Thursday, May 21, 2020

Contradictions and Contradistinctions

Yesterday I was listening to a secular scholar again. (Okay, it was JP.)

He was speaking about the Bible, its value as a text and its importance in human history. At the same time, he was expressing disbelief about how it had persisted. It’s a “strange old book”, he said. It’s “contradictory” and “cobbled together”. He puzzled over how it was possible it could ever have “such an unbelievable impact on civilization”. But at the same time, he concluded, “However educated you are, you are not educated enough to discuss the typological significance of the biblical stories.”

And then he went on to try.

Good for him. It’s better to persist with the Bible in the midst of perplexity even if you’re afraid you can’t figure things out, than simply to decide that there’s simply nothing there and arbitrarily dismiss it.

Contradictory Opinions

Most secular sceptics are not that kind. “The Bible is full of contradictions,” they’ll tell you. And then, if they have anything specific in mind at all, they’ll usually go on to point to something trivial, like the differential spellings of names, or whether it was on the way to (Luke) or from Jericho (Matthew) that Jesus healed a man born blind … or two. What they really want to say, though, is not that minor details need working out, but that the larger and more central themes of scripture are hopelessly contradictory … and that we should therefore reject the entire text.

I think the most common accusation that the Bible is contradictory — the one you’re most likely to hear — is that God cannot possibly be the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New. The Old Testament God, we are told, is harsh, judgmental and law-giving. The God of the New Testament is soft, permissive and forgiving. The contradiction, we are told, is simply too great; it cannot be resolved.

Well, well …

Contradiction or Paradox?

Biblical problems — are they contradictions or are they paradoxes?

If the text says Jesus was born in Bethlehem and also in New York, we’ve got a contradiction, end of story. But if we read that Jesus was born in Bethlehem but called a Nazarene, as indeed we do, then we only have a paradox, and one that indicates the lack of comprehension of Jesus’ contemporaries, not a contradiction at all. And reconciling the two statements is informative.

A contradiction simply cannot be resolved, but a paradox is supposed to be resolved, even though difficult. That’s the first difference.

The second is this: that the process of discovering how to resolve it is, in itself, a generative, learning experience. By considering carefully how two apparently opposite things can both be true, we come to a more sophisticated, mature, adult understanding of the subject matter.

If what we are dealing with are actually contradictions, then dismissal is warranted — one is dealing with an incoherent document. But if they are paradoxes, then one is dealing with something on a whole different level of profundity, one that uses ambivalence and question-raising to generate significant and complicated patterns of thought that simply would not be possible if only one side of a paradox were ever recognized.

Instructive Paradoxes

I give you the case of the parables of Christ. How could an unrighteous steward become a model of awareness of spiritual values? And yet he does. Thinking about how and why he does takes us to a whole new level of analysis, in which conventional values seem violated, but actually recombine into a depiction of wholesale valuing of the eternal.

That’s paradox, not contradiction.

Or how about the cursing of the fig tree? As a literal event, it seems petty and pointless. As a symbolic event, it’s full of prophetic power, signalling the impending judgment of those who are given every opportunity to believe and every reason to believe, and yet refuse to believe. Yet it’s the very oddness, the very unnaturalness, of the literal action itself that impels us toward the recognition of moral condemnation looming over the city and its people. That’s paradox, not contradiction.

We can go on. How could the first in honor be the “servant of all”? What can we learn from camels who can go through the eye of a needle? There are many, many paradoxes spelled out in the teachings of Christ.

The same happens in the epistles. What is a “living sacrifice”, for example? Or how are people “dead in trespasses and sins” able to “walk” and “live” at the same time? How could Paul himself “die”, but do it daily? How can a man be “justified by faith” andby works”? If the one born of God “cannot sin”, what do we make of the same writer saying, “if anyone does sin”, we have an advocate? All these questions have answers, of course. But taken at face value, they could look like mere contradictions.

That’s the thing about paradoxes — they deliberately introduce the appearance of contradiction so as to startle and awaken the slumbering reader to a deeper truth or a more sophisticated understanding of the issues in hand. Resolving contradictions is impossible, but solving spiritual paradoxes makes us grow up.

God of Wrath, God of Love

Perhaps the grandest seeming-contradiction, and the one most often indicated by sceptics of the Bible is the paradox of the seemingly angry and law-approving God of the Old Testament, in comparison to the putatively loving and merciful God of the New Testament. Paradox of paradoxes! How can God be both just and loving? How can the God who speaks in thunder and smoke from Sinai be expected to be merciful, or Christ “the Lamb” inspire terror?

Of course, it is in the resolution of this paradox that we come to understand God as both perfectly holy and perfectly loving. Let go of one of those extremes, and what you have left is a skewed understanding of God. The whole revelation of God’s character consists in the affirmation of both. A God who is not just has no love to show, since he would allow sin to flourish eternally; and a God who is loving without reference to justice has not really freed anyone from guilt. The holy love of God is what we learn from keeping both in permanent view … it is, indeed the whole meaning of the gospel, without which there is no “good news” at all.

Reacting to Paradox

So let’s say we find any two things that seem to us to be affirmed in scripture, and they look to us like a contradiction. What do we do?

Well, I suppose we could turn into sceptics. We could say, “Now that I’ve found something I don’t understand, I have to throw over everything I’ve previously believed, because there’s a contradiction here. I can’t get on so long as I don’t have a resolution to this, so I guess I can’t be a Christian anymore.” That’s what the world’s cynics think we should do. But is that the right answer?

Christianity has a different strategy. First, it looks to see if there really are two things difficult to reconcile in play. Sometimes we’ve just read carelessly, misinterpreted a passage, or jumped to a conclusion. Many things that seem at first to be contradictions do resolve in this way.

But what if we find out that the conflict we perceive is genuinely scriptural: the Bible does actually say two things we don’t know how to reconcile. What should we do then?

The Christian response is not to let either one go. Instead, we should pray as follows: “Lord, I do not understand how both these things said in your word can be true; but since I know who you are, and I believe you, I will wait for you to show me how to resolve the paradox you have put before me. Until you do, I will continue to live with both, and believe every word you have said because you have said it.” And in my experience, it is not long after that before the Lord will reveal to you how the paradox works.

Ecclesiastes 7:18 says, “It is good that you grasp one thing and also not let go of the other; for the one who fears God comes forth with both of them.” This applies to many situations, of course, but perhaps none more obvious than this.

To live the life of faith, we need to get used to trusting God’s word, especially when we don’t see precisely how it works out yet. And when we are perplexed, we need to learn to trust the Spirit of God to guide us into all truth.

The Upshot?

We must be careful what we call a “contradiction” in regard to the biblical record. Much of the paradox, so key to its power and its instruction, is capable of being misunderstood and dismissed if we don’t know what paradox, as a teaching tool, is really all about.

We Christians grow by resolving such paradoxes. Our eyes are opened as we struggle to make sense of them — because assuredly, they do make sense. Biblical truth, however, is rarely simple: it’s complex, nuanced, subtle and profound … in a word, it’s paradoxical.

Watch for the paradoxes: they’re key opportunities to grow.

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