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Why Scriptures Sometimes Contradict Each Other and What to Do When That Happens

How do we react when someone uses the scriptures as a weapon? And how do we overcome the contradictions we find in the scriptures? Read on for powerful insights from LDS scholars Fiona and Terryl Givens.

The Use and Abuse of Scriptures

The root of the word canon suggests a standard of measurement. A canon represents a rule or guide that is authoritative, especially in matters of spiritual life. Church laws and statutes are part of “canon law,” and by “the canon” we understand a set of holy books. The original meaning of authoritative rule or teaching persists in the equivalent expression, the standard works. In discipleship, the canon is what we measure ourselves by. The scriptures, said Paul to Timothy, are given for “correction” and “instruction in righteousness.”1 They are likened by the Psalmist to a lamp that illuminates, that lights our path.2 Scriptures beckon, inspire, and edify.

A cannon is a different thing altogether.

The etymology of cannon refers to a large barrel or tube through which objects are propelled to deadly effect. It can be used offensively or defensively, but it is a weapon, meant to bludgeon into submission. Some people use the scriptural canon with the first meaning in mind. And some with the second.

Henry VIII saw “cannon” when he read “canon”; he used the scriptures rather more as a weapon than as a spiritual guide. Henry’s brother, Prince Arthur, died months after his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. For reasons of political expediency, it was thought a good idea for Henry, next in line to the throne, to marry Arthur’s widow—but it was against church law for a man to marry his brother’s widow. So the Tudors petitioned the Pope for a dispensation, or an exemption from the rule. They had a useful scripture to suit their purposes: The Deuteronomic law had stipulated that “If brethren dwell together, and one of them die, . . . her husband’s brother shall . . . take her to him to wife.”3 The dispensation was granted, and Henry married Catherine.

Some years later, Henry had tired of his wife, who had failed in any case to produce the desired heir he needed to ensure a smooth succession and stabilize the kingdom. So, Henry petitioned the Pope for an annulment. Once again, he found a perfect scripture to suit his purpose. Leviticus 18 had commanded that “thou shalt not uncover the nakedness of thy brother’s wife,”4 which most commentators took to mean, you shall not wed your brother’s widow.

For the next several years, bishops, lawyers, theologians, and king’s counselors furiously contended over the contradictory biblical verses. The kingdom was roiled, the church was riven, and heads rolled. What is clear amidst the havoc that followed is that the king was not—in the case of his marriage to Catherine or in the case of his petition for divorce—using the Bible as a spiritual guide. He was using it as a weapon to justify his dynastic—and amorous—interests. Cannon, not canon, was the operative term, and armed with his scriptural arsenal he blasted his way to ecclesiastical supremacy and a new marriage to Anne Boleyn.

Contradiction in Scriptures

This would not be the first or the last time that competing scriptural injunctions led to fractures in Christendom. The logic of the Reformation spearheaded by Martin Luther had depended in large measure on perceived discrepancies between Paul and James. Seeing that the Bible was not always in harmony with itself, Luther admonished his readers to “discriminate between all the books and decide which are the best.”5 He ranked Paul higher than James, which is why he made the words of the former, “The just shall live by faith,” the theological foundation for the Reformation he launched.6 Considering the letter of James to be an epistle full “of straw” by comparison made it easier to downplay that apostle’s claim that “faith without works is dead.”7

As individuals, we also are apt to use the canon as a cannon. We invoke the stripling warriors of Helaman and the iron rod of Lehi’s vision to ground our own version of unflinching obedience. Or we invoke the lessons of the Liahona to support our more spontaneous and flexible approach to gospel living. In America, some Mormons find Jesus’ ministry to the downtrodden and King Benjamin’s words about withholding judgment but not relief from the beggar to be apt endorsement of their preferred political policies. At the other end of the spectrum, some invoke the war in heaven fought over agency and consider the Mormon ethic of self-reliance to be adequate support for a different political outlook. Or, sometimes individuals even employ the cannon against the canon, citing inconsistencies and imperfections in the record as grounds for nonbelief in the principle of inspiration, one’s faith tradition, or even God.

This is lamentable, but fully understandable. Some are dismayed that a supposedly loving God is sometimes portrayed in scripture as wrathful, vindictive, and unfair. They might quote verses to their purposes, invoking the Lord’s own words regarding persecutors of the Saints: “Cursed are all those that shall lift up the heel against mine anointed. . . . They shall not have right to the priesthood, nor their posterity after them from generation to generation.”8 What kind of a God, one might protest, punishes children for unrighteous ancestors? Searching for a God who is merciful and just, others would point to verse 20 of the “cursing,” which notes that “they themselves shall be despised by those that flattered them,” indicating that God is describing the natural consequences of a life of perfidy, not acting as an agent of retribution.

Similarly, some may point to Christ turning over the tables of the money changers to support a view that even Jesus showed moments of wrath. But then, one might note in the same story that only “when he had made a scourge of small cords” did He disrupt the commerce taking place. John adds the detail, one can reasonably infer, to indicate Christ’s perfect control and considered response rather than impulsive rage.9

These examples suggest that many scriptural contradictions are only apparent, evaporating upon closer or more contextualized reading. But other examples, like those employed by King Henry, are more resistant to reconciliation. God is not a man that He should “change his mind,” we read in Numbers 23:19 (NRSV). But a few books later, Jeremiah insists that if the people repent, “the Lord will change his mind” (Jeremiah 26:13, NRSV). Judas hangs himself in Matthew, but he falls headlong and dies in Acts. Jehoiachin was 18 years old when he began to reign according to one chronicler, but 8 years old according to another. “Answer a fool according to his folly,” we are admonished in one Proverb; but another verse had already instructed us, “Answer not a fool according to his folly.”10

Using the Holy Ghost and Discernment

The question is, what do we do with these internal scriptural contradictions? Joseph Smith was speaking in relative terms when he said the Book of Mormon was the “most correct book.” Even in that scriptural record, Nephi reminded readers that if he erred as author, so “did they err of old.”11 And the other scriptures would presumably be “less correct” if the Book of Mormon were “the most correct.” If the Bible is only the word of God “as far as it is translated correctly,” then clearly it is not the word of God in every aspect of its present form. If many “plain and precious things” were removed,12 then many plain and precious things are missing. And as nature abhors a vacuum, it is likely those gaps were filled with things that are neither plain nor precious. Joseph Smith said the Song of Solomon did not constitute “inspired writings” and urged his listeners to use discretion, wisdom, and inspiration in how they read the scriptures. On the other hand, one of Joseph’s revelations encouraged Latter-day Saints to study the Apocrypha, because “there are many things contained therein that are true.”13

“Some will say, the scriptures say so & so,” he told a large congregation with some impatience. But “I have the oldest Book in the world [the Bible] & the Holy Ghost I thank God for the old Book but more for the Holy Ghost. . . . If ye are not led by revelation how can ye escape the damnation of Hell.”14

One lesson Latter-day Saints should take from all this is the greater responsibility to model Joseph’s practice of combining spiritual guidance with intellectual effort to discern the Divine voice. In searching the scriptures, we should expect to find pearls amidst the detritus of the centuries. It is certainly the case, as many troubled readers have noticed, that in the five books of Moses and elsewhere, some portions of scripture portray a kinder, gentler God, while others depict a God who orders wholesale slaughter of non-Israelites. Contradictions in the text are not contradictions in the nature of God Himself, and readers must spiritually discern for themselves the reason for the inconsistencies. As Joseph Smith said, “many things in the scriptures . . . do not, as they now stand, accord with the revelation of the Holy Ghost to me.”15 Specifically, that revelation included a clearer picture of the true nature of God, which early Church leaders called absolutely “necessary in order that any rational and intelligent being may exercise faith in God unto life and salvation.”16 It is striking that scholars too find very different conceptions of Deity coming from different sections and passages of the Old Testament. Some are much closer than others to the weeping God revealed to Enoch.

For instance, the biblical scholar Richard Elliott Friedman notes that “probably the most remarkable difference of all” in disparate passages “is their different ways of picturing God.” Some depict “a deity who can regret things that he has done ([Gen.] 6:6, 7), . . . a deity who can be ‘grieved to his heart’ (6:6). . . . This anthropomorphic quality . . . is virtually entirely lacking in other passages.”17 The great Jewish scholar Abraham Heschel similarly finds moments when a God of empathy and vulnerability shines through the text. This is the God who says of sorrowing Israel, not simply “I know their sufferings,” as the inadequate translation renders it, but “I have sympathy for, I am affected by, their sufferings.”18 Rather than surrendering to the varying moments of tension and disagreement in the scriptural record, it might be well to remember Jesus’s reproof of His contemporaries. We need to search the scriptures in the company of the Holy Ghost. Reading them merely is insufficient to reveal the portions that most truly testify of Christ and His Father.

In sum, disciples might do well to avoid the bibliolatry that characterizes scripture as unerring truth. Parley Pratt made this point himself in The Fountain of Knowledge, a small pamphlet he wrote in 1844. With elegant metaphor, he noted that scripture resulted from revelatory process and was thus the product of revealed truth, not the other way around. We do well to look to a stream for nourishing water, but we do better to secure the fountain. That fountain, Pratt noted, is “the gift of revelation,” which “the restoration of all things” heralds.19 Or, in George MacDonald’s metaphor, we should hold the scriptures as “the moon of our darkness, . . . not dear as the sun towards which we haste.”20

Overcoming Dissonance and Distress

Biblical inconsistencies, common sense, the Book of Mormon’s own words, and Joseph Smith’s remarks on the subject make it difficult for Mormons to be strict scriptural literalists. The reason for scriptural imperfection should be obvious: scripture comes to us through human conduits. The Doctrine and Covenants defines scripture as that which is spoken by godly people “as they are moved upon by the Holy Ghost.”21 This does not suggest a process by which a prophet invariably takes dictation as the Lord verbally recites a set of verses. The variety of prophetic utterance, the assortment of genres and categories, the array of circumstances and conditions under which scripture came to be recorded and canonized admit of no such simplistic view. God may have written with His finger on Mt. Sinai, but it is Paul who writes a formal epistle to saints in Corinth. Court chroniclers record the details of the reigns of Jewish rulers. Psalmists record poetic words of celebration and praise. Nephi relates his family history. Joseph Smith writes a personal letter filled with pain and yearning from a Missouri jail cell. All partake in varying degrees of heavenly inspiration; all bear the human traces of those who felt the Spirit move upon them; all are filtered through an individual’s mind and cultural environment.

“The things of God are of deep import, and time, and experience, and careful, and solemn, and ponderous thoughts can only find them out,” Joseph said.22 He was willing to put in the time, and the painstaking effort, to understand the things of God. He studied German so he could read Luther’s superb translation of the scriptures. He studied Hebrew so he could get closer to the original text of the Old Testament. Notwithstanding his calling as a seer, he labored to understand Egyptian as he worked his way through the papyri that led to his production of the Book of Abraham.

All of which is to say, we need to search the scriptures and rely upon the Spirit to discern the true God and His true nature. When dissonance and distress set in, we should trust in the Spirit to find the hidden God of scripture, the One who knows us by name, who weeps with us in our pain, and who has graven us on the palms of His hands.


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Faith is the first principle of the gospel of Jesus Christ. So what happens when a person has doubts?

Questioning is not the problem, according to authors Terryl and Fiona Givens. “After all,” they write, “the Restoration unfolded because a young man asked questions.” The difficulty arises when questions are based on flawed assumptions or incorrect perceptions, which can “point us in the wrong direction, misdirect our attention, or constrain the answers we are capable of hearing.”

The Crucible of Doubt: Reflections on the Quest for Faith offers a careful, intelligent look at doubt—at some of its common sources, the challenges it presents, and the opportunities it may open up in a person’s quest for faith. Whether you struggle with your own doubts or mostly want to understand loved ones who question, you will appreciate this candid discussion. You’ll come away feeling more certain than ever of the Lord’s love for all of His children.


Notes

1. 2 Timothy 3:16.

2. See Psalm 119:105.

3. Deuteronomy 25:5.

4. Leviticus 18:16.

5. Martin Luther: Selections from His Writings (New York: Random House, 2011), 18.

6. Romans 1:17.

7. James 2:20.

8. D&C 121:16, 21.

9. John 2:15.

10. See also 1 Chronicles 21:15; Jonah 3:10, NRSV; Matthew 27:5; Acts 1:18; 2 Kings 24:8; 2 Chronicles 36:9; Proverbs 26:5; 26:4; emphasis added.

11. 1 Nephi 19:6.

12. 1 Nephi 13:28.

13. D&C 91:1.

14. Andrew F. Ehat and Lyndon W. Cook, eds., The Words of Joseph Smith: The Contemporary Accounts of the Nauvoo Discourses of the Prophet Joseph Smith (Orem, Utah: Grandin, 1994), 345.

15. Ehat and Cook, eds., Words, 211.

16. Lectures on Faith (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1985), 38.

17. Richard Elliott Friedman, Who Wrote the Bible? (New York: Harper & Row, 1989), 59–60.

18. Abraham J. Heschel, The Prophets (New York: Harper and Row, 1962), 57. Heschel is here citing Exodus 3:7.

19. “The Fountain of Knowledge,” in An appeal to the inhabitants of the state of New York (Nauvoo, Illinois: John Taylor, 1844), 17.

20. George MacDonald, “The Higher Faith,” in Unspoken Sermons (Whitehorn, California: Johannesen, 2004), 37.

21. D&C 68:3.

22. Joseph Smith, 25 March 1839, in Manuscript History of the Church (Church History Library), C-1, 907.

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