I have never met anyone who openly admitted that they were a prooftexter and engaged in rampant eisegetical reasoning, that is, trying to force a concept into a given verse rather than drawing it out. Almost everyone thinks that they are drawing truth out of a particularly important text or that the texts aren’t important and are openly novel ideas. Often those that claim the strictest fidelity to a given text (which can be political, philosophical, or religious in nature) are those whose treatment of that text is the most shameful and unacceptable. Why, given the rampant problems of prooftexting in political, religious, and philosophical discussions, does no one recognize themselves as a prooftexter? And what are some of the implications of this absence of self-realization in the abuse we do to those texts we claim to love?
There are essentially two attitudes we can take when it comes to dealing with texts. If we respect a text and consider it authoritative in any field of study or practice, we can either seek to gain wisdom and understanding from the text or we can attempt to boost our own feelings of importance by trying to see ourselves in the text or enshrine ourselves as the only or supreme judges of what is in the text so that we accept our interpretations but deny any others as invalid because they do not meet our external standards. If we follow the first tendency, we become close students of context, weighing different texts to resolve difficulties, wrestling honestly with the contemporary understanding of such texts during the time they were written, as well as their interaction with the culture and thought of their time. If we follow the second tendency, our views are much more rigid and cliched, and have the tendency of slogans and empty meaning rather than a deep understanding of the richness of the text we claim to revere. In addition, we are prone in the second tendency to seeing ourselves as more important in the text than we really are by limiting its potential implications and meanings only to those areas that are of personal interest to us while completely ignoring any other implications.
But the fact remains that no one thinks they are reading into a given text, or forcing their own belief system into it. Certainly a large amount of self-deception is involved with this process, because few people truly understand the mix of motives that serves as the basis for our behavior–largely because we do not really want to know or see what we are made of inside. For example, it is easy for someone who is not a neo-Confederate so-called Theonomist to see that the pro-slavery worldview of such people influences the unholy combination of the Bible, the Declaration of Independence and Constitution, and Austrian Economics. The support of slavery means attacking the Declaration of Independence, attacking the many parts of the Sabbath (because they require freedom for all from exploitation weekly, forgiveness of debts, freedom from slavery, restitution of the land every 50 years), because such people desire to restore exploitative systems of labor that benefit themselves. This self-serving hypocrisy is obvious from the outside, but to the person inside they believe, quite incorrectly, that they have a consistent biblical worldview, because anything that does not agree with it is automatically socialist or heretical.
Likewise, it is a cliche for those who are antinomian evildoers to attack those who seek (with the indwelling presence of God) to obey God’s laws and God’s ways as legalists and Pharisees. But the Bible says something quite different. Matthew 23:4 gives an intriguing clue as to the real nature of the legalism of the scribes and Pharisees: “For they bind heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers.” This would suggest that the Pharisees’ claimed adherence to biblical law was a hypocritical show. They wished for others to obey very strict standards, adding an oral law (contained in the Talmud) to God’s laws seeking to put a hedge around the Torah, while they themselves, knowing the “loopholes” of the law, were free from such strict adherence themselves.
And that is precisely what we find. Mark 7:9-13 tells us the following: “He said to them, “All too well you reject the commandment of God that you may keep your tradition. For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and mother;’ and, ‘He who curses father or mother, let him be put to death.’ But you say, ‘If a man says to his father or mother, “Whatever profit you might have received for me is Corban”–‘ (that is, a gift to God), then you no longer let him do anything for his father or his mother, making the word of God of no effect through your tradition which you have handed down. And many such things you do.”
What this means is that the Pharisees were legalists because of their attempt to find loopholes to avoid obeying God’s commandments, such as claiming that all that parents had done for a disciple of the Pharisees was devoted to God, and therefore there was nothing left for such a person to help support their parents in old age. Such a practice tried to pit support of a religious organization against duties and obligations to family. And Jesus rejected such reasoning as ungodly. This would strongly suggest that any attempt to find a loophole or pit one part of the Bible against another in order to avoid obedience to any of God’s commandments would similarly be condemned by Jesus Christ as legalism. An honest attempt to obey God as best as one is able is never so condemned. Therefore, those who seek to find technicalities or loopholes to avoid obedience to laws they dislike are the real legalists. The shoe is quite on the other foot.
Examples like this are legion. But, they depend on drawing the truth of a text out of the text and letting it speak its truth to us and then heeding its call. We all come to a given text with ideas and beliefs and practices that we want to support and justify. It is a nearly universal tendency to desire to justify the way we already are, rather than to see ourselves as wrong and in need of change. Because we are more concerned with being right in our own eyes (and in the eyes of others) than in being right with God or other people, we inconclusively fight endlessly over issues, because to admit that we are prooftexting is to concede the argument to others, and we are by and large unwilling to do so, even if we know that we are wrong.
Not coincidentally, this a major part of the reason why most debates and arguments are unsuccessful. We begin the argument or debate with a particular position that we firmly believe and we seek whatever support can be found or twisted for our opinion. It is not the texts themselves that are usually in dispute, but a given interpretation of those texts. To use a political example, there was a ferocious conflict that eventually led to civil war in the United States concerning slavery. In the 1850’s there was a lot of discussion about the nature of the founding documents of the United States. What were the fundamental principles–was the statement that ‘all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights,’ namely life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness (or property) the ‘sheet anchor of American liberty’ as Abraham Lincoln called it in his Peoria speech in 1854, or were the guarantees the United States Constitution made to slavery the foundation of political legitimacy within the United States?
Obviously, slavery was a contradiction to the principle that all men were created equal. So too was any system that viewed men as citizens and gave women second-class status (a fact that Abigail Adams, for one, never ceased to bring up to her husband John Adams). There are many reasons why it is impossible for a society to suddenly live in strict accordance with its ideals. Evil systems and patterns of behavior are deeply entrenched in societies, and to remove them is a gradual and difficult process. However, any behavior or mindset or worldview that is contrary to the deepest principles of a society, an institution, or an individual is going to be on the defensive. Either we struggle with our behaviors to bring them into alignment with our beliefs, or we will change our beliefs to avoid feeling guilty about our sins, whatever they may be. And that tendency is fairly universal, a tendency known as cognitive dissonance.
And that is why no one will admit to prooftexting. Our arguments spring from justifications of our belief systems and behaviors, and often our particular sins (if we have ceased to struggle against them) will corrupt our belief systems into accepting and supporting some type of flagrant wrong that contradicts with God’s law or any similar standard of moral decency. But to admit that we are wrong about such fundamental matters is to strike at our sense of self-worth and our sense of self-integrity, and few people are willing to endure such tensions or shame. If we build our foundation on the sand, we will firmly call it a strong cornerstone, because to do otherwise is intolerable to us. This does not change reality, but it suggests that many motives besides an honest desire to seek the truth motivate our actions. And if we see these frustrating tendencies in others, we ought to be alert to their presence within us as well, for by the same standard we judge, we also will be judged.