Preliminary Thoughts about Tensions in Scripture
- It seems to me that I and most other Christians are sometimes uncomfortable with certain passages of Scripture. This discomfort comes from the seeming contradiction or tensions when certain verses are compared with others. With a faithful commitment to the absolute inerrancy of the Bible, I want to understand how to reconcile all the statements God has given.
- Zoology would move at a slow pace if we could not first acknowledge the existence and identify the presence of new animals, and that seems like a wise first step in the Bible as well.
- I have tried to phrase these “tensions” using, as much as possible, Scriptural terms. Every time I substitute one of my terms for an inspired term, I am a slight step further into my own mind.
- Is a list like this a step toward heresy or Barthian neo-orthodoxy? These tensions can and should be explained as beautiful, complimentary, important revelations from God. They do not ultimately contradict, but they may appear so to us because we are ignorant, stubborn, or small. Christian truth can and must be stated in propositions. God has spoken in perfect Words. And pastors and fathers must labor to be able to explain these teachings with wisdom, consistency, and persuasion.
- Why make a list like this? The importance of this list lies in humbling us when we think we know more than we do, in inspiring us to study in areas where we had been negligent, and in measuring the force which we place on each judgment both of our conclusions and in the treatment of those who treat the tensions differently.
Categories of Tensions in Scripture
- God works on earth by immediate, powerful demonstrations of grace (Acts 4:4) as well as slow, steady steps of commitment (Matt. 13:31-33).
- Church discipline in its final form marks the man as an unbeliever (Matt. 18:17), but there is also a place for a man to be disciplined by the church and yet still keep his Christian designation (2 Thess. 3:15).
- We are saved by faith alone (Rom. 4:5), but we are also saved by faith and works (James 2:24).
- The Kingdom of God is a present experience for believers, but it is also a future expectation.
- God is entirely separate from His Creation, yet He is known by terms of Creation such as Father, Rock, Strength, Light, and Song.
- There is only one God (1 Cor. 8:4), but there are also many gods (1 Cor. 8:5).
- God ordains all things (Eph. 1:11), and yet man is entirely and justly responsible for his actions (Ez. 18:4).
- All believers are saints who have been changed and made holy (1 Cor. 1:2-8), and yet they are still great sinners (Psalm 130:3; 1 Tim. 1:15).
- The Law is holy, righteous, good, and spiritual (Rom. 7:12, 14, 16), but Christians are dead to it, delivered from it, and not under it’s authority (Rom. 7:4; 6:14-15).
- Christians are called to a humility that regards others as more important, neglects their own personal interests (Phil. 2:3-4), denies their own desires (Luke 9:23), follows the lowly pattern of slaves (Luke 17:9-10), and assumes the worst of their own fleshly impulses (Rom. 7:14-21); and yet they must be bold for the truth, confident in the divine grace that has been given to them, and able to see their own spiritual maturity (Gal. 6:1-5). God’s children must be like Paul who said he was the least and unfit and yet also worked more than any others (1 Cor. 15:9-10).
- Only God saves men (Jonah 2:9), but Christians can save men (Rom. 11:14; 1 Cor. 9:22).
- Faith in Christ is the sole requirement for salvation (Acts 16:30-31), but He only saves those who eagerly watch for Him (Heb. 9:28).
- God is love (1 John 4:16), and yet He has prepared eternal torment (Matt. 25:41).
- We gain assurance of salvation by looking at Christ (1 John 2:1-2), but we gain assurance of salvation by obeying His laws (1 John 2:3-4).
- Christians should fear God because of His authority to cast into Hell (Luke 12:4-5), and yet Christians have been saved from God’s wrath and do not need to fear (1 Thess. 5:9; 2 Tim. 1:7).
- Christ died for all men in the world (1 John 2:2), and Christ died for His sheep not the goats (John 10:11).
- The Church is victorious in this present age (Matt. 16:18), and yet the Church is struggling (Matt. 24:12).
Principles for Interpreting Tensions in Scripture
- Aware: We must be aware that these tensions exist and slowly place each verse in its appropriate category as we continue to read Scripture. If our minds are like storehouses, then we need to prepare shelves with fitting labels and then place individual verses on the right shelves.
- Interpret: We must arm ourselves with the phrase “in one sense” and then practice explaining the individual “senses” or perspectives as we read Scripture and discover verses that present some tension with another verse.
- Listen: We must listen to others in the most patient way, placing ourselves in their shoes so that our listening will really be a fulfilling of the law of love and not merely an exercise in catching them for using the wrong words. Some do not yet know the best words even though they carry the best meanings, and it is Christian love to see this.
- Meaning: We must understand the real doctrines and meanings at stake in each of these revelations so that we will be able to find and expose false doctrine when it really crosses the line from being a valid or clumsy statement of truth into an error or false teaching. Both the skill of exegesis and familiarity with church history are the best guardrails to keep us on the right path.
- Acceptance: We must not only not be afraid of any of the truths stated by these tensions, but we must love both sides of the truths stated herein because it so pleased God to reveal His mind in these ways that to us seem hard or complicated. If He saw these specific words as the best possible words to us in the setting forth of these realities, then let us happily approve of these words and use them.