Thursday, April 02, 2009

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.

A prayer

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


At 4/02/2009 2:29 PM, Anonymous Jim said...

you've left, i think, a word out.

If the history of philosophy, science and theology have taught us anything it is this: truth is a multifaceted complex beast, to be domesticated, tamed or boxed.

I would suggest you add 'NOT' before 'to be' in the second segment.

Or did you mean it as you have it?

At 4/02/2009 2:33 PM, Anonymous Ed Gentry said...

Chris that is beautiful.

Could you produce this in a PDF form so I could hand it out to my students? Alternatively I could just copy paste and add your blog address.

At 4/02/2009 2:43 PM, Anonymous sickrandir said...

yeah, to make sense of the bible you'll need to struggle really hard with that voice that tells you that is just a pile of popular wisdom stacked in a long time. But that is exactly what it is and if you are able to see some coherence in that I'll happily pass you the box in which my mother put every school essay I wrote so that you can make a strong philosofical system out of them.

At 4/02/2009 6:21 PM, Anonymous said...

a very thoughtful post. thanks!

At 4/02/2009 6:32 PM, Anonymous Jim said...

chris i wouldnt take mr sick very seriously. he obviously isnt all that bright or he would know how to spell philosophical.


i'm going to copy his comment and send them over to the dilettante hobby horse!

At 4/02/2009 7:08 PM, Anonymous Cliff Martin said...


Thank you for assembling so many helpful thoughts into one short (well, sort of) piece. I was just getting ready to post my own thoughts about Inspiration when I saw your post. I will be linking my readers back to your excellent essay.

At 4/02/2009 10:05 PM, Anonymous Steven Carr said...

Being a Christian seems to require an awful lot of effort.

No wonder people have to spend years studying theology.

At 4/02/2009 11:03 PM, Anonymous sickrandir said...

oh jim! what a strong argument! Yeah I could do better but I'm not a native speaker... ti scrivo da una terra dove la religione cristiana invade qualsiasi ambito della cultura e spererei che potesse almeno rimanere fuori da, grazie!

At 4/03/2009 12:49 AM, Anonymous Cliff Martin said...


Being a Christian seems to require an awful lot of effort.

Indeed! I'm sure you didn't mean it in the same way, but that sentence could have been spoken by Jesus! (Luke 9:23, 57-58; 13:24; 21:34-36 for a few examples. Or just try an effortless approach to Matt 5:38-48)

But more in keeping with your point: yes, honest Christianity involves a good deal of mental energy. But then, every worldview is loaded with difficulty, and its honest adherents will struggle to make sense of it all. Hemmingway was totally overwhelmed by his nihilistic atheism.

At 4/03/2009 12:48 PM, Anonymous Steven Carr said...

WASIBICOAT sounds as if only an intellectual or some academic can truly "understand" the Bible...I'm sad because I'm neither of the two...

No need to be sad.

If you think Chris's post makes it sound as though it takes a lot of effort to truly understand the Bible, Chris will just write you off as a troll, and post your comment here as an example of Dumbness

At 4/03/2009 12:52 PM, Anonymous Steven Carr said...

I must apologise at once.

It was Jim West,not Chris Tilling who did that.

I'm sure Chris was not offended by me pointing out that his article talked about 'wrestling' and 'complexity' and made me think that a lot of effort goes into his work.

At 4/03/2009 1:14 PM, Anonymous Jonathan Evens said...

I think this is a very balanced and thorough introduction to the issues.

I was interested to see your reference to the idea that 'There is a kind of truth which, when it is said, becomes untrue', as this is pretty much a foundational insight of apophatic theology (although you don't make that link in the paper) and to the kind of theologising undertaken by Peter Rollins which is also based heavily on apophatic insights. Would you agree?

My particular take on this area is to argue that we pay insufficient attention to the form of scripture. The Bible's diversity of genres and multiple layers of metaphor/meaning, combined with its self-referencing, self-interpreting and reinterpreting of the canon means, I think, that it calls out to be approached and understood dialectically.

At 4/03/2009 3:27 PM, Anonymous Scott F said...

I must say I get a little uncomfortable when words with straight forward meanings, like Truth, are redefined to be "complex beasts." Better to develop new. more precise terminology.

At 4/03/2009 3:43 PM, Anonymous Dan Wilt said...

A lovely read - I'll be referring the worship leaders I develop to this.

At 4/03/2009 5:24 PM, Anonymous Celucien L. Joseph said...

May I print the post and share it with friends?

At 4/03/2009 10:29 PM, Anonymous Erin said...

Yes, tremendously helpful. I have already linked it and intend to pass it along to my church if that's all right. Thanks so much.

At 4/04/2009 9:48 PM, Anonymous Edward T. Babinski said...

Hi Chris,

You could have shortened your entire paper to one sentence:

"Truth is a multifaceted complex beast, not easily domesticated, tamed or boxed."

That's agnosticism in a nutshell.

You're a Christian agnostic, or on the verge of being one.

So what exactly do you believe about warnings of eternal punishment, or the promise that if you believe and/or act rightly, you'll "inherit eternal life?"

The Bible has some DIRE stuff in it. And if it's a garbled letter from God, shouldn't that make you MORE NERVOUS, not LESS SO, especially with such DIRE WARNINGS in it?

Those whose names were not written in the book of life from the beginning of time were "tossed into the lake of fire." "Better to rip out your eye than enter hell with both them." "Fear him who can cast both body and soul into hell." Or there's the "blasphemy; against the Holy Spirit" warnings. All very DIRE stuff.

And here you are with your "relational theology."

How nice.

Face it, the ancient Hebrews were for ancient Hebrews, damned be the rest of the whole world which supposedly had heard about them and feared them (hyperbolic egotism).

While in the New Testament the Jews were revolutionaries and/or apocalyptists, wild eyed, and invented images of God and theological ideas to suit that era and their resentments.

If God really thought the Bible was all that important do you really think we'd have so many holy books found round the world, with a zillion different interpretations/commentaries on each?

Why are BOOKS important at all? Why can't God show people directly what they need to know to supposedly "avoid eternal punishment?"

It took Christianity centuries to spread across Europe and to other continents. And other ideologies and faiths arose after it, even taking over some of its central territories, like Islam taking over North Africa, Augstine country, and the Middle East, or like communism, both of which spread faster than Christianity. As for Christianity, even after it spread throughout the Roman Empire, one HALF of that Empire excommunicated the other HALF, and vice versa.

Today Europe is no longer a thriving believing center of Christendom. Though Christianity continues to grow and spread among primarily less well educated, superstitious masses in the southern hemisphere and Asia. And Christianity continues to SPLIT AND SPLINTER into tens of thousands of separate denominations and churches. Bravo.

I'm agnostic. I also figure that any infinite being that thinks it's their duty to torture me for eternity should switch to decaf.

At 4/04/2009 11:01 PM, Anonymous ElderChild said...

Simply, religion has had it's way with you.......

At 4/06/2009 7:33 AM, Anonymous Kenny said...

Gotta do my nitpicky analytic philosopher thing: you shouldn't write "However, while we may agree on certain propositions being true, what matters is what they mean." Philosophers typically use the word 'proposition' to refer to the meanings of sentences. Some philosophers distinguish between 'statements' and 'propositions', where the latter are fully contextualized but the former are not, and there are other distinctions - the terminology is not fully agreed upon. However, every recent philosopher I've read uses the term 'proposition' in such a way that finding out what a sentence means just is finding out what proposition it expresses.

It is often (always?) the case in dealing with revealed religion that we agree that some sentence of some language expresses a truth, but can't agree on precisely what truth it expresses.

I do agree that this is a pretty well balanced view that takes the Bible seriously. However, one must be careful not to set aside deductive reasoning - once you do that, you have nothing left! We have to recognize the limitations of the linguistic formulations we are working with (whether in original language Biblical texts, translations, or writings of theologians), but when we claim that the truth of a proposition has been revealed (and surely we must sometimes claim this) we have to be claiming that that truth can be reasoned about. Furthermore, we have to be able to reason about the nature of the text, just as you are doing here.

I don't think my last paragraph actually contradicts anything you say in the post, and certainly people coming from theologically conservative backgrounds don't generally need to be told this, but the people coming from more liberal backgrounds do.

At 4/15/2009 1:15 AM, Anonymous Chris Tilling said...

Thank you all for your comments. Of course, any of you feel free to print the thing out and use it as you wish.

Steven said:
"Being a Christian seems to require an awful lot of effort. No wonder people have to spend years studying theology"

I think often things that are half-truths are "easier". Besides, it isn't all easy for atheists, especially when it comes to the justification of certain ethics.

"'Truth is a multifaceted complex beast, not easily domesticated, tamed or boxed.' That's agnosticism in a nutshell."

This is actually biblical faith, in a nutshell. Our truth is provisional - even Paul said somrthing like this. My statement is only agnosticism if faith is so defined in unhelpful ways. Perhaps there are ways to for your explore faith again, with these thoughts in mind?

Great thoughts, very helpful. thanks.

At 5/06/2009 4:38 AM, Anonymous Al B. said...

I am not a man of great intellect.
My children grew up knowing my love while not being aware of all my inner struggles. They did not understand how I had to fight selfishness to spend time with them - they just knew that dad loved them like crazy. By the way, can anyone really explain "love?" Love for a parent, love for a child, for a spouse, for a pet?...for a God you cannot see?

Someone commented, "it sounds as if only an intellectual or some academic can truly 'understand' the Bible" - there is a place where you can know like a little child. My children knew I loved them without understanding all the emotional, ethical, and cultural complications of "love." In a way it has been sad for me to watch them grow up and learn about all these complexities. Ignorance can be bliss - not sure you have to "understand" the bible.

"It is my conviction that theology is too serious to allow humans to think theologically without playfulness and irony. To try to be as serious as the subject would be arrogant..." and "Our vision is often more obstructed by what we think we know than by our lack of knowledge."
Krister Stendahl, Paul Among Jews and Gentiles, preface viii, and p.7

Paul says that now "we see through a glass dimly (en enigmati)" with, or in enigma. The enigmatic nature of everything is part of the wonder of it all. Easy to say, more difficult to embrace...kind of like my selfishness and spending time with my children.

At 5/06/2009 4:56 PM, Anonymous ElderChild said...

Theo'ry'logians are of those whose 'god' is "the colored marks written on a dead tree" in what this world and many of it's religions call their 'bible'.

Sadly they live of "the letter" as they but carry on the legacy of The Pharisee's, "deceiving and being deceived".......

Theo'ry'logians are "natural men who have not received that which is of The Spirit of The Only True GOD, Father(Creator) of ALL, for such things are foolishness unto them and they can not know them, for that which is of The Spirit must be Spiritually discerned."

Why is it that so many read the published words, yet can not "see" that "the WHOLE world is under the control of the evil one".......

Something so simple that any Child of The Only True GOD can "see", yes even those Children in times past who never read the words.......

Father Help! and HE does.......

Thankfully Truth IS Alive and "Our Father" HE yet communes with HIS Children.......

Theo'ry'logy stifles such communion and is but the product of mankind's "imag"ination, and sadly mankind's "imag"ination is destroying and perverting Creation.


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