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A Study in Prooftexting

Preface: Prooftexting is the practice of constructing a doctrinal argument or defense or an exposition on snippets of text as opposed to basing those on the full, contextual explanations by the Biblical authors. An example would be to argue for or teach eternal security based on phrases such as “Save to the uttermost”, and “Shall not perish but have eternal life”, and “No man can pluck them out of my hand”, and so forth. A full contextual approach would be to carefully follow Paul’s argument through Romans 5-8, where he establishes the doctrinal foundation and logical case for eternal security; none of which depend on any single verse, but is a meticulous and extensive exposition beginning with God’s innate Triune being. 

A common proof text is John 5:39: 

Search the scriptures; for in them ye think ye have eternal life: and they are they which testify of me.

This text is often used to prove that we should read the Bible to find eternal life, because the Bible reveals Christ to us. Now let’s set aside this interpretation for a moment and consider this text from a different angle: How many times have you read the Gospel of John? And how many times have you read chapter 5? And how many times have you read verse 39? And how many times have you heard it preached? And lastly, how many times have you cited this verse to others? To those of you who answered “Many times!” to all these questions, let me ask you: Without peeking, what is the context of this verse? Who is it directed to? What argument is it in reference to? What point is Jesus making here? 

This is not about proving who has the better memory, but merely pointing out that I suspect that most of us have never even considered this text as being a part of any context at all, much less the one it is in. Of the many hundreds of times I have heard this text taught and preached, I can’t remember one of them expounding it in context, and I have a pretty good memory for these things. It is simply plucked like an apple off the branch and nibbled on, and then tossed back to the base of the tree it came from. Now, if your experience is different from mine, that is fantastic. But the rest of you know exactly what I am talking about. 

So why does this matter? Isn’t it true that we should Search the Scriptures? Isn’t eternal life found in its pages? Don’t they testify of Jesus? The answers to these questions, in order, are: 1) Yes, 2) Yeeesss…, and 3) Yes! Then what’s the problem? The problem is that there is a broader point that is being overlooked, and because of that oversight, there is a distinct possibility that the verse itself is being misinterpreted.

So let’s go back to the interpretation of the text. There is a debate centering on this text that goes back as far as we have commentary on the text. Is the first clause, “Search the Scriptures”, an imperative as it is rendered in the classical translations such as the KJV, or is it an indicative, “You search the Scriptures”, as it is rendered in most modern translations. As for the original wording, the Greek verb can be rendered either way. Obviously those that are accustomed to citing this verse as a prooftext, probably don’t like the indicative form. But just because we don’t like it doesn’t make it wrong. However, let’s just set the Greek mood aside, and consider the context. Even if we stipulate the imperative, which I am happy to do, the second clause really doesn’t cooperate with the prooftext unless you don’t really think about it. And the broader context really doesn’t cooperate at all.

The second clause is “for in them ye think you have eternal life”. First, what does Jesus mean when he says “ye THINK you have eternal life”? Do we find eternal life in the Scriptures or do we THINK we find it? Second notice that this thought, this assumption, is linked directly to the first phrase regarding searching of the Scriptures; notice the conjunction, “For”. And third, notice that in the next sentence Jesus reprimands them for not coming to Him that they might have eternal life. So is eternal life in Scripture or in Christ? This isn’t a question of doctrinal technicality, it is a contextual question. In other words, in the context, is Christ admonishing them to Search the Scriptures in order to find eternal life, or is he reprimanding them for Searching the Scriptures to find eternal life, but failing to find Him whom the Scriptures reveal, who alone can offer that eternal life? 

You might think that this all hinges on how we render the Greek verb underlying “Search”. Imperative or indicative. It doesn’t. That doesn’t even matter. (Interestingly, the Wycliff translation which preceded the KJV, split the difference; more closely reflecting the ambiguity of the original Greek. He rendered it thus: “Seek ye the scriptures…”.) The clause can be completely imperative without negating the point the context is making. There is no doubt that we should search the Scriptures, and this is not the only admonition in the Scriptures to do so. And there is no doubt that Jesus was not reprimanding them for searching the Scriptures per se. But there is also no doubt that their appraisal of Scripture and what they assumed they would find in it was mistaken. And that mistake had clouded their vision, preventing them from seeing what the Scripture was actually revealing: The true life giver. So technically, we do not find eternal life in the Scriptures, in the Scriptures we find Jesus, and Jesus gives us eternal life.

So in summary, the challenge with prooftexting is that it is wont to obfuscate the full meaning of the text. We could say, “Prooftext the Scriptures; for in so doing you think you find the truth…”, but that might be taking it a little too far.

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