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Friday, May 27, 2011

Christian Paradox

Also, check TurretinFan on this matter.

Many well meaning Christians, even Reformed Christians, believe that many Bible doctrines must be embraced though they are seemingly contradictory. These Christians believe that many mysteries of the faith (if not all things ultimately) are really paradoxes, antinomies or apparent contradictions, same thing for our purposes. These apparent contradictions, though said not to be real, appear to imply a false orthodox proposition, since contradictions always contain a false proposition. For example, if God is one, then it would seem that God cannot be comprised of three persons who are all God, for one is not three. Consequently, one of the two orthodox horns appears false. Either there are three Gods or God is not one; yet since the Trinity is an orthodox doctrine, the antinomy must be embraced. Christianity ends up being apparently contradictory but not really. In other words, Christianity appears contradictory but it really isn't. Professing atheists have a field day with such lobs. Rather than the Christian’s apologetic appearing as aspirin tablets at the top of the knees low and away, we end up lobbing watermelons in the wheelhouse when we speak that way.

Does anybody really believe that we are to embrace as true both x and ~x at the same time, in the same sense? At the very least, I would hope that no Christian believes that we are to accept as true something that is actually false. But what about this – Are we to believe certain doctrines that appear false? Many Christians say “yes”. Some even say “YES!” It is believed by more than a few that some if not all doctrines must(!) appear contradictory - if we’re to remain humble and not let logic cloud our biblical reasoning. Accordingly, not only are we to accept doctrines that at first glance appear paradoxical to the rational mind, we simply cannot get around being subject to apparent contradictions. In other words, given our finitude and God’s infinitude, it is alleged that certain doctrines, even all doctrines, will always appear contradictory because of the “Creator-creature” distinction, a distinction I embrace with all my orthodox heart,soul and mind yet without letting it lead me down a dead end alley of skepiticism.

In order for two or more propositions to appear contradictory, I would think, in my creaturely finitude, that they must actually appear to take the form of a contradiction. After all, these supposed paradoxes are not claimed to be apparently consistent but rather apparently contradictory. So ask yourself, what is a set of propositions that looks like a contradiction and sounds like a contradiction but is not a contradiction? Clarkians will answer “A Van Tillian musing, of course!”

If the apparent contradiction imbedded in a particular doctrine cannot be made to disappear, then what  rational hope is there that the apparent contradiction is not a real contradiction? How can an actual contradiction be distinguished from an apparent one if the apparent seems actual from a creaturely perspective? After all, is there an acid test to distinguish real contradictions from ones that aren’t real but look real?

Until one reconciles an apparent contradiction, I don’t think he has any business embracing both horns of the supposed contradiction. (I appreciate that there are transition periods in one’s thinking but we’re not to live in a perpetual state of transition over any given doctrine. We are to prayerfully wrestle with things and press on.) Now then, let’s say one embraces Jesus’ humanity, which entails a localized body, yet also embraces the real presence of the mass. He would embrace what appears to him to be an apparent contradiction, which in this case would be a real contradiction. He would embrace something he thinks appears false, and in this case is actually false. Not good.

Now let’s move to two orthodox horns of what is a conundrum for some. Let’s say one embraces a Reformed view of God’s foreordination of all things along with human moral accountability, yet finds those concepts contradictory. If those concepts are truly contradictory then one of the premises must be false. If one is willing to accept what appears false, then why not the real presence? What would be the basis of accepting one false looking doctrine over another? To simply say that we’re to embrace the seemingly false doctrines the Bible teaches and leave the other false interpretations alone isn’t a workable principle. It's a recipe for arbitrariness and inconsistency.

Moreover, I find it highly improper to call any particular pair of doctrines an “apparent contradiction” because of the universality of the claim. It’s not only an unjustified claim; it’s a false claim too. What is seemingly contradictory to one person can be perfectly harmonious to another since apparent contradictions are not objectively contradictory but rather only perceived as such. Actual contradictions are universal, whether anyone appreciates them or not; yet apparent contradictions are subjective and only apply to those who think, for example, that the eternal decree an human responsibility are seemingly incompatible. Accordingly, it’s simply a misnomer to call any particular doctrine an apparent contradiction because of the idiosyncratic nature of each person’s level of confusion. I find it even a bit arrogant when one asserts that this or that doctrine is paradoxical since the who would voice such a claim would be setting himself up as the measure of another man's capacities, as if he were saying, “I perceive these doctrines as seemingly contradictory, therefore they are apparently contradictory (to all humans), but of course these parallel lines meet in the mind of God.” Now that might be a big pill for some people to swallow, but certainly such people are not saying anything like: “I don’t believe these doctrines need to appear contradictory (if they are indeed orthodox doctrines), but at the moment I’m still working through some things and I believe they might not be contradictory to others. The problem must be with me.”

Some helpful hints moving forward

If someone wants to assert a paradox, it might be helpful to identify the contradictory premises and show why either must be false. As soon as he shows how either one must be false, then should abandon that one. If he can’t show that one must be false then he hasn’t come across an apparent contradiction, now has he? Confusion does not imply contradiction.

So for example, how would one go about proving that the existence of Paris does not conflict with the existence of New York to one who thinks it appears that these two cities cannot exist in harmony? It would be helpful for the one who thinks there is a conflict to put forth his perception of the conflict. The confused one should explain what he thinks is the contradictory nature of the supposed paradox. I’ve been waiting for years to hear why it is seemingly contradictory that God’s foreordination of my actions, which proceed from my intentions, somehow alleviates my responsibility for my actions. God has a morally sufficient reason for the good and evil he determines, and I am responsible for what I do. These two propositions aren’t on a collision course; they’re simply on different tracks. Accordingly, there's not a whole lot to be reconciled.

True humility (coupled with half a sense) appreciates that to embrace something that appears false is not spiritual but in fact foolish. Only someone who is confused would say it looks false but I must embrace it out of humble obedience to God. Whereas one with more understanding will say it looks false so I must be missing something either in my overall theology or on this particular point. I either need to change some governing presupposition(s) or else get a better handle on this new item of consideration.

Another example might be helpful. One might reason from common experience that persons have a beginning, but since the Second Person of the Trinity had no beginning, the eternal sonship of the Second Person is an apparent contradiction. Yet such a paradox disappears when we let God define for us the realm of possibility as it relates to persons, finitude and being. In other words, these propositions are seemingly contradictory to the carnal mind that is not subject to the word of God, but when we let God’s word inform our thinking the propositions do not appear at odds with each other in the least. With that example in mind, the astute reader might find a terrible irony in all of this. It seems to me that Van Tillians are to get their framework for the possible realm from Scripture, and if we begin with Scripture to inform our thinking on what defines reality etc., apparent contradictions, which always incorporate autonomous thought, go away. When Scripture informs us of truth and the realm of possibility, we get a whole host of new propositions to play with, which is something CVT grasped well yet did not incorporate into his thinking in the realm of paradox. With Scripture as our presupposition, we begin to see that three persons and one being (descriptive of God) is as coherent as one person and one being (descriptive of man). The latter in one sense is more common to our experience, but the former is no less revealed to our minds. (It can even be argued that the latter is more common to our experience given that we are bombarded with the one and the many every moment of every day.) Since both are revealed truths, we don’t have a contradiction of x and ~x, but rather we find a harmonious x and y. If we’re talking about x and y, then there was no apparent contradiction between two x’s to begin with but rather only imprecise terminology that needed to be fleshed out a bit more. It’s the person who reasons apart from Scripture that finds himself with x and ~x. It’s only when we think in terms of necessarily one being = one person, which is not a revealed truth, do we run into problems with the Trinity in this regard.

Does all that make me a non-Van Tillian? Well, what are the essential properties one must maintain to be called a Van Tillian, or a Calvinist for that matter? Regarding the former, is it enought to believe that the Triune God is the necessary precondition for intelligible experience, and that Scripture is the justification of all knowledge, and to predicate against God one must presuppose that a common creator provides a fruitful connection between my mind and the external, mind-independent world? Is it enough to believe that formally the believer and unbeliever have much in common but in principle they disagree on everything? Does one need to embrace Calvin’s Geneva to be a Calvinist? I remember Greg Bahnsen while lecturing on the Westminster Confession saying that God’s determination of creaturely choices and man’s responsibility are not seemingly contradictory doctrines but only mysterious. Was he not Van Tillian? Regarding the problem of evil, Bahnsen noted that God has a morally sufficient reason for the evil he ordains. To put it in Gordon Clark’s terms, God is not answerable to anyone but himself.

Finally, nobody is saying that Christian doctrine can be exhausted in our finitude. All that is being said is that seemingly logical contradictions can be removed from doctrines that are pure. If I cannot relieve the tension, then I’ll be constrained either to change my overall theology or dig harder to learn why a new proposition that confronts my old thinking is not at odds with my existing theology. That’s how I became a Calvinistic paedobaptist. It is just not available to earnest Christians to embrace what appears to be contradictory, which is not to say we can exhaust the depths of the doctrines we know in part, or that mystery must be denied. It’s not to raise logic above God’s word, nor is it to be too rational (whatever that means). When did irrationality become a virtue?

Indeed, there are many Christian tenets that remain mysterious to my mind, but I am unaware of any antinomies contained therein. Nor do I believe that because I’m incapable in my finitude of plumbing the depths of any proposition that I’m consigned to a world of incompatible propositions. Biblical faith does not call us to embrace what appears to be false, which is why I can reject the alleged transubstantiation of the mass in good conscience.

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20 comments:

Joshua Butcher said...

Soren Kierkegaard sometimes asserted contradictions as necessary for belief. Mix that in with an attribution of "piety" and you've got a finger on the nose of much of modern Christian dogma with regard to difficult, or rather most basic, doctrines.

I think I'll make use of your posts in class, if I get the opportunity!

Reformed Apologist said...

Josh,

Thanks for weighing in. Let me know how your students process all that, should you get into it with them.

Do you frequent the Blog linked in the first comment above? I think I'll leave it up for a while. All by itself it's a good polemic against Rome.

Joshua Butcher said...

Ron,

Oh that blog? I must go there four times a day to be sure. . .

As for my students, it will be interesting to see how they do. I gave one of them Bahnsen's article on Jerusalem v. Athens in Paul's apologetic in Acts 17, and he ate it up.

Jeff Cagle said...

Hi Ron,

I put this also in an e-mail to you.

One of your objections is,

Until one reconciles an apparent contradiction, I don’t think he has any business embracing both horns of the supposed contradiction.

There's a hidden premise here that's questionable. You are assuming that our reasoner has more warrant to question the horns than he has to question the existence of the contradiction.

But this may not be the case.

If our reasoner believes that the Scripture teaches (1) that God is one in being, and (2) that God is also three in persons, and (3) that this entails some kind of contradiction, then which of the three is the most suspicious?

If I were said reasoner, given the weight of universal Church teaching on the matter, and the pretty clear Scriptural attestation of (1) and (2) (but not (3)), then I would suspect (3) as the error. It is the existence of the contradiction itself which our reasoner has cause to doubt!

In which case, I *would* have business embracing both (1) and (2), with the understanding that they appear contradictory to me, but I'm pretty sure that they aren't actually.

This is not just a theological method; it happens in math and science frequently also. If a novice comes up with a really plausible proof that 1 = 0 (I can supply one if interested!), then it's more likely that the proof is wrong, than that 1 = 0.

Likewise, if I can come up with a proof that the Trinity is a contradictory doctrine, then my proof is likely flawed. And until I find the error, I have warrant to embrace both the three persons and the one being.

Thanks for your efforts,
Jeff

Reformed Apologist said...

It is the existence of the contradiction itself which our reasoner has cause to doubt!

Jeff,

If the reasoner believes he has identified a contradiction embedded in a doctrine yet while believing that the historical Christian church affirms both propositional horns of the doctrine that contains the apparent contradiction, then the basis for embracing both horns would be upon an appeal to popular authority and not God’s authoritative word.

There is a subtle distinction that must be teased out I think. It pertains to the difference between a justification for believing something is true and a justification of the facts themselves that are believed to be true. I can believe a doctrine is true because the church teaches it, but it’s quite another thing to justify the teachings themselves the church teaches, and such a justification of the truth of the church's teachings can only come from God’s word. In the former case, I’ve heard from man and in the latter case from God. This is not to say that the God does not speak through the church, for he does. The point, however, is that we need to seek to get our persuasion from the Spirit's working in conjunction with the Word, and if one is basing a propositional belief on something other than God’s word, like on the historical Christian church, then such a belief can hardly account as knowledge of the truth.

Not only do the following passages teach that we’re to hear from God and not men on these matters, the Confession addresses cited below, in concert with Scripture, commend such a practice. (John 4:39-42; I Thess. 2:13; Matt. 16:13-17; Galatians 1:11, 12; WCF 1.5 and 1.10; WCF 14.2)Note well that Paul when battling the Judaizers didn't even cite the apostles but rather Christ in his defense of the gospel.

cont.

Reformed Apologist said...

Now if the person believes not only that the church affirms contradiction but that God’s word actually teaches contradiction, then he is attributing irrational utterances to God.

In which case, I *would* have business embracing both (1) and (2), with the understanding that they appear contradictory to me, but I'm pretty sure that they aren't actually.

As I said in the post, there are transition periods in our thinking as our theology becomes more refined, but when we step over to believe something else, if that belief is to be knowledge we must base it upon God's word, not the church's say-so. Moreover, I can come across a passage that appears to violate my overall doctrine at cardinal points, but I have no rational basis for believing that an isolated verse undermines the entirety of my theology given the doctrinal edifice it’s built upon. Accordingly, I must reject the passage as meaning something contradictory to what I believe, though it is incumbent to for me to figure out what it does imply. In other words, I will render an opinion on what it cannot mean, while trying to figure out what it does mean.

But since we’re talking about the historic Christian church as it has come to its fullest expression in the doctrinal standards of the Protestant Reformation, I would suggest that if one comes across a seemingly contradictory Reformed teaching, then we must show why it is not contradictory. If the person insists that it is contradictory in the face of not showing how it takes the form of x = ~x, then he’s simply confused about what a contradiction entails, and possibly what the propositional horns imply. Given such confusion, it is not wise to embrace both horns of the confusion but rather wrestle with the horns and elementary logic until God brings to pass greater understanding. What is it even to believe as true what appears to be false?

Likewise, if I can come up with a proof that the Trinity is a contradictory doctrine, then my proof is likely flawed. And until I find the error, I have warrant to embrace both the three persons and the one being.

Your “warrant” would be based upon men and not God. If that satisfies somebody, then I’m very sorry for him and we’re at an impasse.

Thoughts?

Jeff Cagle said...

Ron, just two thoughts.

First, you wrote:

I would suggest that if one comes across a seemingly contradictory Reformed teaching, then we must show why it is not contradictory.

I agree in general but note that the process of coming to cognitive rest might take years. Or might not come at all on this side of the grave.

What then?

Second, I would in general agree with you: argument from authority is a deductive fallacy.

However, it is also a proper inductive approach. In science, if three authorities tell me that my research disproving Newton's Law of Gravity is flawed, then I have strong warrant for doubting my conclusion.

Likewise: Sola Scriptura does not entail a null role for the authority of the church to determine questions of faith (per WCoF 31). I'm not sure I can precisely nail down how those two interplay; but it strikes me that you are overemphasizing the role of the individual reasoner, without granting that he might make a blinkered error.

Mathison's distinction between sola scriptura and solo scriptura is helpful here. Yes, Scripture is the sole ground of our doctrine. No, an individual cannot, without hugely strong and clear Scriptural warrant, overthrow the collective judgment of the Church.

(Mathison notes that Luther had the backing of not only Scripture, but also the ECFs as confirmation of his interpretation of Scripture).

In the case of the doctrine of the Trinity ...

Jeff

Anonymous said...

Mathison's distinction between sola scriptura and solo scriptura is helpful here. Yes, Scripture is the sole ground of our doctrine. No, an individual cannot, without hugely strong and clear Scriptural warrant, overthrow the collective judgment of the Church.

(Mathison notes that Luther had the backing of not only Scripture, but also the ECFs as confirmation of his interpretation of Scripture).


Mathison placed the creeds on the same level of Scripture. His approach was more Roman Catholic than Reformed.

Van Tillians usually don't claim Van Til when it comes to paradox. Those who do usually can't defend their position. That is precisely what is occurring on GreenBaggins. Those guys are a dying breed. The guys who affirm paradox today take paradox as meaning something that appears contradictory but is resolved with further investigation.

Anonymous said...

It really isn't imperative to understand everything in God's word. God's ways are so far above our ways. Our puny minds (compared to God's) are limited.

Reformed Apologist said...

Don't confuse God's requirements with what is possible for fallen man. God determines the imperatives. Is it imperative that we be holy as God is holy? Yes, but it's not possible that we do what is required. The same goes for understandning God's word. May St. Augustine's prayer be ours... "God, command what you will and grant what you command."

Anonymous said...

Also, don't confuse the glorious simple gospel message, with intellectual hobby horses.

Reformed Apologist said...

Also, don't confuse the glorious simple gospel message, with intellectual hobby horses.

I agree. Who in their right mind would think that we're to embrace things that appear false other than one who is riding an intellectual hobby horse? Unfortunately, because so many have been confused by these pseudo-intellects others desire to refute them for the sake of the sheep that are so easily led astray by such sophistry.

Thanks for pointing that out, or by chance were you on the other side of the issue? Do you think that the refutation of the weed of skepticism that is growing within the church is not worth refuting? Or could it be that everything you don't understand you find contains no value?

Anonymous said...

The flesh insists on definitive answers. The Western World thrives on them. But our God transcends our rational minds and refuses to be perfectly understood and rejects our insistence that we have indisputable answers to every question.

Reformed Apologist said...

Ah, the old "western world" appeal. Very fallacious, but I will say it will persuade some.

"But our God transcends our rational minds and refuses to be perfectly understood..."

To be not perfectly understood is not the same thing as being understood as apparently contradictory. So, once again, you err.

"...and rejects our insistence that we have indisputable answers to every question."

That's just another demonstration that you have no idea what this post was about or you're simply blinded by the team you're on. The post points out that God's transcendance does not require that his thoughts appear contradictory, which is not to say that answers are available to us for every question.

Now, are you interested in dealing with what is before you, or are you simply going to dig yourself deeper into a whole like most partisan loyalists? You'd shame yourself if you had the guts to put forth your name.

Van Tillian said...

Anonymous is having a difficult time with all of this and I'm Van Tillian.

Paul said...

Ron,

I'm wondering why you didn't interact with the more sophisticated accounts of paradox, like that found in James Anderson's book on the subject, for if you ahd you would have noted that your questions/arguments were either answered or rendered non-starters. I am interested in this topic and so am always let down when I see someone address it—especially someone who I hoped would have made some interesting points in the discussion, moving it forward—because they never seem to move the discussion forward but come up with old or stale objections that have been answered or addressed already. Now, it would be one thing if those answers were addressed as insufficient to move the debate forward, thus justifying your right to assert the stale as not-stale but still fresh. But not even that happened here. Accordingly :-) , it is like if I were to stumble across a new paper on the problem of talking about God. Imagine my chagrin when I see that the argument was 1920's logical positivism! Not only that, the standard criticisms of logical positivism aren't so much as addressed! The author simply acts as if his criticisms are new and fresh and worthy of serious, sustained interaction.

Reformed Apologist said...

Hi Paul,

Interestingly enough, I've become increasingly more interested in James' writings, in particular with respect to his how CVT relates to Plantinga. Unfortunately, my brief remarks on paradox are in response to what has occured on GB.

The people I've been dealing with have not distinguished apparent from real contradictions in any meaninful way. Nor have they dealt with the distinction of something being free from logical contradiction yet not free from theological difficulties. Moreover, there's no distinction with these fellows between what JA might call implicit and explicit contradictions. In other words, I've heard nobody say from the CVT side on GB that the contradictions we're to embrace do not resemble blatant contradictions.

I hope that gives at least some insight to why I approached this matter in the superficial way I have. :)

Reformed Apologist said...

BTW, I see that Gadbois re: you on GB this morning w/ respect to MH's systematic. I'm glad for that.

Paul said...

Okay Ron, that makes sense :-) Maybe you should just tell them to read James book :-)

Paul said...

not "just" tell them to read his book, but telll them about it *too* :-)