"The unfolding of your words gives light ..." (Psalm 119:130a)

Month: March 2010 (Page 2 of 2)

Dealing With Aparent Contradictions (Part 4)

5. Realize one author’s purpose may differ from another.

Why do you suppose that when Matthew records the words of the criminals who hung on crosses on either side of Jesus he mentions both as hurling insults at Him, while Luke mentions only one doing the cursing?  Does Scripture contradict itself?  Not at all.  Matthew desires to highlight the opposition to Jesus, so he selects the details of what actually happened and records them according to the purpose the Holy Spirit put in his heart when writing Scripture.  Luke, on the other hand, wishes to emphasize the truths of repentance and salvation.  With this view in mind he records the events truthfully, though only mentioning one of the thieves as hurling insults at Jesus.

When we read the four Gospel accounts of the New Testament we should take into consideration the audience to which they are seeking to communicate. Matthew addresses a primarily Jewish readership.  For this reason you find many more references to and quotations from the Old Testament Scriptures.  Luke wished to communicate with a largely Gentile audience, so he does not use as many Old Testament allusions or quotations.  Each Gospel writer, moved by the Holy Spirit to address different groups of people, selectively recorded what they wrote to be appropriate to their audience.  What they wrote is true, though not a recording of every fact.  Again consider the self-confessed selectivity of the Apostle John in writing the fourth Gospel (John 20:31).

6. Realize that the rules for quotation vary with culture and situation.

When recording varied accounts by different writers, realize that one may use direct discourse to record the person’s words, another may employ either indirect discourse or make a simple statement summarizing what was said.  In today’s English language we have use of quotation marks to set off a person’s specific words, ellipses to indicate an omission of words, brackets to mark off words that have been added to explain what a person meant, and footnotes to record the exact location from which a statement or idea is cited.  The Biblical languages of Hebrew, Greek and Aramaic had none of these devices in their language.  It is wrong for us to impose these literary techniques from our age back upon writings from a different age and from different languages.

Realize also that Jesus undoubtedly spoke at least these three languages (Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic).  It is likely that Jesus often spoke in Amamaic; therefore His words were translated into the written language of Greek for our New Testament.  The questions we need to ask are these: Do the words selected accurately portray what Jesus said?  Do they faithfully represent what Jesus in fact spoke?

Dealing With Apparent Contradictions (Part 3)

3. Ascertain what the author intended to say.

When reading the Bible ask, “Did the author intend this to be literally understood or is this a figure of speech?  The Bible speaks about “the four corners of the world” and the “setting of the sun.”  Was the author intending to make scientific statement or simply communicating in phraseology that made sense in the day?

Does the Biblical writer commit himself to agreement with every statement he writes, or is he simply recording a statement or fact?  Similarly, does the author commit himself to agreeing with or condoning the action that is recorded, or is he simply noting that it happened?  1 Samuel 31 and 2 Samuel 1 record two different reports about the death of King Saul.  In 1 Samuel 31:4-6 the author says that king Saul and his armor bearer killed themselves in battle rather than fall into the hands of the enemy.  However, 2 Samuel 1:9-10 contains the report of a certain Amalekite who tells David that he killed Saul and returned with his crown and bracelet.  So which is it?  Did Saul kill himself or did the Amalekite do it?  What did the writer of Scripture commit himself to?  The only place the writer of Scripture committed himself to the statement was in 1 Samuel 31, where he records that Saul killed himself.  In the account of 2 Samuel 1 the writer is simply reporting the content of what the Amalekite said happened. Did the Amalekite have any reason to manufacture a story?  Sure, David had been long anointed to be king and Saul had long stood in the way.  The Amalekite had reason to believe that, if he reported that he had killed Saul, he would be rewarded.  Too bad he misread David’s character (2 Samuel 1:11-16)!

Realize that the Biblical writers did not say everything that they could have said, but everything they did say is true.  John makes very clear in his Gospel that what he wrote was selective (John 20:31).  We must employ the analogy of Scripture – the comparing of Scripture with Scripture to let it be its own interpreter.

4. Realize the differences in standards for historical recording between the Hebrew and Greek cultures and our own.

When one Gospel writer calls the dominion of God the “Kingdom of Heaven” and another refers to it as the “Kingdom of God,” do we have an error?  Which did Jesus say when He spoke?  The standards for recording and quoting people in Hebrew and Greek cultures were not the same as they are in a society such as ours where litigation over alleged plagiarism or slander is a serious threat.  So when Matthew speaks of the Kingdom of Heaven and Luke writes of the Kingdom of God, referring to the same statement by Jesus, there is no error—they both mean the same thing.  When the Biblical authors write, “Jesus said …” or “Moses said …” they were not always trying to record a word-for-word rendering.

When my wife is finishing preparations for dinner, she might instruct our daughter, “Ask Daddy if he wants milk or Pepsi to drink with dinner.”  When Melody comes and says, “Mommy wants to know if you want milk or Coke to drink with dinner,” is she speaking in error?  No, in our house Pepsi and Coke refer to the same thing.  In fact the bottle in the refrigerator might bear a label for a generic cola!

Take for example Jesus’ prayers in the Garden of Gethsemane.  First He prayed, “My Father, if it is possible let this cup pass from Me; yet not as I will, but as Thou wilt.”  The second time He prayed, “My Father, if this cannot pass away unless I drink it, Thy will be done.”  Jesus did not say the same thing in prayer both times, but it was perfectly accurate when Matthew wrote, “He left them again, and went away and prayed a third time, saying the same thing once more” (Matthew 26:39, 42, 44).

Similarly, when Matthew, Mark and John record Peter’s famous words of confession concerning Jesus’ identity, they phrase it slightly differently.  “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16).  “Thou are the Christ” (Mark 9:29).  “The Christ of God” (Luke 9:20).  Is there error here?  No, Matthew gives us the more complete record of Peter’s statement, Mark records the crucial part of it, and Luke gives us the gist.

We must allow room for the phenomena of language.  Again, when the writer of Scripture speaks about the “sun rising” he is not attempting to make a scientific statement.  He only wishes to designate the time of day or the phenomena of creation happening at the moment.  Similarly, when Jesus said that the mustard seed is the smallest seed (Matthew 13:32) He was not attempting to make a finely tuned horticultural statement.

Dealing With Apparent Contradictions (Part 2)

In my previous post we began to consider the issue of how to understand various Scripture portions when they appear contradictory to one another.  Beginning here I will share a series of interpretational principles to help us make our way through the confusion and fog of such moments.  These principles do not apply merely to instances of apparent contradiction, but more broadly to all Biblical interpretation.  Yet we’ll focus our thoughts on these kinds of issues.

1. Be certain you are dealing with identical events in both passages.

Jesus said and did similar things on different occasions.  On two different occasions Jesus cleansed the temple (John 2; Matthew 21).  There are many similarities between the two accounts, which could lead a person to believe they describe the same event.  If it is not recognized that they occurred at two different times a person may believe the differences in the accounts to the contradictory.  However, if they are distinguished as two separate events, the differences present no problem. There appear to be two different records of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7; Luke 6).  Yet one is significantly shorter than the other.  It is quite likely, as commentators have shown, that the shorter record in Luke 6 is actually a description of a second delivery of the same basic message delivered by Jesus previously.

Robertson McQuilkin is certain that if Jesus did not specifically refer to the feeding of the 5,000 and the feeding of the 4,000 as separate events, someone would have concluded there was an error in recording the numbers. (p.206)

2. Carefully study the context of each account.

Do you know that the Bible says “there is no God”?  In fact the Scriptures make the declaration twice (Psalm 14:1; 53:1).  Does that frighten you?  It shouldn’t because, if you look at the context, that phrase is part of a larger sentence: “The fool has said in his heart ‘There is no God.’”  In any study of Scripture the context must be king!  We use this principle when we read any piece of writing.  It is only logical to interpret words in their context.  Not all issues of context are as simple as the one just cited, but all are just as important.

Every passage of Scripture has a context in which it must be read.  There is a historical context that must be examined.  There is a cultural context as well.  We must also consider the physical context in which it was written.  Also there is a literary context that cannot be passed by.  Any given assertion is made in several contexts, all of which aid in informing the reader as to the intent of the writer.  Sometimes hard work is required to determine which of these contexts is most essential to understanding the passage.

Perhaps you have heard the old story about the man who was discouraged and decided to look to the Bible for guidance.  He prayed and asked God to guide him into what to do.  “I’ll open my Bible and place my finger down, whatever it says is what I will do!” he declared.  Flipping open his Bible and placing his finger down he read, “Judas went out and hung himself.”  A bit nervous about his findings, he tried again, “Go thou and do likewise”!  Once again he tried, “What thou doest, do quickly”!

Context must be king if we are to make sense of anything we read, how much more if we are trying to rightly understand what God intends to communicate to us through His Word.

Dealing With Apparent Contradictions (Part 1)

We have all faced it – someone with whom we are sharing the good news of Christ says, “I don’t believe the Bible!  It is so full of contradictions!”

That can easily take the wind from our sails.  How does one answer a person who claims that the Bible is full of contradictions?  Perhaps even more difficult than the objections of another person is the nagging doubt created within our own hearts when we read two passages of Scripture that appear to be beyond reconciliation.  Too often we shake off the question and bury it under a resolve to return at a later time to study it more thoroughly.  Unfortunately we often never return to the matter, perhaps because we are uncertain how to approach such a study.

In the series of posts to will follow it is my intention to present principles that will guide the student of the Bible into how to handle apparent contradictions in Scripture.  I say “apparent” because I come to this study with the conviction that the Scriptures are the infallible, inerrant Word of God.  The Scriptures are incapable of teaching error or deception; they are not liable to be proven false or mistaken.  They very words of God are breathed out by God, individually and in their entirety (2 Timothy 3:16-17).

This stand may open me to accusations of bringing presuppositions to my study.  To this charge I answer, “You are right.  I do bring presuppositions to this study.  But so does the person who claims the Bible is full of errors.”  The ultimate question is, after drawing from a thorough study of the Biblical texts and having been guided by sound principles of interpretation, what does the burden of proof tell us?  We must also recognize that our study is not simply a scientific and factual pursuit.  Ours is also a philosophical and moral quest.

It is philosophical because we must answer larger questions such as:  Are miracles possible?  Does God exist?  Is the Spirit capable of breathing forth the very words of God?

It is also a moral quest because our will enters the picture long before we would like to suppose.  Jesus said, “If any man is willing to do His will, he shall know of the teaching, whether it is of God, or whether I speak from myself” (John 7:17).  Ultimately my knowledge of the Divine intent of Scripture depends upon my prior willingness to bow submissively to whatever God may say there.  Am I willing to do whatever God tells me to do?  That is the first question that must be answered in all Bible study.

How, then, can we approach what appear to be contradictory statements within Scripture?  Consider the principles that I will present in the posts to follow.  Not all apply to every question we wrestle with, but thorough mastery of them all will aid us in choosing which principles do apply to our specific questions.

In the meantime, let me say that I didn’t dream these things up on my own.  The following resources have helped me formulate these principles I’ll set forth.  You’ll find them helpful as well.

  • Archer, Gleason L., Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1982).
  • Geisler, Norman L. and William E. Nix, A General Introduction to the Bible (Chicago: Moody Press, 1968).
  • Hodges, Louis Igou, “Bibliology,” THE 604, Columbia Biblical Seminary, Columbia, South Carolina.
  • Kaiser, Walter C., Peter H. Davids, F.F. Bruce, and Manfred T. Brauch, Hard Sayings of the Bible (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1996).
  • Little, Paul E., Know Why You Believe (Wheaton, Illinois: Victor Books, 1967).
  • McDowell, Josh, Evidence That Demands Verdict (San Bernadino, California: Here’s Life Publishers, Inc., 1979).
  • McQUilkin, J. Robertson, Understanding and Applying the Bible (Chicago: Moody Press, 1983).
  • Ramm, Bernard, Protestant Biblical Interpretation (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1970).
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