Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Bible Contradictions

Perhaps one of the issues that led me away from evangelicalism was the issue of biblical inerrancy. In short, to suggest that the Bible is inerrant is to say that the Bible contains no two pieces of Scripture that contradict each other when understood in context. Over time and through continued Bible study I came to view this position as increasingly untenable. Yet as important as biblical inerrancy is in the evangelical schema, it was not the nature of the Bible itself that lead me away from evangelicalism. Rather, it was the way in which evangelicals dealt with the Bible in order to maintain their position of inerrancy that concerned me most. I began to observe that despite remonstrations to the contrary, evangelicals in actual fact had no real love for Scripture, a point to which I shall return to later in this essay.

The issue of contradictions in the Bible has been raised by Craig Schwarze at his blog, "These Infinite Spaces". It is clear that Craig believes that the Bible is inerrant, or infallible, depending upon the terminology one wishes to use. Reading through the comments, Schwarze reveals that his belief in the inerrant nature of the Bible is a mere assumption, or what he chooses to call a "presupposition". Exactly why he has chosen this presupposition rather than being open to the possibility of Scripture perhaps being errant is unclear.

As one travels further into Schwarze's train of thought, it becomes clear that he has set up a number of mechanisms in his mind to avoid seriously examining the issue of biblical inerrancy. Not only is Schwarze's belief in the inerrancy of Scripture a mere presumption - it is an irrebutable presumption. When Schwarze is faced with an accusation that two verse contradict each other, his first port of call will be to engage in a process called "harmonisation". Harmonisation essentially involves moulding and massaging two texts into shape until they agree with each other. If he can't do this, Schwarze will simply assume that he currently lacks the understanding to properly interpret these verses and that in due course, the contradictions will be resolved. Ironically, it is generally only these problematic passages that are unclear (even if the verses would apparently seem to look straight forward) - evangelicalism claims an almost dogmatic certainty on all other parts of Scripture. The possibility doesn't even seem to occur to Schwarze that he indeed accurately understood the two passages and that his understanding confirms that Scripture does indeed contain contradictions.

Schwarze's contention that contradictions that can't be easily explained away must be the fault of the reader rather than the text directly runs into a distinctive of conservative Protestantism - the perspicuity of Scripture. Conservative Protestants generally assert that Scripture is comprehensible by the lay person and that one doesn't need an authority to interpret the text. Quite clearly, this claim aims to circumvent the Roman Catholic argument that scriptural interpretation is the province of the Vatican alone. Yet Schwarze would seem to be suggesting that Scripture is difficult to understand at certain points (which coincedentally correspond with passages that are alleged to contradict with each other), to such an extent that a proper understanding of certain bible passages remain elusive to the reader until at least a later point in time. Of course, this raises another dilemma - what is the point of having an inerrant set of Scriptures if one can't actually understand what they say?

The presupposition of biblical inerrancy is a harsh and demanding mistress. In evangelical thought, it commands respect above all else, including the Bible itself. If normative principles of hermeneutics lead to an understanding of Scripture contradicting itself, then these principles must be set aside to appease the bleeting voice of inerrancy. If there is a straight forward reading of a text which threatens the doctrine of inerrancy, the straight forward reading must lay its life down at the feet of inerrancy to make way for a more obscure reading that satisfies its ravenous appetite.

This returns us to my first point - evangelicalism is not so much concerned with understanding the Bible as it is with maintaining the doctrine of inerrancy. For evangelicals, biblical inerrancy is the idol that they worship. And ultimately this means that they worship themselves, because biblical inerrancy is a product of their own making. Nothing is allowed to get in the way of serving this idol - not even the Bible itself.

15 comments:

One Salient Oversight said...

The perspicuity of Scripture doesn't mean that the Bible can be fully understood. It's more of a theological than a grammatical idea that God is able to make scripture understandable to people via the work of the Holy Spirit.

Within the structure of evangelicalism there is an internal logic and consistency that holds up so long as you hold certain presuppositions. Those presuppositions are created by the bible itself.

To put it simply, I believe the Bible is true because the Bible says it is true. This won't convince many doubters and won't pass 1st year logical philosophy classes, but it is there nevertheless.

Evangelicals like myself believe in these presuppositions and hold to biblical inerrancy precisely because it is part of our religious faith.

Having said that, I think you're spot on when you point out that evangelicals are more concerned about the doctrine of scripture than they are about what scripture says. I believe we have to hold both together - the inerrant, inspired, sufficient scriptures are the words of God to us that command us on what to believe and how to live. If we don't read them or apply them in this context then we build our house on the sand.

CraigS said...

David, thanks for taking the time to work through my piece.

Exactly why he has chosen this presupposition rather than being open to the possibility of Scripture perhaps being errant is unclear.

I thought I did make the source of my presupposition clear - I believe the Holy Spirit inspires belief in the word of God. I don't believe I "chose" to believe in the Bible.

I'd be interested to know what your presupposition is about the Bible, and why you chose that presupposition.

David Castor said...

Hey Craig,

Thanks for your response. I have given your original posting so that people can read what you said for themselves, but it's always better when the person is present to defend their comments.

Regarding your suggestion that the Holy Spirit inspires belief in the Bible, I have a few questions and observations.

Firstly, while this is definitely a Reformed distinctive, I don't see any specific suggestion in Scripture that the Holy Spirit undertakes this role. Sure enough, the Holy Spirit convicts, guides and leads, but where in Scripture is the specific reference about the Holy Spirit providing belief that the Bible is the "Word of God". Of course, the term "Word of God" is also a reference that is subject to much debate.

Secondly, assuming that the Holy Spirit does act in the abovementioned way, how do you actually know that the Holy Spirit has indeed inspired this belief in you? How would you differentiate this from a person convulsing in laughter believing that they are experiencing the work of the Holy Spirit?

Concerning my own presuppositions, I would suggest that it is better to treat each passage on its merits and draw my conclusions from that. If the passages contradict, they contradict. What I won't do is bend and twist them out of shape to fit in the Bible like some ill-fitting jigsaw puzzle piece bashed into submission.

If I had any presupposition, it is that Jesus is Lord. Therefore, I try to approach Scripture as he did. When I observe Jesus talking about the Scriptures, I simply don't see him working from a presupposition of inerrancy or from an evangelical hermeneutic.

CraigS said...

how do you actually know that the Holy Spirit has indeed inspired this belief in you?

I know because I believe the Scripture! If I didn't believe the scripture then, of course, the HS could not have inspired such a belief.

How would you differentiate this from a person convulsing in laughter believing that they are experiencing the work of the Holy Spirit?

I can't state categorically that it is not from the HS. I can only say that nothing in Scripture would lead me to believe the HS would inspire something like that.

David Castor said...

I know because I believe the Scripture! If I didn't believe the scripture then, of course, the HS could not have inspired such a belief.

So, just to see if understand you correctly, you believe that Scripture is the Word of God, thus you believe that the Holy Spirit has impressed this truth upon you, thus you believe that Scripture is the Word of God? Is that a fair summation of your belief on the subject?

One Salient Oversight said...

As I said, it is internally consistent and cannot be defended against logical philosophy 101.

And that does not mean it is wrong.

David Castor said...

lerOf course it doesn't mean that it is wrong - it simply means that its a position of faith, not knowledge. That is, you have to have faith that you have interpreted the relevant Scriptures properly that talk about the ministry of the Holy Spirit (which after all is said and done, is really faith in your own ability to interpret) and faith in belief that the "conviction" you have had is really the work of the Holy Spirit and not mere wish fulfilling. I'm definitely one for a "Kierkegaardian leap of faith", but what I have problems with is when Reformed Christians call this an intellectually tenable position. As such, I don't think that Reformed Christians have any kind of highground upon which to criticise those who are convicted by the Holy Spirit that God ministers to them through an inspired, although not inerrant set of Scriptures - a position referred to as "neo-orthodoxy".

Craig and OSO, I'd be interested in seeing how you distinguish your faith in the Scriptures from that of the Mormons in the Book of Mormon, who rely upon these verses:

"Behold, I would exhort you that when ye shall read these things, if it be wisdom in God that ye should read them, that ye would remember how merciful the Lord hath been unto the children of men, from the creation of Adam even down until the time that ye shall receive these things, and ponder it in your hearts. And when ye shall receive these things, I would exhort you that ye would aask God, the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ, if these things are not true; and if ye shall ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth of it unto you, by the power of the Holy Ghost. And by the power of the Holy Ghost ye may know the truth of all things."

That is, Mormons believe that the Book of Mormon is the Word of God because the Holy Spirit has impressed this truth upon them, or so they say.

CraigS said...

That is, Mormons believe that the Book of Mormon is the Word of God because the Holy Spirit has impressed this truth upon them, or so they say.

If that is really what they are saying, then in that respect their doctrine is similar to the Reformed doctrine of scripture.

As a rule I don't comment on blogs with comment moderation enabled.

David Castor said...

Hey Craig,

Sorry, I do apologise for the comment moderation thing. I had committed a few typos in my last post and honestly believed that "comment moderation" would allow me to delete my own post and repost without having the "comment deleted by author" comment. I didn't actually know that it meant that I would have to preapprove comments - though I should have been aware of this. I think I've just resigned myself to my typos, but you can rest assured that "comment moderation" has been turned off and will not be turned on again.

Concerning the Mormon reference, it comes from Moroni 10:3-5 in the Book of Mormon and is used by Mormon evangelists to "prove" that the Book of Mormon is true. So what would you say to a Mormon who told you that the Holy Spirit had convicted them that the Book of Mormon was indeed the Word of God?

CraigS said...

So what would you say to a Mormon who told you that the Holy Spirit had convicted them that the Book of Mormon was indeed the Word of God?

Well, I doubt there is anything I can say that would shake his conviction. I would share the true gospel with him, pray for him, and seek out further opportunities to build the relationship.

If over a period of time he proved thoroughly intractable, I'd focus my witnessing efforts elsewhere.

David Castor said...

I guess the question I'm trying to ask is this: Considering the Reformed and the Mormon evidence for the inerrant nature of Scripture is similar (as you seem to acknowledge) and you believe that a Mormon who honestly believes that the Holy Spirit has convicted him or her of the fact that the Book of Mormon is the Word of God is mistaken, is it possible that you are also mistaken about what you believe you have been told by the Holy Spirit about the Bible? If not, why not?

CraigS said...

Sure it's possible I'm mistaken - everyone makes mistakes.

But I don't believe I'm mistaken.

David Castor said...

You know what? I'm perfectly happy with that answer.

I guess the key from my perspective is the recognition that your position is a movement of faith, rather than a position based upon knowledge. And that's nothing to be ashamed of at all - faith is the highest virtue a human being can possess.

CraigS said...

I guess the key from my perspective is the recognition that your position is a movement of faith

This is true, but I suspect we may understand faith differently.

From what you've said, I think you believe that someone chooses to have faith. I just want to say again that I don't believe this. I believe the opposite. You cannot "choose" to have faith anymore than you can "choose" the colour of your eyes.

That is where we differ.

David Castor said...

I think you might be right about our conceptions of faith. However, just to complicate matters, I think I'm using a different definition of faith. Within the context of this conversation, I'm using faith as a belief in spite of (absolute) evidence, or as belief in spite of room for doubt. The common usage of faith in most Christian circles is faith as trust. This type of faith is a very valid understanding of the word faith and this type of faith is central to Christian discipleship. However, it's not "faith" as I was using the term.

In terms of faith (as trust) being a gift from God (as the monergistic schema suggests), I have no real problems with this position. However, I think it's probably possible to choose to exercise faith, in terms of belief in spite of room for doubt. So to bring us bring to my original contention and trying to distinguish the words, I am saying that you have faith (i.e. that you believe in spite of room for doubt) that you have faith (i.e. that you have trust in God). Does that clarify matters somewhat?