Never! . . . Right?
The Bible is an amazing book, written by forty people over thousands of years; yet, it has only one author: God. If we were to invite forty people to dinner and asked them to tell us about their experience, we would likely get a wide variety of reports. Those who loved the filet mignon would focus on how it was cooked to perfection, seasoned just right, and served with butter sizzling on top. Others at our imaginary dinner party may have given slight mention to the steak because they were overwhelmed with the novelty of a baby spinach salad with ambrosia dressing (not native to their homeland). Still others mentioned neither of these because the decadent dessert double-fudge, molten lava-cake eclipsed the memory of anything else served that night.
When we receive the reports we would instantly recognize that there are many perspectives of the same event. Since we threw the party, the reports would make sense, although others who did not attend may say there are contradictions in the reports. We know they are simply describing different aspects of the evening.
The same is true with the Bible. There are places in the Bible where there may appear to be contradictions. As we dig deeper, we find a beautiful story behind each experience and gain a greater appreciation for the Author.
Faith vs. works
James, one of the early church leaders, declares, “faith by itself isn’t enough. Unless it produces good deeds, it is dead and useless” (James 2:17). Many people through the past two millennia have majored on this passage to the exclusion of others and drawn the conclusion that we are ultimately saved by our good deeds. The Apostle Paul, however, makes it very clear in Ephesians 2:8-9 that, “God saved you by his grace when you believed. And you can’t take credit for this; it is a gift from God. Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it.”
On the surface there appears a contradiction: either we are saved by our good deeds, or we aren’t. Atheists and agnostics bring up these points to say the Bible is unreliable, but as in the case of our imaginary dinner party, we have two people simply describing different parts of the night. The original statement in James is “faith by itself isn’t enough. Unless it produces good deeds, it is dead and useless.” People take this statement one step further and interpret it to mean “we are saved by good deeds,” but that is not what James wrote. He wrote that a living and active faith will bear fruit, and the fruit will be good deeds. So both statements are true, we are saved by grace, not good deeds. The evidence, or fruit of our faith, will be good deeds that glorify God. If there is no evidence of our faith, then James questions its validity.
Another place people see a contradiction is in the genealogy of Jesus recorded in Matthew and Luke. Upon further investigation Matthew is tracing Jesus’ kingly lineage through Joseph. Luke, concerned with Jesus’ bloodline, goes through Mary, but refers to Joseph as the son of Heli. He is actually Heli’s son-in-law. This is an acceptable use of the term in that culture. A good Bible commentary helps to clarify this.
To handle contradictions we need to discuss hermeneutics, which is the theory of biblical interpretation. Every time we read a passage, we can read it looking for errors and inconsistencies or looking for ways to harmonize the passage and find agreement. Below are the standard principles of interpretation adopted by most Bible-believing Christians today:
Read the Bible in context. Cults love to take passages out of context. Always start by reading the larger passage and try to understand the intent of the writer.
Let the Bible interpret the Bible. The best commentary on the Bible is another passage from the Bible. There is no one chapter in the Bible on baptism; to really gain a biblical understanding of baptism, we must read each passage to understand the next.
Refer to multiple translations. No translation is perfect; each has its limitations. Sometimes, simply reading the passage in another translation clears the confusion. See my blog for a more in depth look at translations.
Interpret the Bible literally. Treat poetic passages (Psalms and Song of Solomon) as poetry; read histories (1-2 Samuel) as historical fact. In some Christian circles it is popular to allegorize every passage. We must be careful to look for the plain meaning of the text first and not force our own meaning upon it. Peter tells us “that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation” (2 Peter 1:20 ESV).
Receive the passage by faith and look to harmonize it. If you find an apparent contradiction, rejoice! God wants to show you something deeper about him. Dig into the passage and follow the steps above to resolve the contradiction.
Do you have a contradiction you cannot resolve? The Bible will resolve it if you follow these principles.
Tye Riter is the Executive Pastor at Reveal Fellowship in Lake Worth and blogs at www.zombie-warfare.com.