By Study and Also By Faith

An LDS (Mormon) blog representing a search for knowledge, understanding, and wisdom.

Thursday, March 08, 2007


If you are like me, you may sometimes read a statement on the Bloggernacle that you don't understand, such as that proof-texting is a bad thing. No one explains what they mean by that--perhaps I am the only one who didn't get it. I gathered that proof-texting meant quoting something--usually scripture, but it could be an essay, article, or book--to illustrate or support a point in your own writing. I thought, "What's wrong with that? Are we not to ever quote anyone else about anything? What about those who say no proof-texting, but then criticize someone for not citing support for their position?"

I puzzled over this in the back of my mind for awhile. Today I did a little internet research to see if I could understand the subject. I found an interesting essay by Henry Neufeld titled "
Facing the Proof Text Method" that explained a great deal about the uses and abuses of proof-texting. I recommend reading it to anyone who, like me, didn't know enough about the subject to understand what would be objectionable about quoting a source.

The truth is, there isn't anything objectionable about the quoting per se. It is the uses to which the quoting is put that can cause problems. For example, if you take a single verse of the Bible and use it to prove something, when in fact if the verse were taken in context with the other verses surrounding it, it wouldn't mean what you are saying it means at all, then that is what is usually meant by the shorthand term of proof-texting.

Another problem is that writers can use quotes throughout their essays in an effort to appear learned when they really don't understand the subject they are writing about very well at all.

There are several problems that can be encountered in the use of quotes and citations of sources, and it is well to be come aware of them in order to strengthen your own efforts at communication. I am sure I have committed some of these breaches of writing etiquette without realizing it, or at least have appeared to be doing so.

To give you a bit of the flavor of the essay I have linked to above, here are two paragraphs from early in the piece:

I'm writing this essay in response to various questions I have been asked about Bible study. I suggest that the use of proof-texts is a manifestation of laziness and the desire to get something for nothing. People do not wish to spend the time firmly grounding their understanding in what various Bible writers actually teach. They would much rather have a short list of texts that support precisely what they have decided to believe anyhow. Thus, the use of proof-texts tends toward hypocrisy. To the uninformed, the purveyor of proof-texts can appear to be wonderfully informed and a deep scholar of the Bible. In fact, the result of reliance on proof-texts is a moral certainty and overbearing arrogance that is not supported by one's study or learning.

But first let me define what I mean by proof-texting. By proof-texting I mean the use of individual scripture texts to produce apparent support for a doctrinal position without adequate regard for the contexts of the individual texts which may indicate differences and nuances. I do not include the use of texts for illustration or the use of texts which are properly taken in context and limited appropriately in what one tries to prove from them. In particular, I'm referring to the creation of entire doctrines which one demands that others believe or commands which one then demands that others obey, taken from a tissue of the words of texts but ignoring the meaning of those texts in their original contexts.

This is quite an interesting and enlightening essay. I hope you will read it.

Edited to Add: I just wanted to clarify that I think using quotes is great. One of the types of posts I enjoy writing is to take a talk or article or a group of scriptures and alternate quotes from those sources with comments of my own. I do not believe this is at all misleading and it is merely giving the reader something to think about and perhaps comment on, leading to discussion. I do not want to make anyone self-conscious about quoting, even generously, in order to foster discussion of the talk or article being quoted. I just thought it would be useful to be aware of the possible problems and also to understand what people mean when they say something critical of proof-texting.

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Blogger T. F. Stern said...

Wow, you sure can cut to the chase in a hurry. I had a Sunday School instructor who would use the idea of snorkling to explain how to use the scriptures. On the surface, or just skimming through to say that you read the verse is the first level. Then there are the scuba divers who stay at it for an hour or so to unravel deeper meanings and lastly there are the deep sea divers who look up all the footnotes, read all the related material and then ponder what they have been exposed to before coming back up to the surface. (Thank you Matthew for a wonderful explanation of proper scripture study)

3:50 PM  
Blogger Mary A said...

Thanks for the comment, T.F. I had an RS teacher who used a similar illustration--except she used water skiing, snorkeling, and scuba diving--to explain the different levels of scripture study. It's a good explanation of the differences in ways of reading/studying scripture--easy to keep in mind. In a similar way, our posts have different depths to them. That isn't necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes we do just want to skim the surface because it is a new subject to us or because it's a topic that doesn't really warrant in-depth study--a fun topic, for example.

You may have commented before my "Edited to Add" paragraph went up, but I think there is a time and place for everything (well, within reason!). Still, when it comes to scripture study, it is always good to go deep-sea diving!

4:17 PM  
Blogger Jettboy said...

I don't proof-text very well for the reasons you give - lack of context. Where someone else quotes one or two lines, I will quote five to ten. Even for those who quoted the one or two, I always look it up if I can and read the rest. Never have had anyone complain, but it does take longer to say what I want.

9:21 AM  
Blogger Mary A said...

Jettboy, I know what you mean. I sometimes quote quite a bit just to give some context. Well, we do what we can, don't we?!

2:55 PM  
Blogger Tigersue said...

What a very interesting subject. I think this sort of thing occurs in all kinds of situations, not just with use of the scriptures. I think it might come down to, are we using the scriptures to prove a point, or are we learning the point the scriptures are trying to make. A bit of difference I suppose.

I also think, and I'm sure you will agree, that when it comes to personal inspiration a scripture can mean something entirely different from the ended subject. That is where a great deal of confusion comes in, when people share something personal and private, and others do not have that same application for their life.

8:14 AM  
Blogger Mary A said...

Those are really good points, Tigersue. I'm glad you posted your comment. I hadn't thought about that second situation. Thanks!

2:18 PM  

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