“The ultimate question is whether the doctrine of the goodness of God or that of the inerrancy of Scriptures is to prevail when they conflict.” CSL, Letters
Suppose you read something in the letters of Paul that conveys a meaning in your mind equivalent to “such and such is good.” Suppose also that through your reading of Christ and your own intuitive notion of Goodness – that God-given part of your conscience which tells you the difference between right and wrong – your mind tells you “such and such is not good.” What do you do?
This post is not an attempt to answer whether or not the Bible contains contradictory statements or errors, nor to point out examples of what such things may be. I want only this hypothetical situation by itself – without any unnecessary attachments – in order to drive home my point, which is this: no matter what we do about apparent discrepancies in Scripture, what we cannot do is accept something that plainly contradicts our innate intuitions of Good and Evil.
Thus my post has nothing to do with apparent discrepancies in the Bible regarding historical facts, such as whether or not Judas hanged himself, or fell off a cliff, or did both. Rather, my point only applies to teachings which themselves reflect on and carry implications regarding the moral nature of God. (I cannot see how whether the armies in the Old Testament had X number of soldiers or Y would bear on God’s moral nature.)
Let us then go back to my initial hypothetical. Let us suppose Scripture says – which it in fact does say – that God is light, and in him there is no darkness at all. Furthermore let us suppose that the Bible says that God is love, desires all to be saved, that he takes no delight in the death of the wicked, and that he is the universal Father who causes it to rain on the just and unjust alike. The philosophically minded Christians have summarized these positive attributes by saying that God is “perfect goodness” or “the Good” as such. For God to be God he must be a morally perfect being in whom there is no imperfection, or else there would be some imaginably better being who would himself be God. And, though such philosophical language is not explicitly found in the Bible itself, there are few who would disagree with calling God a “maximally, morally perfect, personal being.”
So there we have on one hand one Scriptural piece of data – God’s absolute loveliness and perfection. But let us suppose, on the other hand, that we read a passage in Scripture which seems to imply some attribute of God that is inconsistent with moral perfection. Suppose, hypothetically, we were to read “God delights in torturing the innocent and extracting pain from the defenseless.” Now, of course there is no such verse in the Bible. But again I want this hypothesis in front of the mind only to bring out my point, which is this.
If we cannot answer what we would do in the face of such a glaring contradiction, we cannot really know the true God, if he is good.
What do I mean? I mean that, if we throw up our hands and say that God is “beyond our categories of Good and Evil” any time an apparent contradiction emerges in the Bible, and if God is in fact Good and not Evil – that is, if we really can apply these categories to him – then we have forfeited the only real tool we have for knowing him in the first place. For if God really is Good and not Evil, then certain things will be true of him and false of him. He will not delight in suffering for instance. But, if we say that we cannot “really” know God’s nature and if it is what we mean by Good, then, if God were in fact really Good, we would be paralyzed from saying anything true about him. Therefore we would be incapable of growing in our knowledge about him too. To learn what something is like is to be able to form some positive conception about that thing – to be able to make statements that are true and deny things that are false about it. The one who has met the new boss can in fact tell you that his hair is blonde and not brown, that he is tall and not not short, that he seems to be a man of fairness and not injustice, etc. But how much knowledge can one have who has never seen or heard from or met the new boss at all?
Also, consider this. If, when we run into passages in the Bible that would seem, when taken to their logical conclusions, to make God’s character no different than Satan’s, and we accept those passages as telling truths about God’s being, then there becomes no way to differentiate God from Satan. If this occurs, we also lose our ability to know God, if he is Good. For instance, a certain reading of Paul implies that God has predetermined some of his children – or rather “creatures” – to be eternally damned and suffer unimaginable torture and exclusion from all that is good, apart from and before any action on the part of the creature itself. Now this means that God made such thinking, feeling, sentient beings, who themselves have an innate yearning for the Good, for no other reason than to damn them and have them suffer, because somehow God is more pleased with a universe in which some are tortured this way forever.
I ask, if this picture of God can be accepted while also maintaining that God is “maximally perfect” what possible picture of God could not be? In other words, if you grant that God can torture sentient beings forever (who he need not have created, and who he could have saved if he wanted) simply because he enjoys it, what possible moral action would be inconsistent with his “goodness”? Such an approach, where one attaches any possible action to God’s character while simultaneously affirming that that character is still “good,” makes meaningless the very word “good” to begin with.
Therefore again, if I say it is “right” or “good” for God to do anything I can imagine, then I have lost all ability to distinguish his character from Satan’s. At the root of this point is really another one more fundamental: any theory of God or how we come to know him which destroys our ability to distinguish between Good and Evil ultimately refutes itself. For consider: if our theories of knowledge entail that we cannot know God’s nature as positively Good rather than Evil, then for all we know, God may punish us for doing exactly as he commands us to do in the Bible itself. If all our “whites” are really God’s “blacks” what he conceives of as heaven may be what we conceive of as hell: his morality may be so utterly different than ours that he may delight in torturing obedient souls rather than disobedient. We could have no trust in his covenant or promises, for he may enjoy breaking covenants and promised. He may just be that sort of being.
What we ultimately arrive at is this conclusion: when the goodness of God and the interpretation and even inspiration of Scripture conflict, we must hold to the goodness of God. This is because accepting a notion of Scripture which entails that God is either evil or beyond the categories of good and evil altogether refutes itself. In fact it is only God’s goodness that makes us obligated to search his Word and obey it.
What then should we do when we run up against interpretations that seem to conflict with God’s goodness? The line I am advocating is a very delicate one to walk. We should not simply dismiss difficult difficult passages in the Bible as erroneous because they seem at first sight to imply that God is wicked. Just because we do not see a reasonable synthesis of the text with God’s goodness does not mean that one does not exist. That is like concluding that just because we cannot solve the rubicks cube the puzzle itself is insoluble. On the other hand, neither should we accept out of sheer terror or insincerity something we honestly find morally repugnant about God. If one of Paul’s arguments seem to contradict a more fundamental point made by Jesus, or if it seems to imply some darkness in the nature of God, we must not accept that picture just “because Paul said so.” Not only would that be self-defeating, as I said above, but it would be stupid, seeing as we have no way of asking Paul for clarification regarding various implications of certain things he said. Remember, Peter himself claimed that some of Paul’s writings were difficult to understand, and that readers twisted things he said to their own destruction. (For what it’s worth, I can well imagine asking Paul about the various implications drawn from some of his texts which seem to make God morally wicked, and him being shocked at our conclusions.)
Imagine you’re sitting in a lecture and the professor accidentally contradicts something he said earlier or a concept that he has drilled into your head from the first day of class. Are you reasonable in thinking that everything he has said up to that point is totally erroneous? It may be that he had not intended a certain implication to be drawn from what he said. The extrapolation may even be a reasonable one. Yet that does not mean it was in his mind when he spoke. Or perhaps you’d misheard him: such things have certainly happened before. My point is that when certain passages seem to contradict, in a moral sense, the larger, overall moral message of an author himself or Scripture as a whole – or especially the Revealed Word of the Universe – rather than accept such passages at face value we should pause. We may even be forced to say with MacDonald that, rather than accepting something that makes God Evil, “there must be something about this I do not understand.”
This post will be misunderstood if it is taken to say that Paul or the writers of the New Testament wrote down false statements about God or that the New Testament is “uninspired.” Paul was a man who was filled with the Holy Spirit and the fruits of God. He had met Christ and talked to the apostles. Therefore I do not think his knowledge of the nature of God was “wrong” – or certainly that I, as a someone much less dedicated to the Kingdom of God, have a better angle on God’s character. I am simply proposing the parameters of how we must interpret God’s word. Whatever we do, and whatever meaning we give to it, we cannot allow it to overthrow the perfection of God himself, revealed in Christ, and summed up on the Cross.