Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Thomas Jefferson and Proof Texting

Wicked people and impostors will go from bad to worse, deceiving others and being deceived. But as for you, continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it, and how from childhood you have known the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.II Timothy 3:13-17
This passage from the Second Letter to Timothy includes the declaration, “All scripture is inspired by God,” which is often cited as “proof” that every verse of the Bible is literally true, and that every verse of Scripture is as important as every other.

The ironies in this are wonderful.

First, because there is wide consensus among biblical scholars that St. Paul did not write the letters to Timothy. Second, because the words “sacred writings” and “scripture” would have referred only to what we now call the Hebrew Scriptures. There was no Christian canon at the time the letter was written. And beyond that, no one who has spent any time reading and studying the Bible would seriously argue that anything in the Book of Judges is as “useful for teaching” as the Books of Micah and Amos.

A more general (and more painful) irony is that biblical literalism is growing as biblical literacy is declining. We have more people declaring their literal belief in a text with which they are not very familiar.

The co-conspirator of biblical literalism is proof texting. This is the method of argument by which one “proves” that something is true by citing a verse of Scripture. The problem, as Shakespeare famously noted, is that even the devil can quote Scripture.

Proof texting fits perfectly with our cultural inability to pay attention to anything for more than a few seconds. There is no need for a broad understanding of context or history or theology, just find a verse here or there and the argument is settled. Life is simpler without complexity or ambiguity.

The tendency to literalism and proof texting can be seen in secular contexts as well.

Recently I have received several different electronic communications which used a quotation from Thomas Jefferson as a tag line: "A government big enough to give you everything you need, is a government big enough to take away everything that you have...."
As I read it over, and thought about it, I realized that it didn’t sound like Jefferson to me. So I did what any curious 21st century person would do, I Googled it. Turns out that Jefferson never wrote anything like that. The statement originates with Gerald R. Ford, who said, "A government big enough to give you everything you want is a government big enough to take from you everything you have," in an address to a joint session of Congress on August 12, 1974. And we should note that President Ford said that government cannot supply every “want.” My guess (I am hardly a Ford scholar) is that for Gerald Ford the distinction between “wants” and “needs” would be the heart of the argument.

Interestingly, when I got to the Jefferson web site, I found a very long list of quotations wrongly attributed to Thomas Jefferson. Here are two you may have seen:

"When governments fear the people, there is liberty. When the people fear the government, there is tyranny. The strongest reason for the people to retain the right to keep and bear arms is, as a last resort, to protect themselves against tyranny in government."

"Dissent is the highest form of patriotism."

In most cases, the spurious quotations look almost authentic. They take an idea that sounds like Jefferson and bend it slightly to make it fit another argument. In other cases, I was reminded of the warning from II Timothy, “Wicked people and impostors will go from bad to worse, deceiving others and being deceived.”

Thomas Jefferson was a complex figure. He had great insights, but he also had his failings, and he was in many ways, both good and bad, a person of his time. But we accord him a reverence far beyond what we ascribe to other national figures. A quotation from Jefferson carries a lot more authority than a quotation from Gerry Ford.


  1. I think if folks took the time to read about the founding fathers they would be very surprised to find how "human" they really were. There are some VERY fine recent works about the period that read like good novels.

  2. Great post. I find one of my biggest issues today with Christianity as a whole, especially in the states, is this proof texting. With so many translations it is sometimes amusing to see people using two different translations get into a tangle. I could only hope that more Priests, Pastors, or elders of the various churches would do more to curb this very American tradition of biblical literalism.
    Love your blog and hope to read more thought provoking posts :)