Thursday, December 11, 2014

A Christian Understanding of Paradox

Before one explores the differences between a Christian understanding of paradox and the non-Christian understanding of it, it is better if one takes a look at what a paradox is according to the limitations of temporal human logic. Then, and only then will we be in a position to make this important distinction. A ‘paradox’ thus amounts to a set of claims which taken in conjunction appear to be logically inconsistent.[1] Note that Anderson has not defined a paradox as actual logical inconsistency but only the appearance of such. Later, Anderson admits, “As the debate stands today, no writer from the first to the twenty-first century has offered an explication of the doctrine of the Trinity that is both clearly orthodox and free from apparent contradiction. It seems that the careful theologian inevitably faces a dilemma: that of embracing either paradox or heterodoxy.”[2] It seems clear enough that the proponent of Christian theism needs to understand the nature of paradox and it’s relationship to the Christian worldview. This is not to say that theological paradox is beyond vindication. It is one thing to recognize and embrace the appearance of contradiction from an almost fideistic perspective and another to acknowledge its place in a system like Christian theism.

The elephant in the room is the abstract reasoning of the unbeliever. The Christian reasons differently, or let us say the Christian ought to reason differently. The issue in autonomous human philosophy is the infamous one-many problem. The Christian doctrine of the Trinity actually dissolves the one-many problem by challenging the view that reality ought to be interpreted using abstract principles. Bosserman states it eloquently, “Stated another way, the Trinity solves the one-many problem by being free from it himself, and then enabling believers to reason concretely on the basis of a systematic interpretation of reality so that they are effectively freed from it as well.”[3] 

When the Christian apologist encounters accusations of contradiction, unless he addresses the fallacy of abstract reasoning, he probably deserves the criticism he receives. But the Christian apologist can, should, and must do better. If we are to faithfully publish and defend Christian truth, we must do so in a way that is reflective of and consistent with the system in which it operates. God makes no apologies for being the self-contained ontological Trinity from whom all reality flows. If we really believe what we say we believe, we must be prepared to defend the consequences of those convictions in a way that is consistent with divine revelation rather than pretending that unbelieving, abstract, autonomous reason can produce something that does not lead to absurdity.

Since modern conceptions of syllogism and logic depend on the Aristotelian framework of categories, we must undertake a fundamental reform of logic as well as of metaphysical categories.[4] Failure to recognize what should be an obvious fact for the Christian apologist and theology can be devastating to Christian thought. As a result, Christian theism becomes a sort of admixture of Plato, Aristotle, and Christ. What is worse is these ideas make their way into Christian theology and practical thinking and living within the Christian community. Moreover, the consequences of a failure on the part of apologists to recognize this important aspect in Christian reasoning can result in unnecessary criticisms and even worse, embarrassing encounters with opponents of the Christian faith. Christian theism begins with a fundamental distinction between the Creator and the creature.

By contrast, non-Christian philosophy pretends that there is only one universal level of being.[5] From the very beginning the principles involved in human reason are antithetical to those that control Christian logic. The way in which Christians reason about reality, like everything else about us, must be reformed, reshaped by the work and power of the Holy Spirit within. If it were true that the effects of sin have touched every other aspect of human existence, why would we think that logic alone remains unscathed? But that is precisely what philosophers, apologists, and even the majority of theologians believe. Only in a consistently reformed system of thought do we find the sort of expressions of Christianity revealed in Scripture coming into their own in theological systematics and in apologetic methodology.

The Christian system of thought is by definition distinct, and as a matter of fact, antithetical to the non-Christian system of thought. If Paul does not teach this in 1 Corinthians 1-2, he does not teach anything in those chapters. All that the believer needs, in order to be logically consistent in treating an apparent contradiction as an exciting impetus to greater discovery, is personal assurance from God that his revelation-based knowledge is true and sufficient, even though finite.[6] Given the claims of Christian theism as a whole, how could a dissimilar course be possible? The basic foundation of Christian theism is in fact paradoxical. An infinite Creator has created a finite being out of dirt, which was created out of nothing. It matters not how you explain this event; for the natural man, it sounds foolish within the bounds of fallen, finite logic. For the Christian, as Bosserman says above, it is an exciting impetus to greater discoveries about the world in which we live.

On this position, logical reasoning is best defined as a procedure of “implication” where the believer (a) looks through the lens of the biblical worldview upon created facts, events, qualities, etc.; (b) discerns how they are illuminated by the Christian system, and in turn constitute new contributions to it; and (c) develops a fuller portrait of the biblical worldview.[7] Contrast this with the non-believer who presupposes the laws of logic and human reason essentially in a vacuum. Logic becomes little more than a mere convention of human language, or so it is claimed or at least that is the essential conclusion whether it is admitted or not. Rather than being guided by the transcendent, self-contained ontological Triune God of Scripture, the non-Christian places all his faith in the mere accident of the human mind, which is in essence the unavoidable, the product of chance. Far too many of us unwittingly subscribe to the doctrine of John Locke, who said, “nothing that is contrary to, and inconsistent with, the clear and self-evident dictates of reason, has a right to be urged or assented to as a matter of faith, wherein reason hath nothing to do.”[8] In Locke’s system, human reason is the final bar for judging all things to include what is and is not divine revelation. Man is the final measure and ultimate reference point for human predication. Far too often, Christian apologists inadvertently expose this as one of their own deep convictions without realizing just how antithetical it is to Christian theology and how devastating it can be to a consistent and biblically faithful defense of the gospel.

The Christian then fully embraces this understanding of paradox recognizing that Scripture enthusiastically affirms that such is the case. Finite human reason, created logic, must be reformed because like everything else, it has been woefully affected by sin. We must humbly reason analogically, thinking God’s thoughts after Him while recognizing that His thoughts are higher than our thoughts and because this truth has been clearly revealed in Scripture, we can have confidence that paradoxes, rather than threatening Christian truth, are a natural outcome of it.  

[1] James Anderson, Paradox in Christian Theology: An Analysis of Its Presence, Character, and Epistemic Status, Paternoster Theological Monographs (Eugene, Or.: Wipf & Stock, 2007), 5-6.
[2] Ibid. 59.

[3] B.A. Bosserman, The Trinity and the Vindication of Christian Paradox: an Interpretation and Refinement of the Theological Apologetic of Cornelius van Til (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2014), 85.
[4] Vern S. Poythress, Logic: A God-Centered Approach to the Foundation of Western Thought (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 2013), 669.

[5] Ibid, 670.
[6] B.A. Bosserman, The Trinity and the Vindication of Christian Paradox: an Interpretation and Refinement of the Theological Apologetic of Cornelius van Til (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2014), 89.
[7] B.A. Bosserman, The Trinity and the Vindication of Christian Paradox: an Interpretation and Refinement of the Theological Apologetic of Cornelius van Til (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2014), 89-90.
[8] Baruch A. Brody, ed., Readings in the Philosophy of Religion: An Analytic Approach, 2nd ed. (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, ©1992), 17.

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