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The Perplexing, Paradox Problem



Opinion by David Kowalski

paradoxTheologians are divided on whether the word "paradox" should be used in connection with Christian teaching, and the issues involved are important ones that encompass more than mere disputation about words. Though "paradox" has various shades of meaning, all shades fall under the two-part, broad definition of "a true contradiction that at first seems true or a seeming contradiction that is not truly contradictory."

Many theologians see in the use of "paradox" a threat to the law of non-contradiction which says “A cannot be both A and non-A at the same time and in the same relationship.” This law is essential to meaning, as without it fixed referents are lost. We cannot say what something is and the concept of truth is reduced to momentary, personal perception. The dividing wall between truth and falsehood is broken down. The law of non-contradiction has come under blistering attack from postmodern theologians who reject it as a form of Aristotelian thinking.

Aristotle did not invent logic, however, he merely discovered some of it. Christ is truth (14:6), the Holy Spirit is "the Spirit of truth" (John 16:13), God's Word is truth (John 17:7), and we are told God cannot lie:

"God is not a man, that He should lie, Nor a son of man, that He should repent; Has He said, and will He not do it? Or has He spoken, and will He not make it good?" (Numbers 23:19 NASB)

"In the same way God, desiring even more to show to the heirs of the promise the unchangeableness of His purpose, interposed with an oath, 18 so that by two unchangeable things in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have taken refuge would have strong encouragement to take hold of the hope set before us." (Hebrews 6:17-18 NASB)

God, then, is the foundation for the answer to the philosophers' elusive quest for justified true belief, and His orderly knowledge of the distinction between what is true and false is the basis for the laws of logic. Thus, contradictions such as "square circles" have no meaning since they are illogical. Those who believe God communicates in His Word reject the idea that He ever contradicts Himself. The problem for us becomes exactly how to label those scriptural concepts that seem to defy our reasoning skills. Are they, perhaps, paradoxical?

Some theologians such as Gordon Clark have insisted that any use of the word "paradox" leads to a slippery slope in which the law of non-contradiction is destroyed. I concede the danger Clark perceives since "paradox" can mean something that is genuinely illogical. Still, "paradox" can refer to something that only appears illogical to the human mind, and it is in this sense that theologians such as J. I. Packer and D. A. Carson have used the term. To them, we may consider something illogical though it be logical to God. There are difficulties in this view, however. Though no one would deny that God is beyond our comprehension, it is problematic to imagine a different kind of logic in God -- one, for example, in which 2+2 does not equal 4.

In his article "Biblical Paradox: Does Revelation Challenge Logic?" David Basinger gives an excellent critique of the paradoxical theology of people such as Packer and Carson. In it, he points out that paradoxical communication from God would be nonsense communication if it could not have valid meaning for us. Heavenly logic cannot be contradictory and retain communicable meaning. Thus, revelation would not always truly reveal.

There are two main concepts that are considered paradoxical by some theologians. The first pointed to is the Trinity, with the notion of something being both three and one at the same time in the same relationship called paradoxical. Gordon Clark rightly points out, however, that the Trinity is not a true paradox. Three gods in one God or three persons in one person would be paradoxical but three persons in one godhead is not. Divine sovereignty and human responsibility is the other concept sometimes called paradoxical, but, as I have noted in another post, Molinism answers this dilemma quite well.

I question whether logicians have uncovered any true paradoxes. "The liar's paradox" ("this statement is false") is just a brain-teasing, word game. The name of the paradox gives away the fact that it is spoken falsely -- as a lie. Other supposed paradoxes such as Curry's and Russell's only show that conditional statements must be treated differently from simple propositions. "If this sentence is true, then there is no life on Earth," should not be labeled with just the one word "true" or "false" since it posits more than one thing.

David Basinger points out that light, a favorite illustration of paradox theologians, is not really paradoxical. Light is not both a wave and a particle at the same time in the same relationship to space and time. It sometime displays the qualities of a particle and sometimes those of a wave -- resulting in no contradiction.

I also find no genuine paradoxes in Scripture. It is true that some things about God (such as His unbeginning and unending eternity) defy our comprehension, but there is nothing illogical about these things. Though I differ with Gordon Clark's harsh tone on the subject, I do agree with his conclusion that "paradox" is best left out of our theological language. A term such as "mystery" may be useful but "paradox" is not. Postmodern theologians who fully embrace contradictory paradox do so at the expense of the law of non-contradiction and thus the very idea of real truth. While theologians of a safer nuance such as Packer and Carson do not reject the law of non-contradiction, I believe they concede too much epistemological ground in speaking of revelation that has no meaning to man. The law of non-contradiction remains intact and God's Word is a consistently meaningful revelation to man. I say there are no real paradoxes in Scripture.

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This was originally posted on Google+. One questioner asked about the legitimacy of using "antimony" as an alternative to "paradox."

"Antimony" is often used interchangeably with "paradox." Kant popularized the term and it seems to me his meaning is something like "a thing that is theoretically impossible yet nevertheless is." David  Basinger addresses the term in article I linked to. In the post, I refer to Basinger's answer on light, saying "Light is not both a wave and a particle at the same time in the same relationship to space and time. It sometime displays the qualities of a particle and sometimes those of a wave -- resulting in no contradiction." Honestly, I am not that impressed with Kant's antimonies. Kant denied a synthesis between appearance and reality, adding that in metaphysics we could never know "things in themselves." However weak his four antimonies might appear to the common man, Kant needed them to maintain the irrationality behind his division of noumena and phenomena. I agree heartily with Stephen Hicks' contention that Kant is the grandfather of postmodernism.

I would assert the same thing about "antimony" that I do about "paradox," as I see no substantial difference between the two terms, and though I am not a physicist, I do not consider light to be a true paradox or antimony. Packer and Carson understandably seem to feel they had no choice but to embrace the concept of paradox if they were to stay within the Calvinist fold and at the same time try to avoid the stigma of determinism. Modified Calvinists, Molinists, and Arminians have no real need for paradox or antimony in their systems.

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Another questioner contested the view I originally expressed, giving examples of what he considered paradoxes in the Bible. He referred to G. K. Chesterton’s definition of paradox as one truth standing on its head with both legs dangling to get attention. I answered as follows:

I think each of the examples you give can be addressed as complementary (and to some degree ironical) rather than as paradoxical.

By far your best example is the first one. In our theology, we say Jesus is fully human and fully divine. He possesses and expresses 100% of both categories, and though God is not man, this merely means the categories are distinct. I would consider the blending of the categories to be a mystery rather than a logical paradox.

Jesus as lion and lamb expresses the fully rounded character of Christ. He is not one-dimensional. As I said about God in a recent post on His tender mercy, God is not a flat character. Thus, no paradox. That One who is a Lion dies as a lamb can be thought of as irony but not as true paradox.

Come and live/come and die can be understood in what we die to and what we live to. We die to self and live to God -- no contradiction since the relation is not to the same person or thing.

Wise as serpents/innocent as doves -- Though we must be very clever we should remain morally pure. The two thoughts harmonize. Proverbs repeatedly teaches that the wisest choice is always the moral one -- no contradiction or befuddlement of logic is ever seen in this.

First last/last first -- The first in this life will be the last in heaven and vice versa. A is not non-A at the same time and in the same relation. This concept is another that is ironical but not paradoxical.

Humbled/exalted -- We must humble ourselves if we are to expect God to exalt us (each clause has a different subject, eliminating the possibility of even apparent contradiction). Again, ironical but not paradoxical.

Saints/sinners -- we are saints by God's declaration and changed in our inward nature, but in reality we sometimes sin. The different monikers arise from different perspectives, and three, distinct relationships are involved: the believer to standing, the believer to inward nature, and the believer to practice. Furthermore, I do not believe Scripture ever labels the saved as categorically "sinners" after their salvation -- the Bible does not call us sinners and saints at the same time in the same relation.

Truth is often multifaceted without being in any way contradictory. Chesterton's analogy is not paradoxical. Yes, one man has two legs but these are not even a seeming paradox. You summarize your belief in biblical paradoxes by saying Jesus always rings more than once. I think Jesus does ring more than once. He rings many times but I think it is always in the same house!
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Another questioner asked about the particular way J.I. Packer’s uses the word “antimony" in a sense that seems softer than "praradox."

I suppose this is where the slipperiness of the terms becomes somewhat evident. First, I think Packer's assertion that something can be an antimony and not a paradox produces more smoke than light. Logicians often use the terms interchangeably. If you do a Google search for Russell's paradox and one for Russell's antimony you will find they speak of the very same thing.

Still, I maintain that neither paradox nor antimony should be used in theological discussion until the day it only means something like "a concept that first appears confusing but which really conveys no kind of contradiction -- not even to human logic." And the truth is, I do not think Packer would agree to this limitation. He and Carson seem to posit a logic in God that is unknown to man. This is not heresy by any means but I do not consider it a proper inference and I think it unhelpful in the long run.

I again affirm that there are many things about God that exceed our ability to comprehend (and are thus mysteries to us), but that is not the same as affirming 2+2 may not equal 4 in God's way of reasoning. It seems to me that when Packer or Carson claim God's logic may seem illogical to us, they go a step beyond saying it seems illogical to us because we lack sufficient information. It is in this mildest of senses that someone might use the term paradox with regard to light. Though I am no physicist by any means, I do have an amateurish interest in the field and I agree with David Basinger's assertion that it is not a logical paradox at all. Light is not a particle and a wave at the same time in the same relation to time and space. It sometimes acts as a particle and is thus considered under particle theory, and it sometimes acts as a wave and is at such events considered under wave theory.

I think two imperfect comparisons might help. The first would be my attitude toward my lawn. I like and dislike it. A paradox, you say! No, there are times or ways I like it (when I enjoy its beauty) and times or ways when I dislike it (when it must be cared for). There is no breakdown in logic in this thought -- just a sense of irony. The second comparison would be to my being both a father and a son. If we were thinking of this in terms of the same relation, it would be a genuine paradox. When one realizes, however, that I speak of two different kinds of relations (one to my mother and father [as son] and the other to my children [as father]), there is nothing even apparently contradictory. Anyone with sufficient information would easily arrive at a proper understanding without having to conclude that my logic was somehow different from theirs. Light is not illogical in that it is not A and non-A at the same time in the same relation. It may only appear illogical to those who lack information. This is a very far cry from the laws of nature violating the laws of logic.

Packer's use of 2 Corinthians 12:10 is a perfect illustration of just why the term "paradox" should not be used in theological discourse. He knows quite well that "when I am weak then I am strong" is not a true paradox (though it does convey irony) and this is why he says it makes sense when considered another way. When we are weak in ourselves, we cast ourselves upon the Lord and find strength in Him. Weak in self and strong in God are not logically paradoxical as they do not speak of the same relation (one is to self and the other to God). This is where the slipperiness of the term becomes problematic. If we allow use of the term in the weaker sense, we are caught off guard when it is later used in a stronger sense -- and I think this is precisely what happens, and readers often do not catch the shift in meaning. Once the term is accepted in its mildest sense, it is stealthily used later in a stronger one -- especially in the kind of theological discussion we are considering. The main point in theological use of "paradox" or "antimony" is not the mild sense of the term. It is a way of saying there are things about God's logic that we cannot understand (which I repeat goes beyond saying there are things about God that we cannot understand). I think it is fair to say that theologians of paradox such as Packer and Carson believe our logic cannot fit God's truths about divine sovereignty and human responsibility. Again, this goes beyond saying God is beyond our comprehension to saying God has a different kind of logic than we do.

I agree that a key word in all of this is "apparent," but we must also ask, "apparent why?" Does something appear illogical to us because we lack information or does it appear illogical to us because our logic differs from God's? I'm afraid theologians of paradox use it both ways without telling us when they are shifting their meaning. If they simply meant the term in its mildest sense without intending to use it in a stronger one, the terms "irony" and "mystery" would serve them much better. They convey all of their meaning and none of the confusion. But, alas, they could not shape-shift their meaning with such clear terms.

Precision in theological language is not just wrangling about words. I suggest that in theological discourse we stick to terms about which there is little room to wiggle around and mean one thing in one paragraph and another thing a few paragraphs later. Since in common usage (and in the dictionaries that reflect this usage) paradox and antimony clearly connote more than a befuddlement due to lack of information, I think it is best left off the table for theologians, who should be careful to use more precise terms such as "irony" and "mystery" which do not connote any of the stronger sense of illogical communication these other terms do.

As an imperfect illustration of how this can happen in another context, we could consider the controversy over the sinfulness of homosexuality. If someone who wishes to assert that homosexuality is not sinful says Paul was "gay" when he said to "rejoice in the Lord," we would consider that a misleading use of a slippery term that connotes different things, and we could rightly insist that "happy" would be a more precise term which would not allow that person to subtly change meanings later in his discourse -- once he had established that Paul was "gay."

I don't think we should use "paradox" or "antimony," and I see no need for the words if we have no subtle agenda that leads to ultimately using those words in their stronger sense.

© Copyright 2013, David Kowalski. All rights reserved. Links to this post are encouraged. Do not repost or republish without permission.

Written by David Kowalski

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One Response to “The Perplexing, Paradox Problem”

  1. Andrew says:

    Well said. I have come across many of these applications of the word paradox in my ministry degree and was wondering some of the same things. Keep up the great work!

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This post was last updated: Jul. 6, 2013