Anybody who’s given the Gospel accounts more than a cursory reading knows that there are apparent inconsistencies between them. Were there one or two angels at the tomb when Jesus arose? Did the Transfiguration happen 6 or 8 days after his teaching on the cost of discipleship? Issues like these have motivated theologians and biblical scholars to write works of apologetics and “harmonies” of the Gospels reconciling these issues. Sometimes the answers work quite well and other times you end up with “solutions” that are worse than the problem they’re trying to explain.
Now, most of us might suspect that the older an author, the more conservative and likely to try and come up with an answer, no matter how odd, in order to “cover” for the Gospel-writers. That’s why it was funny to run across this little tidbit in Calvin’s Harmony of the Law on the temptation accounts. When you read the accounts in Matthew and Luke, you see that the order of the temptations is switched up. How does Calvin account for this?:
It is not of great importance, that Luke’s narrative makes that temptation to be the second, which Matthew places as the third: for it was not the intention of the Evangelists to arrange the history in such a manner, as to preserve on all occasions, the exact order of time, but to draw up an abridged narrative of the events, so as to present, as in a mirror or picture, those things which are most necessary to be known concerning Christ. Let it suffice for us to know that Christ was tempted in three ways. The question, which of these contests was the second, and which was the third, need not give us much trouble or uneasiness. In the exposition, I shall follow the text of Matthew.
Long before modern historical and literary critics came on the scene, Calvin knew that we must not impose modern standards of historiography on the Gospel writers. Their intent was not to give us a perfect blow-by-blow, video-camera-replacing description, but to give us those things “most necessary” for us to know about Jesus’ saving ministry. This isn’t imputing error or falsehood to them, but recognizing the nature the of the account they’re trying to provide. It’s no insult to recognize a wonderful painting for what it is; the problem comes when you’re expecting an HD photograph. God has given us what he knows we need in his Word, not what we think we need.
Soli Deo Gloria