Inerrancy (3) – Dealing with Bible Difficulties13 min read
If one is to claim, as above, that the Bible is fully without error, he must be ready to defend his claim on a practical level. To be conservative is not equivalent to being naive or ignorant. Thus, one who stands for inerrancy should be competent when addressing Bible difficulties.
Before entering into this field, the Christian must be sure he is addressing legitimate issues. Many skeptics presuppose Scripture’s error and argue based on that foundation. Many simply desire to waste time by arguing with unfounded claims and hypotheticals. In order to sift through the nonsense of many skeptics, Christians should learn to put them on the defensive first and see if they have a basis for their claims. Skeptics often bring their weapons but have no ammunition; though they do not succeed in discrediting Scripture, they often do succeed in wasting valuable time. As believers, we are to beware of this. We should first attack the skeptic’s foundation to eliminate nonsense that we don’t simply have time to defend against.
But there are real questions that both believers and unbelievers have about apparent Bible contradictions and difficulties. These are better addressed, not as individual issues, but as categories to deal with as a whole.
Difficulties Between Texts. Difficulties between texts occur when specific details in parallel accounts differ. These happen in a few main areas.
- Skeptics will point out differences in genealogies as evidence of error. For example, Luke 3 records the son of Arphaxad as being “Cainan,” but 1 Chronicles 1 (and all other records) records him as “Salah.” The solution is easily explained, however. Firstly, not all genealogies in Scripture were meant to be complete; often they exist to prove lineage, rather than exhaustively define it. Secondly, though “father” by default refers to a biological source, it is also used to denote ancestry (Matthew 1:1). Thirdly, it was not impossible for a scribe to copy a genealogy wrongly since lists are especially difficult to copy accurately. Thus, a scribe’s eye could have slipped back to “Cainan” in verse 37 on the manuscript he was copying, causing him to copy it again. This is likely what happened in this passage in some manuscripts.
- Quotations also may pose an issue to some in that the New Testament often quotes Old Testament passages loosely. This poses no problem since loose quotation was and is acceptable for proving a point. But the other factor to consider is what the apostles were referencing for their quotations. Often they were quoting the Greek translation of the Old Testament, called the “Septuagint,” whereas we read the translation of the Hebrew itself. This would allow for different, but similar, renderings of the same passage.
- Numbers also compose a category of textual difference which we must be aware of. There is an example in the account of the Transfiguration. Luke says it was “about eight days” after Jesus’ previous words. Matthew and Mark say, “after six days.” Notice the wording, though: Matthew and Mark are referring to the days that passed between the events, while Luke is speaking about the general time covered from the time of Christ’s words to the event. Luke uses “about,” while the others use “after.” Obviously one includes the two peripheral days, while the others record the intermittent days only. Another example is in the consequences of David’s pride in 2 Samuel 24 and 1 Chronicles 21. Samuel mentions “seven years of famine” while the Chronicler mentions “three years of famine.” This has two simple explanations: (1) the number could have been miscopied, since the difference between three and seven in Hebrew are denoted by one line. (2) 2 Samuel 21 records three years of famine that already happened. To add the year of David’s sin to the three years of famine as a result of his sin, one will have seven years. Thus, the author may have purposefully written “seven” to include the previous years of famine as well. Overall, either an understanding of manuscript transmission or attention to detail will solve numeric difficulties. At times, numeric differences are only an omission or deliberate emphasis and not an error (Legion in Matthew 8 and in Luke 8).
- Parallel accounts also can emphasize or record different factors than their counterparts. Incidents include the order of Christ’s appearances after the resurrection, the title above Christ’s cross, who tempted David to take the census, and other such. Often these are solved when we realize there are not “either/or” but “both/and.” In other words, they are not contradictions but accounts that must be combined to give full force of the true happening. After all, if the records were word-for-word the same, would not the skeptic accuse God of useless repetition? These texts are deliberately variant, not because they are in error, but because they are purposed to convey a specific emphasis. If one assumes error, he will see error. If one assumes inspiration, he will see God’s design.
Difficulties Between Themes. Scripture is a multifaceted book, addressing many themes from many different angles. As we look at these themes from different perspectives, we will notice variations from one passage to another. These, however, are not contradictions, but differences in emphasis and context.
- At times there will be distinction between God’s dealings with man in the Old Testament and God’s dealings with man in the New Testament. God has deliberately changed his pattern of administration from age to age to reveal the many capacities of the human heart and display His manifold glory. The Bible is not simply “the Christian’s Rule-Book.” It is a revelation of God and His purposes in Creation. Thus, we would expect variations in the ways He has dealt with and commanded men through the ages. These are not contradictions, but deliberate changes.
- Skeptics will also point out differences in the teaching of Scripture. For instance, Psalm 121 says that God never sleeps, while Matthew 4 records the Lord Jesus sleeping. First of all, Psalm 121:4 is a metaphor, because not only does God not sleep, but He cannot. It is not really referring to the doctrine of God’s sleeplessness. He is always in control, and that is the point. Secondly, Psalm 121 was not written in the context of the Son of God Who took on flesh. While “God is not a man,” that does not mean He could not become a man and take on full humanity while retaining full Deity. We must understand Scripture’s teaching in its own context established by the passage.
- At times, as well, Scripture will present differing commands. For instance, Paul says in 1 Corinthians 7 that it is not good to marry. But Paul says in 1 Timothy 4 that false teachers will command to abstain from marriage. Again, the issue is context. In 1 Corinthians, Paul was suggesting against marriage in light of a specific setting. In 1 Timothy, Paul was supporting marriage as a morally upright institution to oppose the false teachers, which were forbidding it. Again, the setting of a passage is everything.
Difficulties in Concepts. At times, there will be objections to Scripture that are not rooted in Scripture at all, but rather in the finite mind of the individual. Two examples will be given since they are the most common.
- Within conservative Christianity, it seems no subject is so controversial as the balance between God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility. These topics often appear side by side (see Matthew 11:25-30, Romans 9-11, John 6:35-51, 2 Peter 1:16-21, and Luke 8:40-56) and in their own emphasis. There is no “solution” to this paradox, because no solution is needed. These concepts do not contradict each other; we simply do not have the knowledge to understand them together. Thus, we must accept both and embrace the mystery of the thing.
- The same applies to the two natures of Christ and the fact of His full deity alongside His full humanity. How do they relate? How do we align them fully? We do not know. We simply accept both His deity and His humanity and enjoy both individually without diminishing either. Could we not expect such depths from the infinite God? Why would this be considered a “difficulty”?
Difficulties in Social Perception. Most Bible difficulties arise, because people implant the present into the past, thinking the two are completely parallel. This is called anachronism. Anachronism happens mainly with social norms. Since social norms are held much by emotion and not logic, skeptics will rarely look at the issues objectively. Objectivity is necessary.
- Many accuse Scripture of supporting slavery; however, the slavery of the Bible is far different from the slavery of America. The slavery of the Bible was not by kidnapping, but rather by one’s will. In fact, not only does Scripture forbid kidnapping, but it gives safety parameters for slavery (Exodus 21). It does not support racism of any sort, nor cruelty. In fact, God told Israel to remember their slavery in order to avoid that kind of behaviour toward others. With these two factors, the slavery of the Bible becomes a social order, not a sinful practice as in recent centuries.
- The conquest of Canaan and the slaughter entailed also brings objection. However, we must understand that God withheld judgment for a long time on the nations (Gen. 15:16). Their sin merited judgment on the whole race, as with Sodom and Gomorrah. As regards the killing of women and children, the women were just as guilty as the men, while the children were saved (through death) from sinning against God later in life. There was no injustice involved on God’s part. As to the mode, the slaughter would remind Israel of the sinfulness of sin.
- Some see the awkward passages of the Bible as a reason to reject it. However, its honesty with the way things really were is evidence of its inerrancy. Scripture was not meant to be a book of inspirational stories. It deals with real life. This includes the many cultures it spans. We cannot fault it for dealing with things as they are.
Difficulties in Spiritual Perception. This is where we find the real issue. The unsaved man has no appreciation of Scripture, because it was not written to comply to his standards. Where man either feels ignorant or convicted, he will blame his problem on the Bible. The cross is foolishness to the unbelieving mind. Headship and gender roles are arbitrary to the unbelieving mind. Creation is a superstition to the unbelieving mind. The sinfulness of sin, the holiness of God, and the judgment of God – none of these concepts make sense to man, because he is blinded to spiritual realities. These issues are not actually problematic, but unbelief turns them into “difficulties” because hatred for God will find any reason to criticize Him.
While it would be nearly impossible to recall and refute all possible “difficulties,” we can learn to be generally competent in the field. Briefly, then, here are ten principles for dealing with Bible difficulties:
- Be spiritual. Nothing substitutes for hours spent in the presence of God and in the study of His Word. Nothing substitutes for an appreciation of God’s glory and His salvation. A defender of the faith must be a worshiper primarily; otherwise, he is defending a system, not so much the gospel.
- Be an able handler of Scripture. Most difficulties result from ignorance. Thus, it will be invaluable to have a working knowledge of Scripture’s contents and its teachings. No formal education will substitute for being a faithful student of the Scriptures.
- Learn to love the big picture. We must remember that every passage in Scripture has a context in the overall plan of God. If we are mindful of this plan, we will more easily understand the individual passages, especially the ones that seem “difficult.”
- Learn to struggle with a text and be strengthened as a result. In the age of all things instant, we have somewhat lost the skill of meditating on a text of Scripture at length. Yet only when we “struggle” with a text does it have true impact on our hearts. Difficulties are only resolved as we pay attention to the fine details of Scripture. And when they are resolved, we gain immense strength, having discovered another facet of God’s precision in Scripture.
- Be offensive as well as defensive. People will question Christianity to no end. If we subject ourselves to that, nothing will be accomplished. We must learn to defend, yes, but we must also learn to attack the weaknesses of other positions. Otherwise, our conversations will always be controlled by unbelief.
- Learn to admit ignorance, and then pursue the answer. No one has all the answers, and neither will we. If we do not know the answer to a question, we cannot (a) fabricate an answer, (b) ignore it, or (c) say there is no answer. It is fine to address it at a later point. There is nothing wrong with saying, “I haven’t looked into that as much as I would have liked. Let me study that for a while, and I will get back to you with an answer.”
- Learn to address Bible “contradictions” with precision. In other words, make sure the texts are actually talking about the exact same thing. Be thorough in looking into the issue. Often contradictions are simply oversights on the part of the reader.
- Understand the multi-faceted nature of Scripture. God did not design Scripture to be exhaustive in every one of its statements. Some statements address one part of the issue, while statements elsewhere address the other part of the issue. These are not contradictions; these are just different emphases. Also, we should expect many sides to a theme in Scripture, since it speaks of eternal and infinite themes. These many sides contribute to a whole picture that we need to be looking for.
- Understand the relationship between Old and New Testaments. The Bible student will be hopelessly lost if he treats the Old Testament the same way he treats the New Testament and vice versa. He must learn what God’s purpose in each is and interpret them in light of it.
- Learn to assess the hearer, keeping in mind his darkened heart. We have no right to assume that skepticism is objective, unbiased, and well-thought-through. Fallen man is blinded by Satan (2 Corinthians 4), is unable to comprehend the things of God (1 Corinthians 2), and is darkened in his intellect as a result of sin (Romans 1). There cannot be objectivity on his part, and we must be diligent to assess where his bias is. Helping a person along in Bible difficulties cannot be separated from evangelism (unless to a Christian), which seeks to change the heart of the unbeliever. The goal is not to win an argument. The goal is to see a rebel transformed by the power of Christ.
What, then, are we to do in the mean time before we find the solution to a Bible difficulty? Firstly, we must keep in mind Scripture’s positive proofs. The things that affirm it are far more weighty than the things that attempt to deny it. Secondly, we must remember that in history, when Scripture was given the “benefit of the doubt” it has been proven in the end. Thirdly, we must remember how we have experienced it to possess the authority and power of God. It is self-validating. It is self-proving. We must not forget this.
Furthermore, the existence of difficulties proves the Christian worldview. Firstly, the existence of skepticism is what Scripture predicted all along; thus, Scripture is consistent with reality and proven valid again. Secondly, when we find out that Scripture actually has no contradictions, what once were difficulties turn out to be marks of God’s precision. Such precision validates Scripture once again.
We have no reason to be ashamed of inerrancy, even in light of Bible difficulties. Rather, we have every reason to defend it at all costs. God will not be mocked. He is not sloppy in His statements. He will not be proven wrong. When we neglect this, we will find contradictions (falsely so). When we embrace this, we will find design. Will we embrace what God has said?