Monday, February 21, 2011

Contradictions in the Bible? - Richard R. Crocker

Richard R. Crocker
Rollins Chapel
February 20, 2011
Ecclesiastes 3:1-8

Because this is an enormous topic and we have very little time, I will begin by making three major assertions, for which I will then offer some support.
First, I believe, as I stated in my ordination vows, that the Bible is God’s word to me.
Second, it is very likely, if not certain, that the Bible contains some contradictions.
Third: the truth of the Bible is not necessarily compromised, and in fact may be enhanced, by any apparent contradictions.

Now, let me support these assertions in a general way. As you all know, the Protestant Bible contains 66 different books, written by many different authors over at least 1000 years. (The Catholic Bible contains more.) Not only are there different books and different authors, but different genres. To maintain that these writings must agree and be consistent in every detail is not, in my judgment, a rational requirement. Indeed, the attitudes toward faith and the various stories contained in these books provide a richness of experience and of expression that defies every attempt at categorization or conformity. I am somewhat bored by the attempts of various skeptics and critics to list all of the contradictions they find in the scriptures. If you want to read them, you can google Bible contradictions and find lists of them. As I said, I am bored, but not the least disturbed, by such lists. However, I am even more bored, and somewhat disturbed, by the machinations and contorted explanations made by those who spend time arguing, as a matter of essential faith, that the Bible, being God’s word, must be absolutely consistent and contain no contradictions. Otherwise, they argue, it is completely discredited. If one contradiction is allowed, they say, then the whole edifice will fall. Find one contradiction, and the whole of Jewish and Christian faith is wholly discredited.

I simply do not agree.

It seems to me obvious that there are contradictions. For example: Biblical scholars became aware long ago that there are two creation stories joined together in Genesis 1-2. There are points of agreement and points of difference. The effort of some believers to maintain that these two stories totally agree is tiresome and unnecessary. There are two stories. So also, there are four gospels. They tell the same story, in essence, but they disagree in important details. So, either Jesus said that divorce is not allowed at all (as in Luke) or he said that divorce is not allowed except for adultery (as in Matthew). Some defenders of the “no contradiction” hypothesis believe that, as a matter of faith, Jesus must have said both. Well, maybe he did. But which did he mean? They really are different, even contradictory, statements. I could go on, and some of you wish I would. Others may wish that I would pound the pulpit and proclaim that there is no contradiction at all in these sixty-six books.

If you think it necessary to believe that the Bible contains absolutely no contradictions. I wish you well. Go ahead; it is apparently a matter of faith for you. But my faith does not rest on an inerrant, completely consistent, contradiction free text. Rather, my faith is enhanced by complex truth that is revealed in the differences among the gospels, the prophets, the wisdom writings, the histories, and the poetry that the Bible contains. How can that be, you say? I thought you would never ask.

Perhaps it is my temperament. My wife thinks so. After a heavy snow fall, she is convinced that every creak in our old house means that the roof is caving in. I, on the other hand, am perfectly confident that this old New England house has seen many storms, and that the roof is secure, even if occasionally it springs a leak. The result is that she is the one who shovels the roof.

It is not only my temperament that makes me content with creaking noises, however; it is also my education. As an undergraduate, I studied literature. I know how literature works. I know that inconsistencies are not fatal to a text, but enriching. I am not an engineer. Many engineers seem to require a completely consistent text, just as they require completely consistent measurements. I agree that consistency is important in building a bridge; it is not, however, required in building faith. As Walt Whitman said in his amazing poem “Song of Myself” –“Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself, (I am large, I contain multitudes).”

I have spoken before of the importance of paradox. Paradox is truth expressed in apparent contradiction. It is a way of expressing a greater, more comprehensive truth by putting together two things that are apparently contradictory. A simple example: I am burning cold. I am freezing hot. If you have ever had an intense fever, the truth of these statements will be clear to you. Similarly, God is in control of everything, and we have free will. We have free will, but our wills are not free. Everyone who has confronted the power of habit, and evil knows that both of these statements are true. Paradox. Any adequate concept of truth must embrace it. Christ is the supreme paradox. The God-man is a combination that simply cannot be explained, and which is totally inconsistent and impossible for some. The crucified one who lives forever is another paradox. Any adequate thought about the Bible, and about Christianity, rests upon these paradoxes. By comparison with these, all of the small contradictions in the Bible are insignificant – at least to me.

But let’s take a big contradiction in the Bible. Some people would argue that the God portrayed in parts of the Old testament, a God who is jealous, who demands, on occasion, the death of every inhabitant of a village, is inconsistent with the vision of God embodied, or incarnated, in Jesus Christ. There is no doubt a very great tension in these two depictions, a tension that I cannot fully reconcile. I can attempt a reconciliation by (1) accentuating the many depictions of God’s love and mercy in the old testament while disregarding the more violent portions; (2) subscribing to the standard Christian view that the scripture must be viewed through the corrective lens provided by Jesus, the incarnate word (3) acknowledging that God, our Creator, has the right to destroy us. I don’t fully like any of those choices. What I must do, finally. is live with the tension.

That tension is expressed in the scripture passage from Ecclesiastes. There is a time for every purpose, a time for war and a time for peace. I wish that the text had said that there is only a time for peace. But it doesn’t say that. And, heaven knows, Christians have often enough managed to believe that there is a time for war. Never mind that such practice contradicts the teaching of Jesus that we should love our enemies. My non-pacifist friends confess, sadly, sometimes, that war is often necessary. I protest that all war is always and everywhere in violation of Christian teachings and is, in fact, more than anything else, the practice that has discredited the teachings of Christ. Ecclesiastes helps me to live with the tension.

So, despite the presence of contradictions, and indeed because of the greater truth encompassed by some of these contradictions, I am drawn, both freely and irresistibly, to Jesus as the one whom I call Christ and Lord. The Bible is God’s word to me. And I will not have that word discredited by those who deny it, or by those who zealously and unlovingly proclaim it, or by those who seek to base its truth on their pale notions of consistency.

Ralph Waldo Emerson famously said: A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. Ecclesiastes, says the same thing – not only in these verses which tell us that opposite attitudes are required for the fullness of life, but by the whole book, which seems to offer no transcendent hope at all. Ecclesiastes offers a counter example for every claim that the Bible is completely consistent.

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