The Perils of Proof-Texting and How to Avoid Them

Author Greg Koukl Published on 09/01/1999

Virtually every Christian with a theological point of view thinks his view is scriptural. Why shouldn’t he. He has a proof-text he can quickly quote in his defense.

If you’re not careful, though, simply picking out a verse that seems to support your view may result in pitting one text against another, creating an apparent contradiction. This may be satisfying for the moment because the verse affirms your pet doctrine. But your take on the passage may be wrong, and the conflict created with other texts undermines the authority of the Bible in general.

Part of what we do on the radio show is dispute different theological views. A caller gives me his opinion and cites supporting verses. I can almost hear him settling back in his chair and folding his arms. His work is done, or so he thinks.

My verses say one thing; his appear to say another. As long as he can find a verse that—at least at first glance—supports his view, he’s satisfied. Whenever the issue comes up, he can simply quote his pet text.

Taking a casual approach to proof-texting doesn’t solve the conflict. It merely intensifies it. How? Because, as I mentioned, when my verses say one thing and his appear to say another if we simply camp on our verses we affirm a contradiction.

So how do we solve this problem? We keep one goal in mind. Our question should be, “What does the Bible teach?”, not simply “What does our verse seem to teach?” How do we learn what the Bible teaches? By choosing an interpretation that makes the best sense out of all the relevant verses?

That takes more work than simple proof-texting. If there’s an apparent conflict, we must try to solve it. It is not enough to point to a verse that supports our position. If all of the Bible is God’s Word and without error, then we must also consider the scriptural evidence that seems contrary to our theology and attempt to factor it into our answer.

If we are convinced God would not contradict Himself in the Bible—if we have a high view of Scripture—when you something looks like a contradiction, we are going to try to resolve it in a reasonable fashion. We will try to find a legitimate way to harmonize apparently contradictory verses.

Here is the principal way I resolve the problem of opposing verses: Determine whether the verses being cited are univocal or equivocal. Let me explain what I mean.

Univocal verses speak with one voice (“uni-vocal”) and are, therefore, unambiguous. Even after looking at the text from a number of different angles, it’s hard to imagine any alternate meanings.

Equivocal verses, on the other hand, have more than one possible meaning. One interpretation may appear most obvious, but upon further study others suggest themselves.

Noticing that the meaning of a certain verse or passage may be equivocal is a key to resolving the problem of apparent contradictions. Is it possible one or more of the proof-texts have more than one reasonable meaning? If so, then choosing one of the alternate meanings could remove the apparent contradiction. If one verse seems completely inflexible (univocal, or unequivocal), then adapt the more flexible verse (the equivocal one) to bring harmony.

Let me give you an example. Is baptism necessary for salvation? Is it necessary to be water baptized after one’s profession of faith before one can receive the gift of forgiveness and new life through regeneration? Or is baptism a proper act of obedience after one becomes a Christian?

In the first case the order would be faith, then baptism, resulting in salvation. In the second case the order would be faith, resulting in salvation, followed by baptism.

Verses seem to support both sides. In Acts 2:38 we read, “And Peter said to them, ‘Repent, and let each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.’” If the repentant believer is baptized “for the forgiveness of sins,” then repentance and belief are not enough. The order here appears to be faith, then baptism, resulting in salvation.

This verse seems very straightforward. To some, simply quoting it is enough. The problem comes when one flips over a few pages to Acts 10:44–48. There we read:

While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit fell upon all those who were listening to the message. And all the circumcised believers who had come with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out upon the Gentiles also. For they were hearing them speaking with tongues and exalting God. Then Peter answered, “Surely no one can refuse the water for these to be baptized who have received the Holy Spirit just as we did, can he?” And he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they asked him to stay on for a few days.

Notice what’s happening. Peter preaches the Gospel to Cornelius and his household. In the midst of Peter’s sermon, the Holy Spirit falls on those listening and they manifest spiritual gifts.

This is irrefutable evidence to Peter that these Gentiles have “received the Holy Spirit just as [he] did.” Other verses make it clear that possessing the Holy Spirit in the New Testament sense is proof of salvation (see Ephesians 1:13–14 and Romans 8:9).

After these Gentiles are regenerated, Peter announces it is appropriate for them to be baptized. The order in Acts 10 is faith, resulting in salvation, followed by baptism.

Here’s the problem. Apparently Acts 2 teaches that salvation comes after water baptism, and Acts 10 indicates it can come before. This is a contradiction. Unless these passages are harmonized, merely asserting one verse against another actually does violence to the authority of God’s Word.

This is when we must ask our question: Are either of the passages equivocal? That is, are there any legitimate alternative readings?

The Acts 10 passage seems completely inflexible in its meaning. The sequence of events leaves no question (though I’m open to suggestions) that the order is faith/regeneration/baptism. Peter’s response is unmistakable.

Further, when the Jews later take issue with Peter about his involvement with Gentiles, he simply recounted the event and they were satisfied (Acts 11:1–18). In this passage regeneration clearly follows faith, not baptism:

“If God therefore gave to them the same gift as He gave to us also after believing in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could stand in God’s way?” And when they heard this, they quieted down, and glorified God, saying, “Well then, God has granted to the Gentiles also the repentance that leads to life” (Acts 11:17–18).

Notice baptism isn’t even mentioned here, only the salient details of regeneration: repentance, faith, and salvation. By all appearances, Acts 10 is unequivocal. Baptism isn’t necessary for salvation.

What about in Acts 2? Is it possible this passage means something different than it appears to at first? On closer inspection the answer is yes. The key is in the grammar.

In Acts 2, the command to repent is in the plural, as is the reference to those who receive the forgiveness of sins (i.e., “All of you repent so all of you can receive forgiveness”). The command to be baptized, however, is in the singular (i.e., “Each of you should be baptized”).

This makes it clear that repentance, not baptism, leads to salvation, since an individual’s baptism cannot cause the salvation of the entire group. Individual (singular) baptisms do not result in corporate (plural) salvation.

As it turns out, then, the phrase “for the forgiveness of sins” modifies repentance, not baptism. A more precise rendering might be, “Let all of you repent so all of you can receive forgiveness, and then each who has should be baptized.”

If there is any question about which translation of Acts 2:38 is appropriate, Acts 10 and 11 give us the answer. Clearly, Peter’s Gentiles were not getting baptized in order to bring about their salvation. They were baptized as a result of salvation. The clear (unequivocal) teaching in Acts 10 and 11 informs the ambiguous (equivocal) nature of Acts 2:38.

If we are to be scripturally balanced, our theological views should take into account the full body of scriptural references when considering an issue.

Here’s a tip. Go to your Bible concordance and look up all the forms of the word “baptize” (e.g., “baptism” or “baptized”). Next write each reference on a 3x5 card or record it in a computer word processing file. This will allow you to look at all the references together and begin to group them according to content.1

For example, many of the texts will be about John’s baptism. Put them in one group. Others will be about the baptism of the Holy Spirit. Put those in another. There are references to the baptism of Moses and baptism by fire. Jesus refers to yet another, the baptism of trial (“Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” Mark 10:38).

This is how to systematically study any doctrine or topic. Take all the verses pertaining to a particular issue and look closely at what they say. Then begin drawing conclusions from that broad base of research—instead of proof-texting favorite verses—so you don’t miss anything.

The exercise takes a little time, but it can be a lot of fun and the results are very satisfying. Doctrines begin to unfold before your eyes, giving you a solid biblical understanding on any issue. By drawing instruction from the full counsel of God on the subject, you are able to make informed judgments that are biblically balanced.

You’ll also notice that by surveying the full range of teaching in the New Testament on an issue (baptism, in this case) many distortions simply fade away.

This approach to resolving Bible conflicts always takes biblical inerrancy for granted:2 The Bible is the Word of God. God can’t err. Therefore, the Bible can’t err. When faced with apparent contradictions, we always look for a way to harmonize. We do this by employing a core precept of interpretation: Interpret the unclear in light of the clear.

When all is said and done, there still may be apparent contradictions. Though time and scholarship have resolved many problems, some still remain. At that point we should acknowledge the difficulty and choose the view that in our opinion is best supported by the relevant passages, being open to better alternatives if they present themselves. Then we should be charitable and understanding to those who disagree.