Writing about the Bible in his latest book After You Believe, popular scholar N. T. Wright notes, “The whole story is the whole story.” There are plenty of people who would like to slice and dice the Bible into sections; others simply ignore what they don’t like while proof-texting to support their own values.
Many who read the Bible approach it like the media approaches newsworthy stories: They look for conflict, even when no conflict exists.
In fact, the Bible is said to have many conflicts: Between Old and New Testament, Law and grace, God of wrath and God of love, Jesus and Paul, works and faith.
It is easy for people to believe that such conflicts exist when we don’t really have time to read the Bible in the first place. As biblical illiteracy rises, it is becomes easy to “pull one over” on the masses. Yet, when we do take a close look at the Bible and read, as N. T. Wright admonishes, “the whole story,” the conflicts are few and far between.
Take Old and New Testaments. The assumption is that Jesus, who inaugurated the “New Covenant” with his death and resurrection, wiped away the moral and ethical fabric of the Old Testament.
The Old Testament, so says the argument, is irrelevant. A close look at Jesus’ ministry, however, proves the opposite. Jesus did not do away with the Law or the Old Testament in general; rather, Jesus called his followers back to the heart of the Law. No wonder the New Testament authors emphasize that, in Christ, God continues to etch the Law upon our hearts.
This is ultimately related to the conflict that some see between the God of the Old Testament (wrath) and the God of Jesus Christ (love). One of my fellow colleagues who writes for the Rockdale Citizen wrote a good article on this subject last week, so I won’t spend much time on this point.
It is important to emphasize that God does not change over time. God’s purpose is pure and consistent throughout history. God is one who creates humankind to be in relationship with Him, and everything God does after the Fall of Adam and Eve intends to restore this relationship.
A close reading of the Law–from Exodus to Deuteronomy–shows that God seeks to liberate humanity from their wayward habits.
This also brings us right to St. Paul, who seems to contrast the Law with God’s grace throughout his letters. Romans, in particular, seems to pit the two against each other, allowing God’s grace to win out.
Again, a closer reading shows that Law and grace are not diametrically opposed to one another, as if God’s Law did not make room for grace. The Law was established precisely because of God’s grace. It’s just that humanity managed to use the Law to hinder humans from reconciling with God (that’s why the Pharisees and Sadducees, who had this view of the Law, were so opposed to Jesus’ interpretation of the Law).
A last conflict seems to exist between Jesus and Paul. We see this within churches today. Some say that they rely on Paul’s writings and the personal moral code that Paul seems to advocate. Others rely on Jesus’ sermons and propose a more community-centered, social justice ethic.
Paul and Jesus both care about personal salvation and community morality. All but three of Paul’s letters, after all, were written to churches, not to individual Christians. And Jesus speaks to individuals throughout his ministry, such as when he told the Rich Young Ruler to sell all that the ruler had.
My guess is that scholars will keep arguing that conflicts exist in the Bible for as long as they continue to do what they do. It would benefit all of us, however, if we simply read the Bible for ourselves.