Toward a Better Understanding of the Bible (II): Textual Infidelity and the Dangers of Proof-Texting

In Part I of this article, we considered the need to ask the right questions in understanding the Bible.  For most of us, that begins with the classic set of literary inference queries: who, what, when, where, why, and how.  By focusing on such simple questions, we can begin to get a better understanding of what we are reading.  Full understanding may take more in the way of deep study, including language usage, archaeological and historical information regarding the setting and players, and numerous other things that may shed light on the topic at hand.

Another danger that threatens our reasonable understanding of the Bible comes in the form of a practice known as proof-texting, which frequently involves lifting a single verse or phrase from its context in order to support a specific teaching or regulation or requirement.

With that in mind, this second example falls under that type of what I think of as “textual infidelity.”  I submit for your consideration the use of James 2 in supporting the necessity of “works” like baptism for salvation.  Now make no mistake, I am not in any way suggesting that baptism is not of vital importance.  However, to use James 2 as a proof text for that is a misuse of the scripture. 

Read James 2 and ask yourself the pertinent questions.  Consider who the audience was:  Christians who were already baptized believers.  They needed no convincing of the importance of baptism.

In James 1.27, the author establishes the foundation for “pure religion,” which deals with moral purity along with loving and caring for others.  In chapter 2, he focuses more on that theme of loving our neighbors, in fact quoting the “royal law” in verse 8.  Partiality is a failure to extend mercy, and that will only reap for us a verdict of justice without mercy if we fail to be merciful. 

James then continues with a discussion of the tandem nature of real faith and the “works” that demonstrate that faith.  He cites Abraham, who, in faith, was prepared to sacrifice his son.  He also commends Rahab the Harlot of Jericho who helped the Israelite spies to escape.  These were actions that demonstrated faith and not just lip service. 

Remember that James is addressing Christians.  He is trying to show them that partiality or failure to render assistance to a brother or sister in need is a failure to demonstrate the faith that we may profess to possess.  By saying that faith without works is dead, he is not specifically trying to demonstrate that baptism is essential to salvation.  Attempting to do so takes the verse from its context and violates that principle of being faithful to the word itself.  He is saying that if we talk the talk, we must also walk the walk–let our actions testify louder to our faith than mere words.

I take no great pleasure in pointing out these kinds of issues.  I really wish that I didn’t have to.  But when I see people doing the very thing they condemn in others, I cannot sit by and let it continue without comment.  Maybe one of the worst inventions ever conceived was the Biblical concordance.  A person can become fixated on a particular word, and then exhaust its corresponding entries in that reference book.  In so doing, he is more likely than not to take a reference out of context.  This is probably one way that the practice of proof-texting was born.  How do I know?  I’ve heard enough examples over the years, and I’ve even done it myself.  But knowing that I have erred is the first step in correcting my mistakes.  I believe in fidelity to the text and to its literary, social and historical context.  And while it is a time-honored practice that is deeply ingrained in various religious groups—especially the one to which I belong–proof-texting may result in a failure to respect the truth and context of the Word we claim to hold in reverence.  It’s better to let the Word say what the Word means, and not twist the scriptures to suit our desires or pet doctrines.

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