This is part of a series of posts looking at your questions about theology.
Question: As Christians, what are we supposed to do with contradictions in the Bible?
Jeremy Jernigan – Executive Pastor
Panic. Run. Scream. Abandon all hope.
Okay, that might be a bit of a drastic response to this question. Yet most Christians feel noticeably uncomfortable asking this question, let alone acknowledging this is a real issue in which many people wrestle to find a solution. Even the fact I’m responding to this question will frustrate some people (and you haven’t even read my answer yet!).
Since this is the first of our new series of posts in our “Theology Thursdays,” let me make a disclaimer to keep in mind for each of these. I’m only providing you with my answer to these questions and what makes the most sense to me Biblically. There are numerous other Christians who would provide different answers (but they weren’t asked to write these posts). If you disagree with me, there’s no need to email me or any other staff member. I’m not making sweeping statements that define all views of Central and its leadership.
The point is to create a dialogue where we go deeper in our understanding and experience with God. At the very least I invite you to consider thoughtfully the answers I give, even if they differ from your views. If you attend a church where you agree with every nuanced statement and belief about God that anyone ever says, welcome to a cult. That’s not Central, and therefore we invite you to join us as we each journey together with God in unity around Jesus, despite our different understandings along the way. If you would like to talk through this post with someone please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Now, back to the question. I believe there ARE contradictions in the Bible. Here are a few:
- Were the last words of Jesus “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit,” as Luke records it in Luke 23:46? Or were they “It is finished,” as John records it in John 19:30?
- Did Jesus ride into Jerusalem on one donkey, as Mark 11:7, Luke 19:35, and John 12:14 record it? Or, did he ride in on two as Matthew records it in Matthew 21:7?
- The money Judas received for betraying Jesus was used to buy a field. Did the chief priests purchase the field as in Matthew 27:3-7, or did Judas himself buy it as in Acts 1:18?
- In the moments before crucifying Jesus, did they have Simone of Cyrene carry His cross as found in Matthew 27:32, Mark 15:21, and Luke 23:26? Or, did Jesus carry it by Himself as in John 19:17?
I could keep going, but I think you get the point.
First, a contradiction does not mean a lack of truth. In fact, much of Christianity is based on logical contradictions. An essential belief for Christians is that Jesus is fully man (100%) and fully God (100%) in one (see: Colossians 2:9 and Hebrews 2:14). Last time I checked, you can’t be 200% of something (unless of course, we are talking about Fire-Tigers). Does that mean it’s not true? Some would argue that. I believe this should be expected when we are dealing with a supernatural God. Or, as Central’s key verse reminds us, we must die to live (Luke 9:23-24). And this makes most people scratch their head.
The second part of my answer is that we are not equal to God. To whatever degree we get involved in God’s story we bring our own limitations and personality (which is a nice way of saying our issues). That means that even my best description of God will fall far short of who He is in His fullness. It also shows us God allows us to represent Him, even when our version of it falls short of communicating its totality.
Third, we must remember that the Bible was written by people, under the influence or direction of the Holy Spirit. That means they brought their own biases, limitations, and understandings to the process. God certainly causes them to write things far beyond what most of them fully understood, yet we are also amiss to think that none of them ends up in the mix either. I don’t believe God literally gave each Biblical author each word to write down. That’s why we see issues as in the examples above. But it’s important to note that none of the issues we see like these change the nature of God or who Jesus is in the story. They are usually more practical details from different people’s perspectives. Although this analogy quickly breaks down, it’s similar to a preacher communicating God’s Word. If done right, the Spirit of God will move throughout the words that people hear to communicate a much deeper message. Yet, it does not remove the preacher’s voice from the process. A good sermon has both God’s voice and the voice of the preacher. The Bible is that and more.
As the scholar Pete Enns argues, “What are called ‘contradictions’ are only so if one assumes that the purpose of inspiration (however it works) is to align or override the down-to-earth diverse voices we actually encounter in the Bible” (source). We aren’t debating whether or not the Bible is inspired by God. We can agree it is. But, what does that inspiration mean for how we read it today?
If you expect the Bible to have none of the human limitations of the writers in order to be true, you will eventually have a crisis in your faith as you continue to study it deeper. I’ve watched people go through it. But, if you see the bigger reality of how God communicates who He is and the story He’s telling through those people, you’ll realize what an unparalleled book this truly is and that God can use people even like you and me. God could have done all the communication directly by Himself, but He has a thing for using people like us. How amazing is that?
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