11 November 2008

Biblical "contradictions" and our big God

by Dan Phillips

In 2 Timothy 4:16a , Paul writes, "At my first defense no one came to stand by me, but all deserted me."

In 2 Timothy 4:17a, Paul writes, But the Lord stood by me and strengthened me, so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed and all the Gentiles might hear it."

That is a contradiction in the Bible.

It's absolutely straightforward. Each verse makes an assertion, and those assertions (isolated from one another) clash. Verse 16 says that nobody stood with Paul; verse 17 says that the Lord stood with Paul. Which is it? Did nobody stand with Paul? Or did the Lord stand with Paul? If the Lord stood with Paul, how can you say that nobody stood with Paul? It's a contradiction.
ZED: Buford?
BUFORD: Yeah, Zed?
ZED: Did we just see that feller lose his mind, right out there on the Internets?
BUFORD: Shh! It's that Calvi-whatcha feller. He's a-goin' somewheres with this!
Now, if I went on and on like this, you all would think — I hope you all would think — that I was what we in IT call a 1D-10T.

You'd say, "Great googly moogly, man! Get a grip! When Paul was writing verse 16, you can't credit him with knowing where he'd be heading in verse 17, in the very next words? You can't credit him with categorically stating that nobody stood with him, knowing as he wrote it that he was about to make that one exception, that the Lord stood with him? And you don't think Paul credited his readers with being able to pay attention long enough to see the one thought developed by the very next statement?"

You'd be right. (Besides, though the ESV doesn't reflect it, Paul used two different verbs in Greek.) That answer would be sufficient and conclusive. Of course we'd read Paul (or any decent writer) with that kind of respect.

So here's my point: what we can credit of Paul on a small scale, we should credit of God on a large scale.
BUFORD: See? Toldja.
ZED: Shh! I still say he's fixin' t'crack, like an ice pond in th' spring.
Riddle me this: How smart is God? How big, if I may anthropomorphize thus, is His brain? How many thoughts can God hold at one time? How large is God's "big picture"?

I love the way the psalmist puts it in Psalm 147:5 — "Great is our Lord, and abundant in power; his understanding is beyond measure." The phrase "beyond measure" translates Hebrew words that more literally mean, "there is no numbering," meaning "beyond count." It calls us to envision God's understanding as if it could be counted in bits of information or insight. But the psalmist says, "Don't even try. You could never count up everything God knows!" In His mind, at one time, in one simple, instantaneous glance, God knows all. Actual or potential, all things are instantly and exhaustively present to the mind of God.

Berkhof says it with characteristic economy of words: “The knowledge of God may be defined as that perfection of God whereby He…knows Himself and all things possible and actual in one eternal and most simple act (Systematic Theology [Eerdmans: 1941], 66; emphases original).

This is why God's foreknowledge is absolute, why He can declare the end from the beginning (Isaiah 46:10). To this infinite-personal God, it is all one. To see the beginning of a thing is to see both its end, and everything involved in between those two points.

What does that have to do with "contradictions" in the Bible?

Remember my opening example. We credited Paul — finite mortal that he was — with knowing in verse A what he would say, seconds later, in verse B. Thus the "contradiction" between A and B is at most only formal, not real.

Now lift your eyes, and couple the doctrine of God's omniscience with the Biblical truth of plenary, verbal inspiration. What do you get? What does it mean?

It means that, when God inspired Moses to begin Scripture with the preposition be ("in"), He already knew that He would move John to close it with the adjective πάντων (pantōn, "all"). It means that, when He moved any given writer to choose any given word, He already knew all the other words that He would move every other writer to choose.

So while we can't credit the human authors with that kind of knowledge, we can credit God with that kind of knowledge. And while we mustn't interpret the writers as moved to say something that meant the opposite of what they were meaning to say as led by God, we must interpret what they wrote in light of everything else that God moved all the other writers to write.

So the meaning of all Scripture must be gleaned in conversation, if you will — with all Scripture.

Dan Phillips's signature

29 comments:

Mark B. Hanson said...

Amen, Dan. This is where most cults go off the rails, too - taking verses, even within their local context, out of the context of the rest of Scripture.

Kim said...

Ah, what a good way to begin the day. Thanks, DJP.

Frank Turk said...

Only at TeamPyro can you see the question "how smart is God?" asked with reverence, and still make fun of the hicks in Arkansas.

For the record, Zed was offended but Buford didn't git it.

DJP said...

So it's true? every non-transplant in Arkansas is either named Zed or Buford?

I knew it!

Everyday Mommy said...

Or, Bubba...don't forget Bubba.

Or, JimBob.

NoLongerBlind said...

Now I've seen everything--a reference to Frank Zappa on the Pyro blog!
Next, you'll be telling us that you frequent St. Alfonzo's Pancake Breakfast, and that you actually stole the margerine.

. said...

Yes, let Scripture interpret Scripture. However, we must not feel the urge to reconcile every antinomy we find in the Bible. As was pointed out, God is infinite and man is fininte and simply does not have the capacity to grasp the full understanding of something that God has no problem being soverign over. Antinomies are a favorite target for those against a biblical worldview. Our job with these folks isn't to try to "out logic" them into submissions. Our job is to point to them to a God who is fully capable of creating a world where things can appear to be contradictory to the limited mind of man.

Great post!

Dan Grubbs
http://porticodialogue.blogspot.com/

DJP said...

May be, at the same time, the shortest and the most creative screen name, ever.

Phil Johnson said...

nlb: ". . . and that you actually stole the margerine."

Was that Parkay or Fleishman's?

NoLongerBlind said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
NoLongerBlind said...

Some thought it was butter; in fact, couldn't believe it wasn't.
One absconded with it to make certain, and was disappointed to discover it was lard.

Ebeth said...

Worship! is my response to this post. What else would such a God deserve?

olan strickland said...

You mean that God wasn't and isn't making this up as He goes? Shucks, now those open-theists will be scard.

Scard means either very frightened or a mark left by a wound.

It was my word verification - I thought as hick as I am I must use it - so I did.

donsands said...

".. when He moved any given writer to choose any given word, He already knew all the other words that He would move every other writer to choose."

No guess work with our Lord. He is never surprised, and yet He rejoices greatly when one of His rebellious children comes to repentance, and to the Gospel.

Nice deep things to think about in a shallow church age.
Thanks.

greglong said...

ZED: I knowed it all along that he was going to address Scriptural antinomies by appealing to verbal, plenary inspiration vis-a-vis God's omniscience.

BUFORD: Yeah, that. Now let's go clean us our guns and chew some tobaccy.

p.s. Hey, my word verification is "paster"!!! Would that be a hillybilly version of a "pastor", or simply refer to someone who pastes?

DJP said...

I did have a church member once, who I think hailed from Oklahoma, address a card to "are paster."

atruefaith.com said...

Dan,

Yow. It looks like you presented a contradiction and then sidestepped the task of relieving the tension with an appeal to authority. I’d say, though, that if Paul is talking only about human beings in v. 16 when he says “everyone” then the tension is relieved and no contradiction exists when he gets to v. 17 – as, of course, the Spirit of God resides in him.

Brad

Pastor Michael said...

Zed: Eleëson!

Buford: Agathösunë!

Pastor Michael: Brilliant post!

John said...

Umm, good concept, but I'm still thinking there is an element of 1d-10cy in it with regards to the analogy.

It works well in 2 Tim because of the proximity, that it's the development of the thought, and that the objects being spoken of are different things(God/others).

If Paul were to say those two statements, about a single object (eg, God deserted me/God stood by me), and/or in seperate accounts of the same event, a deafening chorus of 'NUMPTY' should be expected.

If Paul were to say 'and there were 30 standing by me', only to later (or earlier) state 'there were 50 standing by me', would be not ask, 'are you embellishing the story (lying) mate?'

And if, on being caught out, Paul brushed it aside in the manner suggested here, would we not suggest that if Paul was going to write in such a cryptic, message obscuring way, he should give up publishing and go make some tents?

Great idea. Gotta agree with 'So the meaning of all Scripture must be gleaned in conversation, if you will — with all Scripture.' and 'when God inspired Moses to begin Scripture with the preposition be ("in"), He already knew that He would move John to close it with the adjective πάντων (pantōn, "all").' but the string on this longbow of an analogy isn't attached well. Just a quick glance makes me suspect it's prone to misfiring and embarrasing the archer rather than the target.

DJP said...

If so, then it must be for some reason other than anything you've adduced, since you've alluded to facts not in evidence.

I mean, equally, if Paul had written on slices of cheese, someone might have eaten them, and then the word would never have gotten out, and we'd not have any of his letters, so their inspiration would be a moot point, right?

Meanwhile, my bow's just fine. Thanks for caring.

John said...

OK, sorry about that, I seem to have created a distracting cul de sac of thought there (cheese slices) by attmpting to demonstrate a percieved weakness by using hypothetical writings of Paul. My bad.

The weakness I percieve is that the scriptures you use to demonstrate the idea are located close to each other in the text. That is why you can rightly point out that it indicates that the message is being developed and That answer would be sufficient and conclusive. Of course we'd read Paul (or any decent writer) with that kind of respect.


But for contradictions located further apart in text it is not assumed that an idea is being developed necessarily. In fact, I would suggest that many would deride 'any decent writer' for developing an idea great distances apart in a corpus of text. We might even call it 'crappy' writing, especially if it were to continue a thought from an earlier book with a different 'psuedonym', as is the case with many seeming contradictions in the bible (Luke 6:24 v Matt 10:29,30 might be an example of a seeming contradiction on the relative blessing/curse of being rich).

It seems to me that comparing a close instances with instances far apart is comparing vinegar and port; both taste great in thier place, but opposites in the reaction you get from them.


Please don't get me wrong. I'm not arguing that God has crappy communication skills. (He da man when it comes to communicating, the inventor of the whole thing. That Christ on the cross thing was... wow!) Just that the hemeneutic (?) as presented in this post indirectly sent me on a thought process that may have ended up there. (the bowstring breaking).


Granted, I don't seem to be the best at the communicating thing myself, and judging from the other responses, I seem to have missed something of what you were saying.

Stefan said...

The dramatic structure of the entire canon of Scripture taken as a whole—and all its constituent parts, too: the chiasms, the poetry, the typology, the allusions separated by centuries, etc., etc., etc.—certainly testifies to a guiding intelligence that is incomprehensibly, vastly superior to our own. And all this achieved working through some three dozen different authors—from a prince of Egypt and a rabbinic scholar to a fisherman and a tax collector—in three different languages, over the space of some 1500 years.

Praise the Lord.

Daryl said...

John,

I'm sorry, maybe I'm nit-picking here but this line "He da man when it comes to communicating, the inventor of the whole thing. That Christ on the cross thing was... wow!" says quite a bit about how you view God and Scripture. And it's not good.

Holy God vs. "da man"

The glory of substitutionary atonement vs. "that Christ on the cross thing"

Again, maybe I'm just sensitive this morning but that's all a little out of line, don't you think?

DJP said...

John, it seems as if you're not getting my point.

I'm not arguing that all writers should always be assumed to write without contradiction.

I'm arguing from the lesser to the greater: IF we can grant PAUL the respect to have written word-set A with the immediately-following word-set B in mind...

...then it follows that we should credit the same to God, in inspiring word-set A with the millennia-later word-set quintuple-Z in mind.

It is premised on agreeing with Jesus about the plenary, verbal inspiration of Scripture.

John said...

Daryl,

I think maybe you are a bit sensitive there, but hey, my language offended so I express regret for that. The apology (defense) follows:

'He da man' was an admittedly flippant rendering but intended to convey awe and respect ('da man' being used as a colloquialism for authority). 'That Christ on the cross thing' was ironic understatement, again, continuing the lightheartedness. As a communication of love and a display of glory, the cross and all that it represents in theology is mindblowing.

I hope this removes or reduces the offense.

Dan,

I think I get it now if I didn't get it before.

Paul has small (s) brain and we accept that Paul can know what he is going to say in the next moment (m). God has big infinity times s)brain so we should accept that God can know what he is going to say however long is between the statements (infinity times m).

I was perhaps looking at it back to front seeing this as an apologetic for the contradictions rather than a hermeneutic. I don't know, but thanks for allowing me the grace to work through it with the help of your responses.

DJP said...

JohnPaul has small (s) brain and we accept that Paul can know what he is going to say in the next moment (m). God has big infinity times s)brain so we should accept that God can know what he is going to say however long is between the statements (infinity times m).

That's actually very well-put. I just may replace my post with that.

I'd only add that this knowledge should inform with how we deal with earlier statements in the light of later statements — though not giving us license to turn earlier statements completely on their head. (Obviously that would need a lot more development, well beyond the scope of a post.)

(c;

penitentman said...

The last line of this post really stood out to me.

"So the meaning of all Scripture must be gleaned in conversation, if you will — with all Scripture."

So true, and not just with scripture. The meaning of my faith is gleaned in reflection of others who share that faith. My salvation in the past and ongoing salvation of other believers. My story reflected in your story.

The conversation is key.

Steve Scott said...

Contradiction? It's only a contradiction when taken out of each verse's larger context. No one of whom? When Paul said no one came to stand by him, it's clear that the context was of men and not of all beings that exist. The Lord in v17 isn't part of the human subset of "ones" to which he was speaking in v16, so it's not a contradiction.

Pastor Patrick said...

This was really helpful. Thanks! ~P