(This is a line of thought I’m still journeying through. You may find something helpful or not. It’s cool either way.)
In highschool, a lot of my atheist classmates would talk about contradictions in the Bible. I didn’t really pay much attention. I figured they were probably wrong. My pastors and youth leaders never mentioned these supposed contradictions so I figured it wasn’t worth worrying about.
When I got into the habit of listening to debates, I began to hear atheists point to specific contradictions. In response, the Christian apologists would calmly explain them away.
“Take the sentences ‘Bob is rich’ and ‘Bob is poor’. You might assume that these are contradictions, but perhaps they refer to Bob at different times in his life. Perhaps Bob is poor in finances, but rich in terms of relationships and experiences. Perhaps there are two different people named Bob. We can’t assume and we have to know more.” This is, of course, a very good point and I found it very comforting.
But then in a university class a professor pointed my discussion group to a passage in Proverbs. We were supposed to interpret it and share our interpretation.
I read the first half thinking “Ah, reasonable.” Then the second verse completely froze me. “This is Proverbs. This is the book of rules to live by. I can’t do both of these things, so what do I do?” I tried to find ways to harmonize them – maybe you’re supposed to do it sometimes but not other times – but even then, am I not sitting there trying to fix the Bible? Am I not adding something to it?
Here’s another one. The writer of Ecclesiastes tells us one thing, Paul tells us another.
“Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities. All is vanity. What does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun?” – Ecclesiastes 1:2,3
“Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labour is not in vain.” – 1 Corinthians 15:58
Well, which is it? Do we get nothing but vanity for our toil under the sun, or is our labour not in vain? I could list dozens more but sadly I must be concise. Here’s another one in which Chronicles and Samuel are talking about the same story.
“Then Satan stood against Israel and incited David to number Israel.” – 1 Chronicles 19:15
“Again the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel, and he incited David against them, saying, “Go, number Israel and Judah.”” – 2 Samuel 24:1
Chronicles: Satan did X. Samuel: God did X. Conclusion: … What?
If you’re anything like me, you’re sitting there trying to harmonize, harmonize, harmonize all of these passages. There may be nothing wrong with that. It’s a good impulse, but I fear we might miss out on something if that’s all we do. What that something is I will tell you, after one more example. Or rather, six more.
Open up to Matthew 5 and you’ll hear Jesus saying he’s not coming to abolish the law or the prophets. Then he goes on to repeat the formula “You have heard it said (quotes the Bible) but I tell you (says something different.)” So here we have a double whammy of contradictions. Six times, we have Jesus speaking in contrast to (“Contra Dicting”) other Bible passages, and he frames this by saying that he isn’t going to take an iota away from other Bible passages.
Right now, you’re either fascinated or really offended. Or both. Or you’re thinking the obvious objection that I’m going to cover in one second.
If the Bible is supposed to be a book of rules, it has clearly failed. I can’t both answer a fool according to folly and not answer a fool according to folly. If the Bible is supposed to be a philosophical panegyric, it has clearly failed. Labour can’t be both vanity and not vanity. If the Bible is supposed to be a textbook on spiritual realities, it has clearly failed. Unless God and Satan are the same person, David’s census has some weird stuff going on.
So it seems we’re left with two options. Maybe the Bible is a failure, or maybe we need to rethink its genre.
When I was in therapy, I learned a word. A word I had never learned from any western education institution; perhaps the entire western world needs therapy. “Dialectic.” Think Dialogue. It’s a conversation. Dialectic thinking simultaneously holds two propositions that seem to be in contrast. In therapy, if I’m caught in the anxiety of thinking I’m absolutely terrible or totally perfect, I’m going to have problems. If I can learn to accept that I’m both good and bad, virtuous in many ways while also having weaknesses to work through, that frees me. Now I can grow more easily.
My virtues and my vices are contradictory, but if I can hold them both as true at the same time then I am empowered to grow. The aforementioned objection that I assume you’re thinking is “But you’re defining ‘contradiction’ incorrectly. Contradictions are not simply contrasting statements, but statements with mutually exclusive meanings. You have to consider the meanings of these verses in context.” A brilliant point which highlights two important things: first that the word ‘contradiction’ needs defining (which I rarely hear happen) and tends to be wrapped up in shades of association, and second that we must ask ourselves what the Bible intends.
In the famous (and occasionally infamous) story of Jesus and the woman caught in adultery, the Pharisees try to back Jesus into a corner by asking him whether the woman ought to be stoned or not. Jesus redirects the question towards something more important. He seems to do this quite often, and what he does in saying “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone,” is highlight the Pharisee’s need for forgiveness. Jesus contextualizes our questions and frames our understanding in humility. This, I think, is the intention of the whole Bible.
The Bible does not give us all the answers, it points us to a person. It’s a conversation anchored around a person.
Do I answer the fool according to his folly or not? I don’t know, but if I follow the love ethic of Jesus then I’m sure I’ll make the right choice.
Is our labour vanity or not? I can philosophize over this, but if I’m trusting Christ then I know I won’t need to worry about it.
What is the relationship between the will of God and the will of Satan? Does God incite evil against us? A very interesting question, but one that must consider how God shows his love by participating in our suffering himself in the life and crucifixion of the Son of Mary.
People sometimes describe the Bible as “living” and this is why. A plain set of instructions is static. It’s dead. It only goes so deep and then it’s exhausted. A dialectic work keeps you wondering, keeps you asking questions. It is popularly said that Rabbis answer questions with other questions. This isn’t just deflection. We’re supposed to think deeper and, more importantly, better realize how the answers must be found with Jesus.
I recently listened to a sermon in which Bruxy of the Meeting House interviewed a Zen Buddhist. The Buddhist compared Jesus’ style of teaching with the Koan, the saying or question that’s supposed to freeze your mind and expose your unhealthy patters of thinking. While I think it’s important to recognize that Buddha and Christ have very different goals, there is some true to this. The Bible Project also has a great series that explores some the dialectic aspects of biblical wisdom literature.
In our broken world, if we desire change and growth, we don’t need a static book of precepts. We need someone who is going to freeze our attention, expose our habits, and “make foolish the wisdom of the world.” We need change, not the status quo. We need a living dynamic person to walk with as we grow in life and this is the Christ of the Bible.
This isn’t intellectual foreclosure. It does mean applying our intellect to something more important rather than squabbling over facts and figures. It means finding ourselves in a story, in relation to Christ, and making that the grounds upon which we ask ourselves, and each other, the big questions.
Take us away, Book…