How Should We Handle Unresolved Questions About the Bible?

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APOSTOLIC FATHERS Lightfoot
Paul Copan (Ph.D., Philosophy, Marquette University) is a Christian theologian, analytic philosopher, apologist, and author. He is currently a professor at the Palm Beach Atlantic University

Because God is truthful, we can expect His written self-revelation (in the original manuscripts) to be truthful in what it affirms. But not everything in Scripture is perfectly clear. The Apostle Peter admitted that Paul’s writings are hard to understand in places (2 Pt 3:15–16). Besides sophisticated theological material, historical distance and cultural differences exist between the biblical world and our own. What was apparent to Israel and the early church may appear less clear to us today. Yet lack of clarity doesn’t equal discrepancy.

Some critics cite numerous “contradictions” that actually turn out to be resolvable upon examination. Because the Bible is both divinely inspired and a human work, we can expect (1) differing writing styles and personalities to be expressed in it, and (2) the use of earlier records or documents and material from writers outside the Bible (cp. Jos 10:13; 1 and 2 Ch; Lk 1:1–4). We shouldn’t require that biblical writers cite OT passages verbatim; they could generalize or summarize without being exact (e.g., what was said at Jesus’ baptism, Peter’s confession of Jesus, the placard on Jesus’ cross). And we don’t have the exact words Jesus spoke (which were mainly Aramaic, not Greek), though His voice does come through. These aren’t truly unresolved questions.

When discovering more challenging passages, though, how should we proceed?

  • Clarify a passage by examining its context or by using clear passages to examine the unclear. Context reveals that “justify” and “works” in James 2 mean something different than they do in Romans 3. Also, the teaching of the NT letters can help us distinguish between historical descriptions in Acts and what’s normative for church life.
  • Absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence. Skeptics may mention biblical cities that haven’t been discovered (though lots have been!), concluding that Scripture is unreliable. But earlier absence-of-evidence accusations regarding Abraham’s camels, the Hittite people, or the Davidic dynasty have been overturned by later archaeological discoveries, confirming Scripture.
  • Be charitable toward the author. Let’s take an example here. Proverbs 26:4–5 advises (1) not to answer a fool according to his folly and then (2) to answer him! The skeptic’s charge of “stupidity” or “contradiction” is unrealistic. Surely we should give the benefit of the doubt to the wise compiler of Proverbs: he recognized that sometimes answering a fool is appropriate and that at other times silence is the best choice.
  • What the Bible describes is often different from what it prescribes. Another example: while Scripture mentions Jephthah’s rash vow (Jdg 11), such a vow is not endorsed by God.
  • The author may be using a literary strategy, making a particular theological point, or just observing; journalistic precision isn’t always his concern. Matthew 8 and 9 intentionally cluster miracles together; it’s not chronological. Matthew highlights Peter’s importance, thus downplaying his blunders included in other Gospels. The two “great lights” of Genesis 1, namely the sun and moon, are relatively small luminaries compared to other bodies we now know about in the universe, but the Bible’s reference is observational, not scientific (cp. “sunset,” not “earthturn”).
  • We’ll have to be content to live with unanswered questions. Although there are many fine evangelical commentaries and scholars dealing with questions we may have, much will be hazy. We see through a glass darkly.

11:24 Jephthah’s appeal to the Ammonites’ belief in Chemosh does not indicate that he believed their deity was a real god on a level with the Lord God of Israel. It was, if not a sarcastic reference (see Dt 32:37), a use of their beliefs to argue his point—the Israelites owned the land because the God of Israel was stronger than the god of Ammon, as shown by His previous defeat of that god (11:13–23). In biblical times, people considered battles to be fought primarily between gods; the nation winning in battle was thought to have the stronger god. Jephthah was laying out the issue in terms the Ammonites could understand. The authors of Scripture clearly taught that there was, and is, only one true God (2 Ch 15:3; Jr 10:10; Jn 17:3; 1 Th 1:9).

11:29–31 How could Jephthah make such a rash vow if the Spirit of the Lord had come upon him? Even though the Holy Spirit may guide an individual, that person retains the freedom to follow or reject the Spirit’s leading. Jephthah apparently chose to act on his own in this case and, in his exuberance, uttered an unwise vow (Pr 20:25; Ec 5:2–4). The Spirit’s guidance may have related solely to Jephthah’s activities as a judge (e.g., leading God’s people into battle; Jdg 11:29–33) and not to his private life (vv. 30–31). Other Israelites (e.g., Samson, Saul, and David) experienced the anointing of the Holy Spirit to be leaders of God’s people (13:25; 14:6, 19; 15:14; 1 Sam 10:10; 11:6; 16:13), but failed in various aspects of their personal lives (Jdg 14:1–3; 16:1; 1 Sm 13:9–13; 2 Sm 11:2–4).

11:34–39 According to vv. 30–31, Jephthah paid his vow to the Lord. He offered Him the first thing that came out of his house to greet him after the battle—his beloved daughter. Did Jephthah literally sacrifice his daughter as a burnt offering to the Lord, or did he dedicate her to temple service? Until the Middle Ages, interpreters generally held to the first possibility. Subsequently both views have had their advocates. A difficulty with the former view is that God abhors human sacrifice (Jr 32:35); as for the latter view, there is no direct biblical evidence of a group committed to lifelong virginity serving the Lord at the temple in Shiloh. The plain reading of the text supports the conclusion that Jephthah did, in fact, offer his daughter as a burnt offering to the Lord, as great an abomination as that would have been. This did not mean that the Lord accepted or approved of that offering (Is 1:10–15; Am 5:22).

AN ENCOURAGING THOUGHT_01

12:6 Since the Ephraimites and the Gileadites were similar in their ethnic backgrounds, the Gileadites devised a pronunciation test whereby they could identify their enemies. Once the identification was made, the Gileadites killed the Ephraimites not because of their speech but because the Ephraimites had made themselves enemies of the Gileadites (v. 1). Considering that the Ephraimites were panicked with no easy escape routes, and considering that huge lopsided losses were not unheard of in biblical times, the figure of 42,000 is not an implausible number of deaths. The author did not state specifically, however, that the Gileadites administered the pronunciation test to all 42,000 people. The word “shibboleth” became proverbial, in English as a term referring to a test of acceptable practice and belief, much as the term “litmus test” has come to be used.

INVESTIGATING JEHOVAH'S WITNESSES REVIEWING 2013 New World Translation

13:1 The author linked the concept of doing evil to both the rejection of the true God and the worship of false gods (2:11; 3:17; 10:6; cp. Dt 12:29–31).

13:2–5 The fact the author mentions Samson’s father’s name (Manoah) 18 times but does not mention his mother’s name even once is no indication that the Bible considers women to be less important than men (cp. 1:11–15). Lineage in ancient Israel was established through the male side of the family, not the female side. The mention of Samson’s mother in these verses, however, is not a detail incidental to the story but integral to it; her role is as significant as that of her husband. The Angel of the Lord appeared to her twice (13:3, 9) before encountering her husband for the first time (v. 11), and performed the same number of miracles for both of them (13:19–20). The author, moreover, depicts Samson’s mother as demonstrating better reasoning skills than her husband (vv. 22–23). This theme—the barren wife who, through the Lord’s intervention, bears a son who plays a significant role in the history of the people of God—occurs several times in Scripture; Sarah (Gn 17:19), Hannah (1 Sm 1:19–20) and Elizabeth (Lk 1:13) are notable.

13:4 Manoah’s wife was told that her son must not use wine or other alcoholic beverages. The Lord is not condemning the drinking of wine altogether (cp. 9:13); the prohibition was part of the Nazirite vow (Nm 6:1–20). This instance of the Nazirite vow is unique, in that the Lord established it for a human being before that person was born (Jdg 13:5), and required the mother to participate in certain of the injunctions of that vow while the child was in her womb.

13:5 The Apostle Paul (1 Co 11:14) established the general principle that men’s hair was to be kept shorter than women’s. The Nazirite vow prohibited the cutting of hair, but this was a temporary practice for the purpose of exhibiting a certain devotion to the Lord. The varying directives are no indication that God was contradicting Himself.

Above by Paul Copan

The Apologetics Study Bible: Real Questions, Straight Answers, Stronger Faith, ed. Ted Cabal et al. (Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers, 2007), 382–385.

In short, there are no contradictions, errors, or mistakes in the Bible, but there are Bible difficulties. Basically, Bible Difficulties are difficulties that arise because the Bible was written in Hebrew, some Aramaic, and Greek over 1,600 years by some forty+ authors, in dozens of different historical settings that require much Bible background knowledge. The above is not enough to satisfy a doubting or an unbeliever; you need a basic understanding of what they are, how to explain them, how to approach them, procedures for dealing with them, and how you should view them, as well as some examples. – Edward D. Andrews

APOSTOLIC FATHERS Lightfoot APOSTOLIC FATHERS

By R. A. Torrey; Updated By Edward D. Andrews

Honestly

Reuben Archer Torrey (1856 – 1928) was an American evangelist, Christian Apologist, pastor, educator, and author.

Whenever you find a difficulty in the Bible, frankly, acknowledge it. Do not try to obscure it. Do not try to dodge it. Look it square in the face. Admit it openly and honestly to whoever mentions it. If you cannot give a good, square, honest explanation, do not attempt any at all. In their zeal for the infallibility of the Bible, those who have attempted explanations of difficulties that do not commend themselves to the honest, fair-minded man have done untold harm. People have concluded that if these are the best explanations, there are really no explanations. And the Bible, instead of being helped, has been injured by the unintelligent zeal of foolish friends. Suppose you are not really convinced that the Bible is the Word of God. In that case, you can far better afford to wait for a real solution to a difficulty than you can afford to attempt a solution that is evasive and unsatisfactory.

Young Christians

Humbly

Recognize the limitations of your own mind and knowledge, and do not for a moment imagine that there is no solution, just because you have found none. There is, in all probability, a straightforward answer, even when you can find no solution at all.

Determinedly

Make up your mind that you will find the solution if you can by buying out a respectable amount of study time and complex thinking. The difficulties of the Bible are our heavenly Father’s challenge to us to set our brains to work. Do not give up searching for a solution because you cannot find it in five minutes or ten minutes. Ponder over it and work over it for days if necessary. The work will be more beneficial than the solution does. There is a solution somewhere, and you will find it if you only search for it long enough and hard enough.

THE NEW TESTAMENT DOCUMENTS

Fearlessly

Do not be frightened when you find a difficulty, no matter how unanswerable or how insurmountable it appears at first sight. Thousands of men have encountered just such difficulties, and still, the old Book has withstood the test of time, being the bestseller that will never be touched, in the untold billions of copies. The Bible that has stood eighteen centuries of rigid examination and incessant and awful assault is not likely to go down before your discoveries or before the discharges of any modern critical guns. To one who is at all familiar with the history of critical attacks on the Bible, the confidence of those contemporary critics who think they are going to annihilate the Bible, at last, is simply amusing.

Jesus Paul THE EVANGELISM HANDBOOK

Patiently

Do not be discouraged because you do not solve every problem in a day. If some difficulty persistently defies your very best efforts at a solution, lay it aside for a while. Later it will likely be resolved, and you will wonder how you were ever perplexed by it.

Scripturally

Nothing explains Scripture like Scripture. If you find a difficulty in one part of the Bible, look for another Scripture to throw light upon it and dissolve it. People repeatedly came to me with some problem in the Bible that had greatly staggered them and asked for a solution. I have given a reasonable, rational answer by simply asking them to read some other chapter and verse, and the simple reading of that scripture has thrown such light upon the passage in question that all the mists have disappeared. The truth has shone as clear as day.

REASONABLE FAITH FEARLESS-1

Prayerfully

It is simply incredible how difficulties dissolve when one looks at them on his knees. Not only does God open our eyes in answer to prayer to behold beautiful things out of His Word, but He also opens our eyes to look straight through a difficulty that seemed impenetrable before we prayed. Remember, this is no miracle, planting the answer to the Bible difficulty in your mind. It is you buying out the time to research in the Bible and Bible study tools while the Holy Spirit guides (not inspires) you along, and at some point, the light will come on for you. One great reason why many modern Bible scholars have learned to be destructive critics is that they have forgotten how to pray. Please see,

THE POWERFUL WEAPON OF PRAYER: A Healthy Prayer Life by Edward D. Andrew

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