Thursday, November 13, 2008
Biblical "Contradictions" and Our Big God
(by Dan Philips)
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.
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.