Approaching Biblical “Problems”
When approaching what seems to be a “problem” in the Bible, we must approach the Bible as the word of an ultimately incomprehensible God, for which the context of the passage within the whole of the Bible and within the history of redemption, and the attitude of the interpreter is of the utmost importance.
When attempting to further understand a “problem” in Bible, one must approach the text with an attitude that is fitting for the nature of the biblical text as the word of God. This approach can be described further through three perspectives: normative, situational, and existential. The normative perspective forces us to accept that the God who speaks in Scripture has authority over us, rather than the other way around. Furthermore, this God is incomprehensible, which means that there will always be mysteries in the Bible that we cannot reconcile. Examining the situational perspective will force us to slow down and patiently investigate the greater context of the “problem.” The existential perspective identifies the attitudes with which we approach the word of God, whether that be one of pride or discouragement at the mysteries that we encounter.
How should we deal with problems in the Bible? Most readers of the Bible eventually notice something that looks like a “problem.” Many of the problems involve apparent discrepancies. These can take several forms. Sometimes a person may see tensions or apparent discrepancies between two verses. Sometimes there is a tension between something in the Bible and a claim from an extrabiblical source—a scientist or a historian or an ethicist or a philosopher. Sometimes we meet tensions in doctrine. For example, how can one God also be three persons?
When we meet challenges like these, how are we supposed to respond?
Basic truths about humanity
We may begin with some basic truths about who we are. We are human beings made in the image of God. All of us are responsible before God, who is king over all (Ps. 103:19). When we meet challenges with respect to the Bible, our response should be a response that is faithful to God and to who he is. It should be an ethically upright response. But how to do we do that?
Three aspects of the challenge
John M. Frame has helpfully shown that human decision-making in ethics involves three aspects, which can be explicitly represented by using three perspectives: the normative perspective, the situational perspective, and the existential perspective. The normative perspective on ethics focuses on the norms for human action, attitudes, and character. The ultimate norm is the goodness of God himself, and subordinately the norms are found in God’s instructions in his word, the Bible. Second, the situational perspective focuses on the situation, which is the world around us. The situational perspective asks what promotes the glory of God within the situation. Third, the existential perspective focuses on human attitudes and motives. Our motive should be love—love for God, and subordinately love for neighbor (Matt. 22:37–40).
How do we apply these three perspectives when we meet with apparent problems in the Bible?
Norms for Dealing with Problems
The normative perspective draws attention to God himself, as the ultimate standard for truth and for ethics.
1. God Speaking: When God speaks, he speaks authoritatively. He speaks to us in the Bible. Other resources (B. B. Warfield and Kevin DeYoung, below, as well as others) discuss the fact that the Bible is the word of God (2 Tim. 3:16–17). As such, it is authoritative, with the authority of God himself. We should believe that it is reliable even before we dip into the details of a particular verse or a particular doctrine in the Bible. If we feel ourselves beset by doubts, we should confess that to God, rather than trying to hide it. Just believing that God is true in his word does not make the problems go away, of course. But it sets a healthy spiritual context for dealing with the problems.
2. The Incomprehensibility of God: Reckoning with God helps us in another way. God communicates clearly in the Bible concerning the main things that we need to know for our salvation, but not everything is equally clear. God himself is incomprehensible, meaning that we, as finite creatures, cannot ever understand him completely. We cannot penetrate to the very bottom of all that he is by understanding him comprehensively. Only God understand himself completely. That means that there will be mysteries in the Bible that we cannot solve.
For example, the mystery of the Trinity is one unsolvable mystery. It is a permanent mystery, because only God knows himself completely. We do not fully understand how God can be one God in three persons. If people try to unravel the mystery, they end up thinking that they can virtually be a god in their understanding of God. And then their pride leads them into heresy.
Mysteries also arise because some doctrines in the Bible are intrinsically deep and difficult: “There are some things in them [the letters of the Apostle Paul] that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures” (2 Pet. 3:16).
Finally, mysteries may arise merely because we do not have enough information. For example, when we see an apparent discrepancy between two accounts of the healing of the Gadarene demoniacs, we may or may not be able to find a satisfactory explanation because we were not there and we do not know all the details about what happened.
Examining the Situation
Next we may consider what benefit comes from a situational focus. When we find a problem in the Bible, and we have time to try to understand it, we need to gather as much relevant information as we can.
Does the passage in question really say what we think it says? We need to take a close look. It may be that there are ambiguities or obscurities that do not fully come out in the translation that we most often use.
We need also to look at the larger literary context. How does the context in a paragraph and a whole book help to show us what is really meant?
1. Topic and universe of discourse: Consider one example. Ps. 93:1 says, “the world is established, it shall never be moved.” Does this verse contradict Copernican astronomical theory? We need to look at the context. It is poetry. It is part of a song offering praise to the Lord. It does not offer a technical comment on astronomical theory, but evidence for the Lord’s faithfulness, drawn from ordinary experience. The ground underneath us is stable, thanks to the Lord’s providential rule over all things. The language is the language of everyday human experience, not the language of technical astronomy.
2. Deliberate use of Tension: Sometimes a text deliberately sets up a puzzle, in order to invite further reflection. For example, consider the pair of proverbs in Prov. 26:4–5:
Answer not a fool according to his folly
lest you be like him yourself.
Answer a fool according to his folly,
lest he be wise in his own eyes.
It would be easy to claim that we have here an outright contradiction. But the two verses have been placed side by side so that we might think more carefully and deeply about how to answer a fool wisely. The presence of the explanatory clauses beginning with “lest” helps to define complementary purposes in how to answer. In effect, the first proverb says, “Do not fall into folly by answering a fool purely on his own level.” The second says, “But do search for a response that attempts to shake him out of his folly.” Doing one or both of these is not easy. But it does not mean it is not possible.
When we interpret these verses, we need a literary sensitivity that explores complex meanings. We should resist impatiently and superficially deciding that we have an impossible contradiction. A sensitive response also requires us to think about life itself—about conversations, about fools, and about how wisely to advise people who are not wise in receiving advice.
3. Context in the History of Redemption: We also need to take into account the full sweep of God’s plan for history. For example, it would be easy to claim that there is a contradiction between the restrictive food laws in Lev. 11 and Jesus’ teaching in Mark 7, according to which “he declared all foods clean” (verse 19). How do we reconcile these two texts?
We must take into account that, according to the purpose of God, these two texts belong to two distinct epochs in the history of redemption. Leviticus 11 belongs to a larger system of symbolic ordinances. The distinction between clean and unclean foods symbolically depicts the distinction between holiness and sinfulness. The symbols in Leviticus point forward to the holiness of Christ, who comes to fulfill the Old Testament (Matt. 5:17). Once Christ has come, the symbolism in unclean foods finds its fulfillment in the holiness of Christ, and then subordinately in the holiness of the people who belong to Christ. The earlier rules about foods have served their purpose, and we do not need to observe them today when we eat (1 Tim. 4:3-4).
4. Consulting Others: As part of our situation we may also consider the writings and researches of other Christians, not only in our own generation but in all previous generations. Christian believers have been writing commentaries on the Bible for centuries. Almost all the problems that we encounter have already been encountered before, in previous centuries. Commentaries, Bible encyclopedia articles, and systematic theologies often not only note the problems, but offer solutions. In fact, we can find not one but multiple possible solutions to many of the problems that we encounter. Not all the solutions may look attractive. But knowing that other Christians have already wrestled with the problems is reassuring. And frequently we may find at least one suggested solution that might actually be right. It may be something that our own limited reflection has not considered.
Examining our Attitudes
Next, we may consider the existential perspective, which focuses on attitudes and motives. With what attitudes do we approach a problem that we find in the Bible?
Do we approach the Bible with an arrogant attitude, with assurance that we are smart enough to solve the problem? Or, if we find no solution, do we think we are smart enough to declare that there can be no solution and that there must be an error in Scripture? Or are we willing to be patient?
Or consider another challenge with attitudes. Are we willing to endure scorn from people who say that we are naive or stupid because we cling to the authority of God’s word? Are we willing to endure intellectual suffering when we cannot seem to find any reasonable solution to a problem?
It is helpful to realize that experience with challenges in the Bible can be used by God for our good. It can help us grow in humility, in dependence on God, in patience, and in appreciation for the role of suffering in the Christian life. Our suffering can enhance an appreciation of Christ’s suffering for us (Phil. 3:10).
- Augustine, The Harmony of the Gospels, in vol. 6 of A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church
- Benjamin B. Warfield, The Inspiration and Authority of the Bible
- Gleason L. Archer, Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties
- John M. Frame, The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God
- John M. Frame, “A Primer on Perspectivalism (Revised 2008)”
- Kevin DeYoung, Taking God at His Word: Why the Bible is Knowable, Necessary, and Enough, and What That Means for You and Me
- International Council on Biblical Inerrancy, “The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy”
- Norman L. Geisler, When Critics Ask: A Popular Handbook on Bible Difficulties
- R. A. Torrey, Difficulties and Alleged Errors and Contradictions in the Bible
- Vern S. Poythress, Inerrancy and the Gospels: A God-Centered Approach to the Challenges of Harmonization
- Vern S. Poythress, Inerrancy and Worldview: Answering Modern Challenges to the Bible
- Vern S. Poythress, Redeeming Science: A God-Centered Approach
- Westminster Confession of Faith, ch. 1
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