Mar 6, 2010

How Do We Handle "Contradictions" in the Bible?

Tony GarlandBy Dr. Tony Garland

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Q. When I come across something that seems contradictory or something that doesn't make sense to me, I tend to pay more attention to it because it's something I don't expect to see in a perfect text—although I certainly acknowledge the possibility of my own errors in misinterpretation, which many times is the case. What is the best way to proceed in such situations?

A. Once we become aware of Jesus' teaching concerning the way in which God's Word divides people (e.g., Mtt. 13:10-16), this experience will be seen as normal.

After years of study, I'm convinced of several things:

  1. God has purposefully superintended the writing of the Scriptures to contain the equivalent of "speed bumps" (I like to refer to them as "faith bumps") They are purposefully in the text to serve as a dividing line between people of faith who are seeking God and skeptics who find therein the justification they seek for rejecting God and the claims of the Bible.

  2. These same difficulties, which appear contradictory at first, are generally resolved by patience and continued faithful study accompanied by prayer. Although there will always remain puzzles we haven't found the answer for, a considerable number will resolve themselves if we are patient. What's more, their resolution typically brings an "aha" moment where we are privileged to see just how clever and reliable the Scriptures truly are because a precious insight often attends their resolution. (For example, understanding the differences in the genealogies of Christ in Matthew 1 and Luke 3 provides insight concerning an earlier curse which God placed on the Messianic line which follows upon David's son Solomon leading to Joseph, but which is bypassed in the line through his other son Nathan leading to Mary.)

  3. If a person can get over the initial "faith bumps" by continuing to trust God (exercising faith!) while praying for an understanding as they continue to study, then a place will eventually be arrived upon where we've seen so many of these seemingly irreconcilable statements or passages be resolved that we have enormous faith that ones that still remain are reconcilable too. This is a bit like studying predictive prophecy in detail such that we become convinced that we are not just investigating a typical book—that it has "proven itself" to us beyond the level where an additional "hiccup" or two can shake us from what we have already seen to be true. This is an inductive extension of what we've experienced (resolution of seeming contradictions) to things we haven't—the essence of true faith.

  4. Nevertheless, there will always be aspects one continues to puzzle over. But the key is where one places the locus of their lack of resolution? Is it the logic and reliability of the Scriptures that has failed? Or is it our understanding which is faulty and needs to grow? The skeptic will always assume the former whereas the born-again believer assumes the latter.

There is no shortcut to rolling up our sleeves and prayerfully and regularly studying the Scriptures for ourselves. But we must have the staying power to go past stumbling blocks that we'll encounter along the way. We mustn't get "stuck" when we think we've encountered a problem. It is best to simply write down in our own words what we are puzzled by and then move on. We can even keep a journal or file of these "puzzles" and pray about them as God leads.

If your experience is like mine, you'll be amazed at how, over time, the pieces to resolve these puzzles come into place—often when we are studying a different passage of Scripture or learning from a new teacher. It is much more productive to take this approach than to "park" on the problem and try to force a resolution before moving on.

God is faithful to reveal Himself to those who seek Him (Heb. 11:6). Have patience and persistence and fruit will come!