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Click HERE for an introductory YouTube video for Apologetics – Is the Bible Contradictory? (Part 2). I will not be wearing an ugly Christmas sweater.
Click HERE for Part 1 of this blog series.
In talking about a writing like the Bible on the topic of contradictions, we must deal with the claim of internal contradictions. If there are actual significant internal contradictions it would seem a bit illogical to put our trust in the God it promotes. If someone writes that Jesus wore a navy outfit while another reports that he wore a black outfit, this hardly seems to be reason enough to toss out the whole record, especially if His outfit has little bearing on the overall theme and intended message of the author. However, if one reported He rode to town on a donkey and another said He skipped town on a mountain lion, well, that’s tough to reconcile.
One key hermeneutical rule when reading anything from any age is to pay close attention to when the writing was produced. It matters more with some readings than others. The reason we do this is to make sure we are aware of the nuances that exist or are prevalent in one age that do not exist or are not prevalent in another. For example, it is likely that ancient writers felt less constricted in their historical writing to exactness than modern writers of history. Peter Kreeft and Ronald K. Tacelli say it best in Handbook of Christian Apologetics when they say, “we must not impose our modern standards of accuracy on material that was never intended to have it.”
So, there are a few basic types of claims of internal contradiction within the Bible. There are claims that certain numbers such as army size are contradictory and that there are some quotes that are varied in different accounts. There are claims that some terms contradict themselves. There are some who are especially bothered by contradictory sequences of events. Finally, there are concepts that seem to contradict one another. We will look at the first two of these in this blog entry.
Wayne Grudem, in Scripture and Truth, talks about the difference between trustworthiness and precision. In modern culture we look for precision. However, I would contend that we also allow for less precision than we think, especially when we consider what I am calling genre. Grudem gives an example that goes something like this. If I say that my home is not far from my work I’m making a bit of a subjective statement, for what is far for one is not far for another. At what point does my statement become untrue? It certainly seems there is a line, for if I have to cross an ocean to get to my office it’s tough to say I was being truthful in my statement. So it seems that the spectrum goes something like precise, trustworthy, and untrue. Kreeft’s claim, then, is that when different writers use slightly different numbers for people groups and army numbers, they were easily in the realm of trustworthiness. In fact, he points out that it was also normal for ancient writers to take liberty with actual numbers and insert symbolic numbers instead. They did this not only in scripture, but in other works of antiquity as well. Just like we still do today, ancient authors made estimates.
So, here is our first example of something being true and untrue at the same time. Is it true if the President reports in a press release that he sent 2,000 troops into a war zone? (Insert sarcasm!) Yes. What if the mathematical number he reported in an official document was actually 1,999? My contention is that he’s being truthful and contradictory at the same time. He’s truthful in a conversational genre and contradictory in a scientific/mathematical genre. Overall, he has been trustworthy in his reporting of the number of troops sent. So it is also in scripture.
Grudem goes on to talk about trustworthiness and precision when dealing with quotes and paraphrases in scripture. So long as they don’t alter the meaning too much, people in antiquity, like people today, regarded paraphrases to be true. Even still, he’s willing to admit that, “The Bible contains statements that lack technical precision.” However, in Hermeneutics, Authority, and Canon, D.A. Carson concurs that this lack of precision does not automatically equate to a contradiction. In fact, he actually served as a bit of a catalyst for my thesis when he said:
Signals as to degree of precision to be expected, like signals as to genre, are often subtle things.
He’s indicating here that while it may sometimes be difficult, we have to pay attention to the kinds of clues we’re getting from the writing as to which genre it belongs. I’m contending that we have to do the same when we’re trying to analyze whether or not a statement is true or contradictory. The questions become, “Which conversational genre is the author intending?” and “Is the contradiction within the intended genre or outside of it?” If it’s outside of it, though it may be contradictory to that genre, it is not untrustworthy or in error since it does not violate the intended genre’s truthfulness.
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 Kreeft p. 216
 Carson p. 51
 Kreeft p. 215-216
 Carson p. 51
 Carson p. 52
 Carson p. 52