the problem, of course, but they are also believers themselves who have been taught this is the only way by their mentors, seminary professors, His Holiness Ken Ham, etc.

    • summers-lad

      I only partly agree. “What kind of person would do this?” There are, I think, at least two kinds of creationists: there are the promoters of the idea (and I wonder how many of them really believe the stuff they put out), and there are those honest Christians who believe in YEC because “the Bible says so” or their church leaders say so. These people have no intention of ripping a verse out of context and using it to mean something it does not; they may do it but they would be horrified if they knew they had done it.
      That is why your site is so valuable: it shows that rejecting YEC is NOT unbiblical, and that the superficial meaning of Genesis 1 – especially to a modern, scientific mindset (I think people in earlier centuries would have seen it differently) – is not its true meaning or purpose.

  • Pfadacker

    “Whoa! That’s discussing the finer points of baraminology, the vapor canopy and the floating forest.”

    I didn’t even know that creationist have even created these clearly ridiculous theories given that I’d gone to bible school and seminary. I suppose I should be glad that non of my professors thought it even worth their time of day to tell us about this stuff. It’s not like I went to a liberal bible school. If one must know, it’s the one in downtown Chicago and a seminary in Deerfield. we were cautioned on proof-texting though so thanks for the post to refresh my memory.

    • I wouldn’t expect that you would have learned about this junk at any legitimate seminary, regardless of its theological leanings. Strict young-earth creationism isn’t viewed much more highly in Christian academia than it is in regular academia. That’s why ol Hambone is always griping about how Christian schools are “compromising.” I think there’s only one college he approves of — it’s this tiny, unaccredited Bible school in Appalachia, out near where his Creation Museum is.

      • I passed through the vapor canopy into the Floating Forest, but I was playing D&D at the time.

      • Pfadacker

        I was going to look these theories up but I won’t because I just don’t have the time to go down some rabbit hole.

        The thing about proof-texting (or quote mining) is that it’s such a intellectually lazy and dishonest thing to do. And worse still is that young people who are not yet sure of their faith yet can be lead down such deadened paths as literalist six day creationism – something that is neither essential for redemption in Christ nor healthy for their intellectual development.

        If God is really the author of one’s salvation, then one should not fear facing all intellectual questions with honesty. You will know whether you faith has been built on rock and not sand.

  • I don’t understand the LSH’s entrance requirements.

    “Guy who can detach his limbs, sorry, that’s not going to help us fight super villains. Guy who can digest anything? You’re in.”

    • Yeah, well the needs of a superhero team change with the times, man. You just don’t understand the nuances of super-powered life in the 30th century.

      For myself, I was always partial to the Amazing Avoid-Copyright-Infringement-Lawsuit Boy. I mean, Karate Kid.

  • Chris Mason

    I forgot about that verse. I’ve heard it quite a few times from creationist websites like CMI. I never realized the context of the verse until now. So, thank you for that.