A Scripture Divided Against Itself?

If your theology requires a Bible like this, I've got bad news for you.

In historical legend, a prophecy claimed that the man who could untangle a particular knot, the "Gordian Knot," would conquer the known world. Countless aspirants made attempts, but none succeeded until Alexander of Macedon sliced through it with his sword and went on to conquer as foretold. Ever since, the Gordian Knot has stood for intricate problems which require a simple, brute-force solution.

However, this is not a universal solution. For a massive example, see the many fascist regimes which applied a Gordian Knot approach to social problems and discovered that utopias aren't built on gunning down the "wrong people." My supervisor probably wouldn't appreciate me taking a simplistic, brute-force approach with government paperwork.

But it's also not a solution to something much dearer to most Christians: the difficulties which arise when reading and understanding the Bible.

There are some really bad Gordian Knot "solutions" that sane Christian traditions have rejected; outright dismissing the Bible comes to mind. But there's a more subtle approach that unfortunately poisons many well-meaning attempts to understand revelation, one which arises when passages seem to clash with each other.

Take, for example, the classic salvation argument over whether the Christian must have good works. Christians who hold to a 'faith alone' position will frequently cite verses from the Pauline epistles, e.g. "a person is justified by faith apart from the works of the law." In response, someone who rejects 'faith alone' will usually cite some Gospel passages or the verse from James: "a person is justified by works and not by faith alone."

It seems like we have a contradiction, but most Christians understand that Scripture cannot truly contradict itself - the verses must both be true somehow. So far, so good - on to the truth!

But here's where people make the crucial mistake: they reconcile by subordinating.

They start with one set of verses, which they understand in some way. That interpretation typically becomes the default and immovable position upon which the Bible truth stands or falls. They then encounter another set of verses that challenge that reading and respond, not by actually reconciling the verses, but by explaining those verses away because otherwise [my reading of] the Bible is wrong.

This is what we're about to see happen with God's Word. (That's bad.)

Consider again the argument over justification and the particular verses I cited. I often hear Protestants contend that the verse from James is irrelevant because he's really just talking about 'justification before men,' based (flimsily) on James saying he will 'show you my faith by my works.' But Catholics and Orthodox aren't immune: often, novice apologists will say that the Pauline verses are irrelevant because he's only talking about Jewish-Gentile issues, negating the broader theology of justification the apostle lays out to tackle that particular controversy.

Neither approach is any good. They avoid the difficulty by pretending that there isn't one, and in the process demand that some scripture be pigeonholed to satisfy other scripture. Worse, this is rarely a question of overlooking a handful of tricky verses to uphold the rest of the Bible. Usually, we end up whitewashing massive tracts of revelation in the name of preserving God's truth.

Consider either of the above evasions on justification. They require that we ignore most of what the Biblical author writes, whether it's James' lesson on faith meaning anything at all (and every place Jesus ties our final salvation to our works) or Paul's insistence that we can not work our way from spiritual death into God's righteousness, to focus entirely on whatever aspect isn't difficult for us.

We don't ask ourselves how we can be justified by faith apart from works and also by our works - e.g., by understanding one as our translation into righteousness and the other as our necessary growth in and living of that righteousness - only how we can ignore the inconvenient half of that equation.

Look, this is going to happen, but we can at least be somewhat intelligent about it. Or at least not totally moronic. (That's also bad.)

Another one I encounter all the time is nullifying most of John 6, in which Jesus persistently teaches that he will give himself as true food and true drink, by citing half of a single verse: "It is the spirit who gives life. The flesh profits nothing." There's rarely any attempt to explain how Jesus still gives us himself as true food and true drink while 'the flesh profits nothing' (or how the flesh-spirit motif is used everywhere else in the Gospels), only the sense that this one half-verse triumphantly wars against the preceding and challenging passages.

If you'll tolerate yet another example, consider baptismal regeneration. Some verses tie baptism to salvation: "born again by water and the spirit," "baptism now saves you," "repent and be baptized … for the forgiveness of your sins," etc. Yet some set against these verses others which speak merely of faith saving or exclude our mortal deeds from delivering us. Is this coherent? Is reconciliation - that baptism is part of faith and/or a sign under which God saves - impossible without shuffling something away?

Why must these verses battle? How can they battle? "Is Christ divided?"

In the Gospels, Pharisees accuse Our Lord of belonging to Satan because he casts out demons - that he drives out evil by evil. Jesus rebukes them and teaches that a house divided against itself cannot stand. The same can be said of good driving out good: a Scripture set against itself cannot stand.

Alas, the Sola theology of "X Alone" and "Y Alone" exacerbates this problem by normalizing false dichotomies in place of reconciling X, Y, and Z if the Bible says X, Y, and Z. In this mindset, the scriptural truth becomes our interpretation of some passage alone, with everything else warping around it.

But it should be obvious that any theology that rests on Bible nullifying Bible cannot be called Biblical.