Occasionally, I run into articles or discussions of people who say that the Bible has (no) contradictions. Perhaps you too hear similar things. Some people try to prove contradictions in the Bible as a way of discrediting the scripture. Those Christians who believe that alleged contradictions in the Bible somehow discredit the book take a defensive position and try to prove otherwise, which I believe doesn’t really help. Other people assert and point out contradictions in the Bible as a way of reminding people that the Bible requires a unique approach because it is an ancient text, and assumptions behind the book may not be fully aligned with our modern ways of thinking.
I don’t know where you stand on this matter, but I have decided to share my opinion as a Bible geek, minister, and former lawyer who revels in uncertainties. I hope it will help you clarify your mind. Before we go any further into this muddy theological-political and pastoral issue, let me lay down my cards for transparency. I personally don’t see anything threatening with contradictions in the Bible — I tend to believe that if there are contradictions in the Bible (which is highly probable), then it’s exactly how it should be. It must have contradictions if it is to be a holy book speaking to us from the past and into the future. I will tell you why I’m more than lenient to the idea of contradictions in the Bible, but let me say two things before we move on.
First, what I’m writing here is more of a pastoral response to people’s struggles than theological-academic research. So don’t make it into a theology game, heresy-hunting, or fire and brimstone thing, especially if you are an evangelical who subscribes to the 1978 Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy. Second, I will clarify several concepts as I understand them so that we may have more clarity for the purposes of a civil discussion.
We need to differentiate the following concepts: contradiction, paradox, and dilemma. Ultimately, it all boils down to the issue of what is truth and how we understand it (think of epistemology, ontology, and metaphysics), but those are beyond my meager analytical skills and this post’s scale. Moreover, neither paradox nor dilemma nor contradiction is separated from the others with iron bars. They all overlap to some extent, and we shouldn’t take abstract definitions made for the purpose of reasoning as the ultimate reality in and of itself.
So here we go. Contradiction is when two statements or facts mutually exclude each other so that at one time and in relation to the same thing only one of them can be true while the other must necessarily be false. For example, let’s say two witnesses describe the same event with the same participants. If one witness says that Jeff attacked James and the other witness says that Jeff did not attack James, they contradict one another, assuming that they’re describing the same event, the same people, and mean the same thing by the word “attacked.”
Paradox goes much deeper beyond mere facts or statements. It may or may not encompass contradictions, but its explanation is never easy. All paradoxes have some internal tension or disjoint that cannot be simply explained away by using logic. The Bible actually has a paradox (more on that later). Scientists study paradoxes hoping to understand some phenomena. The famous one I read about when I was young is Russell’s paradox, developed in math. Another famous paradox is Zeno’s, known as Achilles and the tortoise. A more down to earth paradox is right here in this sentence: “I’m a liar.” If I say to you, “I’m a liar,” would you believe me? Try to answer that question and think through its implications. Since I’m a liar and I told you so, you should not believe me because I’m telling a lie. But if I’m really a liar, when I recognize it, I’m also telling the truth, so you should believe me when I say, “I’m a liar.” So is it reasonable to believe me or not? Do I lie or tell the truth when I say, “I’m a liar”? This is just the tip of the iceberg. There are much more complex, deeper paradoxes underlying our entire lives.
Dilemma is about the hard choices we have to make. When a person faces several alternatives but wants none yet has to choose one, she is facing a dilemma. The Bible describes many dilemmas. In addition, the whole choice between either “the Bible is contradictory and therefore not trustworthy” or “the Bible is trustworthy and therefore cannot be contradictory (or paradoxical)” is a false dilemma based on false premises.
Okay, now that we have tried to delineate our main concepts, however inadequate it might be, let’s take the next step. Which one of these do we see in the Bible? I would say the Bible has all three of them, and to the Bible’s credit, this is good. Since the Bible has all three, I will use the word “tension” to indicate the concepts together unless it is necessary to single one out.
So, ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the pastoral theology of biblical intra-textual tensions — which is a fancy way of saying a practical and faithful approach to contradictions, dilemmas, and paradoxes within the biblical text. Since contradictions are a big deal in church circles and can cause people to argue and declare each other a heretic as if they know God’s mind, I’ll leave that one for the end. Instead, let me give a cursory glimpse into dilemmas and paradoxes.
The earliest and widely known dilemma described in the scripture is Abraham’s sacrificing of his son. He faced this dilemma because obeying God meant killing his own son, but sparing his own son meant disobeying God. This a dilemma because the character of God that emerges from this story does not look like the one you want to sacrifice your son for. You can also understand this as a paradox in the sense that it creates tension with the belief that God is merciful. Now don’t misunderstand me when I say that apparently God’s mercy somehow allows for putting a father into a very disturbing situation. In my little and sinful ways of thinking, I would not do that to Abraham. But I’m not God, and God is not me, so… somehow God’s mercy allows that for whatever reason. That’s a paradox: that God, who loved humanity as to sacrifice his own son, allowed one particular human being to be tested so severely does not square well with his infinite mercy, at least from the point of view of Abraham.
But there is a paradox in the biblical text in the stricter sense of the word as we defined the term. Flip your scripture open to Titus 1:12. The verse reads, “One of Crete’s own prophets has said it: ‘Cretans are always liars.’” I smell in this verse the liar’s paradox explained above, don’t you? Here is the cue for you. If Cretans are liars (and to that end always), why would you believe what one of their “own prophets” has said? As a Cretan, wouldn’t he be lying too? But then why would you not believe him if he had said or proved — by the very way of lying — what was affirmed by Titus, namely that ‘Cretans are always liars’? Of course, we can go down the rabbit hole and argue whether the term “Cretans” mean all or some Cretans. (If only some Cretans are always liars, then there is a chance that the prophet may not be part of the ones who always lie. In that case, the assumed paradox described in the verse is a false paradox.) But the apostle gives this dubious “proof” from “untrustworthy” people to discredit them more, which only heightens the statement’s potential of expressing a real paradox.
People don’t usually perceive paradoxes and dilemmas as a threat to their faith, but they do when they learn about contradictions in the scripture. To be honest, I do understand them because to some extent contradictions do threaten the veracity of the scripture although one can argue that it depends on what matters we’re exploring and where we see these contradictions. For example, the contradiction in the story of King Saul’s death may not be faith-threatening. The potential contradiction in whether King Saul was killed by his own arms bearer or by an Amalekite enemy may be tolerable since it’s about a minor fact buried deep in the recesses of the Old Testament.
But the (alleged) contradictions in the death and resurrection story of Christ? Now we’re getting into a mine field because Christ’s death and resurrection is a fact based upon an interpretation on which the whole edifice of the faith stands. How about the potentially contradictory instructions (if there are any) that affect the daily behavior and moral vision of a believer? You can see where this is going: some people look at the scripture as an instruction manual that is supposed to transform any gray areas of life into shining white or pitch black, and for that kind of a mindset, any uncertainty in the Bible can be disastrous. So, yes, to the credit of the people who see contradictions as a threat to the veracity of the Bible and to their faith — that potential does lurk within contradictions.
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