“Discrepancies” In The Bible And Confident Ministry Of The Word

(Ajith Fernando)

During the past forty years I have seen more and more instances of evangelical biblical scholars reporting an apparent discrepancy in the Bible as a discrepancy and just leaving it at that without making any more comments or clarifications. Some would make an outright statement that it is indeed an error. Others would place two contradicting texts, e.g. in two different Gospels or in Acts and an Epistle, side by side and announce the discrepancy without making any effort to resolve it.

In the past the effort to harmonise apparent discrepancies was carried out with earnest rigour. This is still done by among some highly esteemed scholars. I think of two books demonstrating the historical reliability of the New Testament by Craig Blomberg,[1] and Don Carson’s commentaries on Matthew and John.[2] I believe the task of resolving such problems is a cause still worth devoting oneself to.

Yet, we must remember that this is not an easy task. Some problems are difficult to solve. Therefore when scholars find possible resolutions to difficult questions that have baffled the church for some time they should be careful about presenting them as dogmatic affirmations. Rather these resolutions could be presented as possible ways to resolve the problem that are worthy of serious consideration by Bible students. The history of scholarship is replete with examples of assured “resolutions” to contradictions which were later proved to be wrong.

If no credible resolution is available to the problem, I would remain agnostic on the issue. I am not willing to discredit the affirmations in a biblical text by stating that they are wrong or were not actually said by the person whom the Bible claims said it. I would concede that our knowledge is incomplete and that we will await the results of further study towards a resolution to the problem. We do not have to solve every problem that we encounter in the Bible. Doesn’t the Bible say that our knowledge on earth is incomplete and that we will see fully only when we get to heaven (1 Cor. 13:12)? I believe the Bible is entirely trustworthy; but I do not extend that confidence to all our interpretations of the Bible. Scholarship will seek to resolve problems, but until a resolution is found we will humbly accept our limitations and redouble our attempts to find a resolution.

History is also replete with examples of discoveries which resulted in the rejection of the scholarly consensus that discounted the accuracy of a biblical text. The story of the conversion of archaeologist Sir William Ramsey to orthodox Christianity as a result of archaeological discoveries is possibly the best known example of this. As the Bible came from the period he was studying, he consulted the New Testament not expecting it to give a historically reliable account. When he met with a name in Acts that seemed to go against the scholarly consensus he concluded that Luke had got it wrong. But further investigation showed him that, contrary to the prevailing consensus among scholars, Luke was right! This opened the door to him looking at the Bible in a more positive light and to his becoming a committed Christian. Subsequently, Ramsay wrote ten books on Paul and Luke between 1893 and 1915.[3]

A more recent example is how John A. T. Robinson revised his dating of the Gospels after studying the Dead Sea Scrolls. I studied his writings in the mid-1970s for my Th.M. thesis. He affirmed his belief that all people will be saved in the end (universalism) even though the statements Christ in the Gospels clearly contradicted that belief. He defended his universalistic ideas by asserting that the Gospels were written after AD 120 or so. He said that Jesus did not really say the things attributed to him in the Gospels. The Gospels were written so many years after Jesus lived that what we find there are not the statements of Jesus but what Christians in the second century believed, which they attributed to Jesus. In this way he was able dispose of statements attributed to Jesus which clearly contradicted his universalist convictions. However, his study of the Dead Sea Scrolls made him change his views. Shortly before his death, he published two books that dated the Four Gospels, including John, before the Fall of Jerusalem in 70AD![4] I do not, however, know if that led him to revise his theology!

So I am not willing to assert that something stated in the Bible is historically wrong. This is why I assent to the doctrinal statement that Scripture is “without error in all that it affirms.” Historical affirmations should be included in the list of these affirmations that are without error, if the author intended that we take that material to be historically accurate. Of course, this means that if someone makes an error in a speech, the author will accurately record that error, as we see with the speeches of Job’s friends.

We must, however, remember that our approaches to writing history may be different to those in biblical times. Therefore if a passage is presented by the author as historical we must ask, “What kind of history-writing is this?” The author’s style of history-writing may be different to what we usually consider as the way history should be written. Furthermore, the personality and the writing-style of the author will influence the way he records an event. So two authors may record the same event differently, from two different perspectives. We see this a lot in the Gospels. That does not mean that one is wrong and the other is right.

Does the fact that we cannot solve some problems result in a lack of confidence in the Bible? If that were so, our preaching and teaching would also betray a lack of confidence, rendering our ministry of the Word ineffective and unable to foster faith in our hearers. There is a lot of preaching today where preachers timidly suggest things to their audiences without any authority or conviction. This can breed spiritual death in the church.

Our uncertainties are about a few texts which do not change the teachings of the faith that the church has believed in for twenty centuries. They represent a few issues which keep us alert, humble and conscientious students of the Word who continue grappling for solutions to problems. It seems to be God’s way to leave a few things unexplained so that we can grapple with those and grow deeper in our faith through the grappling.

Yet we can minister with confidence and authority. Our ministry is mandated by the Great Commission of the Lord of the universe which begins with the words, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples…, teaching them…” (Matt. 28:18-19a). God has spoken a Word to us through the Bible and we have been commissioned by Christ to go and preach it. So we study it and work on communicating it effectively to our people. The Great Commission in Matthew concluded with the words, “And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (28:20). This is made possible through the operation of the Holy Spirit. So we wait on the Lord in prayer and make sure that we go with the presence and anointing of the Holy Spirit. This Spirit ignites our Word so that we speak with authority and power.

This authority and power, however, is not intrinsic to us. We are just humble servants of the Lord and his Word through whom the Spirit works. So we humbly yearn for his fullness and leave aside any hindrances to the fullness of the Spirit, like unbelief, cynicism, pride, selfish ambition, the desire for prominence and praise, and all other kinds of sin. Then when we faithfully preach the Word, the Spirit ignites us and our words and makes us agents of his transforming work in the lives of people.

No uncertainly here! We preach with confidence because we believe God and his Word, and because the Spirit ignites us and our words!

[1] Craig Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of the Gospels (Leicester and Downer’s Grove: Inter-Varsity Press, 1987); and The Historical Reliability of John’s Gospel (Leicester and Downer’s Grove: Inter-Varsity Press, 2001).

[2] D. A. Carson, “Matthew,” Expositors Bible Commentary: Revised, Vol. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan,  ); and The Gospel According to John: The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids and Cambridge: Wm. B. Eerdmans and Leicester: Apollos, 1991).

[3] I have related this story in my NIV Application Commentary: Acts (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1998), pp. 24-26. Ramsay relates his story in William M. Ramsay, W. The Bearing of Recent Discovery on the Trustworthiness of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1979 reprint of 1915 ed.), chapter 3.

[4] John A. T. Robinson, Redating the New Testament ; The Priority of John

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