Question: How can one view contradictions in Scripture in a faithful way?

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Question: How can one view contradictions in Scripture in a faithful way?

Latter-day Saints do not believe in the doctrine of Scriptural Inerrancy where the scriptures have to be completely historically accurate, contain no theological tensions, and have no contradiction. That said, Latter-day Saints tend to hold the scriptures with a high degree of authority. How can such be the case? We don’t believe that Scripture is inerrant, yet we also don’t want others to believe that we seek to create a God after our own image (Doctrine and Covenants 1:16) or that we believe that truth cannot be found in Scripture. It may become the responsibility of Latter-day Saints from time to time to defend the high authority of scripture and thus a hermeneutic for understanding how Latter-day Saints view contradictions/tensions may be in order. This article will suggest a few ways to view contradictions that don’t hold to Scriptural Inerrancy but still wish to use the scriptures to paint an accurate picture of God and the truth that he has revealed through prophets. It will distinguish different types of contradiction/tension and suggest ways to interpret them.

Historical Contradictions and Omissions

The first type of contradiction to deal with is historical contradictions. Historical contradictions are those in which information which is supposed to be historical is told in different chronological order or certain details about historical events differ in what are often claimed to be irreconcilable, non-harmonizable ways. Scripture contains some historical contradictions. A few examples:

  • The Death of Judas. Did he die by hanging (Matthew 27:5)? Or did he fall headlong and have his bowels gush out (Acts 1:18)? Academic attempts to harmonize these two passages ceased at least as early as the late nineteenth century. Scholars today generally see both accounts as irreconcilably contradictory[1].
  • Jesus Calming The Sea. In Gospel accounts differ in the succession of events when Jesus calms the storm at sea. In the Matthean account, the Lord chastises his apostles for not having enough faith and then calms the storm whereas in the Markan and Lucan accounts he calms the storm and then chastises his apostles. The Johannine account doesn’t even mention the story[2].
  • The name of Moses’ Mountain. The Pentateuch differs in its naming of the mountain from which Moses received the Ten Commandments. In some instances it is “Horeb” (Exodus 3:1; 17:6; 33:6; Deuteronomy 1:2; 4:10) and in others it is “Sinai” (Exodus 19:1-2, 11, 18, 20, 23; 34:2,4,29,32; Numbers 3:1,4,14). This is one of the reasons that scholars see the Pentateuch as the composition of multiple authors/redactors.
  • The Gospels differ in their timing of the crucifixion of the Savior. Was it during Passover? Before Passover? Or after Passover? Scholars believe that the difference is ultimately irreconcilable, and one simply must choose which account to believe. Generally, Mark is favored since it is considered the earliest to be authored[3].

So, how can one view such contradictions? A few questions to ask oneself that may provide solutions:

1. Full Reconciliation. There may not be any contradiction after all. Such an example might be the claim that there is a contradiction in the Bible as to what time Jesus was crucified[4].

2. Pluralistic Reconciliation. Could the presence of two differing accounts simply be giving more information to the story? Take for instance the presence of one angel at the tomb after the resurrection of Jesus (Mark 16:5) vs. two angels (Luke 24:4). Does the omission of the second angel in the Markan account mean there wasn’t a second angel? Not necessarily. We could just be receiving further information about the event or there could be a legitimate contradiction in the story. In the case of a legitimate contradiction, could we be satisfied knowing that at least an angel appeared at the tomb?

3. Nuanced Reconciation. Two writers may have remembered the same core event with some differing details.

4. Essentialist Reconciliation. The presence of contradiction in the way a historical event is related do not necessarily undermine the essential historicity of such an event. One may simply focus on the reality of the essence of the event being described rather than the presence of contradictions in the relation of the event or the ahistoricity of one event described. In the case of Judas' death, does it really matter how he died? Or, if we feel more conservative, does it matter that one account may have misremembered exactly how he died? The Bible can generally be trusted on historical grounds for a lot of it’s text[5] as can the Book of Mormon[6]. However, if a text did not mean to be historical, describe its historical events in literal, exact ways, or if the author simply couldn't remember what why should this matter? This should inform our theology (D&C 88:77-79).

The presence of historical contradictions should not come as a surprise. Such is why scripture such as the Book of Mormon so strongly emphasizes the importance of preserving records to accurately show exactly how God has reached out to his children. Ultimately one should seek the best scholarly perspectives on the matters and proceed with care as one informs herself. We should seek for as much accuracy as possible in our approach to scripture. As Elder John Widtsoe stated, the scriptures must be read intelligently.[7]

Theological Tensions/Contradictions

Theological contradictions would be the presence of differing views about God, Jesus, or other theological issues written within scripture. As an example, it has long been noted by scholars that the Markan account of Jesus portrays Jesus as more human, lowly, and mortal than, say, the Johannine account which portrays Jesus as divine from the antemortal realm to the end of his life. Scholars generally believe that the Markan account holds what they view as a “low Christology” and the Johannine account as a “high Christology”.

Other potential tensions might include:

  • How can we not perform our alms in public (Matthew 6:1) but also let our light shine before the world (Matthew 5:16)?
  • How can we set childish things aside (1 Corinthians 13:11) and become as a child (Matthew 18:3)?

Now let’s look at possible solutions:

1. Full Reconciliation. There may be no contradiction at all. We may have simply misunderstood the two or more scriptures.

2. Nuanced Reconciliation. One potential reconciliation is to see two or more scriptures as forming a general core that one can adhere to with a modified periphery of belief surrounding that core. Using the Aristotelian idea of the whole being greater than the sum of parts (i.e.synergy), perhaps the differing theological views can be combined to see a more holistic view of a concept and how important it is. As an example, a nuanced view would be "All strawberry ice cream is good, but Dreyer's strawberry ice cream is best." In the case of the Christologies, Latter-day Saint New Testament scholar Julie M. Smith has suggested that the Markan Christology is a “full Christology” instead of a “low Christology”, pointing out how Mark still sees Jesus as the God of the Old Testament and other elements of Jesus' divinity while also acknowledging other parts that make him more human[8].

2a. Updating - "Development". Latter-day Saints believe that revelation comes line upon line (Isaiah 28:10; 2 Nephi 28: 20; Doctrine and Covenants 98:12; 128:21). In this case, could the later theological view simply be a development of the first proposition? For instance, 3 Nephi 11:25 and Doctrine and Covenants 20:73 word the baptismal prayer slightly differently. Could this reflect a slightly different emphasis for a more meaningful and instructive experience? For more information, see under “What can change through revelation?” in our article addressing how Latter-day Saints view the nature of revelation.

3. Pluralistic Reconciliation. Another potential reconciliation would be to hold a pluralisitc view. An example would be "Both strawberry and chocolate ice cream are equally good." Sometimes, two different scripture writers will be saying two completely different things but perhaps we can develop a reconciliation where we hold both views in equal plane saying "sometimes X but sometimes, not X". To be sure, one should not attempt to say that the two writers are saying the same thing (such would be an inaccurate and/or disingenuous way of reflecting what appears in Scripture) but that they are stressing two entirely different things that can subsequently be placed into a fuller conceptual picture [9]. As the Prophet Joseph Smith said: "By proving contraries, truth is made manifest."[10].

3a. Updating - Addition. Latter-day Saints believe that revelation comes line upon line (Isaiah 28:10; 2 Nephi 28: 20; Doctrine and Covenants 98:12; 128:21). In this case, could the later theological view be simply an addition to the first proposition or set of propositions? For instance, Doctrine and Covenants 46 lists additional gifts of the Spirit not listed in Moroni 10. For more information, see under “What can change through revelation?” in our article addressing how Latter-day Saints view the nature of revelation.

4. Exclusive Reconciliation. Perhaps there really is one view that is supposed to be the correct one and the writer of a second scripture is just wrong. This could happen in two ways:

  • One writer could have misremembered or misinterpreted the view that was already established by revelation. As a potential way to reconcile these situations, consider one case from the Bible. The different sources of the Documentary Hypothesis differ in their view of God. Some insist in a more anthropomorphic God (one that is human and can be seen) and others insist on one that can’t be seen (see linked article for a chart with examples). The Book of Moses depicts God as anthropomorphic, corporeal, and passable. It thus resolves disagreement in the sources by restoring knowledge that perhaps did not have a faithful record kept for it (D&C 128:9). As another potential reconciliation, one might seek for which source was written earlier. Perhaps an earlier dated source would be more likely to remember and/or interpret the first proposition correctly.
  • One writer could have deliberately misrepresented what the view established by revelation actually was— perhaps for rhetorical purpose or perhaps even for sinful purpose.

As an example of this, consider the words of Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf regarding a scripture from Solomon:

The ancient King Solomon was one of the most outwardly successful human beings in history[11] He seemed to have everything—money, power, adoration, honor. But after decades of self-indulgence and luxury, how did King Solomon sum up his life?

“All is vanity,”[12] he said.

This man, who had it all, ended up disillusioned, pessimistic, and unhappy, despite everything he had going for him.[13]

[. . .]

Solomon was wrong, my dear brothers and sisters—life is not “vanity.” To the contrary, it can be full of purpose, meaning, and peace.

The healing hands of Jesus Christ reach out to all who seek Him. I have come to know without a doubt that believing and loving God and striving to follow Christ can change our hearts,[14] soften our pain, and fill our souls with “exceedingly great joy.”[15][16]

One will notice that Elder Uchtdorf 1)declared Solomon wrong, 2) used scriptures to establish what he believed was the correct view and indeed he uses many that contradict Solomon's view. But another important element of this is that he didn't state that Solomon was wrong for expressing the view or that the scripture wasn't inspired. Rather, he used Solomon's downtrodden state to illustrate an important principle of life. Perhaps other exclusivist reconciliations can adopt this same approach where we see that God allows for even "wrong" views to be used for a wise purpose — to provide us an opportunity to learn from negative example.

  • Since line upon line revelation exists for Latter-day Saints, one view, established by revelation, could be superseded by another through revelation. This is especially true for hamartiological matters (D&C 56:4).

In the end we must seek out the best evidence and adjust our assumptions and views accordingly (D&C 88:77-79). It is hoped that examples from the first two bullet points don't exist across the scriptural record as much as the last bullet point or as much as opportunities for nuanced, pluralistic, or full reconciliations as we do want to preserve the integrity of prophets and revelation as much as possible.

Addressing Some of the Contradictions From Above

In the case of alms, Daniel C. Peterson offers some commentary (responding to critics of Latter-day Saint humanitarian efforts):

Some of them love to quote this passage, from the very teachings of Jesus that most of them otherwise reject:

Take heed that ye do not your alms before men, to be seen of them: otherwise ye have no reward of your Father which is in heaven. Therefore when thou doest thine alms, do not sound a trumpet before thee, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may have glory of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward. But when thou doest alms, let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth: That thine alms may be in secret: and thy Father which seeth in secret himself shall reward thee openly. (Matthew 6:1-4)

It’s a handy weapon, I suppose.

But they seem to have forgotten this passage, also from Matthew, just a few verses earlier:

Ye are the light of the world. A city that is set on an hill cannot be hid. Neither do men light a candle, and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick; and it giveth light unto all that are in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven. (Matthew 5:14-16)

How to reconcile the two passages?

I think the point is that our goodness, if we can muster it, ought not to be a matter of personal boasting, nor of seeking status in the eyes of mortal humans, but should, rather, serve as a means of drawing attention to God, his Kingdom, and his Gospel. People looking on should be motivated to say, “I want to be a part of that,” not “My, my, that Max Mustermann is a remarkably admirable fellow.”

And that, I think, is how The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is trying to act. It’s thoroughly scriptural.[17]

In the case of leaving childish things aside but also becoming as a little child, it seems that Paul meant to chastise those people that wouldn't show Charity to others. Thus, he wishes that we could become more mature in our treatment of others. In the Savior's case, he highlights a child's ability to believe, to be submissive, and to be obedient. In this way, we have to become as Children to be saved[18].

In sum, as we listen to scripture and accept it on its own terms, it seems that we can still emerge with truth that God wants us to know to achieve salvation and exaltation.

Notes

  1. Kevin Barney, “The Joseph Smith Translation and Ancient Texts of the Bible” in Dan Vogel, ed. The Word of God: Essays on Mormon Scripture (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1990) 152-53.
  2. Thomas M. Mumford, “Horizontal Harmony of the Four Gospels in Parallel Columns” (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1976) 48.
  3. See Julie M. Smith, “New Testament Commentary: The Gospel According to Mark” (Provo: BYU Studies, 2019) for commentary on both issues.
  4. See Justin Taylor, "What Hour Was Jesus Crucified?" <https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/justin-taylor/hour-jesus-crucified-resolving-apparent-bible-contradiction/> (accessed 21 August 2019)
  5. Craig Blomberg, “The Historical Reliability of the New Testament: Countering Challenges to Evangelical Christian Belief” (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2016); K.H. Kitchen, “On the Reliability of the Old Testament” (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing, 2006); Richard Bauckham, “Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony” (Grand Rapids: Eerdman’s Publishing, 2006); Crossway, “ESV Archaeology Study Bible” (Carol Stream: Crossway, 2018); Craig S. Keener, "Christobiography: Memory, History, and the Reliability of the Gospels" (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2019).
  6. John Sorenson, “Mormon’s Codex” (Provo and Salt Lake: Deseret Book and BYU Religious Studies Center, 2013); Brant Gardner, “Traditions of the Fathers: The Book of Mormon as History” (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2015); Brant Gardner, “Second Witness: Analytical and Contextual Commentary on the Book of Mormon” 6 vols. (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2007).
  7. Elder John A. Widtsoe, "Evidences and Reconciliations" (ed.) G. Homer Durham (Salt Lake City, UT: Bookcraft, 1960) 128.
  8. Julie M. Smith, “New Testament Commentary”.
  9. For an excellent work putting this in practice from a Latter-day Saint perspective, see Julie M. Smith (ed.), “As Iron Sharpens Iron: Listening to the Various Voices of Scripture” (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2016).
  10. History of the Church, 6:428.
  11. An msn.com poll listed Solomon as the fifth richest person to ever live. “According to the Bible, King Solomon ruled from 970 BC to 931 BC, and during this time he is said to have received 25 tons of gold for each of the 39 years of his reign, which would be worth billions of dollars in 2016. Along with impossible riches amassed from taxation and trade, the biblical ruler’s personal fortune could have surpassed $2 trillion in today’s money” (“The 20 Richest People of All Time,” Apr. 25, 2017, msn.com).
  12. See Ecclesiastes 1:1–2.
  13. See Ecclesiastes 2:17.
  14. See Ezekiel 36:26; Jeremiah 24:7.
  15. 1 Nephi 8:12.
  16. Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf, "Believe, Love, Do" General Conference, Oct 2018 off-site
  17. Daniel C. Peterson, "A note regarding complaints about LDS humanitarian efforts" <https://www.patheos.com/blogs/danpeterson/2019/07/a-note-regarding-complaints-about-lds-humanitarian-efforts.html> Patheos 14 July 2019 (accessed 18 August 2019).
  18. While these passages aren't contradictory per se, they have been used only to demonstrate the point of the author. It is possible that less mature critics could use this as an example of real tension.