Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Biblical Reliability - A Note on Consistency

Looking over my initial checklist, I think I've touched on the arguments favoring Biblical credibility that I intended to discuss. However, as I think I've hinted, there are a couple of other areas of concern I want to address before summing up the series this Friday. The first is the oft-argued issue of Biblical consistency (i.e. is it chock full of contradictions?) The second is the issue of canonicity and the politicization of putting the Bible together. This last area of concern I'll address tomorrow.

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One of the most common questions I hear in regards to Biblical reliability is about "contradictions." I don't as often hear many criticisms aimed at the arguments I've put forth already in this series. So why did I put this one off? First of all, the intent was to show that believing as I do is rational in matters of historicity; contradictions aren't necessarily about historicity. Second, I wanted to put this one near the end because I am rather fond of answering questions on the topic. In a manner of speaking, answering challenges to consistency is usually more an educational process than an argumentative one. Sure, there are some who defy reason, but most people, once we start discussing the "contradictions" start to see that what appeared at first wasn't necessarily so.

In my experience, those who believe there are contradictions in the Bible are generally unable to name more than a stock few, usually the top ones listed at skeptic Web sites. This isn't a knock at the critics; we Christians make use of stock answers too. It's one of the advantages of debating questions that have been tossed around for a long time. But as with the other arguments put forth in this series, I think it's rational to hold that there are no contradictions in the Bible. In fact, it is, I think rather irrational to focus on claims of contradiction while ignoring the overall coherence and consistency of a Book written over hundreds of years by multiple authors from diverse backgrounds.

Why is this important? Well, for one reason, skeptics often insist that any contradiction is prima facie evidence that God isn't behind the scriptures. This removes the authority behind scripture, leaving the skeptic free to ignore or minimize the Bible as an authority in how to live. For another reason, apparent contradictions distract readers from actual study of the Bible, and resolving them generally adds to one's understanding of the texts themselves.

Okay...maybe it's important to discuss, and perhaps it's rational to believe there are no real contradictions (or at least problematic ones) in scripture. How do I argue that there are, though, no contradictions? If it's rational to believe in scriptural consistency, what evidence do I use to reason through to my conclusion?

Fair question, glad I asked it. Well, as I noted above, this stuff has been argued about for a long time. And there are very well reasoned articles, books and dissertations written to address nearly all alleged contradictions. The basic argument is that before crying, "Contradiction!" one needs to actually look into the text and see what it says, in context, and in the original language/culture. What appears to be a contradiction in an English translation of Greek text, 2000 years later than the events in question may not have been a contradiction in the Greek when read as someone who lived in that culture. Additionally, many alleged contradictions are really nothing more than a misunderstanding of common literary devices, or of different literary forms.

Another item of note. It is possible to believe that there are no contradictions in the Bible without likewise believing that we know the resolution to all apparent conflicts. All that is necessary is to show that there is at least one plausible resolution that removes the contradiction. It doesn't have to be the "correct" resolution since for some of these questions, we may never know the best answer due to incomplete knowledge of the time at hand. Now, this does not excuse the apologist from doing legitimate analysis; really, the offered solution(s) must be plausible or reasonable. But as long as it can be shown that there is not necessarily a contradiction, we have removed the impediment to disbelief based on the notion that there is a contradiction.

This post is getting long, so I'm not going to address specific examples here. However, I will point to a few Web sites that touch on the topic and "debunk" some contradiction claims. Happy reading, and God bless!

ChristianAnswers.net touches on a few contradiction claims.
A Tecktonics article addressing the validity of harmonizing different (apparently contradictory?) accounts.
Inerrancy.org, appropriately enough, addresses many common "tough" questions on the Bible from an inerrantist point of view.
Three NT contradictions addressed in a fairly typical argument structure.
Apologetics Index has this handy list or resources.

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