Did That Mean That?: Facing Apparent Contradictions in Scripture

There are times in our reading of Scripture when we encounter apparent contradictions. This happened to me the other day when I began reading Paul’s letter to the Galatian church. In Galatians 1:10, Paul writes:

For am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ.

Immediately before writing this, Paul condemns those who would preach a gospel message contrary to what these believers had received from him initially. That message Paul preached was, essentially, that salvation comes by grace through faith in Jesus Christ and not by our own merit in any sense (see Galatians 2:15-16).

The problem with what I read in Paul’s letter to the Galatian church was that it apparently contradicted what I had read in Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth just a few weeks earlier. In 1 Corinthians 10:32-33, Paul writes:

Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God, just as I try to please everyone in everything I do.

At this point in the Corinthian letter, Paul is explaining why his freedom in Christ is not a license to sin but a motivation to serve others. He is willing to become “all things to all people, that by all means I might save some” (1 Corinthians 9:22).

On the one hand (Galatians), Paul is not bothered by any offense he may cause. He is not worried about pleasing people. But on the other hand (1 Corinthians), Paul goes to great lengths to “please everyone” for the sake of the gospel.

How should we deal with apparent contradictions like this in our reading of Scripture? Good question. Let’s use these two verses as a case study.

First: Take as a Given that God is Not Contradictory in the Scriptures
When we approach the Scriptures, we should take it as a given that God is not contradictory and His Word is trustworthy. Some may take issue with this, but based upon the testimony of Scripture to itself, I encourage you to stand on this point. A more thorough defense of this ‘given’ would need to be taken up elsewhere at greater length. It is enough here to take the words of 2 Timothy 3:16-17 for what they say:

All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work.

Second: Take as a Given that Our Understanding is Limited and Developing
Our second given in approaching apparent contradictions is that we come to the Scriptures with a need to learn. Our minds cannot contain the wisdom of God but, as one great theologian said, our faith seeks understanding (fides quaerens intellectum). As we encounter apparent contradictions in our reading of Scripture, we ask God to bring understanding to us about this situation. We learn from Him.

Third: Understand the Context of the Words
Sometimes, we misunderstand the meaning of Scripture because we have not read particular words well in relation to what comes before and after those words. In the letter to the Galatians, Paul is talking about truthful confrontation of error about the good news. He is also relating his own story and legitimacy as a bearer of God’s truth. In the letter to the Corinthians, however, Paul is talking about his longing to reach others with the truth. His impulse in Galatians is toward protecting the truth, while his impulse in Corinthians is toward sharing the truth.

Fourth: Understand the Setting of the Hearers
Beyond the context of the words, it is also important to consider the setting of the hearers. In this instance, that is the setting of the Galatian church versus the setting of the Corinthian church. The Galatians are being influenced by Judaizers to become more legalistic and, thus, to step away from Paul’s teaching about freedom through the gospel of grace by faith. The Corinthians are a church in a lascivious culture struggling with the implications of their freedom in Christ and their inclination toward sin. The Galatians need to return to true freedom: grace and the good news in Jesus Christ. The Corinthians need to direct their freedom to something worthwhile: God’s mission and not sin. Because these settings and their needs are so different, Paul turns the spotlight of truth in different directions in each letter.

Fifth: Interpret the Parts in Light of the Whole
Anytime we read Scripture, we should interpret the individual statements or books in light of the whole Scripture. By doing this, we save ourselves from errors or eccentricities that may seem apparent in certain books but do not reflect the whole intention of God throughout Scripture. This is particularly the case when we find ourselves dealing with apparent contradictions in the Scripture. Face value readings of Paul in these passages from Galatians and Corinthians could raise two issues: 1) Paul wants to please people or 2) Paul is relationally inconsistent. In light of the whole of Scripture – particularly all of Paul’s letters and writings about him in Acts – we can see that the first issue (Paul is a people pleaser) is plainly false. Again and again, Paul is focused on serving Christ and pleasing him above human beings. The second issue (Paul is relationally inconsistent) does not ring true with Paul’s life goal of spreading the good news everywhere he goes. All of Paul’s travel and relationships were aimed toward that end. At the same time, Paul tried to specifically address each setting to which he traveled. He addressed Athenian philosophers (Acts 17) in a different manner than he addressed secular rulers (Acts 25-26). What we see here is that there is a difference – but not a contradiction – between being relationally inconsistent and contextualizing the message.

Do not be surprised when you face apparent contradictions in Scripture. This is a normal experience in reading God’s word, which was written over a long period of time and within many cultural settings. In it all, we should pray for the Holy Spirit to speak and reveal to us God’s trustworthy and reliable truth.

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