In a recent article I wrote about preliminary questions which a Christian could use to assess the charge that the Bible contains contradictions. If you recall, I noted that not all alleged contradictions are of the same kind. In preparing to answer our objector intelligently it would be prudent to assess whether or not the alleged contradiction is, by nature, an actual contradiction. Before answering, first ask, is this allegation of a contradiction between two biblical statements?
This is a very important question, for one of the tactics you will encounter is for your objector to offer you a “Bible Contradiction” which is really a contradiction between:
- A bible verse (or passage) and one possible interpretation of another verse (or passage)
- One possible interpretation of a verse (or passage) and one possible interpretation of another verse (or passage)
- A biblical doctrine and one possible interpretation of a verse (or passage)
The common theme in these bullet points is the presence of a possible interpretation of a bible verse or passage.
The Role of Interpretation
The early church saw the importance of the historical-grammatical method of biblical interpretation over and against the allegorical method in the hermeneutics produced by the Alexandrian school and the Antioch school. The risk of subjectivity is minimized when the interpretation of a verse (or a passage, chapter, or entire book) is undertaken by first examining the grammar, literary context, vocabulary, etc. The scholars from Antioch championed this method and it continues to stand out as the most reliable and useful method of interpretation. We should not only consult the linguistic attributes, but also the historical circumstances of 1) the author, 2) the primary audience, and (if applicable) 3) the content itself.
This method has served interpreters well throughout the years. When answering the question what does Bible verse X mean? it is easily answered. Verse X means what the author intended for it to mean. Granted, some prophetic passages which awaited future fulfillment (and the concurrent realization/understanding) had meanings which the author may or may not have been fully aware of. This feature of prophecy is to be expected in light of God’s role in the inspiration and composition of scripture. Even in these cases, the author’s intended meaning must be taken into account when investigating prophetic fulfillment.
For our present concern, the role of interpretation must be addressed when you are offered a potential bible contradiction. Ultimately, we are all interpreters of what we read. Some are more sophisticated, others are less capable, still others may be in between either extreme. Access to knowledge about bible languages, English grammar (for those of us native English speakers), relevant history, use of context, and an overall ability to apply these tools will vary from person to person.
It is no secret that among those who self-identify as Christians there are a variety of Bible interpretations. In some cases, this is due to the availability of historical information, knowledge of Greek and/or Hebrew, access to other relevant information, etc. In other cases, factors exist which also take bearing on an interpretation. These could include attempts to harmonize verse X with another passage, finding an interpretation which is applicable to (their) unique cultural situation, seeking answers to questions that are relevant to their generation and/or local congregation. Some otherwise capable interpreters may also have competing allegiances which skew their ability to interpret some passages. The list may continue, but the point is clear. For one reason or another, faithful believers have (and will continue to) come up with contradictory interpretations of the Bible.
The Role of Consistency
Keeping all of this in mind, it is now time to re-visit the charge that the Bible contains contradictions (when the “contradiction” is really between a Bible passage and one possible interpretation of another passage). This is to be expected. It is the duty of every Bible interpreter (Christian or otherwise) to seek consistency. When it becomes apparent that your interpretation of one verse will directly contradict another verse you must take action. The goal of this action is to achieve some kind of overall consistency. The way you seek harmony will reveal much more than your intellectual acumen, it will display presuppositions that are part and parcel of your worldview.
The Christian Worldview. When a follower of Jesus Christ faces a potential contradiction their approach (if consistent with the Christian attitude and values expressed in the New Testament) will be humble at the outset. As those who have submitted their minds to the creator of all things, they will prayerfully investigate the interpretation in question, re-tracing their steps to detect any mistakes. If errors become apparent they will make the necessary corrections. If no mistakes are forthcoming, then they will thoroughly investigate the other passage using the same process.
This method of study and exegesis usually weeds out most alleged contradictions. When it does not, the Christian humbly seeks help from the pastors and teachers whom God has gifted to the church (1 Corinthians 12:28; Ephesians 4:11). Their education and research will shed further light and aid in achieving a better interpretation of these passages. If the harmony sought is still not apparent, the Christian does not throw up their arms in surrender. They admit that they have found a verse or passage which presently eludes their capabilities to fully comprehend. After all, one’s interpretation of the Bible is not the Bible itself. Since the Bible has proved itself to be harmonious countless times already it is reasonable to trust that the coherence of God’s word is not overthrown by a human failure to be perfect interpreters.
The Non-Christian Worldview. There are many worldviews which could be identified as non-Christian. Despite their important differences they all have similarities which impact their ability to seek consistency. For the purpose of this article, I would like to speak to two of these: intellectual autonomy, and the practice of borrowing aspects from the Christian worldview.
- Intellectual autonomy. Primary among worldview features that deny biblical revelation is the unquestionable intellectual autonomy of self. In stark contrast to the humble investigation of a Christ follower, the non-Christian assumes his intellectual accountability is only to himself. Furthermore, because the self is the highest intellectual authority the non-Christian assumes the right to admit certain evidence as well as to ignore other evidence. The historical and grammatical elements of interpretation are, therefore, only able to assist the interpreter once they have been admitted into consideration. Sure, most non-Christians will “follow the evidence wherever it leads them.” The hindrance first comes in when they autonomously decide what can and can’t be used as evidence. The most obvious expression of this autonomy occurs when an alleged contradiction is harmonized by a Christian and then arbitrarily rejected by the objector.
- Borrowing from the Christian Worldview. The striving for consistency (to the end of justifying the Bible or dismissing it) is something which non-Christians engage in. They would be hard pressed to justify their use of the logical laws which they tacitly apply (as desired by the whim of their autonomous fiat). Logical laws are not tangible, universally binding and exist apart from any one human’s ability to comprehend them. Christians rightly use logic because it is an inescapable aspect of being made in the image of God. It is the onus of the non-Christian to explain why logic isn’t an arbitrary application of their subjective opinions. Where did logic come from? Why is it binding upon all people? Logic fits perfectly into the Christian worldview, it is very much out of place elsewhere.
Because non-Christians approach the Bible as autonomous interpreters, they take the liberty to identify a contradiction between an interpretation of a passage and the content of another passage. Why shouldn’t they? For a Christian it would seem delusional to equate any one possible interpretation of a passage with inspired scripture itself, especially if it directly contradicts a scriptural statement elsewhere. This equating, however, could easily be made by the one who assumes himself to be the highest authority, beyond which no appeal is necessary.
Can We Trust the Bible?
If we interpret everything we read, as I mentioned earlier, then how much stock can we really put our trust in the Bible? Isn’t it really just our interpretation we’re trusting? Good question! When I was assessing a failure of non-Christian worldviews I noted how God created us in his image (Genesis 1:26-27; 9:6; James 3:9). Part of that image is displayed in our rationality, our ability to reason, use logic, make observations, observe patterns, etc. He also inspired his word (2 Timothy 3:16; 2 Peter 1:21), and made provisions for it to be preserved for later generations. In sum, God was hands-on in creating us and in the production and preservation of the Bible. Given these two realities, the question we should be asking is why can’t we trust the Bible?
Enter sin. As the story goes, the Bible discusses our fall into sin through our first father, Adam (Genesis 3; Romans 5:12-21). Acting on behalf of his progeny (the entire human race), Adam and Even rebelled against God and sin impacted not only them, but us also. This impact was far reaching, it brought death to a world of life (Genesis 2:17; 3:3, 18-19, 22; Romans 5:12, 14; cf. James 1:15). Beyond a mortal existence, sin also impacted our minds. The first sin was irrational – Eve reasoned autonomously by assuming she had the final say as to whether she should believe God or the serpent. Adam, who was with her (Genesis 3:6), followed along by believing the same lie. One of the consequences of this irrational sin was irrational reasoning. Our ability to reason and think correctly (to think they way God intended for his creatures to think) was marred, but not destroyed.
Remember, God gave the large bulk of his word to us post-fall. Our ability to rightly understand it will inevitably be threatened, but not annihilated. The people of Jesus’ day understood what he said to them (for example, the lawyers in Luke 11:45; the Jews in John 8:59). Jeremiah’s audience was able to understand his proclamations about their coming punishment (Jeremiah 26:7-9). Scripture is replete with examples of individuals and groups who were capable of an intellectual comprehension of God’s word, but responded to it with rebellion and unbelief. Like Adam and Eve, they assumed their own autonomy and exercised a pretended liberty by rejecting and disbelieving God.
We are all interpreters and fully capable of seeing the harmony in scripture. Those whom God has impacted with new life in Jesus Christ are, perhaps, best capable of seeing the coherence in God’s word. While submitting to the lordship of Christ, one can not reason autonomously. The Holy Spirit helps believers better understand the mind that revealed Scripture (Romans 8:27; 2 Corinthians 2:10). By virtue of this reality they will have one less disadvantage than the non-Christian in the process of interpretation. Is it possible to know what the Bible means? Yes!
The role of interpretation can not be ignored when assessing possible Bible contradictions. It will sometimes be the case that what an objector alleges as a Bible contradiction is nothing more than a poor interpretation being elevated to the level of scripture itself. Logic is not native to the non-Christian’s worldview. They must borrow from the Christian worldview to attempt to “expose” the Bible as inconsistent. But they do this autonomously, not in submission to Christ as Lord. Autonomy is a necessary precondition before elevating any conflicting interpretation of scripture to the status of God’s word.
Any given passage of scripture will have multiple (sometimes conflicting) interpretations. Rather than assuming autonomy, and making intellectual shortcuts, it is preferable to align ourselves with the God who both 1) created us and 2) gave us his written word. The lure of autonomy is epistemic certainty which inevitably results in pride. On the other hand, submitting to God in the intellectual realm produces humility and openness to obtaining genuine knowledge as his creatures.