SEEK THE CONTEXT: Biblical Texts, Language, Cultural Background & Meaning. Context Changes Everything!

The Blunder of Proof-Texting

The Blunder of Proof-Texting

One day my theological thinking about the gift of salvation was challenged by an individual who believed that “God wants ALL people to ‘be saved'”. By the way, there is nothing wrong with such a belief, but it is a broadly-debated opinion. I recognize that many people hold this to be true but some would disagree. What surprised me is how spirited and dogmatic the response of my conversational partner was. I quickly read over the verses my acquaintance offered as a proof of my erroneous thinking. I expressed a view that “God offers salvation to some and not others” (by the way, I do not know why…). And then I understood why my dialogue partner felt so strongly that I was so misguided in my thinking. Its the barrage of verses that seemed to disprove my supposition. 

There are some common fallacies in arguing theology.  The very practice of offering proof texts to bolster any theological position is a big problem if the text is severed from the context. It is a longstanding problem which began with early Christians who were barely aware of Jewish holy texts but separated themselves from Israel’s longstanding tradition of their interpretation. Being trained in Greek philosophy and rhetorics they thought for themselves and interpreted the Scripture the best they knew how.  But the context changes everything. I will step out on the limb and say that even people called “church fathers” are guilty of careless proof-texting and they set a precedent for generations to follow.

The tendency in proof-texting is to primarily look for keywords and topic of interest. And dismissing the organic context in which those words occur is the frequent mistake. The verses cannot be simply yanked out of their natural context and be applied to a question they are not addressing or answering. True, the teachings of the Bible can be applied in many ways. But they can not be stretched to say something about the matters they are not addressing! This is the major blunder fo proof-texting. And this practice of leaning on Scriptural passages for proof, while disregarding their contexts to argue theology is really quite dishonest and unfair. 

The “Great Isaiah Scroll” found in the Qumran caves.

In interpreting the Scriptures there is always a reasonable scope of meaning for each verse. But to have some solid (biblical) proof for a theological position people tend to stretch “what the words actually mean” to “what they can possibly mean” or “what they want them to mean”. It does not matter what the author meant by his words when he expressed himself. That is not relevant for a proof-texter. And most of the time it does not matter what the original term in Hebrew or Greek means either, because most of proof-texting is done through translations. Indeed, the words can be understood in a variety of ways, so why not understand them this way?   

But the context of biblical teachings limits the scope of interpretations and tells us (the readers) what the verses can and cannot possibly mean. There are natural boundaries to possibilities. Reading the surrounding verses usually gives us those boundaries and clues to what point the authors themselves are trying to make. Is it the same point we want their words to make for us as we appropriate them as a proof-text? Well, sadly, in proof-texting the author usually does not matter and the context does not matter, just the keywords we need to prove our theological point. We need just one verse or a phrase for the appearance of biblical support.   

The Proof Text

One verse cited to me seeking to prove that God wants ALL to “be saved” was 2 Pet 3:9.

The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance. (2 Peter 3:9 NIV)

As one reads the setting or preceding chapter in this apostolic letter is about prophetic hope, about end times, new heaven, new earth; The author is concerned with people’s apostasy in the last and final days and with their rebellion against God. So the context of the larger passage is not about salvation exactly. That is is not at all the topic discussed by the author. That is a problem because this verse is supposed to prove that “God does not want anyone to perish” (without salvation).

Now, look at vs 9 in the context of Ch 3… “not wanting anyone to perish” is an explanation, a reason given for seeming slowness to the coming of God’s promises. The focus of the author is still the end time events!  Peter’s point is that this delay is “God’s mercy”. God is allowing time for people to see their sin and repent. Delay in fulfilling end-time promises is a delay of proper (and righteous)  judgment. God wants more people to repent – “not wishing that any should perish” (NASB). Will all indeed repent? No, probably not. The important matter in understanding verse 9 is that the author never switches his discussion towards the matter of salvation, but maintains his topic of the end time events.  

Based on this observation of context, can we claim that God will delay the judgment indefinitely until everyone will repent? Because if this is truly God’s desire, or will, or his design – he certainly can do this! After all, God is sovereign. He is the master of all time according to verse 8.  But the obvious answer is “no”.  At some point, the clock runs out. But what about God’s desire “that no one will perish”?  Does this desire not matter then? Here is a big question… Can God not give himself what he truly wants? If he is sovereign he should be able to do that. Are you frustrated by this line of reasoning yet? Here why things do not add up… God’s desire or concern for the perishing is a demonstration of his loving, long-suffering, merciful character. But it is not his design that everyone (ALL) will embrace his salvation. 

The context of Peter’s letter explains that God has mercy toward the rebellious, which explains why the end times are not here yet. The entire discussion in context is actually not about salvation at all. And thus, the verse cannot be used dogmatically to explain the dynamics of salvation. It is not about salvation. Yanking this verse out of its natural context and applying it to the contexts of salvation is like saying that the Tour de Frace is meant to explain Newton’s law of motion. Yes, there is a lot of motion in that race, but these are different matters and different contexts.  I am not trying to be disrespectful or sacrilegious. It is simply improper and unethical to apply verses spoken in one context to an entirely different topic. It is intellectually dishonest sleight of hand. I understand that people desperately want to prove their point but the end does not justify the means.

Besides, general terms like any, all, everything, none, no one, always, never… etc are also enemies of sound interpretations. We use such words generically, rhetorically, as exaggerations and not in a literal way. General and absolute words like these taken at their face value, literally and dogmatically at the exclusion of other possibilities can create nonsensical interpretations of the Bible. (Read my article “General References in the Bible”God’s words are worthy of deep study, purposeful thought, and honest interpretation.

Pinchas

I am an educator, researcher, a faculty member and an avid believer in online education. My specialties are Sacred Texts and Cultures (Second Temple period, early Judaism and nascent Christianity). I am passionate about meaning, context, and cultural transmission of ancient texts. My preoccupations with history, ancient languages and contextual interpretation often find expression in my blog posts. Every human has a pretext, every message has a context. Context changes everything! Enjoy reading.


Reader Comments

  1. Excellent article. “All scripture is God breathed and is profitable for doctrine….” If God planned on all to be saved, then what about those who have passed on? Are they all saved, and we are unaware of it? Luke 16:19-31 may be a parable but it is built on aspects of reality-at least. Vs 23 says the rich man was in hell in torment. Obviously, he is not saved. Ok, it’s a proof text. But, it is also very clear; not all are saved. If God wanted all to be saved, did that start at the moment Peter wrote his letter? Certainly not. Taking the 1Peter verses and making them a “certainty” when they are open to other reasonable interpretations is not good exegesis. “Believe in the lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved” is certain. Good exegesis. Thank you for your clear thinking.

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