June 28, 2005

On Paradox and Mystery

"It is a sacred duty for any thinking person to try to eliminate paradox."C. F. D. Moule, quoted in The Logic of God Incarnate by Thomas Morris

"I do not explain—I only state it; and this is all we can do with a large proportion of all the facts and truths that we know. There is a point, easily reached, where the simplest facts end in mystery, even as they begin in it; just as each day lies between two nights."—R. Turnbull, quoted in The New Dictionary of Thoughts

God hides himself for many reasons, but I cannot help but think that God hides himself behind seeming contradictions so that some will stumble in their arrogance. Those who love God are willing to wait on him in order to gain coherence and understanding. They walk slowly with him, and watch closely how the lamp of his word lights their feet and path. They may not be able to see ahead how a particular issue is resolved conceptually, but they see enough to walk ahead on revealed principles of scripture. They accept mysteries and pass through experiences of paradox as they walk with God.

I think there is a difference or distinction between paradox and mystery, however, that needs to be clarified. Let me start by saying that all paradoxes are mysteries, but not all mysteries are paradoxes. A paradox is a seeming contradiction. A mystery is a hidden truth of some sort, or some truth unable to be grasped by a finite mind. I think paradoxes are person relative (while mysteries are not), and that the person experiencing paradox does not yet know if the tension is due to an actual contradiction or merely a seeming contradiction.

I am inclined to think that we should not be content with paradoxes in the long term, but we can be content with mystery. Let me explain what I mean. I think that one must pass through the experience of paradox in order to come to God, or to draw near to him so to speak. There will be things that seem to contradict, but really do not. For example, one might think the Trinity doctrine seems contradictory, but believe it anyway because the bible teaches it. They should believe it because the bible teaches it. However, they should progress in the pursuit of intellectual virtue to resolve the tension for themselves, and then for others eventually. They can come to see the distinction of senses between oneness and threeness in the terms (God is one in terms of essence, but three in terms of persons). Once the distinction is understood, there is no more logical tension, even though the Trinity doctrine remains incomprehensible. It remains a mystery, but no longer a paradox for one who comes to understand the careful biblical distinctions.

Bad theology is the inability to make these careful distinctions, and pride tends to carry the person into a lopsided view. Bad theologians cling desperately to false dilemmas and bad logic to sustain their cherished system. They may even appeal to context when they are only imposing their system onto the text of scripture. We ought to loosely hold our system in comparison to our allegiance to scripture. We ought to let the word of God thoroughly insult, rebuke, correct, instruct, encourage, and tweak our understanding. A constant bowing to the God of the word is the heart of true discipleship. I will work to know what the bible says, and then wait on God to give me the discernment to get coherence according to his own good timing. We ought to strive for coherence and consistency, but only in complete submission to the totality of the word of God.

For example, the idea of complex motives in God may bother us, but God through R. L. Dabney can give us a rational massage to understand the coherence of it, and thus soothe the Charlie Horse between our ears. The concept of the Trinity is still a mystery to me (i.e. it is incomprehensible), but it is no longer the paradox that it once was to me. The concept of complex motives or volitions in God is no longer a paradox to me, but it is still a mystery.

I have used the analogy of train tracks before. We may be truly submitting to scripture and holding two parallel truths as a result. We look down at our feet and see that we are on track. When we look ahead we experience paradox. The tracks appear to clash like this /\ and we cannot see how the tracks resolve. However, when we faithfully and humbly wait on God to take us further down the tracks, the tensions disappear gradually . Other people may be in difference places on the track, and hence they are experiencing different paradoxes. The tracks, at different points, seem to be in tension depending on where one is at in their journey with God. With the above careful qualifications in mind, I think I would agree with C. F. D. Moule when he said, "It is a sacred duty for any thinking person to try to eliminate paradox." The goal is to keep moving along the tracks. It is not that we are trying to eliminate mystery, for that would be to deny God's incomprehensibility and his right to keep secrets. Rather, we strive for intellectual virtue and coherence as we continually submit to the sacred word. In making careful distinctions, we can fulfill the biblical mandate to silence the ignorance of foolish men, and bring every thought captive to the obedience of Christ by rational thinking.

I hope that is clear and I hope you all can see the difference. Bad theology is rash theology because it is unwilling to wait on God to illuminate the totality of what he has revealed. Bad theology clings to one truth at the expense of another, and thus warps the biblical picture of God in the name of "logic" that is really unsound logic. Arminianism, Neo-Socinianism (Open Theism) and Hyper-Calvinism are all examples of this. This perverse use of "logic" is what should be associated with rationalism, but not what it means to be rational. There is an inability to distinguish between senses in their case. They seem at times to think that the Law of Noncontradiction is that A cannot be non-A at the same time. That is NOT the law. The law says that A cannot be non-A at the same time and in the same sense. That is a crucial qualification.

While on the tracks of God's word, we can say "Here I stand, so help me God. Unless I am persuaded by sacred scripture and by evident reason, I can do no other." This may sound too rationalistic to some, but not to me. The pursuit of the above view of coherence and virtue seems to be an aspect of loving God with all of our minds. Revelation properly understood will never conflict with reason rightly applied. Faith preceeds understanding, but faith is not antithetical to reason.

Consider the illustration again:

Tracks of Truth === Person A === Person B === Sanctification

Person A may be a genuine believer, and yet fear that the Trinity is contradictory. They are experiencing paradox, but they still cling to the doctrine(s). Being humble, Person A studies what the bible says, what church history has taught, seeks wise counsel, waits on God and prays. Person A comes to learn careful biblical and historical distinctions, and thus learns that the doctrine is not a contradiction, even though they have not comprehended the Trinity. Apprehension (partial knowledge) is gained, but not comprehension (a full knowledge or understanding). The paradox is removed, but the mystery remains. Person A progresses virtuously to the state of Person B in the train track illustration above, and thus draws near to God, achieving sanctification.

Paul, as he drew near to God, wrote this:

NKJ 2Co 6:8 by honor and dishonor, by evil report and good report; as deceivers, and yet true; 9 as unknown, and yet well known; as dying, and behold we live; as chastened, and yet not killed; 10 as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing all things.

Prima facie it seems contradictory, but once you enter into it existentially and understand the distinction of senses, it is not contradictory at all. It is coherent and full of wonder!

Augustine, in prayer and in the contemplation of his Confessions, says things like this that truly reflect the wonder of good theology:
CHAPTER IV 4. What, therefore, is my God? What, I ask, but the Lord God? "For who is Lord but the Lord himself, or who is God besides our God?" Most high, most excellent, most potent, most omnipotent; most merciful and most just; most secret and most truly present; most beautiful and most strong; stable, yet not supported; unchangeable, yet changing all things; never new, never old; making all things new, yet bringing old age upon the proud, and they know it not; always working, ever at rest; gathering, yet needing nothing; sustaining, pervading, and protecting; creating, nourishing, and developing; seeking, and yet possessing all things. Thou dost love, but without passion; art jealous, yet free from care; dost repent without remorse; art angry, yet remainest serene. Thou changest thy ways, leaving thy plans unchanged; thou recoverest what thou hast never really lost. Thou art never in need but still thou dost rejoice at thy gains; art never greedy, yet demandest dividends. Men pay more than is required so that thou dost become a debtor; yet who can possess anything at all which is not already thine? Thou owest men nothing, yet payest out to them as if in debt to thy creature, and when thou dost cancel debts thou losest nothing thereby. Yet, O my God, my life, my holy Joy, what is this that I have said? What can any man say when he speaks of thee? But woe to them that keep silence--since even those who say most are dumb.

CHAPTER XXXVII 52. For then also thou shalt so rest in us as now thou workest in us; and, thus, that will be thy rest through us, as these are thy works through us. But thou, O Lord, workest evermore and art always at rest. Thou seest not in time, thou movest not in time, thou restest not in time. And yet thou makest all those things which are seen in time--indeed, the very times themselves--and everything that proceeds in and from time. 

CHAPTER XXXVIII 53. We can see all those things which thou hast made because they are--but they are because thou seest them. And we see with our eyes that they are, and we see with our minds that they are good. But thou sawest them as made when thou sawest that they would be made. And now, in this present time, we have been moved to do well, now that our heart has been quickened by thy Spirit; but in the former time, having forsaken thee, we were moved to do evil. But thou, O the one good God, hast never ceased to do good! And we have accomplished certain good works by thy good gifts, and even though they are not eternal, still we hope, after these things here, to find our rest in thy great sanctification. But thou art the Good, and needest no rest, and art always at rest, because thou thyself art thy own rest. What man will teach men to understand this? And what angel will teach the angels? Or what angels will teach men? We must ask it of thee; we must seek it in thee; we must knock for it at thy door. Only thus shall we receive; only thus shall we find; only thus shall thy door be opened.
Also, see here: More Wonderful Paradoxes in Augustine

It seems to me that such language is produced from a healthy theological mind that has existentially passed through paradox, to marvel at the remaining mysteries in order to worship God. This is our goal in seeking intellectual virtue.


Lexie said...

I'll have to bookmark to refere back to. Excellent illustration and explanation.

I appreciate the tone of the post also.


Laura said...

Tony, thanks for leaving the link at Intellectuelle. This is really helpful.

Tony Byrne said...

This quote from John Howe is also relevant to this matter of Paradox and Mystery:

John Howe Quote

THEOparadox said...


This is a superb article! Makes a lot of sense out of a lot of things. Thanks.

Derek Ashton

Tony Byrne said...

Thanks, Derek :-)