A Few Thoughts on the Fast Company Article, "What the Bible Got Wrong"
In a recent article called “Infographic of the Day: What the Bible Got Wrong,” Fast Company writes:
The Bible was wrong. For evidence look to, well, the Bible.
Such is the conclusion of this stunning, provocative infographic, which maps contradictions in the Bible, from whether thou shalt not commit adultery down to the color of Jesus’s robes. Career skeptic Sam Harris commissioned the chart for his nonprofit foundation Project Reason, with graphic design by Madrid-based Andy Marlow.
Here are a couple quick thoughts, as they come to mind:
1. My Experience with Contradictions in the Bible
When I first got to college, I had begun to take my faith seriously and yet was encountering much opposition to the Bible in my humanities classes. So the claim that the Bible contradicted itself bothered me, and I looked into it. I went to the library and found the best books I could documenting so-called contradictions in the Bible, looked through them for the most challenging claims of contradiction I could find, and discovered through study and my own reflection that every single one had an answer.
Someone might say “that doesn’t mean much.” Well, maybe not. But my point is that as a mere freshman in college, I looked deeply into the assertion that the Bible contradicts itself and was able to see the poor exegesis and method behind most of those claims. And even in the few challenging passages that weren’t so obvious on the surface, there were good answers.
The areas that skeptics tend to accuse of having the most contradictions are the four resurrection accounts in the gospels. Aside from the differences in the accounts actually being good evidence for their authenticity (as that is a mark of eyewitness testimony, and if the accounts were fabricated, their dissimilarities would have likely been ironed over), I even wrote a harmony of the resurrection accounts with my friend, Justin Taylor, showing that in no instance do any of the differences amount to actual contradiction. (You can also see a more narrative version that I did.)
My ultimate reason for accepting the inerrancy of the Scriptures, of course, is not the fact that I was able to find a resolution to every alleged contradiction. Rather, my ultimate reason for accepting the inerrancy of the Scriptures is that this is what Jesus taught, and Jesus can be trusted because he rose from the dead. I wrote an article on that as well. Here’s also an article I wrote on what inerrancy means.
2. On the Appearance of Contradictions in General
The next point worth making is that the appearance of contradictions is not a bad thing. Rather, it is a good thing because it stimulates thought.
I reject entirely the notion that “the contradiction is the hallmark of truth.” If two things really contradict one another, they cannot both be true.
But tension and the initial appearance of contradiction are something else altogether. They cause us to think harder about how the two truths fit together. They cause us to probe more deeply and come to an even greater understanding.
Which is why crying out “contradiction” when we see tension in the Bible is lazy and superficial. It leaves us with uncreative level one thinking, rather than bringing us deeper into a fuller understanding of the truth.
Here’s an example. One of the alleged contradictions the chart asserts is that the Bible teaches both that Abraham was justified by faith (Romans 4:2) and by works (James 2:21). The Bible does use that language:
Romans 4:2-4: For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness. Now to the one who does not work but trusts him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness.
James 2:21: Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar?
So Paul actually calls Abraham ungodly here (amazing–really, really amazing if you think about it) and thus says that he was justified by believing rather than by works. “To the one who does not work but believes him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness.” Incredible. That’s what I need, because like Abraham, I am no more righteous in myself than Abraham was.
But then James says “was not Abraham our father justified by works. . . ”
Looks like a problem. But if you look only at the words and stop there, you miss the really profound insight going on. A contradiction does not exist simply because Paul says “justified by faith” and James says “justified by works.” Rather, you need to look at what each author actually means. Their words look like a contradiction on the surface — which is what stimulates us to think. But they are only actually contradicting each other if Paul is intending to deny the very thing that James is seeking to affirm.
And that is not the case. If you look at it, James and Paul are both using the term “justification” differently. They don’t mean the same thing by “justified,” and therefore they are not contradicting one another when Paul says “justified by faith” and James says “justified by works.”
If you look closely at the text in James, for example, James is referring to a specific point in Abraham’s life: “when he offered up Isaac.” That happened in Genesis 22. But when Paul says “and Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness,” he is quoting Genesis 15:6 — many years earlier.
So James and Paul are both referring to different points in Abraham’s life — which points to some good clues not only in Romans 4 and James 2 themselves that they are each using the term “justification” differently, but also in the specific passages of Genesis that they are each alluding to. Paul — and Genesis 15 — are speaking about justification in the sense of becoming right with God. That must be by faith — and faith alone — because we are ungodly (like Abraham — which is really stunning for Paul to say, once again, as he is one of the most revered people in all of the Bible; and hence, if even Abraham was ungodly, then so are we). Because he was ungodly, he had no works by which he could be accepted by God. That’s what’s going on in Genesis 15.
But James is speaking about justification in the sense of the demonstration, or evidence, that we have become right with God. You see this in Genesis 22:1, where Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac is referred to as a “test” and in James 2:14-26, where the issue is what the indications are that one’s faith is real. This could be drawn out in many ways, but perhaps most interesting is James 2:22: “You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works.” The phrase “was completed” is the same phrase Jesus used in 2 Corinthians 12:9 when he said to Paul “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”
Did Jesus mean here “my power is made to be power” through weakness? No — his power exists all on its own and doesn’t need us to be fully powerful. Rather, the meaning is “my power is most shown to be powerful in weakness.” Christ’s power is demonstrated through our weakness. So also, when James says “and faith was completed by his works,” we see that his point in this passage is that works demonstrate faith.
Since he’s talking about the demonstration of faith — and since he’s talking about a point later in Abraham’s life, after he was declared right with God in Genesis 15 — we see that James is talking about justification in a different sense than Paul. James is talking about the demonstration of the fact that we are right with God — the “justification” of our justification, in a sense –, which happens through works. Our works are evidence that our faith is real, and thus function will function as evidence in the final judgment. But this does not mean we enter into a relationship with God through our works — that is impossible, since we are ungodly. Rather, the fact that we are right with God and have real faith is demonstrated by our works, as evidence.
And this is fully in line with the range of meaning of the word “justify.” Jesus, for example, uses the word “justify” in this sense when he says “wisdom is justified by her deeds (Matthew 11:19).” The meaning here cannot be “wisdom is made to be wise” through its effects. That would not make sense. Rather, the meaning is “wisdom is shown to be wisdom” through its effects. So Jesus is using “justify” here in the sense of “demonstrate.” Which is also how James is using it — he is talking about how we are shown to be righteous, whereas Paul is talking justification in the sense of how we are made righteous before God. The term itself can be used in either way, and you need to look at the specific context to know which one is in view.
The fact that our works function as evidence that we are right with God leads to an even deeper understanding of justification and the final judgment. It tells us that the kind of faith that justifies is not mere intellectual assent or a dead faith, but a living faith that entrusts oneself to Christ and will necessarily result in a life of good works. (And for some really, really profound insight on how works function as evidence, let me point you to John Piper’s excellent chapter on this in his book Future Grace – see chapter 29, “The Future Grace of Dying.”)
But the point here is: there are some really cool things about the doctrine of justification that we would have never seen if we just stopped at the mere words of James and Paul, declared “contradiction,” and left it at that. This is a small example of the mountains of profound insight that yield to us when we look at apparent contradictions as opportunities for learning rather than opportunities for sitting in judgment on the text.
3. Why God Inspired Hard Texts
The second point leads to my much briefer third point: These apparent contradictions are in the Bible on purpose. They are there on purpose in order to get us to think and thus in order to lead us to more profound insight.
The truths of God and the Bible are very great. Yet as humans we are continually tempted to settle for easy answers and stage one thinking. As some have said, “you rarely think until you’re confronted with a problem.” So God has deliberately made parts of the Bible hard, in order to lead us in to greater learning.
So when we see apparent contradictions in the Bible, the proper response is not to sit in judgment on the text. Rather, the proper response is to sit back in gratefulness and say “there is something amazing to be learned here.”
John Piper has an excellent sermon that goes in to much more detail on this, called Why God Inspired Hard Texts. I highly recommend checking it out.
John Piper is also simply a great example of what I’m talking about here in general. One of the great appeals of his writing is that he continually creates problems for us, and then solves them. For two of the best examples of how he does this, I would point you to Chapter 1 of Desiring God, “The Happiness of God: The Foundation of Christian Hedonism” (which can also be found online in sermon form) and Chapter 2 of The Pleasures of God, “The Pleasure of God in All that He Does” (which can also be found online in sermon form).
So, in conclusion, the assertion that the Bible contains contradictions matters a lot to me. As a result, I investigated it in great detail when I was first becoming more serious about my faith and, as a mere freshman in college, was able to see that no claim of contradiction ultimately holds.
However, the appearance of contradiction in many places in the Scriptures is there on purpose and by God’s design because this is the mark of any profound text and because it causes us to dig deeper, leading to far more profound insight.
Now, back to Fast Company’s article: I love Fast Company, and you see me link to them all the time on this blog. I don’t want to say to them: “stay away from religion — you don’t know what you’re talking about.” I don’t want to foster a dichotomy like that. But I do want to say: “before probing into matters of religion, make sure you get the facts right and think more deeply first.”
For more on this subject, see also Justin Holcomb’s helpful response over at the Resurgence.