Friday, April 12, 2013

Bible Contradictions - What's a Contradiction, Anyway?

We've all heard the charge that the Bible is full of contradictions. It seems easy to level the charge of "contradiction" at a passage or two that seem to be talking about the same thing, but don't match. However, a contradiction is a very specific thing, and many times people just don't understand what must happen in order for one statement to be considered a contradiction to another. Simply put, a contradiction means that someone is making a nonsense claim. They are saying something that cannot possibly be true. If a statement does have the ability to be true given additional information, then the statement isn't really a contradiction.

This may seem a little confusing, but let me clarify what I mean. Luckily this area has been very well travelled in the study of logic, so we have a solid foundation from where we can base our definition.  The Law of Non-Contradiction is one of the Three Standard Laws of Thought that Professor Ed L. Miller notes that all rational thinking has at its basis. 1 These laws are so simple that they will seem self-evident, even to anyone who hasn't studies critical thinking or philosophy. In fact, Miller says that without these three laws thought and discourse would be impossible.  Without them, "nothing we think or say makes any sense, not even this very sentence."

The first law is the Law of Identity, which simply means that a thing is equal to itself. If I have four children then it is true that I have four children.  The Law of Identity is used to understand different terms that always refer to the same thing.  For example, an unmarried man is a bachelor.  Bachelors and unmarried males are different phrases that refer to the exact same property some men have, so any time I use the word bachelor, I can substitute "unmarried man" and it doesn't change them meaning at all. Another example is "God is divine". If we understand the word "divine" to mean pertaining to God, then the sentence just repeats itself; it says the same thing twice. This Law may seem pretty silly, but you'll see how important it is as we come to the next one.

The Second Law is the one that gets to the heart of what we're trying to understand: the Law of Non-Contradiction. The Law of Non-Contradiction says that a thing cannot be and not be at the same time and in the same respect. Using our example above, if it is true that I have four children, then it cannot be true that I do not have four children at the same time and in the same manner.  Bachelors cannot be unmarried AND married at the same time. God cannot be both divine and not divine at the same time if we're using the word divine to mean the same thing.

You see, the Law of Non-Contradiction draws the line between true and false statements.  Look at the statement "Jesus is God."  It would make no sense to say "Jesus is God therefore Jesus cannot be divine."  Because of the Law of Identity above, we can see that this statement is really speaking nonsense.  Jesus either is God or He isn't. If He is God, then He's divine.  He can't be both divine and not-divine at the same time. 

The third law is known as the Law of Excluded Middle, and it simply means you have to choose a side.  Jesus is either divine or he isn't. Since the Law of Non-Contradiction says he cannot be both then when you have two contradictory statements, you cannot hold to both claims.  You must choose one and forfeit the other.

However, note that the Law of Non-Contradiction does specify that we must be talking about the same time and mean the same thing when we point to a claim as contradictory – and this is where most of our critics get into trouble.  The claim must be talking about the same time and the same manner or respect. If I travel to New York and pick up a post card for my wife, I'll write on the back "I'm in New York!" and drop it in the mail box.  If I fly home the next day, I'll beat that postcard to my home.  When my wife does receive the card, she's not going to say "this is a contradiction – you're right here!" It isn't contradictory since the statement was written when I actually was in New York.   Similarly, if I'm daydreaming about Tahiti while at my desk in Southern California, I may say "I'm not really here; I'm in Tahiti right now." Again, this isn't a contradiction since I'm using the words "not really here" to talk about a mental state, not a physical presence. So in order for something to be contradiction, it must hold to two opposing claims that mean the same thing at the same time.


1. Miller, Ed. L. Questions That Matter: An Invitation to Philosophy. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1996. p.32


  1. RE: "Jesus either is God or He isn't. If He is God, then He's divine. He can't be both divine and not-divine at the same time."

    In most Christian theology, Jesus is both fully God and fully man. To say, as you do, that Jesus is divine-only is to deny the theology of your belief system, that Jesus was also fully man. Jesus the God is immortal and can't die. Jesus the man supposedly died on the cross and rose again. God's can die and rise again.

    Jesus is said to be a god-man. That's the nonsense of Christian theology.

  2. RE: "Jesus either is God or He isn't. If He is God, then He's divine. He can't be both divine and not-divine at the same time."

    If Jesus is God, and God is immortal (can't die), then how did a god die on the cross and then come back to life?

  3. Bernie,

    Jesus being God and man simultaneously would only be a logical contradiction if they are categorically same natures.
    This dichotomy is seen throughout Scripture, particularly in
    regard to human beings.

    Romans chapter 8 discusses in some detail this division
    and even draws a relation to Jesus Christ.
    I believe I am a being possessing two parts.
    A physical body, and a spiritual component which is immaterial.

    Jesus said to His disciples "the spirit is indeed willing,
    but the flesh is weak." Is this a logical contradiction?
    No, because it references two separate natures existing in man.

    The Athanasian Creed offers an analogy by saying
    "As a rational soul and flesh are one man,
    so God and man are one Christ."

    Jesus said "Ye are from beneath; I am from above: ye are of this world; I am not of this world."
    This obviously does not apply to the human nature which
    He willingly inherited by birth.

    But then He makes statements like
    "But of that day and hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels of heaven, but my Father only," which clearly make no
    sense when applied to His divine nature.

    Philippians teaches this concept quite clearly.
    For the law of non-contradiction to be in effect,
    we have to be referring to the selfsame object or person
    to which we are applying the law.
    Which is exactly what this article says in its last

  4. RE: "Philippians teaches this concept quite clearly."

    Not at all. If Jesus put aside some of his god attributes, then he was no longer fully God. Are you prepared to say Jesus was not fully God?

    Philippians 2:5-7
    New International Version (NIV)
    5 In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:

    6 Who, being in very nature[a] God,
    did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
    7 rather, he made himself nothing
    by taking the very nature[b] of a servant,
    being made in human likeness.

    But Jesus did use his god-powers in the miracles he did... so this passage is meaningless.

    1. Bernie,

      When Jesus "put aside" certain attributes, He was not getting rid of those attributes, merely not using them. It is like on the TV show "Undercover Boss", in which leaders of companies willingly forego using the power they have over the company to learn how things are working throughout the company. They still have the power, but they do not use it.

      God does know everything that is happening, so that is one way the analogy falls apart. However, Jesus did not use His power during His ministry. Instead, to set the sample for His followers - Christians - He relied on the power of the third Person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit, to perform miracles.

      "That word, I say, ye know, which was published throughout all Judaea, and began from Galilee, after the baptism which John preached;

      How God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Ghost and with power: who went about doing good, and healing all that were oppressed of the devil; for God was with him."
      Acts 10:37-38

      While He could have used His power, He lived as one of us and in such a way that we could follow His example of relying on the Holy Spirit.

      Therefore, He was still fully divine while also fully human.