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The Transitive Fallacy of Biblical Contradiction

I hear people, from time to time, complain that the Bible contains contradictions, sometimes in the same book. These supposed contradictions take various forms. For example, the two creation stories in Genesis 1 and 2 are suggested as contradictions even though various sober and thorough commentators have demonstrated that they are not indeed contradictory. Today, I’d like to look at a particular brand of contradiction, admittedly not the sort that skeptics love to throw in the face of the believer.

To accomplish this task, let’s consider a pair of Proverbs:

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. (Proverbs 9:10)

The beginning of wisdom is this: Get wisdom. (Proverbs 4:7)

Many Bible students have memorized the first of this pair, but many fewer know the second. It’s not the sort of text that becomes a memory verse for children’s Sunday School.

Where is the contradiction? Although the Bible believer is less likely to find find inspiration in 4:7, we probably don’t see the contradiction. However, the ever-helpful skeptic will be at hand to explain things. They will suggest something along these lines:

The “to be” verb in most any language functions as something of an equals sign. “The fear of the Lord equals the beginning of wisdom” or “The beginning of wisdom equals getting wisdom.” Let’s reduce some of these phrases to symbols, variables. We’ll call “The beginning of wisdom” B, “the fear of the Lord” F, and “getting wisdom” G. So far, so good? Then our two proverbs can be represented as follows.

F=B (Proverbs 9:10), and
B=G (Proverbs 4:7).

Since we know from mathematics that we can readily swap the items on either side of the equals sign, we could just as easily say

B=F (Proverbs 9:10), and
B=G (Proverbs 4:7).

And we also know, via math’s transitive property, that if B=F and B=G, then F has to equal G. So, the fear of the Lord must be the same as getting wisdom, right? Obviously they aren’t. The beginning of wisdom can’t be two different things. Therefore, the Bible contradicts itself. Point, set, match.

And thus, the Bible, vanquished by amateur symbolic logic, skulks off into the corner never to speak again. Or maybe not.

One of the problems with the spotters of so-called contradictions is that they attempt to use the wrong tools on the right materials. Can you employ the transitive property from mathematics (A=B, B=C, therefore C=A) to language? In some limited cases, you can, but not always. In this case, the Hebrew words translated as “the beginning of wisdom” are not even the same. But even if they were, this supposed contradiction would not hold.

Let’s try a different set of sentences.

Kindergarten is the beginning of education.

The beginning of education is learning to read.

While you might take exception to one or both of these statements, the question is do they contradict one another? Can you imagine one parent insisting that a child not learn to read until after beginning Kindergarten, while another insists that the child must know how to read before proceeding to Kindergarten? Obviously what is meant by the “beginning of education” is two different things in these two sentences. One refers to a programmatic sequence in school while the other refers to a learning skill.

Perhaps there are contradictions within the pages of the Bible, but those who would find them need to be careful not to employ the transitive fallacy.

 

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