All of us are tempted on occasion to approach biblical tensions—texts that seem to contradict each other—in flippant or offhand ways. At one end of the spectrum are skeptics who reduce tensions to textual incoherence and human invention. On the other are those with more evangelical commitments, who desperately trawl books and websites to harmonize mismatching texts. Once they find one, they sigh and move on as if the tension has nothing to teach us. The “problem” has been “resolved.”
But if we want to take Scripture seriously, we must ask why tensions exist in the first place. Why did the Holy Spirit—who inspired Scripture—cause these discrepant texts to be written? What do they reveal? And what might we lose if we “resolve” the problem? We are, after all, listening for the voice of God, not solving a puzzle.
Some examples are more obvious than others. The paradox of divine sovereignty and human responsibility is not meant to be resolved but rather retained. Scripture indicates that both God and we work in our salvation. Is God three or one? Yes. Should we or should we not answer a fool according to his folly? Yes (Prov. 26:4–5). We recognize these tensions, yet accept them as foundational to Christian faith.
Yet when it comes to historical discrepancies in the biblical text, we enter problem-solving mode. When we find that Jesus has two different genealogies, or that the wedding feast parable has two different endings, we forget that we are listening to a divinely orchestrated symphony. Instead of discerning the different parts of the various musicians, we try to force them to play the same note.
One of my favorite discrepancies is Jesus’ “mistake” ...