This practice has really struck me lately. I’m a part of a couple of Facebook groups, all of which are (allegedly, at least) what you’d describe as “post-evangelical” types. However, I have noticed that just because a person is part of those groups, it certainly does not mean that he or she agrees with the vast majority of people’s deconstruction process.
In fact, there are a few self-appointed “heresy hunters” within certain of these groups who feel that it’s their God-ordained duty to pounce on any statement made that they consider to be heretical, false or unorthodox.
As a teacher, I’ve had students like this in class, and they can be unrelenting and exhausting in their efforts to police both the teacher and students alike.
Proof-Texting to “Win” an Argument
Let me give you an example. In one recent case in one of these groups, one of my threads (about classifying different categories of various people who have left the institutional church) got hijacked by a couple of “fundagelicals”. Despite the original theme, and subsequent good conversation around the topic, somehow the conversation degenerated into an argument about…the clear and present danger posed by homosexuality in American society today.
Perhaps predictably, then, especially regarding such a hot-button topic, the thread quickly got off track and degenerated into a pointless quarrel about how “the evangelical church in America has clearly lost its way” by allowing this ever-growing perversion to carry on in society unchecked. The “gay agenda” needs to be stopped in its tracks by committed Christians! And on it went, with more and more thunderous statements made by the two heresy hunters.
But why exactly is this the case, at least according to these two? How has the evangelical church lost its way, and what exactly makes homosexuality a sin? Because clearly “it goes against the Bible,” according to one of these self-appointed heresy policemen. As the argument went on with another person who opposed his views, this individual went down the traditional (and predictable) conservative evangelical argument route to make his emphatic point: first came a compendium of a list of proof texts (where he believes the Bible condemns homosexuality), followed by the obligatory all-caps shouting: “WE JUST NEED TO DO WHAT THE BIBLE SAYS!!”
End of the argument, apparently, in this man’s opinion; simply shout louder, parade a list of proof-texts from the Bible buttressing your argument, and you’ve won. Game, set, and match, from his point of view. Never mind that proof-texting carries with it the inherent problem of grabbing isolated verses from the Bible, that may well be ripped out of their original context, and mis-applying them to a completely different situation.
But what’s the logic behind such thinking?
Is The Bible the “Rule Book for Life?”
The more I study the doctrine of biblical inerrancy, the more I have come to believe that the logic behind proof-texting relates to a position that has turned the Bible into a “special book” (magical almost) that stands head and shoulders above other sacred religious texts, be they ancient or modern. In other words, any statement made that uses proof-texts from the Bible trumps any other argument. It is the rule book for all of life, and should be listened to, and obeyed, whenever it has anything to say about….anything, really.
The adoption of the doctrine of inerrancy by fundamentalists around the end of the 19th century (and now evangelicals currently) has led in turn to biblicism, bibliolatry, and biblical literalism. It has also led to the notion of “biblical absolutism”–the teaching that “the Bible is entirely sufficient for all facts of science, history, geography, psychology, theology,” etc.
Originally arising out of the fundamentalist-liberal debates and culture wars of the late 19th-mid-20th centuries, the doctrine of inerrancy was formulated (as the fundamentalists saw it anyway) as a means by which they could protect the Bible from the unrelenting assault of liberal higher criticism on the historicity and facticity of the text. Viewed contextually, and from the distance of time and space, we can certainly understand why the fundamentalists felt the need to construct such a doctrine at the time; but today, one must question whether evangelicals have in fact overcommitted themselves to what was perhaps a largely indefensible proposition in the first place.
Don’t believe me? In an article on inerrancy, Carlos Bovell quotes conservative evangelical theologian Dr James Boice on the subject: “In conservative Reformed circles, Boice describes the same bibliological viewpoint: ‘Inerrancy means that when all the facts are known, the Scriptures in their original autographs and properly interpreted will be shown to be wholly true in everything they teach, whether that teaching has to do with doctrine, history, science, geography, geology, or other disciplines or knowledge.’”1
This stance on biblical inerrancy, taken by conservative evangelicals like Boice, is nothing less than biblical absolutism. Thus, armed with what they view as a text having the ultimate authority, and final say in any argument, self-appointed (and self-righteous) biblical absolutists feel empowered to go forward and hunt out any and all heretical statements made by others.
The Logic Behind Proof-Texting
Therefore, on this subject of making use of proof-texting to win an argument, I think I’ve come to an understanding of the operative logic behind the proof-texting mentality. It proceeds down the following lines, and makes use of a series of basic presuppositions: since the Bible is a) inspired by God, who only speaks the truth and cannot lie, on that basis it is therefore b) inerrant (error-free), c) infallible (wholly trustworthy), and finally d) authoritative, governing all areas of faith and practice (and perhaps all the other fields of knowledge claimed by scholars such as Boice also).
Thus, since it has all of those qualities, people, like the one in my example earlier, tend to use the Bible just like one would make use of a rule-book, for example, in a sporting event. Every coach, or for that matter passionate sports fan, when disputing particular rules of a game, has appealed to the rule book for that sport as the ultimate authority to settle the argument. Whoever understands the rule book the best, and therefore forces the (referee or umpire or other coach) to admit that they are indeed wrong on a particular point, not only wins the argument, they may possibly win the game too. Of course, this does not take into account the fact that even the rules of every sport are subject to the vagaries of interpretation.
But by treating Scripture as such, according to theologian NT Wright, many Christians who want to claim that “the Bible is authoritative” have thereby turned it into a book of authoritative rules, as opposed to what it is—largely an ancient narrative text.2
In other words, the Bible itself never really claims to be a rule book. Wright argues that ironically, Christians who try to turn Scripture into a slate of norms governing all areas of life are grossly misusing and mis-applying it. Not only that, but as mentioned above, many of the biblical verses used for proof-texting to win an argument are lifted out of both their literary and historical contexts.
The major problem encountered in dealing with proof-texting Christians is of course that while they think they’ve “won the battle,” ultimately they will have lost the war. In other words, from their point of view, every single battle is a hill worth dying on, no matter how (seemingly) trivial it may be, whether it’s a biblical or a theological argument. They can’t afford to give an inch, or that would somehow prove them (and the Bible) to be wrong.
On a larger scale, not only is evangelical Christianity in America losing (or has already lost perhaps) the culture war, on an individual relational basis, that proof-texter never seems to care overly much about the relational damage they may be causing to another human being.
At the conclusion of the argument—that they believe they’ve won by bashing the other person over the head with a list of texts to prove their point—they can walk away, secure in the knowledge that “Well, at least I was right.” Never mind that the other person has been hurt and devastated relationally by such toxic treatment at the hands of this self-righteous, and self-appointed, keyboard warrior. If your feelings were damaged in the exchange with this “heresy hunter,” then guess what?
It’s your problem, not theirs.
1 Bovell, Carlos R. “Inerrancy, a Paradigm in Crisis.” In Bovell, Carlos R., ed. Interdisciplinary Perspectives on the Authority of Scripture: Historical, Biblical, and Theoretical Perspectives. Eugene: Pickwick Publications, 2011: 57-58.
2 Wright, N.T. “How Can the Bible be Considered Authoritative?” Vox Evangelica 21 (1991): 13.