Thursday, 1 September 2016

On Contradictions

Peter Enns recently wrote an intentionally provocative post entitled "There are no contradictions in the bible (yeah, you heard me)." I'm not going to go into his argument. Rather, I am going to use his post as the impetus to write on a matter that seems to me central to Lonerganian thinking, the distinction between what the Lonergan scholar Robert Doran describes as contraries and contradictories. For our purposes, we might define contraries as claims that are distinct yet can be true at the same time, while defining contradictories as claims that are distinct and cannot be true at the same time. If, on the same day, I uttered both the statements "I injured my left leg yesterday" and "I injured my right leg yesterday," I would be uttering two contrary statements. They are not mutually exclusive, because it is possible that I injured both my left leg and my right yesterday. If, on the same day, I uttered both the statements "I injured my left leg yesterday, but not my right" and "I injured my right leg yesterday," then they would be contradictory, as the former would exclude the latter.

I chose that example because the statements are deictic: their meaning depends upon the time at which I uttered them. If, on the same day, I uttered both the statement "I injured my left leg yesterday, but not my right," and "I injured my right leg yesterday," then they would be contradictory; however, if I uttered those statements on different days then they would not be contradictory at all. This observation of deixis opens up the matter of meaning. Take the following two statements: "Elizabeth, queen of England, died in 1602," and "Elizabeth, queen of England, acceded to the throne in 1962." Surely those two statements must contradict each other? But of course they do not, and they do not because "Elizabeth, queen of England," takes a different referent in the first sentence than it does in the second. One refers to Elizabeth I, the other to Elizabeth II: two totally separate women, born almost four centuries apart. As such, the statements are not mutually exclusive. This is to say that, before we can address the matter of whether two statements about past events or situations are contradictories, we actually need to understand what the statements actually are claiming and what they are not.

I've intentionally kept this in the abstract, without directly addressing the biblical text, in order to avoid the unacceptable yet widespread tendency to suppose that there are a special set of rules that pertain only to biblical interpretation. Such special pleading is not limited to defenders of biblical inerrancy or the like, but also to its critics. The militant atheist is often just as prone to see contradictories where there are none as the Christian apologist is to deny on a programmatic basis that the biblical corpus might contain mutually exclusive statements. The question of whether such contradictories occur cannot be decided by theological supposition, but rather by the patient working through of the data. To that end, let us consider a particular case in which what is sometimes pegged as a contradictory is in fact a contrary. The Synoptics tell me that Jesus cleansed the temple at the end of his ministry. John tells me that he did so at the beginning. This is in fact not a contradictory at all. Although the Synoptics do not present Jesus going to Jerusalem earlier than his final week, neither do they state that he did not. It is entirely conceivable that Jesus cleansed the temple twice, once early in his ministry, and once near the end. Indeed, there are today quite competent scholars who would argue precisely this.

Before continuing with this example, let it be noted that the astute reader might have observed something in my earlier discussion of Elizabeth I and II: my statements about their lives are both false. In point of fact Elizabeth I died in 1603, not 1602, and Elizabeth II acceded to the throne in 1952, not 1962. This brings us back to the original definition of contraries, as it pertains for our purposes. If contraries are for our purposes defined as statements that can both be true at the same time, it does not follow that they are both true. In point of fact, while it could be the case that Jesus cleansed the temple both at the beginning and the end of his ministry, it could also be the case that he cleansed the temple only once, or even never. It's also possible that he cleansed the temple, but neither at the beginning or the end of his ministry. Perhaps he cleansed it in the middle. Or, perhaps he cleansed it more than twice. Perhaps he cleansed it every Passover for three years in a row, his own sort of idiosyncratic Passover tradition, and the different gospel traditions each decided to narrate this recurrent practice as a singular event. The recognition of these permutations is important for the historian, as it reminds us that our goal is not to adjudicate which accounts in our sources are true (that is in fact the work of the scissors-and-paste historian, to use Collingwood's term for a sort of historian that is not really a historian at all), but which modern hypotheses about the past are true. And once one moves from judging sources to judging hypotheses, suddenly the fixation upon contradictions within our sources starts to look a bit quixotic.

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