Difference or Contradiction?
by R.C. Sproul
We live in a day when consistency of thought is demeaned by many people, and individuals maintain that contradiction is the hallmark of truth, particularly in religious matters. Yet, in practice, human beings seek consistency. Consider liberal Protestantism. Decades ago, most of the mainline denominations abandoned the infallibility and inerrancy of Scripture. Originally, these denominations thought they could continue affirming the other core tenets of Christianity. As the years passed, however, it became clear that the rejection of the infallibility and inerrancy of the Scriptures leads to the denial of Christian orthodoxy on other matters. Most churches that abandoned biblical inerrancy and infallibility eventually rejected the atonement, biblical sexual ethics, and other teachings. Those denominations had to do that for consistency’s sake. To deny that God’s Word is without error is to deny that we have a trustworthy revelation from Him. Thus, it doesn’t ultimately matter what the Bible says about anything.
When it comes to studying the actual consistency of Scripture, it’s not long before we have to deal with allegations that the Bible is full of contradictions. This can be devastating to the Christian faith, because we know that if the Bible has real contradictions, it’s not a consistent account, and if it’s not a consistent account, it can’t be divinely inspired.
The main thing I want to say about this issue is that most alleged contradictions turn out not to be contradictions at all. When I was a seminary student, my professors frequently taught the theories of “higher” critics who refused to affirm the infallibility of Scripture. One of my fellow seminarians, a brilliant fellow, struggled with these theories. He had come to seminary believing in Scripture’s consistency, but by the time he was a senior, he was one of the casualties of the exposure to this relentless skepticism about the Bible. I remember one discussion in the hallway of the seminary where he said: “R.C., how can you still believe in the inerrancy of Scripture after all we’ve gone through here? Don’t you see that the Bible is full of contradictions?”
At the time, he couldn’t list even ten examples of contradictions in the Bible. So I suggested he go home and come up with thirty contradictions that we could look at together. When we met the next day, he brought a list of about twenty. He gave me the first “contradiction,” and we looked at the apparently contradictory passages together, and we found that there was variation between the two accounts. But variation and contradiction aren’t the same thing. We’re familiar with how two eyewitnesses might see the same crime but report it differently. They remember different things about the event because of their different perspectives, but the details of the two accounts don’t conflict. In fact, the authorities like to have many witnesses to a crime because comparing the stories gives a fuller view of what happened. The same thing happens when historians research an event and read eyewitness accounts of it.
As my friend and I looked at the first alleged biblical problem, we found it was possible for the two accounts to agree. Then, we looked at the rest of the “contradictions.” Some examples were more challenging than others, but what happened was this: in every example, we concluded together that there was no real contradiction.
Read the Bible carefully, and you’ll find variations of perspective. Consider the Gospels’ presentation of the resurrection. For example, Matthew 28:1–10 and Mark 16:1–8 say there was one angel at the empty tomb, while Luke 24:1–12 mentions the presence of two angels at Jesus’ grave. That was one of the “contradictions” my friend brought to me. So I said we should assume for the sake of argument that two angels were present. If so, would it not be possible for one eyewitness to be more concerned about who wasn’t there—Jesus—than he was about the number of angels present, especially if one of them did not speak? The disciple could have said, “I went there, and I saw an angel, who said x, y, and z,” without mentioning the second angel because the presence of two angels wasn’t that significant to the disciple who was writing. I asked my friend, “What word is conspicuously absent from this disciple’s report that must be there to have a true contradiction?” The answer was clear: the word only. If there were two angels, we know there had to be at least one; thus, since Mark and Matthew don’t say there was only one angel there, there’s no contradiction between them and Luke. Instead, there’s variation in perspectives because they’re relying on different eyewitness reports of the same event. Such variation is exactly what we should expect from independent accounts.
It took many centuries and many different writers to give us the Bible. It didn’t drop from heaven on a parachute. The doctrine of inspiration doesn’t mean we won’t find difficult-to-reconcile texts in Scripture. The Bible is a divine book—but it’s also a very human book, not in that it is filled with human errors but in that it reflects how human beings tell stories. No two people write in exactly the same way, and no two human beings report their perspectives on the same event identically. Two people can accurately represent the same event without covering all the same details. That’s the kind of thing we find in Scripture. Difference does not mean contradiction.