Doctrine Ch.10 - Proof Texts

Flat-earthers, Christian Scientists, and others support their viewpoints from the Bible but make errors in how they do this. We can avoid similar common mistakes in reasoning.

Can the Bible be made to say whatever you want? You might well think so when you see Christians arguing polar-opposite points from the Bible text, or appearing to make the Bible say strange things. However, when we look closely, we can see that errors in biblical interpretation usually happen because of common mistakes in reasoning.

       For example, Cosmas Indicopleustes, a sixth-century monk, traveled widely and wrote a long book called Christian Topography, with wonderful maps and illustrations. He wanted to prove that the pagans were wrong to teach that the earth was a sphere, and he used the Bible to prove that the earth is flat—along with many arguments citing “obvious” facts.1 He often referred to Isaiah 40:22, which describes the world as a “circle” (Hebrew khug). He has a point, because this word is related to mekhugah, “compass,” an item that is used for drawing a circle on a flat surface (Isa 44:13), when instead Isaiah could have used the word kaddur, meaning a “sphere” or “ball,” as used in Isaiah 22:18. However, Cosmas was nevertheless mistaken to use this verse to conclude the earth is flat—and it would be just as wrong to conclude from it that the earth is a sphere. Isaiah shouldn’t be used to prove either, because this ignores the context of the verse and applies it contrary to the purpose of the text, which is to glorify God and not to teach astronomy. In this way, ignoring the context of the text when we read it can lead to wrong interpretations.

       A second example of a common mistake in interpreting the Bible comes from Christian Scientists, who argue that we can defeat illness when we realize that it is not real but merely part of the “dream” that we live in. They find this dream revealed in Genesis 2:21, which says that God put Adam to sleep but doesn’t say that he woke up—the implication being that we are all part of Adam’s dream.2 Their interpretation isn’t quite as simplistic as this summary suggests, but it is nevertheless mistaken because they base their argument on silence. That is, they came to a conclusion based on something the text doesn’t say and where the silence isn’t particularly surprising. It is true that some silences in the Bible are significant, such as the lack of any mention or even a hint that Jesus ever sinned. But most silences are insignificant because we shouldn’t expect everything to be spelled out. For example, the Gospels never mention that Jesus ever went to the toilet. This silence led some early church fathers to conclude that he had a different kind of digestion so he never had to do anything so undivine!3 So the argument from silence can occasionally be valid, but it should be applied with caution.

       The ancient rabbis made a third common mistake: they mixed up generalized and particular statements. God told humanity in general to “Be fruitful and increase in number” (Gen 1:28), but the rabbis regarded this as a command for every individual to seek to get married and have children. They concluded that every couple had to have at least two children—either two boys (like Moses) or a boy and a girl (like God did)—yes, they really did reason in that way!4 We often make a similar though opposite error with regard to promises in the Bible, such as God’s assurance to Abraham that “I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.” Although we can learn about the general character of God from this—that he looks out for his people—this doesn’t mean that each of us will be protected and enriched just like God promised to Abraham. We shouldn’t generalize from a particular instance or apply a general statement to every individual.

5-minute summary

(More videos here)

The weakest link

Mistakes in biblical interpretation are sometimes silly and easily avoided, but they can also have serious consequences when it comes to undermining the trustworthiness of the Bible. If you try to persuade someone to a particular viewpoint by a series of arguments, they will pick on the weakest one to argue against it. If they can show that it falls flat, they will conclude (probably wrongly) that your whole case is flawed. This isn’t a logical conclusion, but it is the way our minds work, and we all tend to do it unless we guard strongly against it. It is part of the reason why so many people reject the Bible. Because they have heard its text being used in a faulty way to prove something silly, they wrongly conclude that the Bible can’t be trusted or that it’s just foolish.

       For example, the modern homosexuality debate has produced rather a lot of misuses of Scripture. This is probably because the debate is so heated, and people are largely speaking to their own supporters rather than actually trying to engage with the other side. Interpreters from one extreme want to remove any mention of homosexuality from the Bible, so they argue that we can’t know what the Greek word arsenokoitēs means. It is true that the word occurs only twice (1 Cor 6:9 and 1 Tim 1:10) and that it occurs nowhere outside the Bible—except in later comments about these passages. However, it is clear that it is a combination of two words: arsēn and koitē, which mean “man” and “bed,” respectively. And it is fairly obvious that they are combined in this way because they follow each other in the ancient Greek translation of Leviticus 20:13: “If a man beds a male [arsenos koitēn] …” (my translation). Since this combination of words occurs nowhere else, no reader in the first century would have failed to see that link with the prohibition in Leviticus.

       Some argue, from the other side, that “God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve.” This argument falls down as soon as you imagine the opposite. If God had made Adam and Steve, the first pair of humans would have been the last, because they couldn’t have had children. Logically, therefore, the first couple had to be a mixed-sex couple. Even if God wanted 50 percent of the couples in Genesis to be same-sex (instead of the 0 percent we find there), he would still have had to make the first couple male and female. “Not Adam and Steve” makes a catchy slogan, but it is poor exegesis.

       Argument from silence is also used in this debate when people say that prohibitions of homosexuality don’t refer to long-term committed relationships because these aren’t mentioned in the Bible. However, arguments from silence only work when one would overwhelmingly expect something to be said. For example, the law that says you cannot marry your wife’s sister includes the words “while your wife is living” (Lev 18:18). Without those words, it would be clear that you could never marry your wife’s sister, just as you can never marry your mother. Similarly, the law about men sleeping together could have included the words “unless they are committed to each other,” but without a phrase like this, it clearly includes all men. One can’t argue that the silence with regard to long-term commitment means that this is excluded.

Jesus’ wisdom

Jesus used the Bible in a responsible way, without ignoring the context, arguing from silence, or applying particulars as generalizations. In a debate about divorce, he quoted, “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh” (Matt 19:5, citing Gen 2:24). The verse he cited from Genesis is about humans in general and not only about Adam and Eve, so he wasn’t generalizing from a particular. Furthermore, its original purpose was to teach what marriage was like, so he wasn’t applying it contrary to this. He emphasized the central point of the text: that couples should become one and remain united.

       Jesus also didn’t misuse this general text by making it apply to every individual couple in particular. Some marriages do become broken when one partner breaks their vows, and Jesus allowed for divorce in such cases. He used this text to argue that divorce shouldn’t happen, but he didn’t use it to show that divorce cannot happen when one partner does repeatedly break their vows.

       And Jesus didn’t misuse the text by emphasizing an inconsequential detail, such as forbidding couples from living in a parental home on the basis that the text says that they “leave” their parents. This isn’t the intended purpose of the text, so we shouldn’t create a command out of a detail that just happens to be mentioned.

       Returning to the modern homosexuality debate, people make this error when they argue that this verse defines marriage as a man plus a woman. Clearly this is the assumption behind the text, because it doesn’t say “when two people,” but it isn’t the purpose of the text. Genesis 2:24 is concerned with the strength and closeness of marriage, not its sexual makeup. This text could have excluded homosexual marriages by (for example) following the words “united to his wife” with “but not to a man.” Or (just to be fair), Genesis could have promoted homosexual marriages by adding “or his husband.” But it did neither. So the text shouldn’t be used as proof one way or the other.

       I cringe when I hear the two sides of this debate using these “proofs” for their case. The problem with using prooftexts in this way is that we debase the whole Bible. It is also a poor way to argue, because when people see through our weak argument, they are likely to throw out everything else we say. But even worse, they may reject the Bible itself because of us. Even when our conclusion is correct, it is counterproductive and damaging to base it on irrelevant or misleading texts. If we really want to take the Bible seriously, we should take extra care not to misuse it. With Bible interpretation, as with most things, the ends don’t justify the means.

1^ See the full text at
2^ An official article on this doctrine is L. Ivimy Gwalter, “The Truth of Being versus the Dream” (
3^ Clement, Stromata 7.59 (
4^ See the debate at Tosefta Yebamot 8.4 (

This was previously published in a similar form in Christianity magazine

Your comments can start a discussion

Share this page on social media and your comments could start a discussion among your friends. Any link you create this way will continue working even after this month when the topic will no longer be available on this site. So new visitors to your discussion will still be able to read the discussion topic so long as they use your social media link.
  • On Facebook the topic, then go to your Facebook page to add your comment.
    If you want me to see your comments, mention "David Instone-Brewer"
  • On Twitter tweet the topic, then go to your Twitter account to read it.
    If you want me to see your comments, mention "@DavidIBrewer"

Subscribe to each new monthly release

● To follow on Twitter: 
● To follow by Email:        
● On Facebook, first "Like" it:
Then, to ensure you see the post each month, in "Following" tick "See first"
("Default" means Facebook decides whether to show it to you or not).