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The Problem with Proof Texts

I’ve restarted reading a book that I started a little while ago, and it reminded me of a problem that I picked up the first time, which was the use of proof texts. For those that may not be familiar with the term, a proof text is the practice of extracting a verse or couple of verses from the Bible in order to prove your point. What happens is that the verse is often stripped of its context, and as such may not actually mean what it is being said to mean.



Cover of "Religion Saves: And Nine Other ...
Cover via Amazon


In this book,¬†Religion Saves (and nine other misconceptions) by Mark Driscoll, he is answering a number of questions that had been asked. In the first question, on Birth Control, he lists a number of “Truths” which he says comprises the biblical world view. For each “truth” he lists some proof texts as evidence that it is a biblically based truth, and therefore, can be trusted. The Truth that I found interesting was truth number 4:


God authored that life begins at conception and declares that an unborn baby is a sacred life.


Now, as a statement itself, I have no issue with it, and I will expand on that later. What I do take exception to is the list of proof texts that are listed. Driscoll lists 8 texts, ranging from Exodus to Acts, as proof that life begins at conception, and that the unborn baby is sacred. In what might be a bit of a long post, I’ll take you through each text, and show why they cannot be used to prove this truth.


Exodus 1:16-17


“When you act as midwives to the Hebrew women, and see them on the birthstool, if it is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, she shall live.” But the midwives feared God; they did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but they let the boys live.


This first passage comes from the opening chapter of Exodus. Genesis ends with Joseph and his family settling in Egypt, and the Hebrew nation starting to grow there. But when a new Pharaoh takes charge, who doesn’t know Joseph, he starts to oppress the Hebrew people. The command to kill the babies are given to two Hebrew midwives, and it is written that they didn’t follow the command of the Pharaoh because they feared God.


Now, at this point in the story, the Hebrew people haven’t received the ten commandments, so it’s not because of fear of breaking the laws. Likewise, the laws as would be written in the Torah also haven’t been written down by this stage. So this fear of the Lord is more to do with the collected knowledge of God that they have so far. So, what do we know of how God had dealt with murder so far? In Genesis 4, Cain murdered his brother, Abel. Cain’s punishment was a curse, which will no longer produce food for him, and to be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth. We also hear God’s command as part of the covenant with Noah.


Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you; and just as I gave you the green plants, I give you everything. Only, you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood. For your own lifeblood I will surely require a reckoning: from every animal I will require it and from human beings, each one for the blood of another, I will require a reckoning for human life.

Whoever sheds the blood of a human,
by a human shall that persons blood be shed;
for in his own image
God made humankind.


Genesis 9:3-6


Here we see God declaring the punishment of murdering someone would be that they are put to death at the hands of someone else.


We also have a curious reference in Genesis 4:23, where Lamech, who was the Great-great-great-grandson of Cain, declares to his wives, “I have killed a man for wounding me, a young man for striking me.” (Genesis 4:23) There appears to be no repercussion for this action.


So, from what the two midwives would have known, the penalty for murdering someone ranges from nothing (if it is as an act of revenge), through to death, as ordained by God. So that’s where their fear was coming from, but why can’t it be used as a proof text for the sanctity of an unborn child?


Well, you need to remember that this period of time is well before the medical advances that we have today. They certainly wouldn’t have been able to tell the gender of the child before it was born, so the only time that it would be possible to determine whether it was a boy or a girl was once it had been born. So this text does nothing to determine whether life begins at conception or at birth, as it only deals with a child that is already born.


Exodus 21:22-25


When people who are fighting injure a pregnant woman so that there is a miscarriage, and yet no further harm follows, the one responsible shall be fined what the woman’s husband demands, paying as much as the judges determine. If any harm follows, then you shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.


Now, here’s something that is dealing with an unborn child. But, is it helpful to the discussion? While at first it seems that way, when you look at it closely, it’s not as helpful as it first seems.


Firstly, this is a clause with two parts. First, there is the situation of an injured pregnant woman that causes a miscarriage, but no further harm. In that situation, the husband determines the fine. Secondly, the injured pregnant woman has a miscarriage, and has some further harm. So for example, she has a miscarriage, and breaks her arm, or has a miscarriage and loses her life. In this case, the person who caused the harm has the harm applied to him. So if she has a miscarriage and breaks her arm, he would have his arm broken. If she has a miscarriage and loses her life, then he would lose his life as well. So there is a distinction between the born and unborn life here.


Secondly, when we look at the context, at the start of this section, we see the command “Whoever strikes a person mortally shall be put to death.” (Exodus 21:12) So, we can see the command that if someone is put to death by means of a strike (hit), then they should be put to death. But, just a few verses later, if a miscarriage (and no further harm) happens, then the punishment is a fine, as determined by the husband. Clearly in this text, there is a differentiation between an unborn baby and a born baby. As such, this text cannot be used to prove that life begins at conception, or that the unborn baby is sacred, as clearly the penalty for taking the life of an unborn child (causing a miscarriage) is so much less than the penalty for taking the life of a person.


Leviticus 18:21


You shall not give any of your offspring to sacrifice them to Molech, and so profane the name of your God: I am the Lord.


Simple one here, in that you cannot offer anyone as a sacrifice unless they have been born, therefore the distinction between the born and unborn here is not in consideration.


To expand a bit, Molech was an Ammonite god worshiped by the Phoenicians and Canaanites. It is associated with child sacrifice in order to gain favour to avoid divine retribution. What’s interesting here is that the command comes in the middle of a number of commands about sexual relations (All of Leviticus 18). So, I wonder whether the translation used by the NRSV is as accurate as it could be. The KJV translation reads “And thou shalt not let any of thy seed pass through the fire to Molech”, which would line up more with the rest of the chapter (seed being biblical speak for semen).


In either case, we are either talking about a child who has already been born being sacrificed, or a man sacrificing his seed prior to conception. As such, we cannot use this text as proof of life beginning at conception, nor that an unborn baby is sacred.


Jeremiah 7:31-32


And they go on building the high place of Topheth, which is in the valley of the son of Hinnom, to burn their sons and their daughters in the fire – which I did not command, nor did it come into my mind. Therefore, the days are surely coming, says the Lord, when it will no more be called Topheth, or the valley of the son of Hinnom, but the valley of Slaughter: for they will bury in Topheth until there is no more room.


Again, this is dealing with child sacrifice, which would take place of children already born, as such it cannot be used to prove that life begins at conception, nor that the unborn child is sacred.


Ezekiel 16:20-21


You took your sons and your daughters, whom you had borne to me, and these you sacrificed to them to be devoured. As if your whorings were not enough! You slaughtered my children and delivered them up as an offering to them.


Again, another passage dealing with the denouncing of child sacrifices, where a child must be born in order to then be killed and sacrificed, so again this cannot be used to prove that life begins at conception, nor that the unborn child is sacred.


Micah 6:7


Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”


This again is referring to child sacrifices, asking rhetorically what is required by the Lord in order to please him (note: the answer is not child sacrifices, but “to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God” Micah 6:8). So again, for the same reasons as above, this cannot be used to prove that life begins at conception, nor that the unborn child is sacred.


Matthew 2:16-18


When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:

“A voice was heard in Ramah,
wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”


So we turn to the New Testament here, and a story similar to the one we started with. Where Pharaoh ordered all male babies killed at birth, here Herod is ordering the murder of all baby boys under the age of two, because that was when the star appeared according to the calculations of the wise men. So again, we are not talking about an unborn child, but the death of children who have already been born. So again, this cannot be used to argue that life begins at conception, or that the unborn child is sacred.


Acts 7:19


He dealt craftily with our race and forced our ancestors to abandon their infants so that they would die.


If the passage from Matthew was similar to our first passage, then this should sound very familiar again. Stephen is speaking to the council, and he traces the history of the Hebrew nation, and he refers to the story of the order to murder infants as we referred to earlier. As we dismissed that passage, we can similarly dismiss this passage.




So, of those eight passages in supposed support of the truth that “God authored that life begins at conception and declares that an unborn baby is a sacred life”, how many can we actually use? None. In fact, depending on how you read some of them, they could actually be used to speak against that truth.


As you can see, the use of proof texts is not a viable way of arguing. And, with more and more attacks on Christianity and Christian beliefs by people with very clever minds, we have to be very careful with how we use these texts. It is only through careful exegesis, along with practical reflection, that we can fully develop our arguments.


As I said earlier, I have no issue with the statement. I believe that is can stand biblically, as there are multiple areas in the bible that states that we are created by God, we are created in his image, and that he knew us in our mother’s womb – and sometimes even before we were formed in the womb. Secondly, based on my reflection on my experiences in God’s creation, I know that the baby in my wife’s womb is sacred, as it is alive already. When we had to get an early scan at about 8 weeks, already we could see the baby moving, its heart beating, and waving its stubs that will be formed into limbs. Based on what I read in the Bible, backed up by what I have experienced in my life experiences, I can affirm that truth.


So, when developing a biblically based argument, make sure that you do careful exegesis, including looking at the context, and confirming it with your own experiences in this world.



0 thoughts on “The Problem with Proof Texts

  1. Like you, I thought this chapter was far from Driscoll’s best work. I sometimes wonder if there is too much pressure on authors to simplify their arguments that they resort to proof-texts.

    Obviously these texts proove the sanctity of life which is a valid point for Driscoll to make in his argument that “God authored life….” but does nothing for the rest of his statement that life begins at conception. The frustrating part to this is that suitable texts DO exist in scripture which hold up to the tests applied here. Yet they haven’t been used (Psalm 139 and Jeremiah 1:5 for example).

    Just a different take on Leviticus 18 though. I believe that context is established in v.3 – that this section of law is against the detestable practises of Egypt and Canaan. That being the case, it is not a section of law set apart for sexual purity, but is a prohibition from engaging in the Canaanite practices whic God hates. It just so happens that sexual sin dominated Gods concern.

    Also, most respected translations agree with NRSV on the translation of seed. Remembering that “Seed” formed the basis for the Hebraic hope for the promised Messiah (Gen 3:15), and the coming Son – translation of seed to children here, then, is valid.

    Nevertheless, you’re exactly right. Proof texting is damaging our credibility in a literate, free-thinking world. No longer will vague assertions or dogma cut it today and we need preachers and scholars of the world to responsibly teach and apply the Word of the Living God.

    Blessings to you in your ministry guys! Praying that God will meet your every need today.

  2. Great work here. Text without context needs to be redeemed in the church.

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