David’s Song of Praise (3)
2 Samuel 22:21-25
The Issue of Apparent Biblical Contradiction
I’m going to deviate from my normal practice on this particular passage of Scripture. That is, rather than simply commenting on its meaning, I’m going to discuss the interpretative challenges that it creates, which can be described as follows:
The Bible consists of over 750,000 words written over a period of millennia by dozens of (Holy Spirit inspired) authors. Therefore, there are passages that appear to contradict one another.
The nature of these apparent contradictions can vary from minute (e.g., dates, names, etc.) to immense (e.g., the Law and Grace). I have chosen to address this issue here because the doctrinal issue is indeed immense — that being the place of human works in salvation. In this particular case, a Scriptural passage that appears to be contradictory is Ephesians 2:8-10.
8 For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— 9 not by works, so that no one can boast. 10 For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.
Now read this section of King David’s prayer.
21 “The Lord has dealt with me according to my righteousness;
according to the cleanness of my hands he has rewarded me.
22 For I have kept the ways of the Lord;
I am not guilty of turning from my God.
23 All his laws are before me;
I have not turned away from his decrees.
24 I have been blameless before him
and have kept myself from sin.
25 The Lord has rewarded me according to my righteousness,
according to my cleanness in his sight.
I trust that you see the issue. In the Ephesians passage the Apostle Paul forcefully removes all ground for salvation by works, but, King David, apparently directly contradicts this position by claiming that “The Lord has dealt with me according to my righteousness.“
Two dominant (in my opinion) erroneous Christian positions are taken in response to apparent contradictions. I will conclude with a discussion of the orthodox Reformed solution, which I believe to be the closest to correct.
The Cafeteria Solution
This solution pretends to uphold the authority of all Scripture by isolating individual passages, treating each one as authoritative, and then applying them to a specific situation. For example, a Christian, when feeling particularly confident, might proclaim the requirements of works to earn salvation (just as if they had they so earned it). However, when caught in clear sin, they might use another passage of Scripture to justify their behavior and/or minimize its significance. In each case the Christian is claiming the absolute authority of Scripture. However, in practice, by partitioning Scripture into a mere means of justifying their current specific position, they implicitly admit that Scripture is so contradictory that a passage can be found to justify the vast majority of positions that they find the need to advance. Most sentient people will eventually catch on to this inconsistent theological behavior.
The Humanist Solution
This solution explicitly embraces the conclusion that Scripture is chockfull of contradictions. By so doing they can recast the interpretative challenge to be that of deciding which of the so-called contradictory passages are authoritative (if any). The Jesus Seminar was an honest instance of this position. Far too much of Western, Mainline Christian leadership is a dishonest holder of this position, with the consequential sorrowful impact on the laity. That is, while they pretend to uphold the authority of Scripture, they actually only uphold that portion of Scripturre that meets their human (and thus faulty and unstable) standard of what is authoritative. Thus, what is ultimately authoritative is their particular beliefs, and, Scripture is at best a tool by which they can be justified.
The Orthodox Reformed Solution
This solution begins with the bedrock assumption that all Scripture is authoritative. It also affirms that there are Scriptural passages that appear to be contradictory. Thus, the interpretative challenge is to create a theological structure within which as many as possible of these apparent contradictions can be logically resolved. In some cases this is easily accomplished. In others even the application of the best theological minds admittedly fall short. However, the fact that we frail humans sometimes fail to fully understand doesn’t shake our conviction that in the fullness of God’s Mind there is a true solution.
Sometimes this solution’s results can be confused with those of the Cafeteria’s. That is, the line between explaining how seemingly contradictory passages actually are not and selectively adhering to one passage over another can sometimes become blurry. The way to differentiate is that the Orthodox Reformed theology has affirmed that it has failed if the two passages can’t be logically resolved with respect to each other and the entire witness of Scripture. The Cafeteria theology is perfectly fine with keeping the offending passages separate from each other and from the rest of Scripture.
So, how did one of the greatest Reformed theologians, John Calvin, attempt to resolve the specific theological issue raised by the above passages? Here’s the relevant excerpt of his commentary on the parallel passage from Psalm 18.
David, in opposition to these accusations, with the view of maintaining his innocence before God, protests and affirms that he had acted uprightly and sincerely in this matter, inasmuch as he attempted nothing without the command or warrant of God; and whatever hostile attempts his enemies made against him, he nevertheless always kept himself within the bounds prescribed by the Divine Law. It would be absurd to draw from this the inference that God is merciful to men according as he judges them to be worthy of his favor. Here the object in view is only to show the goodness of a particular cause, and to maintain it in opposition to wicked calumniators; and not to bring into examination the whole life of a man, that he may obtain favor, and be pronounced righteous before God. In short, David concludes from the effect and the issue, that his cause was approved of by God, not that one victory is always and necessarily the sign of a good cause, but because God, by evident tokens of his assistance, showed that he was on the side of David.
He adds, I have not wickedly departed from my God This implies, that he always aimed directly at the mark of his calling, although the ungodly attempted many things to overthrow his faith. The verb which he uses does not denote one fall only, but a defection which utterly removes and alienates a man from God. David, it is true, sometimes fell into sin through the weakness of the flesh, but he never desisted from following after godliness, nor deserted the service to which God had called him.
You and I can disagree on the extent to which Calvin has resolved the issue. But the key point here is that he is openly and honestly attempting to deconflict these passages within the context of a well-defined theological structure. Finally, it’s certain that Calvin gives all the glory to God for David’s soundness of salvation even under the overwhelming power of this world’s effort to negate it.