Over the last month, we’ve been talking about alleged contradictions in the Bible. It’s a common charge that the Bible is filled with discrepancies and contradictory statements; several weeks ago, we looked at an impressive-looking chart of Bible contradictions that’s been making the rounds—and we shared insights from theologian Darrell Bock and apologist Lee Strobel in response.
I don’t want to beat this topic to death; but it’s an important one, so I hope you’ll bear with me as we hear from one more respected Christian voice on this topic: author, preacher, and theologian R.C. Sproul. Here’s how Sproul responds to the issue of alleged contradictions in the Bible.
How do you explain discrepancies in the Bible, such as those between the four Gospels?
Much of the debate on the integrity of the Scriptures focuses specifically on those problems. When you have parallel accounts of something, you expect them to be consistent, particularly if you’re maintaining that these accounts are inspired by God the Holy Spirit. We know that God may use different authors to record the same or similar events, and the authors can describe the event from their perspective, with their respective languages and literary styles. But still we would expect agreement in the substance of what is being taught if all accounts are speaking under the superintendence of God the Holy Spirit.
That’s why it’s interesting to me that very early in church history there were attempts to write harmonies of the Gospels. There are three synoptic Gospels—Matthew, Mark, and Luke—which give a biographical sketch of the life and ministry of Jesus. Many events are parallel among those three authors, though they don’t always agree in each detail—how many angels were at the tomb on the day of resurrection, what the sign on the cross said, what day of the week Jesus and the disciples celebrated the Passover celebration in the upper room, and so forth.
Those things have received a tremendous amount of careful attention by biblical scholars, some coming to the conclusion that there is no way to harmonize them and that we just have to accept that there are contradictions among the biblical writers, which would then seem to falsify any claim to divine inspiration. Others have felt that they indeed can be reconciled. For example, one Gospel writer tells us that there were two angels at the tomb on the day of the Resurrection, and another mentions only one. Now the critical word that’s absent from the text is the word only. If one writer says there were two angels at the tomb and the other one comes along and says there was only one, there you have a bona fide contradiction between the two. If one says there were two angels at the tomb and the other says we came and saw an angel, obviously if there are two angels, there has to be one angel—there’s no contradiction. There is a discrepancy; that is, they don’t say exactly the same thing. The question is, Can the two accounts be harmonized—are they logically compatible with one another?
A good friend of mine in seminary was very troubled by these issues and quoted one of our professors who said, “The Bible is filled with contradiction.” And I said, “Why don’t you go home and I’ll meet you here tomorrow at one o’clock. You come back with fifty contradictions. If the Bible’s full of them, then that should be an easy task.” The next day at one o’clock I met him and I said, “Do you have your fifty?” He’d been up all night and he said, “No, but I found thirty.” And we went through each one of them, rigorously applying the principles of logic and symbolic logic. To his satisfaction I demonstrated to him that not one of his alleged contradictions in fact violated the law of contradiction.
Now I have to say in closing that in my judgment he could have pulled out some more difficult passages. There are some extremely difficult passages in the Scriptures, and I’m not always happy with some of the resolutions, but I think that for the most part those difficult discrepancies have been thoroughly reconciled through biblical scholarship.
Sproul’s response can be found in the devotional Tough Questions with R.C. Sproul, available from Bible Gateway both online and as a weekly email (to sign up, fill out the signup form to the right of the devotional). If this topic (and Sproul’s writing) interests you, see also his weekly devotional Essential Truths of the Christian Faith.