Proof-texting and Mary

Today’s post will be kind of sketchy. I want to look at two different criticisms of things we Catholics believe regarding Mary: That she was sinless and that we pray the rosary. A bit random, but the criticisms point to a deficiency in Bible study. That is, the criticisms use proof-texting, but proof-texting has its problems. So I guess the real theme of today’s post is about the dangers of proof-texting the Bible. (The phrase “proof-texting” means to derive meaning from a single verse, alone and without its context.)

First I’d like to explore a common criticism against our belief that Mary was sinless. This criticism uses a verse from St. Paul:

23 For there is no distinction; since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. (Rom 3:23)

The phrase “all have sinned,” says this criticism, means exactly that: all people in all times and places have sinned. Mary is part of “all,” therefore Mary sinned.

A fair reply to this criticism is to first note the context of Rom 3:23. The context is an argument of St. Paul, to demonstrate that merely being born a Jew or practicing the works of the Law do not justify one before God; it is faith in Jesus Christ that justifies. Verses 9 through 20 start the argument (let’s call this part argument A) by showing the works of the Law did not justify; Paul quotes from the Hebrew Scriptures to back up his point. Verses 21 through 31 turn the argument (let’s call this part argument B): if the works of the Law do not justify, then what does justify? Faith in Jesus is the answer. Now, the above quote is actually Paul himself quoting from psalms 14/53 (they are approximately duplicates, so you can pick either one). Here, Paul is backing up his argument by quoting from Scripture. It is interesting that he uses it in argument B and not in argument A, because, by itself, it seems to prove Paul’s argument A that the Jews are as unjustified as the gentiles – the Jews are part of “all” (same as Mary). The reason why Paul uses it where he does has to do with context. We know that St. Paul was a great Bible scholar, a student of Rabbi Gamaliel. He knew the Old Testament quite well and he was trained to teach it and to argue from it. St. Paul uses quite a bit of what appears to be proof-texting in his epistles: throwing in a single verse in the midst of his arguments. This is opposed to the school of Gamaliel. This also leads to his arguments not seeming to make sense on the surface. In the above example, he puts Ps 14/53 in the wrong place in his argument, right? I don’t think so. I think that when St. Paul quotes a single verse, he expects the reader to recall that verse in its original context. What exactly did that verse mean in psalm 14/53? We are to go back to the psalm and gather its context. Bible scholar Scott Hahn has likened this Pauline technique to a modern day zip file used by computers. It’s a convenient way to compress a lot into a little – when he wants to bring in large passages from the Old Testament, he merely quotes one verse for convenience and the reader is expected to research the context. This kind of expectation is not uncommon for scholars like Paul.

When we look at psalms 14 or 53, we quickly get a context that modifies the meaning of “all.” In these psalms, it does not mean all people in the world. The psalm begins,

1 The fool says in his heart, "There is no God.
They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds,
there is none that does good.
2 The LORD looks down from heaven upon the children of men,
to see if there are any that act wisely,
that seek after God.
3 They have all gone astray, they are all alike corrupt;
there is none that does good,
no, not one. (Ps 14:1-3)

So far, the context seems to clearly say that all people are evil and all sin. But then note what follows:

4 Have they no knowledge, all the evildoers
who eat up my people as they eat bread,
and do not call upon the LORD?
5 There they shall be in great terror,
for God is with the generation of the righteous.
6 You would confound the plans of the poor,
but the LORD is his refuge.
7 O that deliverance for Israel would come out of Zion!
When the LORD restores the fortunes of his people,
Jacob shall rejoice, Israel shall be glad. (Ps 14:4-7)

In verse 4, God makes a distinction between “all the evildoers” and “my people.” This gives context: the psalm is about the gentiles who are fools, who do not believe in God; in contrast to the Israelites, who are God’s people, who are righteous. Therefore, the “all” of v.3 does not mean all people; it means all of the fools who do not believe in God, who do not call upon the Lord. The context is clear: there are people in God’s covenant who are righteous (v.5) and there are people outside of God’s covenant who sin.

Now we can bring this context into Paul’s argument in Romans. His argument A is to show that works of the Law do not justify and, therefore, merely being a Jew will not justify. Psalm 14/53 clearly does not work here, as it implies the Jews are, in fact, righteous before God. It does work in his argument B, where Paul speaks of faith in Christ, which is the new covenant – Psalm 14 works here as it says those outside of the covenant are not righteous. The whole theme of Romans is that the terms of the covenant have changed with Jesus and Jews must change with these new terms. The Jews, unless they change with the new terms, are now among the non-righteous same as everyone else. (As a side note: the covenant is one and the same; our covenant today is the same as Israel’s covenant long ago; only the terms have changed. We have no reason, therefore, to boast that Christians are somehow better than Jews; we are indebted to them for the historical covenant.)

Now back to Mary. The proof-text argument against Mary’s sinlessness is not valid, because it assumes the word “all” in Rom 3:23 means all people, but it does not mean that in context. This is an example of the problem with proof-texting. It’s easy to do, but Scripture requires study into its deeper meanings. And nowhere is this more true than when studying the epistles of St. Paul.

Now on to the rosary. A common argument against praying the rosary is to quote from Jesus:

7 And in praying do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard for their many words. (Mt 6:7)

The rosary, with its repetative Hail Mary’s, fits this description, says the argument. Therefore, the rosary is in direct violation of Jesus’ admonishment.

Jesus did not say here that one should avoid many words, for Jesus Himself prayed for long periods of time and we have one known case of Him repeating His prayers (Mt 26:44). Rather, Jesus here says we should not do “as the Gentiles do.” What is it that the Gentiles do? This qualifying phrase establishes context. If I tell my child, “Don’t eat like a baby,” I am not telling him to not eat; I am telling him that when he eats, he should not play with his food, which is what babies do when they eat. The context exists because my child knows what the qualifying phrase “like a baby” means. The problem of this criticism of the rosary is that its adherents do not know what the phrase “like the Gentiles” mean.

We know that in Jesus day and prior, it was common among many pagans to recite a long litany of the names of their gods in order to get the gods’ attention. The technique was like knocking on a door repeatedly. We even have an example in Scripture, when Elijah taunted the prophets of Baal for this very practice:

26 And (they) called on the name of Baal from morning until noon, saying, “O Baal, answer us!” But there was no voice and no one answered… 27 And at noon Elijah mocked them, saying, “Cry aloud, for he is a god; either he is musing, or he has gone aside, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened.” (1 Kgs 18:26-27)

By using the qualifying phrase, “like the Gentiles,” Jesus teaches us not to adopt the technique of the pagans who repeatedly called on the name of their gods to get the gods’ attention. I would assume they established this technique because, as their prayers were directed to nothing real, they received no answer and rationalized that their gods were otherwise engaged and required more tenacious knocking. The true God, Jesus teaches us, hears us immediately and we need only call on His name once: Our Father.

So, the moral of this post is: avoid proof-texting and avoid being tricked by those who proof-text.