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.
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.