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.
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.