Do Bible contradictions affect doctrine?

Question
The fact is that we have right now around 5,800 manuscripts of the NT. This allows us to compare manuscripts in what is called textual criticism so that we can reconstruct the Bible. Even with this said, we have not lost any essential doctrine in the copies we possess, despite the fact that copyist's errors have crept in. In light of this information, would you confirm that even the alleged/seeming contradictions in our English Bible translations (e.g. the two accounts of Genesis, the different number of angels at the tomb of Christ presented by the different Gospel writers, and all the other "alleged contradictions (discrepancies, difficulties)" that skeptics pride themselves on publicly conveying to the world) do not affect any Christian doctrine?
Answer
Thanks for your question.

The short, direct answer is: yes, there are translation problems that affect major doctrines. Here's the longer answer, which includes various qualifications and clarifications of issues you mentioned in the context of your question, as well as an additional source of problems:

First, the original manuscripts (often called autographa) were inspired, inerrant and infallible. Copyists and translators were not inspired, and therefore their work was not inspired, inerrant or infallible. Insofar as their work accurately conveys the content of the autographa, it conveys inspired, inerrant and infallible content. The large volume of manuscript evidence that exists (if we include fragments, there are far more than 5,800) gives us a great deal of confidence that both the received texts and critical texts represent the autographa with an extremely high degree of accuracy.

Second, perceived disagreement between texts is often merely perceived. This is why so much work has been done "harmonizing" texts that appear to disagree. The main point of this work is often to show that there are reasonable explanations as to why (1) the texts say what they say, and (2) all the texts are true. The need for this kind of work generally arises from challenges brought by superficial or thoughtless readings. For instance, Matthew recorded the angel that rolled away the stone and spoke to the women at Jesus' tomb (Matt. 28:2), but he never said that angel was the only one present.

Third, actual disagreement between texts can exist as a result of errors introduced by copyists. Textual critics have done a good job explaining how this can happen in any work of copying. They've also done a good job of suggesting what original readings might have given rise to these copying errors. These are the kinds you've mentioned that may never be resolved. That is to say, we may never recover sufficient manuscript evidence on these particular passages to figure out why or how they differ. Nevertheless, as I've said, none of these impact major doctrines. That's not to say that some people don't argue that the do affect major doctrines. It's only to say that I disagree with them. For example, those who argue for the received text against the critical text of the New Testament sometimes say that the critical text's version of 1 John 5:7-8 undermines the biblical doctrine of the Trinity. It doesn't. All it does is take away one of the proof texts some people use to demonstrate the Trinity from Scripture. But no reasonable person would insist that the Trinity can only be demonstrated/supported if we use the received text's version of 1 John 5:7-8.

Fourth, most errors in English Bibles are the result of poor translations. This is partly because no translator is a perfect student of either the biblical languages or the target language for the translation. But it's more often because translation is an intuitive process, guided by all sorts of beliefs and interpretations held by the translators themselves. As a rather obvious example, the New World Translation of John 1:1 says, "the Word was a god," whereas pretty much every other translation says, "The Word was God." The New World Translation says "a god" because it was made by the Jehovah's witnesses, who don't believe that Jesus is the same God that the Father is. Now, we might say that they made their poor translation to support their poor doctrine, or that they developed poor doctrine because of their poor understanding of Greek. Either way, that's a major error in a key biblical doctrine that exists in the realm of English translations (I'm sure they've done the same thing in other translated languages, too). But the same thing happens in Bibles that actual Christians use, too. For instance, the Living Bible is a "paraphrase" translation, meaning it's highly interpretive. Moreover, its interpretations have a very clear theological slant to them. Even so, it's still Evangelical. By contrast, the New Living Translation is a translation I like a lot.

Fifth, the "deuterocanonical" ("second canon") works, also known as the Old Testament Apocrypha, were never inspired, inerrant or infallible. These books and portions of books (extra chapters) are considered canonical by the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches, and perhaps others. Also, some traditions that don't think these books are inspired sometimes use them as if they were. For example, some years ago a friend of mine was upset that in her church a reading from the Apocrypha was followed by the affirmation, "This is the Word of the Lord." More troublesome than this, some translations used by Protestants include the Apocrypha. For instance, I have a copy of the NRSV that includes the Apocrypha. There can certainly be problems in major doctrines between inspired and uninspired books.

Now, my foregoing comments are predicated on my understanding of what counts as a major or key doctrine. In my mind, a major or key doctrine is essential to biblical Christianity. It has been affirmed by the church throughout the ages, sometimes against dissent and controversy, and it's central to the gospel. The number of angels at Jesus' tomb has no bearing on anything other than the mental image each text draws to mind. By contrast, the fact that Jesus is God is central and indispensable to Christianity.

Having said all that, I am unaware of any major/key doctrines that are threatened by any of the reliable translations (not paraphrases) that are popular these days. I would include in this evaluation versions that conservatives sometimes don't like, such as the NIV (with its current gender-neutral language) and the NRSV (which often gets called "liberal" for some reason). Do I agree with all their translation decisions. No. Do I think that their translation philosophy sometimes misrepresents the meaning of the text? Yes. Do I think that ever happens in such a way that the translation as a whole no longer clearly communicates a major/key doctrine? No. The reality is that there is no perfect translation. Even my favorites have flaws. But I have never seen a popular English Bible with a reliable translation philosophy that I think it's dangerous for Christians to use. The practice you mentioned of comparing translations is a good one. Besides helping flesh out the nuances of every text, it can also show particular passages where a translation differs from others. In such cases, the passages deserve closer inspection. Sometimes the different one is actually better; sometimes it's the one that misses the mark. This is when it's great to have access to commentaries and original language tools.

I hope this is helpful.

Related Topics

Are there two different accounts of Creation?
Post-Resurrection Discrepancies
Angels: Are There Angels Around Us?

Answer by Ra McLaughlin

Ra McLaughlin is Vice President of Creative Delivery Systems at Third Millennium Ministries.