But… let’s pause for a minute and approach the issue of contradiction in the Bible from a different angle. After all, if loving God allows so many unlovable ugliness to transpire in the world, the Creator may very well have let contradictions slip into the scripture. Let’s assume that there are some real contradictions in the Bible intentionally allowed by God (there probably are some) that cannot be explained away by intellectual calisthenics or archaeological findings. Let’s say some of these contradictions were introduced unknowingly, and some were intentionally done to the text just to discredit it. (And let’s assume the universal mean-spirited conspiracy spanning throughout the ages that God turned upside-down for good, shall we?)
Here is the question: would these contradictions then threaten the veracity of the scripture and its capacity to teach certain truths about God that enable us to live a meaningful life relevant to Christ? My answer is no — it would not as long as those contradictions did not overwhelm the core patterns of the scripture. And that is the case with the Bible: read it from cover-to-cover, follow its details, and discern its patterns. The contradictions you may find won’t be upending to any significant pattern.
I’m going to give you several reasons why God would allow contradictions to accumulate in the scripture and why that would not take an iota away from God’s grace or the scripture’s veracity and capacity to teach us the truth about God. Since the scripture emerged with the assistance of the Holy Spirit, theologically it is reasonable to say that the contradictions in the Bible are part of God’s plan. Why?
First, contradictions help us avoid bibliolatry. We realize that the Bible is a book, and we should not treat it as something more than that. Yes, it is a repository of revelation, but that doesn’t turn it into something equal to God that is virtually worshipped (bibliolatry). Contradictions in the Bible encourage us to hold our theological views loosely to the degree that it protects our view of God from ossification and idolization. This may look like a purely theological hair-splitting game, but it does have real life consequences. When our views of God ossify and turn into a rigid idol cut from an elusive reality and the mystery of a hidden God, we tend to imagine that God’s infinite love is limited to those who believe like us. Thus, we make our concept of God and our experience of the Lord into our idol; we approach God as if he is in our possession. The Lord becomes our God who does our bidding, virtually acting exactly like us over everyone else. You see this same behavior in a terrorist who cuts off a person’s head, thinking that somehow God asks him to do such cruelty because that’s exactly what the scripture says and that saying should be followed to the letter. Contradiction in the scripture — if we take their theological implications seriously — help us avoid these outcomes because they make us realize that our beliefs have some uncertainty or vagueness for good. Our beliefs need to be balanced and nuanced through reasoning.
Second, contradictions in the Bible are tests for humans. Through them the scripture exposes arrogant seekers whose haughty intellectual attempts to fully understand God hide unconscious urges to master Creator via their mind. They never move beyond the contradictions in the scripture because they want God to be on their own terms: smooth, logical (as humans understand the logic), systematically explainable, or intellectually apprehensible like a machine — predictable. For them, God must be as reasonable as they are, fit into their explainable categories, and his actions must be principally accountable by human intellect. Thus, the scripture sieves humans through contradictions. Some pass through and believe in God, accepting that faith, life, and God can be unpredictable and only partially graspable by human reason. Those who believe despite these contradictions know that the scripture is imperfect, and in that imperfection, the grace of God works. Others refuse to step into the presence of a God who may choose other ways — unreasonable, dreamy, intuitive, ecstatic, and downright vulnerable or contradictory ways — of communicating Himself to humans.
Third, contradictions remind us that there is something elusive about God. No matter how much we try to intuit the Creator of the universe, there will always be something which does not quite work with our view of God. Contradictions in the scripture are the theological keys to the mystery that God is beyond human understanding and we cannot fully understand the Infinite One. In that sense, contradictions are actually specific patterns telling the truth about God, who is both infinite yet incarnates as a peasant from Nazareth. Since God is infinite and does not fit into space-time or cause-effect relationships, all human attempts to understand God will retain something unusual, tension-filled, contradictory, or unreasonable. These contradictions are a very concrete and textual way of saying that any specific channel of capturing our infinite God’s finite self-revelation (Jesus) and apprehending it will have limitations. Why would God use contradictions for this purpose? Because contradictions unsettle human reason, that faculty of ours that smooths over the rough edges of reality, explains them, and gives us control over nature.
Fourth, contradictions testify that the scripture is not just God’s work — it is also the work of humans. Unlike in Islam, revelation in Christianity has a pronounced human element. If God can become human in Christ and if revelation can turn into a human being, then surely the scripture can be a work of God and also of humans. The scripture did not drop from heaven, ready to use. It emerged slowly through the ages by the process of people’s wrestling with God’s call. In that context, contradictions in the scripture record human wrestling, confusion, bitterness, and changing views about God. It is thoroughly human (as it is thoroughly divine) and therefore close to us.
Fifth, contradictions in the scripture make the Bible real. Can you find a single human being free from contradiction in his deeds, speeches, assumptions, or beliefs? We may contradict others in our relationships, but we may contradict ourselves too. Sometimes, contradictory feelings are what make us who we are: humans full of tension and the potential for growth. Perhaps, only machines do not have contradictions since they are pre-programmed, they do not face ethical dilemmas, and they are not torn between the cold calculation of the mind and the call of a self-sacrificial love. Well, guess what? The Bible is not a machine. It’s just like life, and that’s why it may have contradictions.
Sixth, contradictions make the Bible interesting (like a riddle), a potential source of re-interpretation that allows the generations that follow to apply it age after age. You may wonder why this matters. A riddle is a way of teasing our minds and finding answers. It makes our minds work. Biblical contradictions could be about life, meaning, choices, justice, or mercy, the very issues that can never be settled once and for all and require re-evaluation within the context and input of a generation addressing a particular issue. So contradictions in the scripture allow room for re-interpretation, which makes the Bible applicable to diverse life situations across the vast span of time.
Seventh, contradictions in the Bible show us how entangled reason is with irrationality. I know this point sounds a bit intellectualist, but the Bible addresses everything, including intellectuals, you know. We humans like to separate them as if they can be separated fully, but that’s not always true. Take for example this very blog post: guided by faith, I’m essentially rationalizing something that is considered to be irrational or that doesn’t make sense from a mainstream secularist point of view. But reasoning too, sometimes in its severity and logical reductionism, can transmogrify into irrationality. A specific instance of when rationality becomes irrationality is seen in the vulgar materialism and social manifestations enforced by the governmental institutions of the Soviet Union. Actively changing society for good may be a rationally justified view, but when you put people in jail as capitalist-wannabes when they start a business or when you encourage children to spy on their parents out of a desire to protect a specific social order, you are well into irrationalism. The Bible witnesses to this complex play of rationality and irrationality through contradiction that weave together both the reasonable and the unreasonable.
Well, for me this is enough to not feel threatened by contradictions (alleged or real) in the Bible. In fact, I wouldn’t mind contradictions in the Bible at all. I would love them, cherish these Spirit-filled riddles, and celebrate these signs of God unlike the people who take pride in the fact that somehow the complete rationality of their scripture is a positive thing.
What do you think? Do you see contradictions (in general) as a threat? Comment and let me know.
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