On finding contradictions in Scripture, or not

Some people say that the Bible is full of contradictions. If they’re articulate enough, secular society considers them intellectually superior to people who simply believe the Bible as it is. And they certainly do, whether society does or not. I ought to know. I used to be one of them. Funny thing, though: the more I have studied the Bible, the harder it has become to find the contradictions. As much as I strive to be humble, I can’t help thinking that if everyone else studied the Bible in enough detail to understand what each author wanted to convey and the exact meaning of the words he used, they, too, would find it harder and harder to locate contradictions.

Here is a pair of scriptures that seem at first glance to be directly contradictory:

Do you see that faith was working together with his works, and by works faith was made perfect? And the Scripture was fulfilled which says, “Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.”And he was called the friend of God.You see then that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only. James 2:22-24 (NKJV)

What then shall we say that Abraham our father has found according to the flesh?For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.” Now to him who works, the wages are not counted as grace but as debt. But to him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness, just as David also describes the blessedness of the man to whom God imputes righteousness apart from works:
“ Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven,
And whose sins are covered;
Blessed is the man to whom the LORD shall not impute sin.” Romans 4:1-8 NKJV

The Epistle of James is one of the earliest writings of the New Testament. In fact, some scholars believe he wrote it on the basis of having heard disturbing things about what Paul was teaching to the Gentiles. After writing his letter, James presided at an important meeting, described in Acts 15, at which Paul presented his teaching. Peter spoke of his experience with Cornelius and, in v. 13, James sided with Peter and Paul against unnamed Pharisees that wanted to impose Jewish law on the Gentiles.

Later, as Paul describes in Galatians 2:7-12, Peter had taken meals with Gentiles in Antioch until “certain men came from James.” After that, he drew back from associating with Gentiles from fear of what this delegation might think of him. Paul rebuked him publicly. With this background, it appears that Paul and James are still not on the same page.

In the passage from Romans quoted earlier, Paul insists that Abraham was justified by faith, not works, at the time he believed God. Quoting exactly the same scripture, James insists that works perfected Abraham’s. A couple of verses later, he declares that faith without works is dead.

Torah, Cologne, Glockengasse

God's law is beautiful, but no one ever kept it well enough to become a good person.

Whoever bothers to study those passages in context will notice that Paul specifically means works of the law (especially circumcision) undertaken to make one acceptable to God and James specifically means works of charity and obedience that demonstrate the genuineness of faith. Neither teaches that anyone’s works make him good enough in God’s sight, and neither one teaches that works are unnecessary after coming to faith.

“Works” then, as the word appears in James, can be misleading, although both authors use the same Greek word to make their points. The NIV translates it in James as “deeds.” Both authors agree that Abraham’s faith can be traced to when his belief was reckoned to him as righteousness, but James points to a deed many years later that demonstrated his faith.

Regardless of how they might have disagreed personally on some points, where is the contradiction between the scriptures they wrote? If you still think you see one, go back and study the meaning of “works” in both contexts and then try to find any place where the one disagrees with the other’s meaning. You can’t. It isn’t there.

Photo credit:

Torah inside of the former Glockengasse Synagogue in Cologne Wikimedia Commons
Helping a stranger Some rights reserved by Ed Yourdon. I recommend clicking on his name to read his description of the scene–the kind of work James advocated.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *