Does it matter if the Bible contradicts itself?

The short answer is yes. A case in point appears in a recent article by retired Anglican minister Albert Radcliffe. Radcliffe argues that the Bible is a “library of conflicting viewpoints,” and cannot be the last word on the Church of England’s debates on the moral status of homosexuality and women pastors. He argues that even within the pages of the Bible we read about “rigorists” who prefer the letter of the law and about the “humanitarians” who don’t allow the Bible to be the last word. According to Radcliffe, someone like Ezra was in the former category, and Jesus was in the latter.

As you might imagine, the upshot of this hermeneutic is devastating to the functional authority of the Bible to whoever adopts it. Radcliffe writes:

“The Bible cannot be used, therefore, to close moral and theological debate. Its pronouncements on the social role of women and the acceptance of gays are not authoritative in the sense that they are given by God to end all discussion. They are open to the same sort of revision found in the Old Testament when scripture argues with scripture and afterwards when Jesus debated with his opponents. General Synod’s discussions are part of humanity’s ongoing debate with God through scripture and the unending disputes scripture provokes.”

Apart from the obvious futility of debating God, Radcliffe’s article has a number of problems with it. Chief among them is the notion that the Bible contradicts itself—that it is a “library of conflicting viewpoints”—and that it exercises no authority on the issues it speaks to. It’s just supposed to provoke our moral imaginations, which may or may not be in concert with the Scriptures.

It’s helpful to remind ourselves that this is not the way that the apostles and Jesus spoke about the Scriptures. For them, the Bible was the word of God written and completely authoritative for all of life.

Jesus called two men “foolish” for failing to believe “all” of what the Old Testament scriptures teach (Luke 24:25). For Jesus, it wasn’t enough to believe some of the Bible. Christ’s followers must believe all of what the Bible teaches, and they emphatically must not debate with God. The apostle Paul famously said it this way, “All scripture is God-breathed” (1 Timothy 3:16). By that he meant that meant that all of the scriptures are God’s word written. As God’s word, they can no more contradict themselves than God can contradict Himself.

Radcliffe’s article is tragically mistaken, but it does highlight something important. The debate over homosexuality and the role of women is nothing less than a debate about the functional authority of the Bible. Some will submit to that authority, and others will kick against it. The difference between these two groups is all the difference in the world. Unfortunately, some people still don’t see it that way. Hopefully, by God’s grace, they will see it sooner rather than later (2 Timothy 2:25).

7 Responses to Does it matter if the Bible contradicts itself?

  1. Dave Miller July 12, 2010 at 3:16 am #

    For all our faults, it is stuff like this that makes me thankful to be Southern Baptist.

  2. Joe Blackmon July 12, 2010 at 9:26 am #

    I am as complementarian as the day is long. In fact, I’m so complimentarian that I told my wife last night “Get in there and fry me a chicken, woman!!” Ok, that was totally a joke because obviously that has nothing to do with what the Bible says about the biblical roles of men and women.

    I have come to admit that even though I disagree with egal’s as to the roles of men and women in the church and at home because I’m a complimentarian, there are egals who are conservative, believe in the inerrancy and verbal, plenary inspiration of scripture but they believe differently about the issue than I do because they interpret the text differently. I, of course, disagree with them but I have had to begrudginly come to admit that being an egal does not make one a flaming liberal.

    Of course, the Anglican in this article is obviously a flaming liberal but that is self evident.

  3. Donald Johnson July 12, 2010 at 10:52 am #

    The Bible is foolishness to those that do not believe in God, so if one is in that state, it seems clear to me that it may appear to be contradictory.

    The Bible is not contradictory, but there is a big few caveat.
    Most of it was written in a Hebrew worldview context, if you read it in a Greek worldview context (which most of us have today), you can EASILY make mistakes, except for those parts written to Greeks/gentiles.

    Contra Radcliffe, Jesus was a Torah observant Jew and if he was not, this would have disqualified him from being a prophet of God and therefore a/the Jewish Messiah. Jesus correctly interpreted Torah but did not try to change it. There is a progressive revelation in the Bible, but later revelations cannot contradict earlier ones.

    Also contra Radcliffe, there is no necessary bundling of the women question and the homosexual question. But to a liberal they may be clearly bundled.

    Moses debated with God.

  4. RD July 12, 2010 at 6:34 pm #

    The Bible DOES contain contradictions. There are many many of them, ranging from minor, inconsequential contradictions, to some that are more consequential. Viewing the Bible as the literal “word of God” can create some problems when trying to reconcile texts that are many millenia old with 21st century culture. I think this is what Radcliffe is getting at.

  5. Matt Svoboda July 13, 2010 at 1:41 am #

    RD,

    What are some of the contradictions that you believe are in the Bible? Any examples?

  6. RD July 13, 2010 at 9:36 am #

    Matt,

    As I said, there are many, and some are not very theologically consequential at all, i.e. did Judas take the betrayal money and buy a field with it himself on which he fell down and died (Acts), or did he throw the money back and the priests buy the field (Matt)? Inconsequential, yes; but still a contradiction. The two birth narratives are not so much filled with contradictions as they are just simply two distinct stories of Jesus’ birth. The time frame of each is off by approx ten years. Did Joseph take Jesus and Mary into Egypt following Jesus’ birth (Matt) or did they go to the temple and then go back to their hometown of Nazareth (Luke)? These are just a couple of instances. In the OT there are also plenty of examples (compare 2 Samuel 24:1 and 1 Chronicles 21:1 for just one – though, pretty theologically significant – contradiction).

    For a more in-depth discourse see a great series of articles by Kenton Sparks over at Biologos.org: http://biologos.org/blog/author/kenton-sparks/

  7. abbie May 30, 2011 at 12:05 am #

    “All Scripture is God-breathed” is a refrence from 2 Timothy 3:16.Easy mistake 🙂

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