When I was in seminary, I heard a story of a man who used various passages of the Bible to prove that his Old Testament professor was the beast described in the Book of Revelation. The point of this exercise wasn't to condemn his Old Testament professor, but to illustrate how the Bible can be misused and manipulated to prove any point. The phrase for doing this is Proof Texting. Sometimes it is done unintentionally, others in a misguided attempt to prove a particular point of view, and then there are times that it is done to make the Bible a weapon to attack others. This is when it is most dangerous, and, sadly, there are many illustrations of this being done throughout history. For example, when I was a boy I heard people use the story of Noah's son Ham being cursed by Noah, found in Genesis 9:20-27, as a defense for their racism against black people. They claimed that black people were black as a result of a curse, and that it was a punishment from God. Using this passage as a weapon they justified not only their hate, but cruel and oppressive actions and laws against black people. This passage was even used to justify slavery.
As people of faith, who take the Bible seriously, we must always be on our guard for Proof Texting. In order, to avoid it in our own lives and counter it when we see it, we need to be involved in faithful study of the Bible, prayerfully using the tools of study that we have inherited to examine the Bible, both a particular passage and its wider context within Scripture. This is an important process in which all Christians are called to engage, not just pastors. Though, it can be intimating, we shouldn't shy away from it. Bible studies, Biblical resources, your pastors, and, most importantly, the guidance of God's Spirit, are all there to help.
There are many tools to help us examine scripture. And, as United Methodist, we have a unique frame work to apply them to issues we face in our lives and the world. It is called the Wesleyan Quadrilateral, and it is especially useful when we seek to appropriately use scripture to avoid Proof Texting or to determine if that is what someone is doing. This method is composed of four parts. The first, and most important, is Scripture. We use the tools of Biblical Scholarship to determine a faithful understanding of a passage of scripture within its context and the context of the entire Bible, so that we can apply it to our context. The second is reason. We step back, examine our interpretation of scripture and its application in a situation using the Godgiven gift of our ability to reason. What does our reason tell us? The third tool is experience. Again, we step back, examining our interpretation of scripture and its application, using the lessons of our experience. It is important to note, that our use of experience, first and foremost is our experience of who God is, how we have encountered God in our lives and the world, and how our experience of God has lead us to live as people of faith. The final tool is tradition (really, it should be called "traditions," as we recognize that many traditions make up our tradition). Tradition cannot be reduced to how the people who have come before us have acted or what they believed. It is much more complex than a simple observation of the past. Rather, it is context. As we look at our tradition, we reflect upon the tools that they used and their process, as much as we do their answers. This allows us to honor their circumstances and we apply our learning and the collective wisdom of the past to our own circumstances.
I have written this article because in June Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a fellow United Methodist, whether unintentionally or intentionally, engaged in Proof Texting when he used Romans 13 to defend the Administration's immigration policy. I do not say this lightly, nor do I say it because of my personal feelings on current immigration policy. Rather, I make this statement after applying my own experience and training in Biblical interpretation, my study of Romans 13, application of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral, conversations with other pastors (both United Methodist and from other Christian denominations), and reading what Biblical Scholars and well-respected faith leaders have written on the subject.
Regardless where any of us stand on immigration policy or any other issue, it is important that we faithfully engage in our study of scripture, using the tools we have been given, before we seek to apply it to a situation. This is why Bible Study is so important and useful. It helps us strengthen our "interpretation muscles" and helps us develop our interpretation skills. As the fall approaches, I encourage you to join one of our weekly Bible Studies and/or one of our short-term studies. Together we can grow in our understanding of the Bible and how we apply it to our lives.
Peace and Grace,