Embracing Biblical Paradox

I’ve just discovered a post from September on the Christian blog Wonders for Oyarsa that offers a promising way to engage with the Bible’s apparent contradictions. Theological “liberals” tend to address this problem by excising the uncomfortable parts or questioning the authority of the whole book, while “conservatives” are more tempted to force everything into a neat scheme even if this means defending some Biblical characters’ morally troubling actions. Both approaches, however, wrongly reduce our relationship with God through the Bible to something we can wholly control and explain:

I am not in the business of arguing for the “errancy” of the Bible, as if the Bible should be a different book than it is. On the contrary, I believe it to be the work of God (albeit through free human agents) and that it is precisely the Bible he wants us to have. So I’m not at all in the interest of doing a Jeffersonian “pick-and-choose” scheme – discarding parts I find troubling or incredible, and keeping the parts I like.

But I do take issue with any hermeneutic that defends the inerrancy of scripture by disengaging it. I have problems when, come across with an obvious tension or contradiction, people reconcile it by making the Bible out to be saying something its not. I think it far better to then ask the question, “What is God trying to say to us through this contradiction?”, and a slavish loyalty to inerrancy as a doctrine makes that question unaskable.

Take, for instance, the notion that God “will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.” My argument is that we need not suppress the idea that punishing someone for something his parents did is unjust. And lo and behold, the Bible agrees! “What do you mean by repeating this proverb concerning the land of Israel, ‘The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge’? As I live, declares the Lord God, this proverb shall no more be used by you in Israel. Behold, all souls are mine; the soul of the father as well as the soul of the son is mine: the soul who sins shall die.” My contention is that we shouldn’t blunt either passage by trying to make it say something less than it is, but rather be asking what God wants to teach us through this tension.

Basically, I am arguing that, though the Bible is the inspired word of God, we cannot always assume we know what God is doing with any particular passage.

Now, I like this approach the best of any I’ve seen, but I still don’t know where all this wrestling will end up. When does wrestling with contradictions become a dead end? If there’s no rule of thumb to resolve them, how do I know I will get anywhere? It’s hard enough to follow the Bible when I know what I should be doing. When I seem to have the option of both A and not-A, the potential for self-deception seems immense.

On the other hand, this morning I actually tried reading the Bible (instead of just thinking about it) to resolve my struggle over whether to leave my church, and it worked. (More about that later.) Another item for the “Jendi discovers the obvious” files.

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