Eliminating Paradox from Christian Theology: From the Frying Pan into the Fire

by | Mar 18, 2016 | Apologetics, Christian Philosophy, Theology | 0 comments

Recently, I have come to understand that the presuppositional method of some apologists who claim to follow Gordon Clark’s method of apologetics, reject the view that Christian theology involves paradox. The purpose of this post is to examine the claim that Christian theology involves paradox and to understand the implications that paradox, if indeed it is a valid part of Christian theology, might have on how we defend Christian belief. This is a continuation of my last post that was focused on the state of Christian Apologetics in modern Western culture.

First of all, I want to define terms. Paradox is something very specific in philosophy. “The word ‘paradox’ derives from the Greek (para and doxa), which may be translated as ‘contrary to belief’ or ‘beyond belief.’ [The Philosophers Toolkit] There is more than one type of paradox. When we reason from apparently true premises, a conclusion is generated that contradicts or flies in the face of what other common reasoning or experience tells us, we call this a paradox. To borrow the example from Zeno of Elea, Achilles races a tortoise but gives the tortoise a head start. By the time Achilles gets to A, the place where the tortoise originally began, the tortoise will be at point B. And the by the time Achilles gets to point B, the tortoise will have moved to another point, call it C and so on. It seems that Achilles would never overtake the tortoise. The reasoning is solid, or so it seems. But there seems to be something wrong with the conclusion that Achilles will not overtake the tortoise. We call this a paradox.

Another kind of paradox appears when reason itself leads to a contradiction. Take the claim, ‘This statement is false.’ Is the statement true or false? If it is true, then it is false. And if it is false, then it is true. Or take that famous Liar’s Paradox: ‘everything I say is a lie.’ Given that a sentence cannot be both true and false, we find ourselves faced with a paradox. A paradox then is only an apparent contradiction. It is not an actual contradiction. [The Philosopher’s Toolkit] As James Anderson points out, “A ‘paradox’ thus amounts to a set of claims which taken in conjunction appear to be logically inconsistent.” [Paradox in Christian Theology]

This raises the question, what is it about Christian belief that leads to paradox? Can one hold to the truthfulness of Christian belief consistently without also hold to paradox as part of that belief? In other words, what is it about Christian belief that leads us to conclude that such belief involves paradox? Christians have wanted to affirm two things about God in terms of knowing God. First, God is apprehensible and second, that God is incomprehensible. On the one hand we can know some things about God in part. On the other hand, we cannot know God comprehensively. It is the doctrine of the incomprehensibility of God that ultimately leads to the view that paradox in Christian belief is inevitable. “It is therefore likely that at certain points in our reasoning about God the concepts we employ, though precise enough when applied in our logical analysis of created things, will be insufficiently refined to support those distinctions require to render our theological theorizing free from all appearance of logical conflict.” [Paradox in Christian Theology]

As an example of paradox in Scripture, I point you to Romans 9:14-20. Paul is defending God’s fidelity by providing a more accurate exegesis of the covenant promises to Israel. In so doing, he emphasizes God’s sovereign election of Jacob over Esau. This election took place prior to the twins’ birth and was based on God’s purpose alone, not anything that either man had done, or any quality either one of these men possessed. The natural reaction to this, from a logical standpoint, would be: how is this fair? How can God hate someone apart from any actions on that person’s part? Wouldn’t this make God unjust? And that is the question in v. 14 that Paul imagines any questioner might raise. Paul answers by asserting God’s sovereign right to have mercy on whom He pleases and to harden whom He pleases. Well, that isn’t quite solving the problem. If God is going to reject someone, and do so justly, should He not base His action on that person’s behavior since that person is going to suffer divine judgment? Instead, Paul answers that God’s election is not based on the actions or volition of men, but rather on God alone. Once again, Paul has simply affirmed God’s right to do as He pleases and he shows no interest in a logical solution to the obvious tension. How can God bring someone into the world, elect them to damnation before they do anything wicked, and still be just? You see, we are not dealing with just the sovereignty of God here. We are also dealing with God’s righteousness. Of course God can be sovereign and do these things. The question is, can He be just and do these things? If you miss that, then you are missing the argument. If you think this is purely about sovereignty, you are missing the immediate problem. V. 19 bring us to the immediate problem: how can God find fault with Pharaoh if He sovereignly brought Pharaoh into this world for the ultimate purpose of hardening him and not have mercy on him? Could Pharaoh have done other than what God had predetermined he would do? No, he could not. Then how can God find fault with someone who could do nothing other than what God had decreed he would do and still be just in doing it? To say just because, which is essentially what the Clarkian seems to say, is not an answer. That does not resolve the problem. It begs the question. The question is how can God be just and punish Pharaoh both at the same time. To say that whatever God does is just just because God does it is not an answer. One has to say how can God do what would be unjust for anyone else to do and not be unjust like the rest that do it. This is like saying, it is a sin for me to lie, but God can lie without it being a sin simply because it is God doing it. That is not an answer. Jesus was tempted to sin. We say he could not sin because He was God. But to say that sin was impossible for Him because every act He could ever do, even if he had sex with Mary Magdalene would not be a sin because God acting is ipso facto not a sin. This would make a mockery of the temptations of Christ. Logically speaking, God can sin. The only reason God cannot sin is because of His righteous nature, not because of the laws of logic. Sin is contrary to God’s nature. Because God is perfectly holy, He cannot sin. But sin as a category remains something that exists even for God. What I am getting at here is that the temptations of Christ were real and that had Christ theoretically worshipped Satan, such worship would have been sin. To say that it would not have been sin because it was God committing the act is to deny that Christ was tempted in all points like as we are. Therefore, to deny that God could have sin in the person of Christ is to not take Scripture seriously when it talks about the temptations of Christ. Of course, one could argue that Christ was two persons instead of one and create a whole new Christology that departs from the historical position.

So, the issue remains, how can God be just and punish Pharaoh for doing what God had decreed He would do before he was even born? In order for God to be perfectly just, Pharaoh had to be responsible for his actions. And in order for God to be perfectly sovereign, God’s plan had to be carried out to the smallest detail. Logically speaking we have a real problem on our hands and Paul is in the middle of addressing it in our text. Let’s take a look at the two arguments:

If A, then B


Therefore, B

If God is just, then Pharaoh is responsible. God is just. Therefore, Pharaoh is responsible. Second argument, following the same Modus Ponens rule is as follows: If God is in control, then Pharaoh is not responsible. God is in Control. Therefore, Pharaoh is not responsible. God’s sovereignty and God’s justice are juxtaposed with one another and seem to conflict in this case. Someone may argue that Pharaoh is still responsible even if God is in full control. From a purely logical standpoint, that is patently false. To be responsible for something, where human reason is concerned, you have to have some control in the matter. And that is exactly what Paul is dealing with. If the Roman audience thought that Pharaoh could be responsible even though he had no control, then this entire section is completely unintelligible. The only way Romans 9:14-29 makes sense is if there is an argument such as I have outlined taking place either literally or hypothetically. There is nothing that is controversial in my claim that Paul dealing with the presence of paradox in this pericope. Specifically, Paul is dealing with the paradox between divine sovereignty and human responsibility. Rather than call on human logic to try and solve this paradox, Paul seems perfectly content to let it stand. This is an act of complete submission and amazing humility on Paul’s part. If Paul was content to let it stand, perhaps we should be content to do the same thing. If it was good enough for Paul, it should be more than good enough for us since Paul was writing for the Holy Spirit.

There are those who reject paradox in Christian belief. As I mentioned above, certain disciples of Gordon Clark reject it outright. I am not sure if this is a pervasive view among Clarkians. One reason that some reject paradox in Christian belief can be traced to an over-emphasis on human reason. If one is a rationalist, then paradox in their belief system can be fatal. Whether that is the case for the typical Clarkian is something I cannot answer. However, the only answer I received from the Clarkians that I engaged seem to point in the direction that if Christian belief violated human reason, or the laws of logic, then the implication was that it collapses. And this is a highly problematic position for any Christian to hold. The reason it is so problematic is that it places human reason in the position of being the final authority for what is true and should be embraced and what is not. Such thinking is bound to have an impact of what we believe about God, Christ, Sin, and a plethora of other doctrines.

It seems to me that the rejection of paradox in Christian theology opens the door to apologetic method that is not entirely consistent with biblical teaching. It allows the apologist to displace Scripture with human reason as his epistemic authority. The other issue is that if it is human reason that serves as the primary principle for interpreting Christian doctrine, then when one doctrine seemingly conflicts with another doctrine, the desire for clear logical consistency can lead to the mishandling of one doctrine in order to harmonize it with another doctrine. For example, in an attempt to harmonize divine sovereignty with human responsibility, we may move toward a hyper-Calvinism on the one hand or a skewed view of libertarian freedom on the other hand. Or, we may contort the Trinity in an attempt to solve the paradoxical nature of that doctrine. And as some have point out, Clark argued that Jesus was not one person, but rather two persons. There are an endless number of possible doctrine error that can result of an unhealthy reliance on human reason or the laws of logic when interpreting Scripture.

In summary, here are just a handful of Christian beliefs that are an indication that paradox is unavoidable. God is three persons in one being is a paradox. Jesus being both God and man is a paradox. Divine sovereignty and human responsibility is a paradox. The existence of evil is a paradox. Christian humility and complete submission mandates that the prudent path where paradox is concerned is that we respond: “your ways are higher than my ways and your thoughts are higher than my thoughts.

Rejection of paradox as a legitimate tool in hermeneutics creates serious issues for Christianity:

  •      Can lead to a far too rational approach to Christian apologetics
  •       Can produce serious doctrinal error in Christian theology
  •       Has a tendency to replace Scripture with human reason as our epistemic authority
  •       Is far too confident in the ability of human reason to resolve the irresolvable
  •     If taken to its logical end, results in the outright rejection of Christianity as a tenable worldview
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