Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Exegetical Warrant for Theological Paradox

“Not to set the goal “Not to set the goal of quarrying from Scripture a harmonious theology devoid of paradoxes is to sound the death knell not only to systematic theology but also to all theology that would commend itself to men as the truth of the one living and rational God.”[1] Clearly, the belief that Christian theism contains paradox in any shape or form is not without some controversy. Nevertheless, we must be willing to grapple with the root cause of that controversy if we are to move beyond the issue to understand the place of paradox in Christian theology in general, and in Christian apologetics in particular if such a place actually exists. If we were to put our finger on the substance of this question, it would concern the type of logic employed to govern the conversation on the one hand as well as the ultimate authority by which all truth is judged, on the other.
            The accusation lurking in the background is that we are setting divine revelation over against human reason as if the two are ipso facto antithetical. On the other hand, we must avoid the conclusion that human reason can stand in judgment of the truthfulness and content of divine revelation. The purpose of this section is to survey a sampling of the basic texts of Christian Scripture in the hope of understanding the biblical acceptance or rejection of the idea of paradox as a legitimate concept in Christian doctrine. Only then is one in a position to understand how theological paradox impacts apologetic methodology.
            In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth (Gen. 1:1). The very first sentence in Christian Scripture provides us with the sort of fodder we need in order to understand whether or not Scripture presents the human mind with a paradoxical situation. Clearly the paradox of time and eternity immediately presents itself. In addition, the view that God created something when He had no matter to begin with out of which to create anything, presents us with a second paradoxical scenario. Additionally, the question of God’s existence prior to and operating within the sphere of time presents us with yet another paradoxical puzzle. What is the Christian to do with these paradoxes? Do we seek to solve them? If so, can we solve them using fallen, finite, human logic or can we appeal to another kind of logic by which these paradoxes may be understood even if they might remain unresolved?
            B.A. Bosserman writes, “If Christians contend that creation is indeed materially distinct from the Creator, then that which exists must have somehow sprung “from” its very opposite, namely non-existence.”[2] One calls to mind the ancient saying, “out of nothing, nothing comes.” The nature of the statement that something came from nothing clearly presents us with an apparent contradiction as far as human reason is concerned. And it is with humans that we must reason both theologically and apologetically. Genesis offers no attempt to resolve what God must have known from eternity past, would turn out to be a challenge for human predication. Scripture offers little comfort in terms of resolving the difficulty, at least not at first glance.
            The truth of the matter is that Christian theology finds itself involved in numerous paradoxes and many of them strike at the very heartbeat of the Christian system. In fact, if paradox ipso facto compromises the integrity of any claim whatsoever, Christianity is indeed in serious trouble. Not only must we deal with those paradoxes introduced in just one verse in Genesis, the very first verse in Scripture mind you, we also have some very fundamental claims with which to deal. For example, we must acknowledge the difficulty of assertions like that of the incarnation, divine condescension, divine sovereignty and human responsibility, and most basic of all, the self-contained ontological Trinity. This list is by no means comprehensive, but it does represent Christian teachings that, if proven false, would serve to falsify the system as a whole. The question for the Christian and especially for the apologist is what to do with this phenomenon of paradox that seems so obviously pervasive in the most basic teachings of Christian theism. One could bury their head in the sand and pretend these difficulties do not exist at all. Another reaction may be to hold human logic up as the standard and reword each teaching in a way so that it can accord with the power of human reason. Still, one could work tirelessly trying to resolve each and every paradox so that critics are eventually satisfied with the respective conclusions. Finally, one could recognize that if Christian theism is actually true and, it is what Scripture affirms it to be, it seems to follow quite logically that paradox in such a system is really unavoidable. Moreover this is especially the case if the state of affairs is what God, speaking in Scripture, has said that it is.
            The apostle Paul provides an excellent example of the Christian response to paradox when it is discovered in divine revelation. In writing to the Roman Christians Paul puts up a defense of the covenant promises of God beginning in Romans 9. His argument is that the word of God has not failed which means then that the Roman Christians had perhaps misunderstood the true nature of the covenant or the promise to begin with. As Paul launches the argument, he calls on God’s sovereign election of individuals to illustrate what the promise actually meant and, precisely why he believed it had not failed. In so doing, he recalls the story of Pharaoh, the Egyptian leader that refused to cooperate with Moses, and ultimately with the commandment to release the children of Israel from slavery. Paul points out that it was God’s purpose, in hardening Pharaoh’s heart, to display His glorious power. The point is that God sovereignly hardened Pharaoh’s heart so that he would not grant the Israelites their freedom, but then God punished Pharaoh for doing what God had ordained Pharaoh to do in the first place. Paul anticipates that the objector will retort, how is it fair for God to harden Pharaoh to do His bidding, and then turn around and punish Him for doing precisely what God had intended he do from the start? The reason for this objection is felt quite plainly. This feels contradictory to human logic. How is the Christian to take this text? Are we simply to confess that the Christian Scripture contains contradictions and we must simply accept them in faith and so honor God in a state of irrational humility? I think there is a better solution.
            Paul’s argument points out that paradox is a fact in Christian theology, like it or not. But it also helps us by providing some guidelines for truly rational thinking. Moreover, Paul’s argument provides excellent fodder for how Christians should respond to these issues when we discover them. God is not an irrational being. But God is also not a man. God does not use nor is He bound by the limitations of created logic. By created logic, I mean the sort of logic that man, created in God’s image, uses in order to reason about the world in which he finds himself.

[1] Robert L. Reymond, A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith (Nashville: T. Nelson, ©1998), 110.

[2] 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), 15.

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