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One of the charges that is consistently leveled against Biblical reliability is that the Bible is "full of contradictions". This is certainly not a new charge, and the field of Apologetics, with its disciplined approach to defending God's word surely has a defined, commonly accepted approach to dealing with alleged discrepancies.

What is that approach? In other words, what are the common "rules" (or less stringently, "guidelines") that are taught and followed in classic apologetics?

To be very clear, I am not asking "is the Bible reliable?". I'm not asking "are the rules used true, correct, or sound"? I am well aware that skeptics, atheists, and Christians that believe the Bible could contain contradictions will likely disagree with the rules and techniques applied by apologetics. I'm not asking if the rules are true, I'm simply asking what they are, so that we have a record of the techniques used on the site.

My hope is that these rules can be referenced later, for questions about such contradictions, to provide a framework for addressing the apparent contradiction questions using the classic apologetic approach.

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Wouldn't this depend heavily upon the faction the apologist belongs to, and in particular what they believe about the nature of the Bible and what inerrancy means? – the dark wanderer Mar 18 at 7:48
@thedarkwanderer In reality, arguments for the inspiration, inerrancy, and infallibility of the Bible work only for those who already believe that the Bible is inspired, or inerrant, or infallible. The whole exercise of maintaining the Bible's inspiration, inerrancy, and infallibility is not for the purpose of convincing skeptics. It is for the purpose "keeping the faith" on the part of those who read the Bible as inspired, inerrant, and infallible. No one outside that group of people considers their arguments to that effect to be convincing, or even to be particularly useful. – Lee Woofenden Apr 7 at 1:30
@LeeWoofenden No, I'm pretty sure that's not true. Certainly some ex-catholics I've run into cite the Protestant version of Biblical Inerrancy (c.f. the heresy of Creationism) as a reason for leaving the Church. Now, the Catholic Church also maintains a doctrine of Biblical Inerrancy but what is taught by the latter doctrine is very different than what is taught by the former; i.e. they are different beliefs. A number of atheist nut-jobs also certainly find the arguments "useful"-- if religion is to be blamed for the world's problems its methods of indoctrination must be credited with potency. – the dark wanderer Apr 7 at 16:09

2 Answers 2

Classical Apologetics is that style of Christian defence that stresses rational arguments for the existence of God and uses evidence to substantiate biblical claims and miracles. This question does not deal with proving the existence of God, but how apologists deal with claims of biblical inerrancy.

In any debate on biblical inerrancy, the apologist knows who it is he or she is trying convince when explaining apparent biblical discrepancies. Sceptics, strongly committed believers and what we might call 'realistic' believers are different audiences and require different standards of evidence.

  • The sceptic typically wants proof, or at least a reasonable and convincing explanation, and will not be satisfied with plausibility. Good apologies address what it is that the sceptic fails to understand. Too often I see explanations directed at sceptics that only offer plausibility, with the apologist satisfied that because he is convinced, the matter is closed. When the sceptic disputes this, he is considered obstinate.
  • The strongly committed believer will accept nothing less than total inerrancy and to that end will be satisfied with a plausible explanation and perhaps even one that involves a strong dose of eisegesis. The strongly committed believer believes that it is the responsibility of the sceptic to prove otherwise. If the audience consists of strongly committed believers, the best answers are faith-based and not too technical.
  • The 'realistic' believers will accept that some apparent biblical discrepancies are just that, and are willing to maintain faith in spite of biblical discrepancies, as long as the apologist is honest about it.

The second rule of good apologetics is to limit discussion of inerrancy to the original documents, but since no original document exists, to a selection of the earliest manuscripts known to exist. There is no point proving why a later version is reliable, if it is unlike the original. A decision would have to be made in cases like Isaiah 7:14, because the original document, written in Hebrew, does not mention a virgin, but Christian theology is heavily reliant on the Septuagint version that replaces 'young woman' by 'virgin'. Should the explanation be based around inerrancy of the Septuagint mistranslation or should it explain why this version is more generally accepted? Many Christians I classed as 'realistic' believers will be unconcerned that Isaiah 7:14 was not really about a virgin, but the strongly committed believer will hope for an obscure linguistic explanation.

Another rule is to avoid reading modern theology back into the biblical passage. The apologist is not being asked to explain why his or her interpretation of a passage is correct, or perhaps even why it should be considered a prophecy of later events, but why the actual texts are considered correct. Exegesis should be used to establish what the author intended to say and the context in which it was written.

Always remember that most Christians are reluctant to see biblical discrepancies, and so tend to avoid them even when reading a passage. Leon R. Kass says in The Beginning of Wisdom: Reading Genesis, at page 55, that pious readers, believing that the text cannot contain contradictions, ignore the major disjunctions between the two creation stories and tend to treat the second story as the fuller, more detailed account of the creation of man (and woman) that the first story simply reported. If most members of the audience are willing to ignore these discrepancies, apologists often simply brush them aside and hope that sceptics in the audience begin to doubt their scepticism.

Wikipedia tells us that C. S. Lewis, Norman Geisler, William Lane Craig and Christians who engage in jurisprudence Christian apologetics have argued that miracles are reasonable and plausible wherever an all-powerful Creator is postulated. Notice here, the prerequisite that an all-powerful Creator is postulated, so I would not use this argument in a debate with a sceptic who considers this prerequisite to be unproven.

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up vote 10 down vote accepted

The basic rules and assumptions are as follows:

  1. That we are defending the notion that the Bible is, indeed, inspired, and therefore inerrant and infallible. It cannot contain errors, and if a true contradiction is found, it is, by definition, an error. Either one is correct and the other is wrong, or they are both wrong. Either way, the Bible is no longer infallible and inerrant.
  2. That God does not change His word. It is Eternal. (Deuteronomy 4:1-2; Isaiah 8:20; Matthew 5:17-18; 24:35; and Revelation 22:18-20.)
  3. The default position is that the Bible is inerrant. We are answering the claim of someone that is challenging that position. Therefore, the burden of proof is upon that person, not on the person defending the claim of inerrancy.
  4. If a reasonable, plausible explanation can be given for the discrepancy, then the person challenging the inerrancy of Scripture has failed to provide proof. This does not mean that the plausible answer is necessarily truth, but it means that the "discrepancy" does have a plausible, logical resolution, so the skeptic has not proved that a contradiction, in fact, exists.
  5. The definition of Biblical Inerrancy is important. As described in the link in the first bullet point, inerrancy does not apply to the current translations of Scripture to the point that copyist errors count as "errors". Inerrancy applies to the original manuscripts, and we completely accept that copyist errors can and likely do exist in today's manuscripts.

Using those five basic rules, the vast majority of "contradictions" can be attributed to one of two possible causes.

  1. Copyist errors
  2. A misunderstanding of the context. (Historical context, cultural context, taking a verse out of context with related passages of Scripture, different meanings for words used at the time a translation was written compared to the meaning of the words today, etc.)

Some examples:

2 Samuel 24:9 gives the round figure Of 500,000 fighting men in Judah, which was 30,000 more than the corresponding item in 1 Chronicles 21:5. (Category: misunderstood the historical context)

Observe that 1 Chronicles 21:6 clearly states that Joab did not complete the numbering, as he had not yet taken a census of the tribe of Benjamin, nor that of Levi's either, due to the fact that David came under conviction about completing the census at all. Thus the different numbers indicate the inclusion or exclusion of particular unspecified groups in the nation. We find another reference to this in 1 Chronicles 27:23-24 where it states that David did not include those twenty years old and younger, and that since Joab did not finish the census the number was not recorded in King David's Chronicle.

The procedure for conducting the census had been to start with the trans-Jordanian tribes (2 Samuel 24:5) and then shift to the northern most tribe of Dan and work southward towards Jerusalem (verse 7). The numbering of Benjamin, therefore, would have come last. Hence Benjamin would not be included with the total for Israel or of that for Judah, either. In the case of 2 Samuel 24, the figure for Judah included the already known figure of 30,000 troops mustered by Benjamin. Hence the total of 500,000 included the Benjamite contingent.

Observe that after the division of the United Kingdom into the North and the South following the death of Solomon in 930 BC, most of the Benjamites remained loyal to the dynasty of David and constituted (along with Simeon to the south) the kingdom of Judah. Hence it was reasonable to include Benjamin with Judah and Simeon in the sub-total figure of 500,000, even though Joab may not have itemized it in the first report he gave to David (1 Chronicles 21:5). Therefore the completed grand total of fighting forces available to David for military service was 1,600,000 (1,100,000 of Israel, 470,000 of Judah-Simeon, and 30,000 of Benjamin).

(Archer 1982:188-189 and Light of Life II 1992:189)

Does God incite David to conduct the census of his people (2 Samuel 4:1), or does Satan (1 Chronicles 21:1)?

(Category: misunderstood how God works in history)

This seems an apparent discrepancy unless of course both statements are true. It was towards the end of David's reign, and David was looking back over his brilliant conquests, which had brought the Canaanite, Syrian, and Phoenician kingdoms into a state of vassalage and dependency on Israel. He had an attitude of pride and self-admiration for his achievements, and was thinking more in terms of armaments and troops than in terms of the mercies of God.

The Lord therefore decided that it was time that David be brought to his knees, where he would once again be cast back onto the mercy of God. So he let him go ahead with his census, in order to find out just how much good it would do him, as the only thing this census would accomplish would be to inflate the national ego (intimated in Joab's warning against carrying out the census in 1 Chronicles 21:3). As soon as the numbering was completed, God intended to chasten the nation with a disastrous plague which would bring about an enormous loss of life (in fact the lives of 70,000 Israelites according to 2 Samuel 24:15).

What about Satan? Why would he get himself involved in this affair (according to 1 Chronicles 21:1) if God had already prompted David to commit the folly he had in mind? It seems his reasons were entirely malicious, knowing that a census would displease the Lord (1 Chronicles 21:7-8), and so he also incited David to carry it through.

Yet this is nothing new, for there are a number of other occurrences in the Bible where both the Lord and Satan were involved in soul-searching testings and trials:

  1. In the book of Job, chapters one and two we find a challenge to Satan from God allowing Satan to bring upon Job his calamities. God's purpose was to purify Job's faith, and to strengthen his character by means of discipline through adversity, whereas Satan's purpose was purely malicious, wishing Job as much harm as possible so that he would recant his faith in his God.
  2. Similarly both God and Satan are involved in the sufferings of persecuted Christians according to 1 Peter 4:19 and 5:8. God's purpose is to strengthen their faith and to enable them to share in the sufferings of Christ in this life, that they may rejoice with Him in the glories of heaven to come (1 Peter 4:13-14), whereas Satan's purpose is to 'devour' them (1 Peter 5:8), or rather to draw them into self-pity and bitterness, and down to his level.
  3. Both God and Satan allowed Jesus the three temptations during his ministry on earth. God's purpose for these temptations was for him to triumph completely over the very tempter who had lured the first Adam to his fall, whereas Satan's purpose was to deflect the saviour from his messianic mission.
  4. In the case of Peter's three denials of Jesus in the court of the high priest, it was Jesus himself who points out the purposes of both parties involvement when he says in Luke 22:31-32, "Simon, Simon, Satan has asked to sift you as wheat. But I have prayed for you Simon, that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers."
  5. And finally the crucifixion itself bears out yet another example where both God and Satan are involved. Satan exposed his purpose when he had the heart of Judas filled with treachery and hate (John 13:27), causing him to betray Jesus. The Lord's reasoning behind the crucifixion, however, was that Jesus, the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world should give his life as a ransom for many, so that once again sinful man could relish in the relationship lost at the very beginning, in the garden of Eden, and thereby enter into a relationship which is now eternal.

Thus we have five other examples where both the Lord and Satan were involved together though with entirely different motives. Satan's motive in all these examples, including the census by David was driven by malicious intent, while the Lord in all these cases showed an entirely different motive. His was a benevolent motive with a view to eventual victory, while simultaneously increasing the usefulness of the person tested. In every case Satan's success was limited and transient; while in the end God's purpose was well served furthering His cause substantially.

(Archer 1982:186-188)

Rules taken from various sources, including:

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Huh...I always understood 2 Samuel and 1 Chronicles as differing in the amount of rounding. (And clearly, both are rounded.) – Paul Draper Jul 2 '14 at 5:13

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