Tuesday, August 24, 2021

Do Contradictions in the Bible make any Difference?

Here is the definition of a contradiction: "a situation in which inherent factors, actions, or propositions are inconsistent or contrary to one another." For me this raises the question: Does even one contradiction between biblical texts make any difference as to how one understands the nature of the Bible? Here is one verifiable contradiction between two biblical writers: Paul, the earliest writer of the New Testament (around 50 CE) and the anonymous writer of Second Peter, the latest writer in the New Testament (around 150 CE). In Rom 8:18-25 Paul says that the creation (ktisis) itself "will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God" (8:21). He continues his thought about creation in 1Cor 7:31: "the world (kosmos) in its present form (schema) is passing away." Second Peter (3:10), on the other hand, announces that "the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth (gē) and the works that are upon it will be burned up." Since the creation (i.e., the entire created order of things) cannot both be a redeemed ktisis and a burned up ktisis, it would appear that these writers contradict one another on the future prospects of creation, as they understood it.1 What difference might this one contradiction make on how one understands the nature of the Bible? Or put another way, what does it mean for the Bible that it contains contradictions? What follows is my attempt to address the significance of even one contradiction in the Bible.

It means that these two authors do not share the same view as to the ultimate end of the creation. It should also be added that the authors of Third Isaiah (65:17) and the Apocalypse (Rev 21:1-4) disagree with Paul and agree with the author of Second Peter that the whole of creation will ultimately be destroyed. The author of Ecclesiastes, however, seems to disagree with the idea that the earth will be changed in any way: "A generation goes and a generation comes but the earth remains forever." (Eccl 1:4).

It means that there is no single biblical view about the ultimate end of the creation and that, in turn, means the Bible ("God's Word" to many people of faith) is not the ultimate authority on everything in life, as I have heard some ministers claim. Three different positions are taken regarding the entirety of creation, one by Paul and another by the anonymous author of Second Peter and others, and a third view by the author of Ecclesiastes. If one position is selected to represent the "biblical view," then the others have been rejected as being invalid explanations.

            It means that the Bible is better viewed historically rather than theologically. Here is a Southern Baptist view of the "Scriptures":

The Holy Bible was written by men divinely inspired and is God's revelation of Himself to man. It is a perfect treasure of divine instruction. It has God for its author, salvation for its end, and truth, without any mixture of error, for its matter. Therefore, all Scripture is totally true and trustworthy. It reveals the principles by which God judges us, and therefore is, and will remain to the end of the world, the true center of Christian union, and the supreme standard by which all human conduct, creeds, and religious opinions should be tried. All Scripture is a testimony to Christ, who is Himself the focus of divine revelation.2

This statement, however, does not describe the Bible; it is a theological description of what many (not all) Southern Baptists believe about the Bible. Describing the Bible in a neutral way is a complex enterprise. There are just too many variables to be considered. Here is an attempt at a brief description and even this description does not cover all the issues:3

There are three ancient religious collections (Jewish, Catholic, Protestant) that are called the Bible:

These three collections constitute the traditional remains of two different religious communities, which extend from the Israelite Exodus to the writing of 2 Peter. They reveal different social, cultural, ethical, and religious traditions covering around 1200 years. The Jewish Bible is a library of traditional writings of the ancient Israelites containing among other things the history of the Israelite people told from a religious perspective, along with its ancient laws, prophetic literature, hymnbook, wisdom literature, etc., from the 13th century BCE to roughly 400 BCE (second temple period). The Apocrypha consists of additional Jewish religious texts written between 300 BCE to 70 CE. The New Testament (50 CE to early second century) contains among other things stories, personal correspondence and theological essays.4

It means that the texts comprising the biblical collection are not "a perfect treasure of Divine instruction" or that the biblical matter is "without any mixture of error," simply because it contains contradictions, which must be considered errors and inconsistencies. That in turn means that the Bible could not derive from a perfect deity and could not be "God's Word."

The Bible does not belong to the Church and Synagogue but rather its collected texts, before being collected, belonged individually to the historical movement of human civilization. In short, the Bible is a collection of human words about different views of God in antiquity. One contradiction appears to do a great deal of damage to modern pious views about the Bible.

Something to think about.

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

1For a brief discussion of the fate of the earth, see Hedrick, "Will the Earth Abide," pp. 35-37 in Unmasking Biblical Faiths (Cascade, 2019). The contradiction between Paul and the author of Second Peter is but "the tip of the iceberg." Here is another contradiction of which the reader may be unaware between the Christian Old Testament and the New Testament. How did Moses come by the Torah? In Exodus and Deuteronomy Moses is described as receiving the Torah the first time directly from God (Deut 9:9-10). Moses broke the first set of tablets and was given a second set, again given directly to him by God (Deut 10:1-5). In the New Testament, however, Paul (Gal 3:19; see also Acts 7:38, 53; Heb 2:2) says that the law was "ordained through angels" (RSV). So, did Moses receive the law directly from God, or was it mediated through angels? For a discussion of how Moses came by the Torah, see Hedrick "How did Moses come by the Torah?" pp. 266-68 in Unmasking Biblical Faiths.

2The Baptist Faith and Message Statement, June 14, 2000: https://sbts.edu/about/bfm

3For a more complete picture of its complexity, See Hedrick, Unmasking Biblical Faiths, 87-97.

4Hedrick, "What about the Bible gives it the Status Word of God," Unmasking Biblical Faiths, 94.

Monday, August 9, 2021

A Religious Experience?

What are religious experiences and whence do they arise? I raise the question because certain observations seem to challenge the adjective “religious” as being produced by spirit forces outside oneself. Here are the first two observations:

If God is spirit (John 4:24), then God is not an entity existing in space and time, as we human beings do. We humans are existents, bound in space and time during our brief lives. God, on the other hand, appears to be nothing more than a concept, an invention of the human imagination, whose nature and character changes with each religious group and/or individual. Hence, it appears that God, however conceived, has no independent being, which exactly corresponds to any of those ideations of the human mind.

The rationale for this surprising statement is self-evident when viewed from the perspective of the history of world religions. Each religion (and there have been a lot of religions through human history) conceives God differently, yet the adherents of this or that religion believe that God is exactly like what they conceive. In short, they believe their view is the only accurate and true view that captures the essence of God. But, alas, different understandings of God do exist in other religions and the adherents of these other religions likewise think that their understanding of God is exactly how God is.1

Here is the third observation:

Spirit may still be “tangible,” however; depending on how it is conceived. If spirit is conceived as an entity that takes up space, like visible steam from a tea kettle, or the nearly invisible vapor arising from a heated substance, or the taste left in the rum cake when the “spirits” have evaporated, then it is tangible. If spirit is not left-over taste, or vaporous mist—or something barely visible to the naked eye; that is, if spirit does not leave an image on the retina of the eye, what is it?

I would suppose that God, as intangible spirit, is likely a denizen of a parallel spirit(ual) universe, a complex that does not occupy space and time. In this case, God is not part of the physical universe, but “over there” in the spirit(ual) universe, along with other invisible spirits (good, evil, and unclean), demons, devils, Satan, and other spiritual forces, such as angels, the Prince of the Power of the Air (Eph 2:2), the Principalities and Powers in heavenly places (Eph 3:10), the world rulers of the present darkness (Eph 6:12), the spiritual hosts of wickedness in heavenly places (Eph 6:12), angels, principalities, powers (Romans 8:38), etc.,2 and including the myriads of other spirits humankind has invented through time.

I boil these three lengthy observations down into three propositions: (1) God, if God there be, does not occupy space and time and (2) is not part of our universe; (3) our human inability to access God directly renders any description of God completely subjective and idiosyncratic.

If these propositions have any merit, then what we think of as a “religious” experience is simply a human response to a perceived “attraction” from a putative spirit world,3 and the “substance” of our religious experiences is all of our own making; it arises from within an individual and is formed by human experience; that is, it derives from what we have been taught by others, from our personal reading, from social conditioning, and the like. In other words, we humans create at a subliminal level “religious” experiences for ourselves out of our personal experiences.

William James, in his Varieties of Religious Experience. A Study in Human Nature, examines religious experiences by beginning with individuals who claim to have had such experiences. He examines “the feelings, acts and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine.”4 For an experience to qualify as religious, James cites three criteria: it must reflect religious luminousness, philosophical reasonableness, and moral helpfulness. He finds that the essence of religion is human feeling “characterized as a zest for life” coupled with a sense that there is something wrong with us that requires a solution whereby we can be saved from wrongness by connecting with higher power. There are two types of religious psyches: the healthy minded who are unburdened by a sense of sin, and the sick souls who are burdened with a sense of sin. Conversion occurs for the latter person, whereby the divided and unhappy self becomes unified and happy. James has been criticized for relying too closely on liberal-Protestant sources and citing insufficient non-Christian anecdotes. This brief statement of the analysis of religious experience sounds very similar to what I stated in the preceding paragraph.

I realize that many will object that I have gone off the deep end by claiming that spirits, Holy or otherwise, are not found in our universe. Spirits, however, like God, can only be analyzed indirectly through the anecdotal claims of human beings who claim to have experienced them. Our inability to examine spirits directly renders any attempt to describe them completely subjective and idiosyncratic. In short, the evidence for spirits, Holy or otherwise, derives from the psychological makeup of the human beings who claim to have experienced them.

Something to think about!

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

1Hedrick, “God Does not Exist” pp. 168-70 in Unmasking Biblical Faiths, 168.

2Hedrick, “From Where does a Sense of the Divine Come,” pp. 170-72 in Unmasking, 170.

3Hedrick, Matter and Spirit: Making Sense of it All,” pp. 174-177 in Unmasking, 176-77.

4Varieties of Religious Experience. A Study in Human Nature (New York: Longmans, Green and company, 1905). I am following a review of the book by Tim Knepper: http://people.bu.edu/wwildman/relexp/reviews/review_james01.htm