How were the contents of the Bible decided?
The canon of Scripture and the Apocrypha
A fully detailed discussion of the canon of Scripture and the Apocrypha is beyond the scope of both this chapter and The Bible Panorama. If you wish to look further into this subject, you should consult one of the many reliable Bible-based books available. Two recommended chapters are chapter 3 of Professor Wayne Grudem’s very readable Systematic Theology (IVP) and chapter 3 of the apologetic classic Evidence that demands a verdict, by Josh McDowell (Campus Crusade for Christ). Much of this chapter has been shaped and influenced by the clarity of those books on this subject, but there are many other good authors who also deal well with this topic, and both Grudem and McDowell generously give them credit where it is due.
The word ‘canon’ has graduated from its original meaning of ‘reed’ or ‘cane’, through its associated meanings of ‘standard’ and then ‘rule of faith’, via ‘list’ or ‘index’, to its usage in connection with the Bible as ‘an officially accepted list of books’. Thus it consists of the list of books of the Bible that exclusively constitute the Bible—no more and no less. To hold that the Bible has fewer books than those included in the canon is to take away from God’s word. To seek to include others (such as the books of both the Old Testament and New Testament Apocryphas) is to add to God’s word. Both those errors and sins are taught against in the Bible (Deuteronomy 4:2; Proverbs 30:6; Revelation 22:18). The question of what is included in the canon of Scripture, and why, is dealt with later in this chapter.
The word ‘apocrypha’ literally means ‘things that are hidden’ and it seems that scholars are unsure why the books in the Apocrypha, included in Roman Catholic and some other Bibles, have been given that name. The books of the Apocrypha are still best kept ‘hidden’ as they form no part of the Word of God, confuse the enquirer, and should have no place in our Bible! The Roman Catholic inclusion of the Apocrypha, after the Council of Trent in ad 1546, was largely to seek to combat the biblical teachings of grace expounded by Martin Luther. Those apocryphal books are erroneous in a number of areas, including the assertion that God hears the prayers of the dead, or that a sinner can be saved by good works, or the justification of falsehood and deception. The books included in the Old Testament Apocrypha are: 1 and 2 Esdras; Tobit; Judith; the Rest of Esther (no relation to the Bible’s book of Esther); the Wisdom of Solomon (no relation to the Bible’s books of Proverbs and Song of Solomon); Ecclesiasticus (no relation to the Bible’s book of Ecclesiates); Baruch (including the Epistle of Jeremiah which is not related to the Bible’s books of Jeremiah or Lamentations of Jeremiah); the Song of the three Holy Children; Susanna; Bel and the Dragon; the Prayer of Manasseh; and 1 and 2 Maccabees. The New Testament Apocrypha includes, but is not limited to, the following books, with a note of McDowell’s approximation of the dates when they were written: Epistle of Pseudo-Barnabas (ad 70-79); Epistle to the Corinthians (ad 96—no relation to the Bible’s 1 Corinthians or 2 Corinthians); Ancient Homily (ad 120-140—also known as Second Epistle of Clement); Shepherd of Hermas (ad 115-140); Didache, Teaching of the Twelve (ad 100-120); Apocalypse of Peter (ad 150—no relation to the Bible’s 1 Peter or 2 Peter or to Revelation); The Acts of Paul and Thecla (ad 170—no relation to the Bible’s Acts of the Apostles or to any of its writings by Paul); Epistle to Laodiceans (4th century?); The Gospel According to the Hebrews (ad 65-100—no relation to the Bible’s book of Hebrews); Epistle of Polycarp to the Philippians (ad 108—no relation to the Bible’s book of Philippians); and The Seven Epistles of Ignatius (ad 100).
Why is the Apocrypha not part of the Bible?
The Old Testament Apocrypha was not found in the Hebrew Bible, but was placed with the translation of the Hebrew Old Testament into Greek (the Septuagint version), and used by Greek-speaking Jews when Jesus walked this earth. So Jesus knew about it, but never used it, and neither did any of the apostles. That is an interesting contrast to the fact that the Old Testament we possess is quoted, as Grudem points out, 295 times in the New Testament! In answering why the Apocrypha is not part of the Bible, some pointers will be given as to the criteria used in accepting or rejecting books in the canon of Scripture. The same principles apply to the New Testament Apocrypha as to the Old Testament Apocrypha, but with the seal of apostolic approval being added to the test for New Testament canonicity. The criticisms of apocryphal books run parallel to their failure to qualify as canonical, as they fail the tests which determine true biblical canonicity.
The question is asked, in Romans 3:1, as to the advantage that the Jews enjoyed over the Gentiles. The answer given in the next verse is: ‘Much in every way! Chiefly because to them were committed the oracles of God.’ This means they were given the Holy Scriptures—‘the oracles of God’. But what were these Holy Scriptures?
1. The Jews themselves recognised only those books which are now the thirty-nine books of the Old Testament, though they were grouped differently then, as is explained later in this chapter.
2. The Lord Jesus Christ, when commenting on His persecution by the Jews, said, ‘… on you may come all the righteous blood shed on the earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah, son of Berechiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar’ (Matthew 23:35. See also Luke 11:51; Genesis 4:8; Hebrews 11:4; 2 Chronicles 24:20-21). Why did Jesus say that? The answer to us may seem obscure, until we take note that our complete Old Testament is now placed in the order of Genesis to Malachi, but the Jewish Bible began with Genesis, containing the story of Cain and Abel, but ended with the second book of Chronicles, relating the murder of Zechariah. (The different order of the Jewish Bible is detailed below.)
So Jesus was saying that all the hostility against the godly recorded from Genesis to 2 Chronicles, namely in the whole of the Old Testament Scriptures, would come upon this generation. Thus we see that Jesus held that the Old Testament canon of Scripture is the same as we hold it to be, and we note that it did not contain any of the Old Testament apocryphal writings.
3. As mentioned above, Jesus quoted extensively from the Old Testament itself, and established authority from its teachings. He never quoted from the Apocrypha. Even if He had done so, that would not have implied it formed part of God’s word, since there are times when the Bible quotes illustratively (though never to establish authority) from extra-biblical sources. But the fact that Jesus never considered any of the Apocrypha of sufficient relevance to quote, even to illustrate a point, is a further indication that it did not match the influence or authority of Scripture. He stayed within ‘Moses and all the Prophets’ (Luke 24:27)—that was Jewish shorthand for ‘Moses (or the Law), the Prophets, and the Writings’ or alternatively put as ‘the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms’ (Luke 24:44). Each expression meant the same and encompassed the books that comprised all the Old Testament. Luke 24:27 is evidence of this by the fact that, on the road to Emmaus, that same verse 27 makes it clear that Christ’s teaching from ‘Moses and all the Prophets’ is synonymous with His expounding to the two travellers ‘in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself’. The Old Testament clearly always comprised exactly the same material as is in the thirty-nine books that are still in our Bibles today.
WHY WERE THE BOOKS OF THE OLD TESTAMENT APOCRYPHA REJECTED AS NOT BEING CANONICAL?
McDowell quotes Unger (in his Bible Dictionary) as to why the books of the Apocrypha were not in the canon:
1. They contain many historical and geographical inaccuracies and anachronisms.
2. Their teaching, unlike the books in the canon of Scripture, are at variance with the books in the canon. McDowell helpfully gives a pen-sketch of some of the contents of each apocryphal book of the Old Testament, which illustrates the truth of this assertion. The books of the Apocrypha demonstrably disqualify themselves.
3. They ‘resort to literary types’ and show artificiality in subject matter and styling, which distinguishes them from real God-breathed Scripture.
4. They do not have the distinctive features of Scripture that mark it out as God’s word. Thus prophetic power, and poetic and religious feeling is missing. Spiritual reality is absent. Although it may be hard to explain in writing the difference in taste between a pebble from the beach and a mint, it is undeniable that there is a huge difference between them. Those who ‘taste and see that the LORD is good’ and who know that ‘Blessed is the man who trusts in Him’ (Psalm 34:8) know the difference between the flavour of God’s word, the Bible, and any other man-made book, religious or otherwise. The objective truth that God’s word is different is experienced subjectively by those with spiritual life in Christ.
Grudem reminds us that the apocryphal books do not even ‘claim for themselves the same kind of authority as the Old Testament writings’. In short, the apocryphal books are nowhere near to being in ‘the same league’ as the canonical books. They are as different from the Bible as a false flower is from a beautiful rose or daffodil. That difference is self-evident.
HAS THE CANON OF SCRIPTURE CHANGED TO GIVE US OUR CURRENT SIXTY-SIX BOOKS?
The canon of Scripture consists of sixty-six books comprising thirty-nine in the Old Testament and twenty-seven in the New Testament. The New Testament books are exactly the same twenty-seven books now as they always have been, but the thirty-nine Old Testament books were formerly constituted differently in twenty-four Hebrew Old Testament books, though they contained exactly the same material. There is no change in content. The books in our Old Testament are arranged topically. The order of the twenty-four books of the Hebrew Old Testament was in an official order, as follows:
Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy
(A) Former Prophets:
Joshua, Judges, Samuel (1 & 2), Kings (1 & 2)
(B) Latter Prophets:
Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, The Twelve (Minor Prophets)
Writings (Kethubhin or Hagiographa):
(A) Poetical Books:
Psalms, Proverbs, Job
(B) Five Rolls (Megilloth):
Song of Solomon, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, Esther
(C) Historical Books:
Daniel, Ezra-Nehemiah (originally one book), Chronicles (1&2)
How do we know that our Old Testament canon is correct?
Although much modernistic comment and so-called ‘higher criticism’ are directed against the Old Testament, it is very clear and simple to establish its canonical authority. See the paragraph above, headed Why is the Apocrypha not part of the Old Testament?, concerning the arguments why the constituent parts of the canon are exactly the same as our current thirty-nine books. They are the ‘flip side’ of the argument as to why the Apocrypha is not included in the canon. Other factors include the following:
1. Jesus disputed and disagreed with some of the oral traditions of the Pharisees but never questioned their well-known concept of the Hebrew canon. He accepted the Old Testament canon they used as the divine Scriptures.
2. The threefold division of the Old Testament canon into Law (or Moses), Prophets and Writings is testified to in the Apocrypha in Ecclesiasticus.
3. Josephus (first century), the celebrated historian of the Jews, recorded that the books were in place and that no one was allowed to meddle with them or even speak against them under pain of torture or death, or both.
4. There are various other extra-biblical sources, including the Jewish Talmud, that confirm the fact that the canon of the Old Testament was in existence.
5. The New Testament abounds with references demonstrating that the Old Testament canon, as we now know it, was authoritative as the written Word of God. The apostles accepted it and appealed to it for doctrine and practice. More important still, so did God incarnate, our Immanuel, the Lord Jesus. If the Lord of eternity accepts it, who can refuse it? To see how the New Testament testifies to the Old Testament as God-breathed Scripture, simply keep your eyes open as you read through it. McDowell cites a helpful list as: Matthew 21:42; 22:29; 26:54, 56; Luke 24; John 5:39; 10:35; Acts 17:2, 11; 18:28; Romans 1:2; 4:3; 9:17; 10:11; 11:2; 15:4; 16:26; 1 Corinthians 15:3-4; Galatians 3:8; 3:22; 4:30; 1 Timothy 5:18; 2 Timothy 3:16; 2 Peter 1:20-21; 3:16. Time taken to check out that list will be well spent.
We need to remember that the Old Testament canon, under God, ‘chose itself’. Whereas it is true, as Grudem indicates, that the Council of Trent chose to include the Apocrypha (apart from 1 and 2 Esdras and the Prayer of Manasseh) in the Scriptures unjustifiably and for wrong reasons, much earlier the Council of Jamnia recognised the already accepted books in the Old Testament canon that corresponded to our thirty-nine books. (The gathering at Jamnia was probably less formal than an official ‘Council’ and took place after the fall of Jerusalem in ad 70 under the presidency of Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai, who received permission from the Romans to call the Sanhedrin together for spiritual reasons rather than for political reasons.) The reason for the Old Testament canon having been recognised, rather than having been chosen at Jamnia, was because its constituent books had already ‘chosen themselves’ in practice and were already in use. The books specifically discussed and recognised were (per Professor F.F. Bruce, quoted by McDowell) Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, the Song of Solomon, and Esther. The canonicity of the other Old Testament books was not even questioned and the discussion on the few books involved ended in ‘the firm acknowledgement of all these books as Holy Scripture’.
How do we know that our New Testament canon is correct?
McDowell very helpfully summarises the five tests or principles for acceptance of a book in the New Testament canon, which he takes from Geisler and Nix, and which form the basis of the discussion below. They concern the need for each book to be authoritative, prophetic, authentic, dynamic, and consensual (my word).
1. Is a book authoritative? Does it come with God’s stamp of authority on it? The main issue in this regard for New Testament books is whether it came with apostolic approval. Obviously, the witnessed and quoted words of Jesus did, but signs and wonders were given to the apostles to mark them out as God’s authoritative men both to write, to recognise and to approve the written Word of God. So when Paul’s claim that ‘Truly the signs of an apostle were accomplished among you with all perseverance, in signs and wonders and mighty deeds’ (2 Corinthians 12:12), he was building on a fact well known, demonstrated and accepted in the church. Just as the Old Testament canon of Scripture came through holy men of God being inspired by the Holy Spirit (2 Peter 1:21), so God continued that principle in the New Testament through demonstrably Spirit-led and authoritative apostles. That fact was completely in line with the following statements: the church was ‘built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief cornerstone’ (Ephesians 2:20); ‘the Spirit of truth … will guide [these men] into all truth; for He will not speak on His own authority, but whatever He hears He will speak; and He will tell [them] things to come’ (John 16:13); and that the early Christians ‘continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine’ (Acts 2:42). It was apostolic approval, rather than apostolic authorship, that was the acid test of New Testament canonicity. That canon consists mainly of books written by the apostles, but also includes some written by those with whom they had close links and influences and whose works would have been known to them before inclusion in the canon.
2. Is a book prophetic? This does not deal so much with its ‘foretelling’ (though that is sometimes included, as in the book of Revelation), but rather with its ‘forth-telling’. In other words, was it written by a man of God, commissioned by God to be God’s agent of revelation? Did he write with the same authority that was noted when the apostles spoke? (See, for example, Acts 1:8; 4:13; 4:33; Colossians 1:27-29.)
3. Is the book authentic? The early church fathers followed the policy of rejecting anything about which they were not completely sure. The unique quality of books which were truly from God stood out then, just as the Bible stands out now from mere religious books written by men alone. Thus, just as the Council of Jamnia recognised—rather than chose—the Old Testament canon, so, too, the Council of Hippo and the ratifying Third Synod of Carthage recognised—rather than chose—the New Testament canon.
4. Is the book dynamic? Does it manifest God’s life-transforming power? A whole book could be written to demonstrate that this is so for each of the New Testament books. Suffice it to say that new life in Christ, truly spiritual life, shines out from every chapter and reflects that here are the words of eternal life concerning, and from, the One who came ‘that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly’ (John 10:10). It is a happy accident of the English language that the initials of The New Testament are ‘TNT’: here is truly spiritual dynamite!
5. Is the book consensual? In other words was it already received by Christian leaders and people, and collected, read and used by them? Did God’s people accept it? In a very real sense the canon chose itself and all man had to do was to recognise it. Of course, there were those who would dispute the canon and promote their own ideas, as you would expect in a fallen world with no spiritual light except from God. Indeed, it was the influence and wrong activity of such heretics as Marcion (ad 140) in this arena that made the definition of the canon important. Additionally, the use of some non-canonical books by churches in the East made clarity on this issue important. Those who might soon become martyrs also needed to be sure that, if they were soon to be put to death when their Christian Scriptures were to be destroyed under the Edict of Diocletan (ad 303), they would die for the sake of God’s truth and not for mere writings of men. So, in ad 367, Athanasius’ letter to churches confirmed that the same books of the New Testament canon were in existence then as we have today. His confirmation was ratified by other church fathers and the New Testament ranked with the established canon of the Old Testament as God’s inspired Scripture. It is worth repeating MacDowell’s quote from Professor Bruce, summarising the confirmed position in ad 393 at The Synod of Hippo. He says that ‘when at last a Church Council—The Synod of Hippo in ad 393—listed the twenty-seven books of the New Testament, it did not confer upon them any authority which they did not already possess, but simply recorded their previously established canonicity. (The ruling of the Synod of Hippo was re-promulgated four years later by the Third Synod of Carthage.)’
Grudem similarly concludes, concerning the established canon comprising the sixty-six books of our Bible today, that ‘Christians today should have no worry that anything needed has been left out or that anything that is not God’s word has been included’.
A final word of warning
The late pastor, Bible teacher, author and evangelist, Leith Samuel, would make a very valid point whenever he spoke about the inspiration of the Bible as God’s Spirit-breathed written word. I am quoting him from memory when I say: ‘The battle used to be for the inspiration and infallibility of Scripture. Today it is for its sufficiency and completeness.’ What did he mean by that? Simply that the devil has subtle ways of undermining the absolute authority of the Bible. Whatever our valid differences in opinions might be about the gifts of the Spirit and the role of the Holy Spirit in the life of each believer, each church, and the church at large, we must never allow any perceived utterance, vision or insight to rival the authority of Scripture or to be counted in any way as equal to it. The Bible is the whole of God’s revealed word to man. We need no other revelation and should seek none other. We should seek in our lives that soul-refreshing influence of God’s timeless word applied, always in context, with new force and effect. We must constantly seek to turn from sins, and to make the Lord Jesus Christ of the Bible the centre of our walk, worship and witness. Only then will we know personally the continuation of those promised ‘times of refreshing [which] come from the presence of the Lord’ (Acts 3:19). We seek no new truth, just a new appreciation of old truth that will change our lives.
Are there contradictions in the Bible?
The question ‘What about all the contradictions?’ is a challenge often thrown at the Bible. Yet many of the challengers have rarely read the Bible seriously in a mature way and only a few seem to have read all of it. Whether there are contradictions or not, most of those accusing the Bible of being contradictory use second-hand arguments and have little or no knowledge of the background and context of the part they criticise. The Christian position is that the Bible, as originally given in its original languages and taken in context, nowhere contradicts itself or any established fact. There are some occasional minor problems in translation, or where a manuscript might have been damaged or was not copied correctly. These occurrences are relatively very few when you consider the huge size of the Bible. An occasional detail may have suffered in the translation or in copying variant readings in the manuscripts available to us. These are rare and virtually none of them affects our understanding of the truth expressed. In any case, these are not contradictions in the truth that God the Holy Spirit produced through the holy men of God whom He used to record His original revelation in the Bible.
It is beyond the scope of this chapter to look at all the Bible’s alleged discrepancies and supposed contradictions, and those wishing to look at this subject in more detail will find John W. Haley’s book Alleged Discrepancies (Whitaker House) both interesting and helpful. But there are principles that govern the way a Christian should approach supposed contradictions. As those principles are applied, a growing confidence in God’s word justifiably results. We will look at some of those principles now.
As seen in Chapter 3 of The Bible Panorama, the Bible can be shown to be God’s word both by internal and external examination. So that is how we should approach it, namely taking it to be the word of the all-wise, all-knowing, all-powerful, eternal God, whose thoughts, ways and character are infinitely higher than ours. We have a mind that is both biased and closed, and we should admit that. Would it surprise you if I said that a Christian’s mind should be both biased and closed about the Bible? It should be about other issues too! For example, we should be closed to driving on the wrong side of the road, or drinking poison! If we are married, we should be unerringly and faithfully biased towards our spouse and be closed about the possibility of an intimate relationship with anyone else. That is the nature of love and loyalty where a commitment has been made. So it is with the Bible. With good reason, we should love the book that God has used to give us the only message that can save, bless, guide and keep us. We should remain loyal to its teachings, however unfashionable that may be in a selfish and rebellious world, and declare that we espouse no other revelation and will not enter into unfaithfulness to God, or doubt or deny what He has said through the Bible. Do not apologise for such a stance—it is a sure sign that God has wrought His work in your heart and produced a love for the things of God, including the Bible. Our starting premise is not that we have an open mind that may change, but that we have closed our mind around the words of our faithful and unchanging God. This stance is strengthened by the fact that all the evidence underlines that the Bible is God’s word. We are, of course, open to be taught new things from God’s word and to respond to those truths, provided they are in line with the context of the whole Bible.
God is not the author of confusion
A statement urging discipline and order in the church, 1 Corinthians 14:33, reveals an important principle about God. That principle is demonstrated throughout His creation and His dealings with mankind. It is that ‘God is not the author of confusion’. In 1 Corinthians 14:40 the application of that principle to the Christian church shows how God’s mind works: ‘Let all things be done decently and in order’.
Because God is the God of order and not of confusion, it follows that He who made a fully harmonised world, who created the human body that perfectly fits together and works without any ‘contradictory parts’, and who revealed Himself in the faultless perfection of His living Word, the Lord Jesus Christ, would produce a faultless, harmonised, integrated, ordered, perfectly working and non-contradictory written word. He has! It is the Bible.
Because of the constant attacks on the truth of the Bible as the Word of God, it is worth repeating often that there is no contradiction of any kind in it. This is despite the fact that God caused it to be written through fallible men. God, the Holy Spirit, infallibly inspired it. The very fact that its writers or compilers have not sanitised the Bible, in order to remove parts which could be thought to be contradictory by those viewing it superficially, is in fact a further evidence of its divine origin. If man wanted to persuade others of the perfect harmony of a man-made book, he would carefully check and eliminate anything that could even raise the question of the book’s contents.
An apparent contradiction therefore cannot be a real contradiction
But apparent contradictions will confront Bible readers, whether introduced by friend or foe of the Bible, or encountered in their personal reading. How should the Christian deal with these apparent contradictions? Ten simple, but non-exhaustive, guidelines are suggested. In applying them, remember a two-sided rule: doubt your doubts and believe your beliefs, as long as those beliefs come in context from the Bible.
Guideline 1—The biblical order is not always the chronological order
Generally speaking, the events recorded in the Bible are related to each other in a progressive time span, but there are many exceptions, sometimes to emphasise a point made, or because the chronology is not an important issue. Thus the biblical order is not always the chronological order and the Bible may ‘replay’ a past event or ‘fast track’ to a future one. These instances do not, however, constitute contradictions.
Guideline 2—A different point of view of the same event may be presented
The supposed contradiction may concern the reporting of a single event, or a certain aspect of a single event, from different points of view. As is normal in any reporting, different reporters can observe the same thing from various, though not necessarily contradictory, stances. For example, one sportswriter may focus on one player and present him as the match winner. Another may emphasise the fitness of the whole team and the good job the manager has done in pulling them together. These are not contradictions. Similarly, a violent offence may be reported by concentrating on the aggrieved, while another will focus on the ringleaders, and yet another will present the main culprit’s criminality. No contradiction is involved just because a different viewpoint is taken. Law courts recognise that a different emphasis in an eye-witnessed testimony does not thereby contradict other witnesses. In fact, it is often regarded as a healthy indication of truthfulness, because the witnesses have not got together to concoct a story. So, regarding the Bible, men of intelligence, integrity and judgement have had no problem in producing a harmonised view of different Bible events. To illustrate this point, consider the harmonised summary of all the events in the four Gospels in a study Bible, such as The MacArthur Study Bible (Nelson).
Guideline 3—Do not confuse similar events with identical events
A number of happenings in the Bible are very similar to others, but are not the same events. As today, some basically similar events could occur in different circumstances. Sometimes the Bible makes clear reference to the difference between events, and sometimes it is implied. Be careful not to draw a contradiction from a genuinely different, but similar, occasion. A superficial and unthinking reading of the Bible can lead to that, when in fact closer study always emphasises the Bible’s reliability. Certainly no contradictions are involved.
Guideline 4—An event may concern different elements and people
There are occasions when only one aspect of an event, or only one of the characters involved, is the focus of attention in one account, whereas another account of the same event may take a broader brush approach or focus on another aspect or individual involved. Such different elements or personalities can always be harmonised. Again, no contradiction is involved. At a time when textbooks and tape recorders were unknown, similar truths would be taught on many different occasions, though not necessarily in identical words.
Guideline 5—Reported mistakes do not contradict the Bible’s truthfulness
There are a number of times in the Bible when someone says something that is wrong. That may be through malice, ignorance or a failure to understand fully. When the Bible accurately records the giving of an inaccurate account or opinion by someone, that is not a contradiction. It is a truthful report of a misguided or dishonest person’s wrong account. When Teriq Aziz, the then Defence Minister of Iraq, commented that the invading allied forces had been routed near Baghdad, it became apparent that what he said was not true. But CNN did not contradict itself when it simply reported what he said. Similarly, the Bible does not contradict itself by reporting information wrongly given by others.
Guideline 6—Remember the context!
One of the cardinal rules in understanding the Bible is always to look at what you read in context. There is never a supposed contradiction that remains when the searchlight of context is shone upon it. Almost like concentric circles of light, the context of the whole Bible, then the context of the book of the Bible concerned, then the context of the chapter and verse(s) concerned in that book, then the context of the prevailing circumstances, will always show the truthfulness of God’s word. If you come across two or more allegedly contradictory passages, simply look at the context of each and then compare them together. They are always able to be reconciled. The more a fraud or a fake is closely examined the more obvious are its faults. In stark comparison, the more closely the Bible is examined, the more it is seen to be entirely trustworthy.
Guideline 7—Do not be in a hurry
When using these guidelines, or any others, it may not always be immediately clear what the answer is to an apparent contradiction. Do not worry about that—rather take your time sorting it out. God’s word will not ‘unbecome’ God’s word because some Christian does not fully understand something for a time! As a young Christian, someone told me to read the Bible like I eat fish: consume, enjoy and digest the pieces I can easily get, and leave the rest on the side! Obviously, the illustration is limited. There are no indigestible bones or skin in the Bible! But the underlying principle is good. If you do not immediately understand something, especially something that seems to be contradictory, keep trusting the Bible as God’s word and ask God to show you the answer in His time. But do not be lazy, either! As well as praying, thinking it through and reading around the various contexts dealt with by ‘Guideline 6’, consult a mature Bible-believing Christian, or leader. And use a good evangelical Bible commentary and study Bible. But, above all, keep reading through the Bible. It is amazing how a completely different part of the Bible can shed light on, and resolve difficulties found in, difficult passages elsewhere. C.H. Spurgeon’s humorous comment about one Bible commentary was that it was surprising how much light the Bible shed on that particular commentary! In a more serious vein, it really is amazing how much light the Bible sheds on itself.
The study of the Bible, including the resolution of parts wrongly said to be contradictory, must always be undertaken carefully and with prayer. Remember that the Bible is a spiritual book and so should be approached spiritually, and with an attitude of prayer. Bathe the alleged contradiction in prayer, and God the Holy Spirit will lead you into all truth, as Jesus promised He would (John 16:13).
Guideline 9—Do not confuse the words ‘inspired’ and ‘inspiring’
All parts of the Bible are equally inspired by God the Holy Spirit and therefore equally infallible and non-contradictory. But not all parts are equally inspiring to the reader. For example, few readers buzz with delight when they read a genealogy. But such parts of the Bible are foundational to its historicity and accuracy. The details of the foundations of a house for sale never get the same exposure to a potential buyer as the size and number of the rooms, the location of the house, or the wonderful views from the windows. But without the foundations the exciting parts of the house could not exist. In the same way, do not fall into the trap of thinking that parts of the Bible are less inspired, and therefore potentially more likely to be contradictory, than other parts. Whether you find a particular part inspiring or not, the whole of the Bible is inspired as God’s word. It is all profitable and given for our instruction and blessing, and none of it is contradictory.
Guideline 10—Take courage: you are not alone!
Satan’s first tactic in the Garden of Eden was to try to instil doubts in the minds of Eve and Adam. He still asks the malicious question ‘Has God indeed said?’ (Genesis 3:1) to seek to undermine faith in, and obedience to, God’s word. Often the devil poses that question through others. But take courage! Every Christian who ever lived has been tested at some stage in the fires of doubting God’s word. God has brought, is bringing, and will bring every born-again, blood-bought child of His through that temptation to confidence in His word and eternal blessing. Like the heroes of faith in Hebrews 11, those who run that race of faith now can be encouraged by countless witnesses who have run it before them and found God is true to His inspired, infallible and complete word, the Bible. They could find no justifiable contradictions in it, and neither will you!