Over the last few weeks, we’ve taken a look at different aspects of the test of Non-contradiction and the role that it has played in determining what has or hasn’t “made the cut” and found its way into the Christian Scriptures. In “Cultural Understanding” we explored how our comprehension of ancient societies influences our perceptions of the documents they produced and how what appears contradictory to us may not have been contradictory at all! In “Logical Non-contradiction”, we explored the difference between a contradiction that is logically impossible (like there being “only three men” in the room in one account and there being five in another) and the apparent contradiction created as different historians give an account to varying audiences. This week, we’re going to continue our series on non-contradiction with a look at the issue of doctrine – and why contradictions in this field have almost uniformly led to the discarding of candidates for the Canon.
Turn on your television. Go ahead. It happens to be drawing close to Christmas at the time of this writing and I have begun (with great enthusiasm) to anticipate the inevitable flood of documentaries on “The Real Jesus”. One of the mainstays of such documentaries is an attack upon the consistency of Gospel accounts – usually with some reference to the doctrinal “spin” produced by the eye-witnesses of the events and later disproven in the gnostic gospels (most of which were written nearly 400 years after the events and, you guessed it, by people who didn’t witness them).
I’m not about to argue that there aren’t some apparent doctrinal inconsistencies within the pages of the Christian Scripture (emphasis upon the word “apparent”). Any reasonably intelligent human being will note that, in a quick “skim” through, the God of the Old Testament seems wrathful and self-centered while the God of the New Testament is loving and fatherly or that the Old Testament was largely about rules while the New Testament appears to teach freedom from these rules.
So why sit here and defend doctrinal consistency when such clear and apparent contradictions exist? Quite simply because these, like the contradictions demonstrated over the course of the previous two weeks, are just that: “apparent” contradictions. The truth is, many of the anomalies we see when we merely “skim” the pages of Scripture begin to disappear as we delve deeper into its pages. They exist only when we isolate specific portions of the Bible from the rest of the volume (the Books of the Law, for example, from the Books of History). The issue is one of context, not contradiction.
It should be obvious that neglecting the context of a passage is dangerous (we’ve all had our own words taken out of context from time to time), but the temptation to do just that is overwhelming. After all, which one of us doesn’t want to appear to be on top of current scholarship? Over the next few weeks, we’ll take a closer look at the issue with a couple of case studies centering on the tricky apparent contradictions mentioned earlier.
This week, however, we’ll conclude with the generally accepted (but sometimes questioned) rule that if texts which are otherwise sound (are scientifically and historically accurate, display the cultural understanding of eye-witnesses, and are logically consistent) fail to be doctrinally consistent, they don’t qualify for inclusion in the Christian Canon.