Proof-texting and Topical Preaching

"What is proof-texting?"
That is what someone asked me the other day, as I was cautioning against it. I replied:

Proof-texting refers to using Scripture to prove your point, without reference to the context of that Scripture. It is irresponsible exegesis, lazy theology and, I might add, inadequate preaching. (Can you tell I have feelings about this?) When we proof-text we are coming to Scripture to make it back up what we already believe and want to enlist Scripture’s authority to defend. It’s very easy when proof-texting to twist and contort the meaning of a passage so that it says something it never meant to say. For example “May the LORD keep watch between you and me when we are away from each other” (Genesis 31:49), might sound like a nice Christian Hallmark saying (and has been used that way) but the context tells us that Jacob is invoking God’s wrath on whoever breaks the pact he just made with Laban.
Good use of Scripture requires us to come with an open heart, to read without an agenda, and allow Scripture not to tell us the answer to our question, but which question it is attempting to answer (known only by literary and historical context) and the answer it offers.

This question was followed up by mention of topical preaching. Here was my reply:

Indeed, topical preaching is prone to proof-texting. Though, in it’s better forms it only enlists passages that (if read in context) do sincerely teach on the topic, it nonetheless tends to dissuade hearers from serious study, and make them prone to irresponsible proof-texting. The best topical preaching, in my inexperienced opinion is to take a single text on a subject, and dive into it deeply enough to discover that the context reinforces the meaning of the text as an example of teaching on the desired topic. I have several times chosen a text with an particular ‘message’ in mind, and after careful study, been forced to abandon this message in favor of what the text (+context) seem to actually be teaching. 

The upside of topical preaching is that it is immediately relevant. The downside is hearers haven’t learned how to find relevance in Scripture themselves. You might say it is giving a man a fish, rather than teaching him to fish. Of course, if you’re trying to persuade someone of the value of learning to fish, feeding them a fish is the right place to start…but it’s not a very sustainable way to make a community of fishermen.

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