peter ennsPeter Enns is an Evangelical blogger, but not an ‘inerrantist’ (at least not in the sense defined in the Chicago Statement). He thinks that the Bible contains contradictions, and even lists some in his books. Enns recently blogged about the types of contradictions he thinks are found in the Bible, or conversely, the types of contradictions he thinks are not found in the Bible. His examples are theoretical, and concern oatmeal:

  1. If I say, “I hate oatmeal” and then turn to someone else and say “I love oatmeal,” I am contradicting myself.

  2. If I said 20 years ago “I hate oatmeal” and now say “I love oatmeal,” I am not contradicting myself. Rather my view of oatmeal changed over time.

  3. If I say “I hate oatmeal” but my son says “I love oatmeal,” that would not be a contradiction. We are two different people voicing our opinions.

The Bible works more like the second two examples, and not at all like the first. We create problems for ourselves when we assume the first example is relevant. It isn’t.

Something very odd is going on here. Enns claims that the Bible has no contradictions like the one in example (1). He also claims that the “Bible works” like the differences of opinion expressed in (2) and (3), but also claims that these do not actually constitute ‘contradictions’. So, on this definition, he claims (and this is the title to his blog-post), “There are no contradictions in the Bible”.

At one level, his assessment of the three scenarios is right. If one person likes oatmeal and another does not, this scenario involves two different truth claims about two separate referents. It is simply the claim that Person One likes oatmeal, and the claim that Person Two does not like oatmeal. This is not logically a contradiction at all, whether in the Bible or not. For there to be a contradiction, there must instead be two truth claims about the same alleged referent, at the same time and in the same respect. And that seems to be the difference in Enns’ example (1): “If I say, ‘I hate oatmeal’ and then turn to someone else and say ‘I love oatmeal,’ I am contradicting myself.” Enns is right: this situation involves both a false claim and a true claim about the same alleged referent (a single person’s like or dislike of oatmeal), made at the same time and with no difference in the respect in which it is uttered.

So far apparently so good. But Enns then goes on to claim that the situation in example (1) – one person saying they both like and dislike oatmeal – simply “isn’t … relevant” to the Bible. This is where it all gets a bit odd (and part of the reason seems to be an attempt to engage Jeffrey Stackert’s work, on which see below). As I have pointed out, the logical basis for a contradiction requires two truth claims about the same alleged referent, at the same time and in the same respect. Yet Enns rules out this understanding of ‘contradiction’ from the Bible from the beginning. He declares it is “not relevant” to the Bible. So, on Enns’ definition, there can be no ‘contradictions’ in the Bible – as he says in his blog-post title.

So Enns is making a statement about what is in the Bible and what is not: fundamentally an empirical or a posteriori claim. But his denial that the Bible contains any contradictions of the type in example (1) is also a denial of the only one of his three examples which could logically constitute a contradiction (whether in the Bible or anywhere else). What should have been an a posteriori claim is given the force of an a priori claim, ruling out the very possibility of contradiction in the Bible (and conversely requiring that we call it something else, such as a different ‘point of view’ or ‘diversity’). But such a stance, at least effectively, involves an a priori bias against finding actual contradictions in the Bible, or at least the contradictions of the type found in example (1).

Enns’ approach is therefore the same in form to the fallacy known as the ‘No True Scotsman’ fallacy. In this fallacy, every empirical claim about a Scotsman (eg. some Scotsmen dislike porridge; some Scotsmen wear trousers) is rejected, not by examining the evidence but, by rejecting the commonly accepted definition of ‘Scotsman’ itself. It involves rejecting the empirical evidence out-of-hand, by simply redefining the term ‘Scotsman’. So you get the retorts, e.g., ‘no true Scotsman dislikes porridge’, or ‘no true Scotsman wears trousers’, etc. At the core of the No True Scotsman fallacy is the fallacy of taking an a priori approach to what is essentially an a posteriori question. Enns’ approach likewise rules out the possibility of contradiction within the Bible, before assessing the evidence. (But, as we know that, elsewhere, Enns acknowledges and presents contradictions in the Bible, this is a rhetorical move, restricting the type of contradictions he believes may be found in the Bible, in conversation with Stackert.)

In addition, Enns’ hypothetical examples (of claiming to like or dislike oatmeal) makes it sound as if the whole question of contradiction is really just a matter of different opinions or “points of view”. As with all attractive errors, it offers part of the truth: some of the diversity in the Bible is a matter of diversity of opinion. But this is hardly true of all the contents of the Bible. For the Bible also makes truth claims that are not dependent on opinion, but concern claims about reality. For example, the Bible claims that the cosmos has a certain shape (involving, usually, a flat earth), that some 600,000 fighting men and their families escaped Egypt and about the same number entered Canaan (an exaggeration at the very least), that Jesus came to Bethlehem only because of the requirements of a census (in one version), and that the Son of Man would come on the clouds to judge the world in the first century CE (didn’t work out that way). Yet the example Enns prefers – about liking or disliking oatmeal – has the rhetorical effect of reducing the issue of biblical contradictions to differences of opinions, likes, and dislikes, and human ‘diversity’. But, ironically, this excludes quite a lot of the Bible’s diversity! It misconstrues the content of the biblical books, which – in addition to the mere offering of opinions – also make truth claims about reality. Enns is therefore misleading when he asserts, “what are called ‘contradictions’ are only so if one assumes that the purpose of inspiration (however it works) is to align or override the down-to-earth diverse voices we actually encounter in the Bible.” To offer a counterfactual to Enns’ claim, we can quite easily conceive of the possibility that God exists, and that he allowed a diversity of opinion to subsist within the Bible, and that he also ensured that its writers got their claims about reality correct. Therefore, biblical diversity does not logically entail the absence of contradictions in the same Bible.

So Enns muddies the issue when he attempts to reduce the question of biblical contradictions to one concerning whether divine inspiration allows for human diversity in the biblical books. It is quite obvious that, from Torah to Ecclesiastes, from psalms to proverbs to epistles to erotic poetry, the biblical books do in fact contain a great deal of diversity. But the clear and evident diversity within the Bible tells us nothing about whether the Bible also contains contradictions, or whether contradictions may be reduced to effects of this alleged divine allowance of diversity.

So the internal diversity of the Bible does not entail that it is also free of contradictions. This is really just Enns’ red herring. Moreover, the contrary is arguably true: if the Bible contains internal contradictions, this only adds to its diversity – diversity that Enns seems to value very highly. Diversity is increased if the Bible not only contains differences of opinion, but actual contradictions of the type listed above. So to adapt Walt Whitman, what the Bible might say about itself is, “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then, I contradict myself. (I am large, I contain multitudes.)” Yes, the Bible is diverse. But not only is diversity consistent with contradiction, but contradictions make the Bible all the more diverse.

Behind Enns’ somewhat convoluted attempt to redefine ‘contradiction’ is an ongoing discourse with Jeffrey Stackert’s ideas about biblical composition. For Stackert, as Enns summarises, “the editors of the Old Testament aimed for ‘maximal preservation’ of traditions, even if they conflicted”. This point has been frequently made by many scholars, in particular in Pentateuchal studies. Jeffrey Tigay, for example, argues that the nature of the disunity of biblical texts is an indication that ‘the compilers preserved the variety and richness of ancient Israelite belief, tradition, law and literature.’[1] Adriane Leveen argues that the ‘seams’ in the Torah (the signs of disunity resulting from joining what were originally separate traditions) were not accidental, but placed there “to draw our attention precisely to the presence of distinct traditions”.[2] Jack Miles claims that the ancient biblical editor operated with a different aesthetic regarding the presence of inconsistency, and that ‘it didn’t bother him enough for him to eliminate’ the inconsistent results.[3] However, the fact that these ancient authors or editors wished to preserve sometimes contradictory traditions certainly does not negate the presence of contradiction. It just means, as Jack Miles put it, that “to some extent” the biblical editors “simply liked” the inconsistency. It seems that many modern readers (including inerrantists) may be more disturbed by certain contradictions in the Bible than were the very editors or authors of the Bible.

So what conclusions do we draw from this difference in narrative aesthetic between the ancient biblical authors and their inerrantist interpreters? Enns would do away with the term ‘contradiction’ itself, at least in his recent post. But I would argue that the opposite conclusion is warranted. First, we should expect logical contradictions in the Bible where the authors did not know or care about their existence or where they did not consider them to be contradictions. The biblical authors may have, as Stackert suggests, left the contradictions there because they wanted to preserve different traditions that they considered were each authoritative despite their differences. But these are, thereby, rightly regarded as contradictions. Second, it is correct to say something along the lines of ‘some of the contradictions in the Bible are there because the ancient author wanted them there to preserve tradition’. But from this, we cannot conclude that ‘if there is a contradiction in the Bible, the ancient author wanted it there to preserve tradition’. Sure, some contradictions in the Bible are a result of the ancient author’s desire to preserve authoritative tradition; but other contradictions are the result of disagreement or differences. So, for example, Daniel’s prediction that the reign of Antiochus Epiphanes would be followed by the resurrection of the dead, the final cosmic judgment of the righteous and the wicked, and the glorification of the righteous contradicts  known history (the world, it may be observed, continued in much the same way after 163 BCE). This is an external contradiction, not to be denied the term “contradiction” because the authors also wanted to preserve the tradition. As another example, Deuteronomy 12 and 16’s requirement for cult centralization of the Passover meal contradicts the requirement for eating the Passover meal in one’s house; it is an internal contradiction, i.e., one passage in the Bible contradicts another. As Bernard Levinson argues, the earlier Covenant Code is both drawn on in Deuteronomy 12/16 and also deliberately altered: “Is there not something of an impious fraud—of pecca fortiter!—in the literary accomplishment of the text’s authors?”[4] As one final example, discussed by Peter Enns in his subsequent post, the story of David and Goliath is riddled with contradictions; it is not simply the preservation of ‘two traditions’. In my earlier post setting out the inconsistencies between the two David and Goliath stories in 1 Samuel 16-18, I showed why the language of ‘contradiction’ deserves to be applied here.

Enns has, in the past, recognized these examples as “contradictions”.  For the reasons set out above, I argue that we should continue to refer to the Bible’s “contradictions”, in their various forms. To do so goes some way to recognize, rather than deny, the full diversity of the material that the Bible contains – contradictions included.

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[1] Tigay, Deuteronomy, 429.

[2] Leveen, ‘Reading the Seams’, 262; cf. Memory and Tradition, 22-23.

[3] Miles, ‘Radical Editing’, 27.

[4] Levinson, Deuteronomy and the Hermeneutics of Legal Innovation, 150.

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