Harmonization vs. Conflict in the Scripture

In my last post I talked a little about faith verse works. I mentioned that "faith plus works" is not a bad thing in Scripture, but a good thing. It’s only a bad thing in our fundamentalist Protestant tradition.

Why can I say that so confidently?

There are several reasons, but one of the main ones is this …

Any doctrine that pits one set of verses against another is a false doctrine.

Non-Christians can disagree with that principle, but to a Christian it should be self-evident.

Non-Christians can simply say, "No, a doctrine that pits one set of verses against another is proof that the Bible contradicts itself."

For Christians, however, that believe the Bible gives one consistent message, it follows logically that if we believe a doctrine that is contradicted by even one or two verses, then that doctrine is false.

Verbally, that is what we believe. Everyone would argue that what they believe is never contradicted in Scripture.

Practically, however, Christians have a practiced habit of interpreting the Bible in such a way that it contradicts itself.

Difficult Verses

Long ago I listened to a call from an unknown caller to a radio program called The Bible Answer Man, hosted by Hank Hanegraaff—a close-minded, 3-point Calvinist with no knowledge of Christian history pretending to be an open-minded, non-denominational Christian defending "the historic Christian faith." He can’t defend that faith, however, because he doesn’t know what it is.

Anyway, the caller suggested that 2 Peter 2:20 should be interpreted to mean that Christians can lose their salvation.

Hank Hanegraaff’s tradition doesn’t allow him to agree with that, so he quoted John 10:28 and explained that John 10:28 is a "clear" verse, while 2 Peter 2:20 is a "difficult" verse.

Not long after that, someone called Bob George’s radio program with a question. Apparently, Bob had made an unusual statement about the Trinity, and the caller felt it violated 1 Cor. 15:28-29. I don’t remember what Bob had said, but once the caller quoted those verses, it was clear that Bob was wrong.

Bob George, however, was having nothing of being wrong. He borrowed Hank Hanegraaff’s trick, and he said, "1 Cor. 15:28-29 is a difficult passage. We should just set it up on a high shelf until we grow up enough to be able to reach it."

Verses That "Seem" To Disagree

Bob George and Hank Hanegraaff are not atypical in their method of interpreting the Bible. Picking one set of verses over another is normal in Protestant circles.

The first time I ever picked up a "systematic theology," I turned right to the eternal security chapter because I was involved in some arguments about that subject.

Systematic theologies are books that explore doctrinal issues one at a time. Usually, they have very intellectual-sounding names for their chapters, like ecclesiology, soteriology, or eschatology. Other, less "educated" Christians would refer to those subjects as "the church," "salvation," and "end times prophecy."

This particular book did have a chapter on eternal security, which I don’t think is typical. I don’t read such books much, especially after my experience with that first one, so I can’t be certain on that.

Anyway, at the end of the chapter on eternal security, it said, "There are some verses that seem to disagree with what we’ve taught in this chapter, but study will show that the contradictions are only apparent."

I’m quoting loosely because I don’t have the book in front of me, but that was the point.

They then listed about 80 verses that seemed to disagree with what they’d taught.

I couldn’t believe it. I started laughing. They were dismissing 80 verses with a wave of their hand. Unbelievable!

Oh, Yeah, What About This Verse?

But it’s really not unbelievable. Everywhere around me I found Christians arguing just that way. Someone would quote Galatians 5:19-21 and say that if you practiced drunkenness, you won’t inherit the kingdom of heaven. In return, the other person would quote John 3:16 and say that only faith is required for eternal life. Then the first would quote Colossians 1:23 and say that you have to continue in that faith, not just begin in it. Then the second would quote 1 Cor. 1:8 and say that everyone who begins will continue; God will take care of it.

Back and forth they would go. The first person would find a new verse to argue with, and the second person would add to his verses.

Neither would stop to give a sensible explanation for how his theology fit into the others’ verses.

Don’t get me wrong. Both would have explanations for the others’ verses. Neither would have sensible explanations. Any explanation, it seemed, would do, no matter how nonsensical it was.

For example, almost no modern Protestant can endure James 2:24. It reads …

You see, then, that a man is justified by works and not faith only.

That is such a clear refutation of the Protestant version of salvation by faith alone that Martin Luther himself said that no one would ever be able to reconcile James 2:24 with Paul’s letters.

Martin Luther lived in a different age. Even in the Roman Catholic Church, there was not an official canon. He could just reject James 2:24, and he could call James "an epistle of straw."

Today we can’t do that. Fundamentalist Protestants have to come up with an explanation for James 2:24.

The most common one is, "Man is justified by faith alone but not by a faith that is alone."

Well, now, that’s a nice platitude.

But it doesn’t harmonize James 2:24 with Protestant theology, just with Protestant terminology.

James is saying that if you don’t have works you are not justified. That is not what modern Protestants teach when they say salvation is by faith alone. They teach that your works do not matter for going to heaven. They argue that we can’t judge members of their church who live like the world as lost. Even though they live like the world, they say, they may have real faith and thus be saved.

But James says such faith will not save you, and he says so very clearly. Faith without works is dead, and it will not save you.

Thus, he concludes, we are justified by works and not by faith only.

In the end, there is no way that any modern fundamentalist is going to say what James said. If you go around saying that a man is justified by works and not faith only, you are a heretic. There is absolutely no context in which you are allowed to say that.

But James said it.

And we claim he said it under the inspiration of God.


There is a difference between harmonizing and explaining away.

Harmonizing means you have a good, legitimate, reasonable alternative explanation for the verse that seems to agree with you.

For example, I argue in a page I wrote on the Word of God that the Scriptures don’t use "the Word" as a general reference to "the Scriptures."

2 Tim. 2:15 seems to be an exception, especially the way we modern Christians tend to interpret it. Most of us know it in its KJV rendering:

Study to show thyself approved, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.

The truth is, however, that the word "study" is a terrible mistranslation. The Greek word spoudazo has nothing to do with studying. It means "be diligent," and it is translated in that sense all 10 of the other times it occurs in the NT.

The point of that verse is the point of other verses that talk about our handling "the Word" in the NT. It is a reference to the Word of God as a life, power, or message within us. It can grow (Acts 6:7), impart new birth (Jam. 1:18; 1 Pet. 1:23), be given from person to person (Jn. 17:14), and it is to be handled by spiritual men who get skillful through practice (Heb. 5:12-13) and diligence (2 Tim. 1:7).

That is a reasonable interpretation of 2 Tim. 1:7 that leaves it saying something.

It doesn’t explain away 2 Tim. 1:7, nor divest it of meaning. In fact, it infuses it with rich meaning and restores a normal translation to it ("be diligent" rather than "study").

This is harmonizing.

It is the same with James 2:24 and the most seeming contradictory verse from Paul, Romans 3:28. James says we are justified by works not faith alone, and Paul says we are justified by faith apart from the works of the Law.

How do we harmonize these without ignoring them?

Well, to anyone who’s not already religious and biased, the answer that will leap out is that Paul and James are talking about different kinds of works. Paul specifically says works of the Law, and James makes no such designation.

That’s a possible interpretation.

Another, which I got from reading the early Christian writings, is that Paul is talking only about our being born again—separated from the world and our old life and brought into Christ—while James is talking about our whole course as a Christian. This, too, makes sense because Paul talks about works all the time when he’s talking about our future judgment (e.g.; Rom. 2:6-8; 2 Cor. 5:10; Eph. 5:5-8).

That is choosing a rational explanation that makes sense, harmonizes both verses, and allows both verses to actually say something to us. We must be born again by faith alone because obviously we who are slaves to sin cannot begin working our way to deliverance from sin. However, once delivered, then we are debtors to the Spirit that by the Spirit we would put to death the deeds of the body (Rom. 8:12-13).

Saying something like “Well, James is just saying that we are saved by faith alone but not by faith that is alone” is just dodging the verse. James is not saying that at all. He is saying that your faith is garbage if it’s not accompanied by works.

While we may admit to that, we don’t admit to his conclusion, which is that we are justified by works.

Yes, justified by works. That’s what he said, so that is what we are allowed to say as well.

Wow, there was a lot of rambling involved above. I hope someone got something out of that because it’s all pretty important … that is, unless we just want to continue holding onto our traditions and only pretending to believe what the Bible says.

About Paul Pavao

I am married, the father of six, and currently the grandfather of two. I run a business, live in a Christian community, teach, and I am learning to disciple others better than I have ever been able to before. I believe God has gifted me to restore proper foundations to the Christian faith. In order to ensure that I do not become a heretic, I read the early church fathers from the second and third centuries. They were around when all the churches founded by the apostles were in unity. I also try to stay honest and open. I argue and discuss these foundational doctrines with others to make sure my teaching really lines up with Scripture. I am encouraged by the fact that the several missionaries and pastors that I know well and admire as holy men love the things I teach. I hope you will be encouraged too. I am indeed tearing up old foundations created by tradition in order to re-establish the foundations found in Scripture and lived on by the churches during their 300 years of unity.
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