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I love the Bible. I am in it daily, sometimes deeply, sometimes lightly, depending on the readings and my mood. The Daily Office requires praying lots of scripture: three canticles, several Psalms, and the three lessons of the Daily Lectionary.

I experience God’s Word as a conversation that renews and saves my soul. And because the Lord Jesus has determined faithfully (covenantally) to talk with us through these witnesses, I regard this as the necessary conversation, with authority.

All these scriptures in conversation make for room within my soul. Their voices make space in my world. Their contrasts, their distance from each other, even their contradictions. The prophet this morning sharply differs from the prophet last week. One says, “In Zion there shall be no Gentiles.” The other says, “All nations will come and worship in Jerusalem.” That kind of lively contradiction makes for room in your soul when you read the Bible in a state of prayer.

The Bible is full of contradictions, at various levels of disjunction. Some are simply Hebrew dialectic, like Psalm 99:8: “You were a forgiving God to them, but an avenger of their wrongdoings.” Others are what we call salvation-historical, like the Lord Jesus against Haggai on the Temple, or St. Peter’s dream of the sheet against the Torah.

Others, however, defy resolution, like the contradictory details for Easter among the gospel writers, or St. James contradicting St. Paul on Faith and Works. Endless attempts are made to resolve these, but I find them unconvincing.

Do these contradictions threaten the Bible’s authority? In ordinary life, we take the contradiction between two witnesses as evidence that one of them is wrong—or both. Scholars like Bart Ehrman have made careers out of using the contradictions to deny the Bible’s trustworthiness.

I could make the defense that the contradictions actually support the Bible’s trustworthiness, because the canon is daring in its honesty. I could appeal to quantum theory, which admits phenomena that defy the laws of logic and cause and effect, but that appeal could be used to excuse any doublespeak. So I want to offer something different.

I want to claim that the contradictions in the Bible have authority, precisely as contradictions.

I believe that we honor the Scriptures as both holy and trustworthy when we hold to the contradictions as they are instead of forcing their resolutions. The contradictions are the disruption, the No that is the Yes, the judgment, the liberation, the sword in his mouth, the earthquake, the whirlwind, the “voice I did not know” (Psalm 81:5), the foolishness of God, the cross. We need to submit to the contradictions, open ourselves to them, pray them, and live out of them.

The contradictions do not contradict the Bible’s authority — indeed they carry the Bible’s authority, and I don’t think that’s a dodge.

My claim is nothing new. We have done this all along. The doctrine of the Holy Trinity. The Incarnation. Even the Resurrection. Luther on Law and Grace. Calvin on God’s Sovereignty and human freedom. We walk on balance beams. Of course, we have sought logically firmer ground by forcing the syllogisms into Limited Atonement, Effectual Calling, and Presumptive Regeneration. To no good end, I think, because we end up forcing the Bible to fit the solutions. Things get tight and hard, and the room and space is lost.

The great contradiction is between the Bible and ourselves. I don’t mean just our sinful selves, but also our rightful needs, our true experience, and the realities of our current circumstances. The Bible will just not behave. It has its own agenda, and we have our problems that it does not solve and experiences it does not address. Who are we to think we’ve captured it? But it does not imprison us. It calls us to our own freedom and our own responsibility. It is “for us,” and it is on our side.

The Bible keeps claiming its room and even forcing it. Eduard Schweizer advises that after the lector reads the Gospel we do not say, “The Word of Mark” or “The Word of Luke,” but “The Word of the Lord.” If Mark and Luke differ in their details, Our Lord uses the one or the other. If on this Easter Sunday the Lord speaks through the details in Mark, then next year the Lord will speak through the details in Luke. We can yield to, and enjoy, the space the Bible claims in the world.

The ultimate contradiction is that there is a resolution, but that resolution is a person, the Lord Jesus, whose message is both complex and simple, subtle and straightforward, so trustworthy and so clear so that even my little grandchildren can know it and believe the truth of it.

Daniel Meeter

Daniel Meeter is Pastor Emeritus of the Old First Reformed Dutch Church of Brooklyn New York. He feeds the finches and drives uber for his grandchildren in New Paltz, in the Hudson Valley.


  • RZ says:

    The “word of the Lord.” What is a word? A combination of symbols (letters) that collectively represent a concept that we can both recognize and utilize. It is inherently second-hand, subject to interpretation and translation, yet God is content to communicate through such a medium. Some may disagree, but I will maintain that our scriptures tell the STORY of God but very rarely contain the verbatim words of God. God has allowed us to tell God’s story. Both author and reader must rely on inspiration. God’s relational generosity is chillingly scandalous in its inclusiveness. Try as we might ( II Timothy 3:16,17 and II Peter 2: 20, 21) we cannot make scripture into something God never intended it to be. The WORD, as you suggest, is the perfect manifestation, the very essence of God.
    Thanks Daniel, for the illuminating question.

    • Daniel Meeter says:

      Does not “word” also convey Promise? And in John’s Gospel, I think it also suggests “talk,” as in conversation, and John’s Gospel is distinctively full of conversations.

  • Ken Eriks says:

    Thank you, Daniel. I find it to be both difficult and wise to live in and with the contradictions—the paradox. I appreciate and find my hope in your last sentence. My hope is not in understanding or resolution. My hope is in The Word—in Jesus Christ—who is both grace and truth.

  • James Beukelman says:

    You sound a bit like Robert Frost arguing with his neighbor about the advantages of a wall between them. “Good fences make good neighbors” versus “Something there is that does not live a wall.”

  • Gloria J McCanna says:

    “…But it does not imprison us. It calls us to our own freedom and our own responsibility. It is “for us,” and it is on our side.”
    Good words to ponder and live today.

  • mstair says:

    I love the Heisenberg quote…
    God’s Word coming from continual timeless eternity arrives in our linear time perception creating apparent conflict with reality and itself … but after ingesting it patiently, switching our predominant sensory method used to discern it, we learn how to perceive the experience quantumly — in and through and outside of linear time …. where God’s Word continually creates our reality…

  • Uko Zylstra says:

    I was taught a reformed theology that emphasized the three-fold nature of the Word of God: the Word of God in Scripture, the Word of God in creation, and the Word of God in Christ as in John 1. The history of science has long revealed “contradictions” between the Word in Scripture and the Word in creation. But God’s Word is a unity. I believe the Word in creation is just as authoritative as the Word in Scripture even with the supposed “contradictions.” God’s Word in creation is intended to provide for a flourishing creation for all of God’s creatures. Nevertheless, the present state of environmental degradation is a testament to our neglect of the authoritative character of the Word of God in creation. This, I believe, is another major form of contradiction in our understanding of the Words of God.

    • Daniel Meeter says:

      Thanks for this. Mostly, of course, I agree. However, what exactly is entailed in staying that God’s Word for Creation (what Dooyeweerd calls “law-word”) is just as authoritative? (And therefore law?) Authoritative in that “nature” always behaves, no matter how inconvenient or dangerous to us (who misbehave within it). The stars in their courses never disobey God’s Word for them. But then the risk is extrapolating Christian ethics from the supposed “creation ordinances” that we read into Creation, often with a mix of stretched Biblical passages. As if the Creation accounts in Genesis provide ordinances for Christian marriage, as if that’s the purpose of those accounts. There is a jump from God’s Word for Creation into Ethics that is very tricky and dangerous. Do our Christian ethics not come from the Resurrection of the Lord Jesus rather than the Creation? Otherwise how are our ethics essentially Christian as opposed to Jewish or Muslim?

      • Rodney Haveman says:

        Wouldn’t we say everything comes from the resurrection of the Lord? So our understanding and interpretation of the Word in its three-fold forms flows from the resurrection.
        At any rate, I’ve always understood that the three-fold form of the Word of the Lord is perfect and not contradictory in each of its forms, rather it is our interpretation of each form that shows contradiction. The deeper our understanding of any form of God’s Word, the more they coalesce in the truth of God (see your Heisenberg quote). I don’t write this to diminish your teaching on contradictions in the Bible. I agree with you. Nor do I write this to flatten the contradictions with some sense that eventually we’ll find the right interpretation that smooths it all out.
        Just that any contradiction between Bible, Jesus, and creation is found in our interpretation, limited as it is.
        Of course, we could argue that what you’ve taught here is just as applicable to the contradictions we find within the three-fold structure of God’s Word, and that would be interesting, but I don’t sense you went that far, though you do hint at something like coalescing with your Heisenberg quote.
        Anyway, thanks for the lesson. It is welcome and helpful

      • Uko Zylstra says:

        As you probably know, Dooyeweerd also makes the distinction between structural laws, such as those which the stars obey, and normative laws. I would argue that, for example, the “structural laws” that hold for ecosystem integrity imply normative laws for humans in how we respond in maintaining the integrity of the creation in providing for a flourishing creation for all creatures. God’s Word in scripture doesn’t necessarily give us an understanding of those normative laws.

  • Lisa Vander Wal says:

    “The Bible will just not behave”: yes! In an ecumenical Bible study I once said, “I wish Jesus hadn’t said that,” and my colleagues around the table never let me live that down, often quoting me because Jesus often said uncomfortable things. So does the Bible as a whole. Yet we need its questions and contradictions as much, perhaps, as its comfort.

  • David Timmer says:

    Mishnah Eruvin 13b:10-11
    Rabbi Abba said in the name of Shmuel, For three years, the House of Hillel and the House of Shammai argued. One said, ‘The halakha is like us,’ and the other said, ‘The halakha is like us.’ A heavenly voice spoke: “These and these are the words of the living God, and the halakha is like the House of Hillel.”
    A question was raised: Since the heavenly voice declared: “Both these and those are the words of the Living God,” why was the halacha established to follow the opinion of Hillel? It is because the students of Hillel were kind and gracious. They taught their own ideas as well as the ideas from the students of Shammai. Not only for this reason, but they went so far as to teach Shammai’s opinions first.

  • Chad Werkhoven says:

    What a fine example demonstrating that Machen was right when he wrote that Christianity and liberalism are two very different religions.

    • Daniel Meeter says:

      But I am a fan of Machen. Except that Scripture has more authority than Reason,

      • Chad Werkhoven says:

        Yes, we agree that scripture has more authority than reason; The fact that God created reason does not obligate Him to conform to it.

        And yes, the Bible presents doctrine that seems to defy reason – the Trinity being the prime example.

        But it’s entirely different to claim that because the doctrine of the Trinity exceeds our understanding of reason that it is contradictory. What does it contradict? The Trinity doesn’t contradict the Shema, it simply acknowledges that God is one and God is three in a way that exceeds our logical understanding.

        The incarnation & resurrection – supernatural, absolutely. But contradictory? of what? Law/gospel, sovereignty/freedom – full of tension, yes! But not contradictory at all.

        None of the examples you use throughout the essay contradict; responsibly harmonizing them with the rest of scripture isn’t necessarily “forcing the Bible to fit the solutions,” in fact it’s one of the hallmarks of Ref’d hermeneutics.

        I’m glad to hear you’re a fan of Machen (though a bit surprised). But I’m really curious to know how you can agree with Machen’s premise when the ‘contradictions’ you’re celebrating gut the doctrines of inerrancy that are its foundation?

        • Daniel Meeter says:

          Thank you for engaging. Let me just address “inerrancy.” I don’t see how inerrancy has anything to do with authority. An IBM mainframe is inerrant but it has no authority. Inerrancy seems to me to be an appeal to reason (exalted human reason): “See! There are no errors here, so you can approve this,” while Authority is a matter of the heart, and mind, and will, as one function of loving God above all. “This is Thy conversation to which I bind myself daily, and these are the contradictions to which, for Thy sake, I submit, because Thou hast (covenantally) given them to me.”
          I used Gresham Machen in my seminary teaching for five years. I have never identified with his Warfield theology, but I honor and admire his steadfast intellectual and moral courage and his desire to be “orthodox” despite the prevailing movements of the day.

          • Chad Werkhoven says:

            I like your computer example! I’ll probably use that one as well some day!

            I also agree with your assessment that inerrancy has nothing to do with authority. I do not believe the Bible has authority because it’s inerrant, rather I believe the Bible has authority because it’s the Word of God.

            It’s because these are the very authoritative words of God, albeit delivered through cracked pots, so to speak, that these words must be considered inerrant.

            To assume any amount of errancy or contradiction, or Barthian understanding that the vocabulary written doesn’t become the WoG until received by the equally inspired reader, opens the door to the dangerous liberalism Machen warns of. As you so nicely put it, “that appeal could be used to excuse any doublespeak. ”

            BTW, I used a very similar analogy to your IBM one in a post on our daily Bible reading plan describing God’s omniscience. You’ll have to wait till tuesday for it to be active, but here’s the link:

  • Diane Dykgraaf says:

    I enter this discussion with humility and trepidation – knowing I am simply a humble learner and prayer warrior (not a theologian). But I bumped into a seemingly obvious contradiction this week when preparing to lead an adult class at church on prayer using the Psalms and the Lord’s Prayer. I love the psalms – they are the songbook and prayer book of the Bible. But the imprecatory psalms – yikes! Psalm 137:9 is the height of revenge – “Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!” (ouch). And then of course there are Jesus’ words, “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.” There is more there than a simple reply can cover, but the contradiction seems stark. And if we simply pick and choose a verse here and a verse there to say is timeless, and say that others aren’t – it seems we contradict a God of history (actually, it is His story). As Paul so often says, Jesus changes everything. His coming fulfills the old and makes all things new. So I still love the psalms, but I see all the words of scripture through the Word, Jesus – who created, who came, and who is coming again. I appreciate your final paragraph – it resonates with me: “The ultimate contradiction is that there is a resolution, but that resolution is a person, the Lord Jesus, whose message is both complex and simple, subtle and straightforward, so trustworthy and so clear so that even my little grandchildren can know it and believe the truth of it.” Amen to that!

  • RZ says:

    The progression of this response thread illustrates the point I was trying to make. I certainly agree that the “word” does convey both promise and the avenue for conversation. I would suggest, though, that is only true in holy space shared by God and reader(s?). When that holy, submissive dialogue gets defined by and projected onto others, the Holy Bible can often be weaponized. We then project onto scripture an “inerrancy” (subject to interpretation) and intent it nowhere claims for itself. The “words” of scripture become new battlegrounds for claimed orthodoxy and a pecking order for which forms of revelation supercede others. I just do not believe scripture was intended to tell us that. Thanks once again for bringing up a foundational and often ignored question.

  • Norm Heersink says:

    Context is not found in one verse.

  • Duane Kelderman says:

    About 50 years ago Henry Stob puffed on a Salem in the Calvin Seminary coffee shop and listened to us students going back and forth on the nature of biblical authority. He finally spoke up: “Is something in the Bible because it’s true, or is something true because it’s in the Bible?” After listening to us chew on that a while, Stob went on to wonder whether the second alternative isn’t “sheer rationalism” and a misunderstanding of what the Bible is. Your blog reminds me of that conversation and of Stob’s insight. Your blog also prompts me to finish reading Peter Enns’ How the Bible Actually Works. Thank you, Daniel.

    • Lena says:

      Rev. Kelderman, I’m not sure that reading Peyer Enn’s book How the Bible Really Works will be helpful. Read the article by Robert Yarbough from the Gospel Coalition “if this is how the Gospel Works, it Doesn’t Work at All (July 2019)
      I like to read the footnotes and study notes in the NIV Stidy Bible when I read seemingly difficult or contradictory passages because these footnotes tend to explain things in a satisfactory way. I will trust the Bible’s content over what an individual teacher/preacher feels about a certain passage.

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