when the Bible disagrees with itself, and the key to handling it

Posted by PeteEnns on November 18, 2016 in Christian faith and life nature of the Bible 21 Comments

unknownHere is a great quote from Leslie Newbigin a friend passed on to me recently.

“…the confession of Jesus as the unique Son of God who by his incarnation, ministry, death and resurrection has acted decisively for the redemption of the world and for the renewal of the whole creation…provides the hermeneutical key with which I seek to understand the scriptures as a whole.

When we read, and meditate on, and immerse ourselves in the Scriptures, we become aware of the basic tensions within the Scriptures.

Place, for example, the book of Joshua alongside the Sermon on the Mount. Place the exclusivist writings of Ezra and Nehemiah alongside the inclusivist writings of Jonah and Ruth. Put Paul and James side by side on the doctrine of justification, or put Romans 13 and Revelation 13 side by side in search of a doctrine of the state. Plainly, these are simple examples of an immense internal critique which is going on throughout the whole of the Bible.

And that critique is part of the very life of the church, because a tradition remains living when it is constantly wrestling with questions of truth.

And the hermeneutical key to which I have referred—namely, the actual incarnation and ministry, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ—is the point at which this internal tension is historically actualized, which at its very heart is the tension between the holy wrath of God and the holy love of God, the ultimate tension which has its final manifestation and resolution in the atoning work of Jesus Christ, is the key by which we can understand the great internal tensions within the Scriptures.

Which means that when we read the Scriptures, we do not simply read individual passages by themselves and take them as they stand to be God’s Word for us, but that take the Scripture always in its canonical wholeness and read the whole of it within the perspective of its canonical wholeness and with the hermeneutical key of the ministry, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.” ~ Lesslie Newbigin, “Scripture at the Locus of Truth,” The Trinity Journal for Theology and Ministry 4.2 (2010): 43-44 (my emphasis)

Some of you will recognize in this quote overlap the main theme of my book Inspiration and Incarnation: Jesus as God incarnate is a model for helping us come to grips with what the Bible is and how it should be handled.

sin-of-certainty-peter-ennsI also enthusiastically resonate with Newbigin that there is an “immense internal critique which is going on in the Bible.” (I make quite a big deal out of it in The Sin of Certainty and The Bible Tells Me So.)

The Bible’s messiness—its diversity, tensions, and contradictions—is precisely that characteristic of Scripture that makes it so applicable to us. It is only by our following Scripture’s lead and wrestling with the tradition that the “tradition remains living.”

Wrestling. Striving. I keep coming back to how that is embedded in Israel’s very name (Genesis 32:28).

By allowing the Bible to be what it is rather than what we think it should (or must) be, we will better come to understand it and see what it has to offer us on our journey of faith in this life.


  • Ah, but Jesus is in 4 gospels,and the gospels do not always SEEM to agree. So the seeming contradictions there and elsewhere mean to me that I need to dig deeper, just like in physics or elsewhere.

      • Sheesh. You are one from whom I learned the importance of multiple stories. This is what I teach, so I am not kidding.
        My claim is that it is true that Jesus is the goal of Torah and so all Scripture should be read in the light of that in the second and subsequent readings of Scripture. But the story of Jesus is four-fold and they do not always seem to agree. I see these differences as providing a reason to drill down deeper and try one’s best to figure out what is going on.

        • Nah, I was taught in my IFB churches growing up that all of Jesus’ earthly ministry plus teachings were OT, we’re NT now, so they no longer apply.

          • I see the NT as seamless with the OT. Jesus was a practicing Jew, as was Peter, Paul, etc. all of their lives. I am a gentile grafted into Israel, per Paul.

            • Jesus never said, “believe in my death and you will be saved.” He actually told people to live a certain way that Christians say is unnecessary for salvation. Jesus was a practicing Jew, and not a single one when he was alive said that the goal of the religion was to go to heaven when you die.

              I could go on like this all day, but you should also pay attention to Pete’s books. He discusses how the idea of fulfillment of prophecy of the Hebrew bible is not exactly how Christians teach it. None of the OT authors were writing predictions. Christians go through the OT and find ideas they can impose on the text, but that is not how any Jew looked at it at the time.

              • And if I don’t live in that certain way, what will happen to me? Or if I try, but live it imperfectly, as a result of my ignorance, imperfection and sin, what will be the result for me? What is salvation, if it’s not being saved from eternal hell, and to eternal incorporation in the life of Jesus? When you say following Jesus involves living in a certain way, you need to explicate with certainty what that certain way is, or it’s pointless.

                Certainly, the NT has teachings that sound like instruction in the way, and Jesus speaks in this manner at times. But it seems to me that much of it is couched in paradoxical language and pericopes, and some seem as contradictory as many other texts are when taken as literal or historical accounts. I think it’s as big a mistake to try to impose uniformity and consistency on these texts of instruction in the way to live as on other parts of the Bible.

  • The quote is really interesting and thoughtful and hits on a number of important issues.

    It’s interesting to me, because I actually run across the opposite problem – where people read the Bible as a canonical whole instead of individual documents produced at varying points in history with varying concerns, varying backgrounds, and varying points of Israel’s experience and understanding of YHWH. The part of Bishop Newbigin’s statement that highlights this is the part where he talks about looking at Romans 13 and Revelation 13 and coming up with a coherent doctrine of the state. If you assume these are part of the same coherent writing, that is a big problem.

    My solution to that would lie more along the lines of recognizing the distinctiveness and separations between those documents. As you and Bishop Newbigin have pointed out many times, any honest accounting of the Bible has to acknowledge that you can hold up this passage next to that passage and they say different things, and trying to finagle it so that they actually say the same thing does an immense amount of violence to the text. In that sense, the Bible is a book that has tensions and contradictions. But in another sense, the Bible isn’t a “book” except perhaps in the sense of an anthology.

    If we had an anthology called “Visions of America” that had songs, formative documents, personal accounts, biographies, letters, etc. and it contained a document that George Washington wrote detailing his vision for America, and it also had an allegory that Mikhail Gorbachev wrote about America’s relationship to the world, you would most naturally say that those two documents were written by different men at different times from two very different backgrounds producing documents with two different genres having two different emphases. While it is true in a sense that you could say “Visions of America” was a complex book with many tensions and contradictions, it’s probably not where you’d stop, because the sharper reality is that “Visions of America” does not have a message or identity apart from the writings that make it up.

  • This book along with his excellent text “the Bible Tells Me So” are excellent reading for Christians who have asked themselves, “but what about…..? Buy them.

  • This is a point which I think underlies a lot of where my brain is whirling at the moment. Finding the correct, or appropriate hermeneutic key to view the World and scripture. I suppose I wonder if there is one and whether tying oneself to a particularly key is a good thing or not.

    I think the metaphor of wrestling with scripture is a very good way of looking at it. Looking at many around me I see they are not wrestling, they’re just in subjugation to the inerrantist bully boy. They’ve even forgotten how to whimper.

  • I tend to see the scriptures as being diverse yet unified; tensions exist, I agree; contradictions? I don’t think so. I have looked into some of the apparent contradictions and disparate voices mentioned above and felt the charge lacking. I think the more conservative side of scholarship has handled these issues quite well though I’ll revisit those examples and take another look.

  • Excellent post. We must embrace and learn to lean into the tensions that the scriptures reveal. I like the proposal that Jesus helps us through this as the ultimate guide for how to handle scripture.

    One tension for me is the true nature of the Holy wrath of God. Jesus’ response seems to be that most of Gods anger is directed against those misleading his flock but not so much against individual sin. I’ve also read probably in The Bible Tells Me So or another blog how the sins of man are more about man misunderstanding the true nature of God than individual offenses. Is this ok thinking?

  • This is all very well for people of a certain intellectual standard but what about those who can’t read, have mental problems, those who down through the ages never had any access to a bible. If we intellectualise faith it becomes the realm of a privileged elite and then we find that those people assume positions of leadership and are elevated to levels that are harmful for everybody but especially themselves.
    Obviously I am not just referring to this post but the general consensus that says you have to have a certain level of intelligence to really understand the bible and thereby really know the depths of God.
    God’s love is within each of us, he loves each one of us and will reveal that love to us whether or not we are able to read or study or intellectualise the bible. He is greater, much greater than the scriptures.

    • First, I would say that those of us who have access to, and the capacity to understand, the Bible should be very careful with how we present its stories and its authority. If we recognize that folks who are either illiterate or have learning differences are easily exploited, then the question shouldn’t be, “How does God speak to them?” as much as, “How do we speak to them?” Yeah, Biblical interpretation will always be in the realm of a privileged elite. So is engineering. And politics. And medical science. Whatever privilege we have we should acknowledge and use on behalf of those who have less privilege.

      Next, in theory, no one should have to “understand the Bible.” But, in reality, Christianity exerts a hegemonic influence on every part of society, often times to the abuse of those who don’t conform to the norms set by our faith tradition. If we are going to use the Bible as a blunt object to beat folks into submission, or if we are going to benefit from being Christians in a society that does that, we should be incredibly well-versed in what it says, what it means, and its proper context. When we play with the Bible, we’re playing with fire; we should at least know how fire works. Claiming that “God is greater than the Scriptures” sounds wonderful and is very well-intentioned, but it does erase the reality that we can do a lot of damage if we allow our society to be structured around very superficial interpretations of Scripture.

  • “And the hermeneutical key to which I have referred—namely, the actual incarnation and ministry, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ—is the point at which this internal tension is historically actualized”

    You mean Paul, right, the final Word and Law-giver from the Heavenly Father above?

    kidding. sorta.

  • This is then similar to what Richard Hays is saying in his newest book, Reading Backwards: Figural Christology and the Fourfold Gospel Witness.

  • As long as people continue to believe that they can go to hell (eternal, conscious torment) as the result of misunderstanding scripture, there will continue to be an attempt to standardize, literalize, and close its interpretation inside of an ostensibly airtight doctrinal and hermeneutic system. Never mind that belief in such a hell is itself the result of systematic theological and interpretative assumptions.

    The kind of hermeneutic and understanding that Newbigin presents has the disadvantage of not seeming to yield a simple formula for what is necessary for salvation. When approaching scripture, he doesn’t start out with the question, “What must I do to be saved?”, and I think he’s right no to; but that’s the question that many or most start out with; that’s the way much of Christianity preaches the gospel; and that’s the way many theological traditions have been shaped. As a result, there is a disconnect between the sophisticated and intellectual way Newbigin and many other scholarly interpreters unpack the scriptures and approach understanding of the gospel and the meaning of Jesus Christ, and the way that the majority of other people, who are not scholars or religious professionals, interpret and approach. People frequently come to the scriptures in a state of great existential urgency, feeling their own need and imperfection, dare I say sin; to be told in such a state that one needs to step back, and undertake what amounts to a scholarly appraisal of the scripture before one can understand them, is problematic given their situation.

    There is great disconnect between question and answer here.

    • Thank you, Robert F, you crystallized in the first paragraph, what many fundamentalist refugees struggle with, as we attempt to understand the true basis of our faith after we come out of that close knit fundamentalist circle of the ‘fightin’ fundies’. And thank you Pete for
      shedding light again on this perennial problem of ‘this is the way it has to be’ vs ‘this may be the best way to look at things’.


    • Thank you for putting into words a deep challenge for Christians seeking to unpack the mysteries of heaven and scriptures but also live in the real world and be ‘normal.’ Others have commented on this – is there really a bible for normal people? Given the variety of cultures, the passage of time, the nature of man, and opportunities to get it wrong, is the Bible just not a book for normal people? Like nuclear physics for normal people doesn’t really exist.

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