Clarity and Contradiction in the Bible

Clarity and Contradiction in the Bible February 13, 2014

Hemant asks, “What’s the Most Difficult Biblical Contradiction for Christian Apologists to Reconcile?

On one hand, none of them are really all that difficult. There are a number of escape hatches that even a fundamentalist can use. All contradictions are really just “apparent contradictions,” which require the apologist to spin the meaning of the original text. Sometimes they can argue that both sides are correct, such as when they say that Judas hung himself over a field.

If all else fails, they can argue that the original manuscripts are the only really inspired texts, and later corruptions can’t be held against the true Bible.

On the other hand, even the simplest contradiction is a massive problem. Most of the apologists that we deal with are Protestant, and they are heir to some of the ideas about the Bible that came out of the Reformation. One of those is the “clarity of scripture.”

Lemme back up. The principle of “clarity of scripture,” or “perspicuity of Scripture” if you’re feeling pretentious, states that the meanings of the Bible are clear to the common reader, without the need for guidance from specialists like priests. There are a couple of caveats: this clarity comes from the Holy Spirit, and it is possible to deliberately confuse yourself.

This doctrine is in direct opposition to the Catholic teaching that the Bible is frequently obscure and must be read in light of Church tradition by qualified scholars.

It developed out of the argument between Erasmus and Martin Luther that I quoted a while ago. Erasmus had taken the Catholic position and then taken it one step farther. He pointed out that even the qualified scholars disagreed over the meanings of the Bible. If the professionals can’t agree, then what hope have the rest of us? Erasmus suggested that the only sane course of action was just to stick with the simple faith of our forefathers, which for his audience was Catholicism.

We might laugh at that today, but it was a conservative argument in a very conservative age. Couple that with Erasmus’ reputation and skilled writing, and Martin Luther had to respond.

His response was to deny that there really was a problem. He argued that the confusion came about because these Catholic scholars refused to see the clear meaning of scripture. He was willing to say that the scriptures don’t exactly explain how the Trinity fits together, but he insisted that the Bible was clear that the Trinity existed: “The Scripture simply confesses the Trinity of God, the humanity of Christ, and the unpardonable sin. There is nothing here of obscurity or ambiguity. But how these things are the Scripture does not say, nor is it necessary to be known.”

In short, everything you need to know is clearly laid out in Scripture, “nothing whatever is left obscure or ambiguous; but all things that are in the Scriptures, are by the Word brought forth into the clearest light, and proclaimed to the whole world.”

So there’s the problem: according to Martin Luther, the Bible shouldn’t need careful explaining. Every individual should be able to puzzle out the message of the Bible without reliance on a priest, scholar or apologist. If the Bible is not clear, then why would we abandon the Catholic Church, with its priests who specialize in Biblical interpretation and who have passed down the true doctrines of Christianity obtained by the Apostles themselves? Acknowledging an “apparent contradiction” is dabbling a toe in the Tiber.

Ironically, many American Christians have taken “clarity of scripture” even farther. And not surprisingly. If there’s a Christian doctrine that’s a better fit for American thought, I don’t know what it is. It’s egalitarian! It’s anti-intellectual! It’s individualistic!

So one of my fundamentalist coworkers tells me, “Don’t give me any of that wishy-washy ‘interpretation’ crap.” An evangelist on the phone tells my wife, “We don’t need scholars to tell us what the Bible means.” But as soon as we bring up a contradiction, the Bible is suddenly not so clear, and we need a specialist to tell us what the Bible really means.

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