Negotiating tensions in the Bible
The following is taken from a handout I penned for some students recently. I'd be interested to hear any thoughts.
'Yet another tension', she thought, keeping conscious distance from the more uncomfortable word 'contradiction'. 'How on earth am I to make sense of the bible, and to believe it is God inspired with all of these difficulties?' If that or a similar thought has flashed through your mind during this course, the following is offered to help you, as a Christian, think that thought through with confidence.
One popular strategy for dealing with biblical tensions is to slot them away in the 'mystery' box, hoping they won't come out to haunt you at night. While there is some half-grown wisdom here, you'll end up cramming quite a lot of the bible into that box before long...
Another strategy is to claim that the bible is a secure stash of stable proposition. 'Jesus is Lord', for example. Safe and secure; truth to stand on. This approach is often coupled with the assertion that all tensions in the bible are ultimately reconcilable; that none really exists when you study them properly. Certainly this is often true and many supposed 'contradictions' do indeed vanish on closer inspection. But while this is a wise move sometimes, it does not always work and it is noteworthy the bible itself seems unconcerned to apologise for very real tensions and, yes, contradictions. Indeed, perhaps too much time (and paper) has already been wasted trying to prove the occasional circle has four edges. But must one then always live with tensions in the bible, contradictions without any hope of reconciliation? How does a bible full of tensions help? Will it do any good to tell young converts that the bible is, for want of a better word, confused?
So another approach is to pretend the bible is unconcerned with revealing truth in propositions, that it merely witnesses to God's saving actions or true religious experience and is not itself a channel of God's revelation. Scripture is just human, nothing special about it except that to which it points. But why bother reading and preaching from the bible if that is the case? Does it really encourage us to handle it with care, as text itself fully inspired by God?
Here are some things to bear in mind, which have helped me when thinking through this complex of sticky issues:
If the history of philosophy, science and theology have taught us anything it is this: truth is a multifaceted complex beast, not easily domesticated, tamed or boxed. I once heard a profound argument in a Richard Hays lecture. He was quoting Rowan Williams who was himself quoting novelist Anita Mason: 'There is a kind of truth which, when it is said, becomes untrue'. Even our language, yes even the language of the bible, is sometimes not able to say the full truth, for to say it would be to domesticate it, and because we are in the business of speaking about God, to domesticate such truth is thus to refute it.
That said, biblical propositions are important – arguably so is 'propositional revelation', though it remains a disputed concept – and the bible is full of them. However, while we may agree on certain propositions being true, what matters is what they mean. And that is when things get more complicated! For example, what 'Jesus is Lord' means will depend on who is saying it, when, why and so on. But this complexity need not scare us: it is part of the process of wrestling with truth. If we come away with our faith limping, we may have just seen the face of God (cf. Jacob's wrestling at Peniel in Genesis 32)
The world is 'fallen', our lives, minds and relationships are fractured, broken. And of course, real life is full of contradictions and paradoxes. Here is the point: if the Bible is not merely a collection of abstract philosophical propositions but a collection of books written from the context of and about real life in all its grit and joys, grim and rapture, why, then, should there be no tensions and, yes, contradictions? Where does the bible ever claim to be without tensions, especially as it is not a collection of philosophical propositions, but largely a bumpy narrative? Perhaps it will help us if we judge the bible according to what it is, not what it is not.
Truth is eschatological. Biblical statements often stake a claim in a reality that is yet to come, one that is in the hidden future and coming of God. The Apostle Paul famously wrote: 'For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end' (1 Cor. 13:9-10). He continued: 'For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known' (13:12). Notice who wrote these words, including himself in this 'we know only in part': the Apostle Paul, the author of much of the New Testament! The text of the New Testament, while inspired by God, partakes in the partial nature of human knowing as we await the full and future disclosure of truth. Perhaps if we could grasp this more profoundly we would be unleashed to develop our doctrinal thinking with more boldness, freshness and truthfulness, in a way that is more accustomed to walking on the water, less disturbed by the waves and wind of a world still yearning for its eschatological reality to materialise. And recognising this, maybe we would also judge our own theological statements (whether Calvinistic, Arminian, Reformed, Open Theistic or whatever) with more humility, as always penultimate truth, prior to God's glorious advent. For more on truth as eschatological, cf. Jürgen Moltmann, Theology of Hope: On the Ground and the Implications of a Christian Eschatology, trans. James W. Leitch (New York: Harper and Row, 1967).
Truth is relational. In 1 Corinthians 13:6 Paul writes that love 'does not rejoice in unrighteousness, but rejoices in the truth'. Notice that truth is contrasted not with falsehood, but with unrighteousness. To live truthfully is to live justly, to walk with God. As is well know, Jesus claimed to be himself 'the truth'. Truth is ultimately this person, and the word 'person', it should be noted, is relational. In Christ's life, relationships, acts of mercy, kindness, death and resurrection we find Truth. To claim that 'the Bible is true' is a proposition that may thus need to be reframed more relationally. For more on truth as relational, cf. J.D. Zizioulas, Being as Communion: Studies in Personhood and the Church (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1985)
'All scripture is inspired by God' (2 Tim. 3:16), and we can confess this statement with utter conviction. But one potentially problematic sleight-of-hand needs to be guarded against. Those who claim, on the basis of this passage, that the Bible must therefore lack all contradictions are using a deductively logical wringer on the text. That is, it has been argued that i) God inspired the text, ii) God cannot lie and iii) therefore scripture cannot contradict itself. This sounds fair enough, but if we are going to take the phenomenon of scripture itself more seriously in our formulations of the doctrine of scripture, we must work more inductively, working from the nature of the scriptures themselves. When that is done, the deductively logical step itself needs to be questioned in light of scripture. We can affirm both i) and ii), without heading to the choppy waters of iii). For more on not applying a deductive wringer in our formulations of the inspiration of the bible, cf. J.E. Goldingay, Models for Scripture (Carlisle: Paternoster, 1994).
That said, it is useful to bear in mind the words of Karl Barth who once wrote 'Is not every doctrine of Holy Scripture as such a superfluous saying of "Lord, Lord"?'(Church Dogmatics I/2, 461)! To answer Barth's question, a 'high view' of scripture ought perhaps to say more than what we think about the historicity of certain biblical events and our feelings about supposed or real biblical contradictions. As some of our comments above about the nature of truth suggest, it ought also to embrace our personal and communal scripture reading practices, attitudes and 'stance' towards the biblical text, unencumbered by deductive logical wringers. To this end I penned a different sort of statement on the trustworthiness of Scripture, one that emphasises our reading practices and posture toward the text. I have written an article justifying the theology behind this 'statement', providing crucial qualifications, which I will perhaps publish at some stage.
Peter Enns has written a useful book called Inspiration and Incarnation, seeking to help Christians think through the inspiration of scripture in terms of the incarnation. Just as Christ is 'true God from true God' so we can confess the full (or plenary) inspiration of scripture. However, Christ was also fully human, a fact that early church heretics were prone to deny (the heresy of docetism). Jesus got hungry, wept, felt strong emotions, he was 'crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered death and was buried'. Likewise, the scripture is fully the product of humans, who inhabited the worldviews, language and concerns of their days. As the early church attempted to conceptualise: in Christ, the human and divine natures were united in one person, 'without confusion or division' (cf. the statements made at The Council of Chalcedon, 451). It was only the various heretics who tried to amalgamate the human and divine natures into a confused hybrid. Christ truly grew in wisdom, learning obedience through what he suffered (cf. Luke 2:52; Mark 13:32; Heb. 5:8). Perhaps we sometimes do the same with the bible, treating it as a confused God-human hybrid. Thinking of scripture as fully human yet fully inspired by God has, an albeit imperfect, correspondence to an entirely orthodox definition of the relation of the divine and human natures in early christological formulations. For more on this model, cf. Peter Enns, Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005).
That said, the incarnation of God in Christ is utterly unique - scripture is not another incarnation - and so even as an imperfect correspondence it perhaps confuses more than it illumines. So another way to think through this matter is offered by Nicholas Wolterstorff in his book Divine Discourse: Philosophical Reflections on the Claim that God Speaks (Cambridge: CUP, 1995). His arguments runs like this: We can understand the concept that a particular piece for writing or language can be the work of one person yet convey the authority of another. The example Wolterstorff uses is that of a secretary writing a letter for her boss. Imagine a secretary who knows the mind of her boss very well and who writes a letter on his behalf, she then passes it to him and he signs the letter and it goes off in his name and with his authority. The letter has been written entirely by the secretary; it is her work and in one sense has come solely from her own mind and pen. However, because i) she knows the mind of her boss and ii) it carries his signature, it actually becomes his letter and not just hers. In the same way we can understand scripture on one level as being entirely the human writing of the scripture's author, yet at the same ut carries the authority of God and in a sense is also God's writing. This is an image which convey the relationship between the human authorship and divine authority of scripture quite well, without some of the theological complications involved in the incarnation image above.
With these points in mind we can turn to tensions in the bible.
- If we struggle with tensions in the bible, we may need to examine our expectations in light of the eschatological nature of truth. We may need to reframe our concerns according to the relational nature of truth. Put this way, we can perhaps avoid the scissors approach to the bible, one which early church heretic Marcion attempted, as he sought to exorcise all Jewish elements from the bible (talk about a doomed project!)
- If truth is a complex beast, one not easily pinned down, we may need to move beyond a simple treatment and comparison of 'biblical propositions' to an appreciation of the living complexity of truth.
- Perhaps our struggles with biblical tensions can help us to reformulate our thinking about the nature of the bible, one that takes more seriously our commitment to the practice of bible reading.
- The longing for the bible to make sense, for tensions to be explained away, is entirely legitimate, perhaps reflecting something of our longing for the coming of the Lord when we will 'know fully'. Yet we must guard against an over-realised eschatology, one which thinks the things that will happen at Christ's return have already happened. Acceptance of an over-realised eschatology will tend to end in discouragement, and Paul had therefore to combat it occasionally (2 Thessalonians).
- Thinking of the inspiration of scripture in light of the secretaries letter may help us to embrace a fully human and occasionally contradicting text while at the same time fully embracing the text as written under the authority of God.
With all such questions that cause us problems and disquiet our faith, the best place to go is to God in prayer, to unload our concerns, pray for wisdom, protection and deepening of our faith. Our struggles can be an opportunity to deepen our relationship with God. Here is a prayer you may like to pray with me:
"Father, there is so much that we do not understand, so much that confuses us
in the Bible. We surely only know in part. So we pray for wisdom, for a closer
walk with you, for deeper maturity in our faith, that we would be passionate
lovers of truth. Protect, strengthen and develop our faith, that it may bear
fruit in our lives, that we truly play our part in the evangelisation of the
nations and the transformation of society, remembering always that it is you who
carries us; you are our foundation, not we ourselves, not our understanding of
biblical tensions nor the strength of our often failing faith. We give you glory
for hearing our prayer for the sake of your Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen"
Further useful resources:
- David Law, Inspiration (London: Continuum, 2001)
- Craig D. Allert, A High View of Scripture?: The Authority of the Bible and the Formation of the New Testament Canon (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007)
- Kenton L. Sparks, God's Word in Human Words: An Evangelical Appropriation of Critical Biblical Scholarship (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008)
- Kevin J. Vanhoozer, "A Person of the Book? Barth on Biblical Authority," in Karl Barth and Evangelical Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006), pp. 26-59
- N.T. Wright, "How Can The Bible Be Authoritative?" Originally published in Vox Evangelica, 1991, 21, 7–32, free online at http://www.ntwrightpage.com/Wright_Bible_Authoritative.htm