Science in Christian Perspective
THE PLACE 0F PARADOX IN OUR CHRISTIAN TESTIMONY
J. OLIVER BUSWELL, JR.*
From: JASA 17 (September
1965): 88-92, 96
My contention is that our Christian program does not ask the non-Christian to believe any contradiction, seeming or real. My paper was written in answer to the view that paradox constitutes an essential part of our Evangelical testimony. Major attention is therefore given to such matters as the Incarnation and the, Trinity.
I have unwritten elsewhere on the ancient Greek1 and modern mathematical paradoxes. The former were, in my opinion, well answered by Aristotle. The latter can be answered by a few rational principles such as: (1) A point is not a part of a line or space in any. literal sense. (2) Infinity is not a "whole" or a sum or a total. (3) Changing definitions of symbols, as in modern arithmetic, does not produce real contradictions any more than any other shift of language or vocabulary.
Three distinct meanings of the word "paradox" must be recognized in good usage. (1) The word may mean striking contrast, or startling and unexpected reality. Examples are found in the words of the Lord: "He who wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake, he will save it."2 "Blind guides! Straining out a gnat, and swallowing a camel!"3 Paradoxes of this sort give spice to our language and stimulus to our thought.
(2) A second type of paradox is an apparent contradiction, in which one is confident that further light will remove the difficulty. Of this type there are many Biblical examples: "Though He slay me, yet will I trust in Him"4 God, though "omnipotent," and "not wishing that any should perish but that all might come to repentance," yet will abandon to "everlasting punishment" those who do not by their deeds give evidence of saving faith in Christ.5
(3) An actual contradiction is a third type of paradox recognized by lexicographical authorities. This type is not common in ordinary discourse. It is illustrated by any two unambiguous propositions which contradict each other, such as "All of the class S is included in the class P; and some of the class S is not included in the class P." Another illustration is an unambiguous self-contradictory proposition such as "Five plus seven equals ten." This proposition is a type-three paradox because the predicate contradicts the definitions of the terms of the subjectBELIEVING A "TYPE-THREE" PARADOX
Since Hegel's principle of Negativitat, and especially since Kierkegaard's teaching that the Incarnation is a stark contradiction which must be accepted by the "leap" of faith, the movement in theology and philosophy which embraces paradoxes of this type and claims to believe both sides of palpable contradictions has been given great impetus. Thus Professor John Wild of Harvard and Northwestern frankly states that in Christian philosophy we cannot always adhere to the logical law of contradictions.
Now a self contradiction is a falsehood. The logical law of contradictories is an expression of the character of "God who cannot lie."6 My first impulse is to call down fire from heaven upon those who "believe a lie"7 and to class them all together with the followers of the "Son of Perdition."
However, two considerations modify,-not my opposition to self-eontradictions,-but my attitude toward those who embrace them. (1) Many of these paradox lovers are clearly not of the class of people who "received not the love of the truth so as to be saved."8 In fact, not to mention devout contemporaries, such saints as the anti-systematic Charles Simeon of Cambridge (1759-1836), and such heroes of faith as the inconsistent Martin Luther are among their number. Charles Hodges9 cites a passage in which Luther vigor
*J. Oliver Buswell, Jr., is Professor of Systematic Theology, Covenant Seminary, St. Louis, Missouri. Paper presented at the 19th annual convention of the American Scientific Afflliation, August 1964, at John Brown University, Siloam Springs, Arkansas.
ously denounces the doctrine that "what is true in religion is also true in philosophy."
(2) A second consideration which deflects my indignation from the paradox lovers to their doctrine, is the fact that the evangelicals among them almost unanimously declare that they do not believe that "for God" any actual contradictions are "True." For human logic, they say, these type-three paradoxes are unresolvable, but God has a diferent kind of logic.
There is variety among these lovers of contradiction. (1) One group holds that God is the Author of the laws of logic, not in the sense that these laws are an expression of His immutable character, but in the sense in which an athletic commission may draw up the rules for basketball for 1963, and may modify those rules for 1964. God may even be expected to change the rules of logic in the middle of the game, or even retroactively. "Covenant Theology" emphasizes that God keeps His promises, but this interpretation leaves us with no reliable promises of God which we can count on, for we may find that God's words do not mean what they say in terms of accurate lexicography.
True some of those who reason thus, hold that contradictions in Christianity must be limited and localized in a few areas like the doctrine of the Trinity and the doctrines of divine decrees and human responsibility. But it is not clear just how the contradictions are fenced in. If one equals three in the Trinity, why can I not use the same arithmetic in my income tax report? It solves so many problems!
(2) Another group of lovers of contradictions recognize the law of contradictories as implied in God's character of truth, and in the covenant character of Biblical revelation. For these no paradox which actually is of what I have called type-three is to be accepted as true. Yet a great amount of Christian doctrine which is hard to grasp, doctrine of the nature of the type-two paradox, is held to be actually unresolvable for finite understanding and so, for all practical purposes, of the nature of the type-three paradox. The cliche' "the finite mind cannot understand the infinite," has been taken by many as an axiom. This is not an axiom. It is a lazy minded false dogma. In mathematics the concept of infinity is well defined. It is a negative concept. We know the meaning of the term and know much of what we can and cannot do with it. In theology we know what we mean when we say "infinite power," "infinite knowledge", etc. Infinity is an intelligible negative concept, meaning "without limit."
I do hold that such phrases as "the infinite," or "infinity," without specification as to what is unlimited, are-not terms of mystery-but terms indicating clearly perspicuous nonsense. But the areas of theology in which the clich6 "the finite cannot understand the infinite" is used to excuse unclear thinking, are areas in which the Bible makes positive statements in clearly definable terms.
If man is created in the image of God in the sense of John 10:34,35 where our Lord was quoting Psalm 82:6 -in the sense that man is a creature "unto whom the word of God happened (egeneto)," it would seem a fortiori that whatever God has said to man would be intelligible to man. The word of God requires the illumination of the Holy Spirit for its comprehension. It may be difficult, challenging, stimulating; but the notion that anything in the Word of God is in principle inscrutable, or contradictory for man as man, seems to me an improbable, yes, an evil dogma."THE CASE FOR PARADOX"
In a recent issue of the Bulletin of the Evangelical Theological Society10 a scholar whose evangelical faith is above question has performed a genuine service in his article "The Postulate of Paradox." In well documented form, he has gathered together historical and contemporary material in support of a view of paradoxes which I consider erroneous. The article concludes, "Let us emphatically assert 'apparently opposite truths' remembering as a sort of criterion that very likely we are being loyal to the Bible as long as we feel upon our minds the tug of logical tension. Let us as evangelicals unhesitatingly postulate paradox."11 In the first place, the author fails to distinguish between the three types of paradox which I have defined above. He begins with I Cor. 1:18-24, and comments, "Yes, I seriously wonder whether we had better not reconstruct our apologetic and instead of keeping paradox hidden from sight . . . welcome it proudly into the very throne room of theology ... So, begging the indulgence of my system-minded brethren, let me do some thinking out loud."12
But the propositions given here as an illustration, that God will save believers through a crucified Savior, astonishing as it is, is not in the slightest degree self-contradictory!
The article under review next brings in a distinction proposed by the Roman Catholic existentialist Gabriel Marcel, a spurious distinction between problem and mystery. Marcel says, "A genuine problem is subject to an appropriate technique by the exercise of which it is defined; whereas a mystery, by definition, transcends every conceivable technique."
It is the word "technique" which confuses the reader. If we understand by this word, a process which can be employed at will by the competent investigator, it is incorrect to say that problems are defined as being "subject to an appropriate technique." Many problems are of such a nature as to require waiting for revelation. Mr. Einstein was confronted with the problem as to whether light passing through vast astronomical distances, follows a Euclidian straight line, or whether it may be deflected by gravitational forces. Einstein had to wait for a certain eclipse of the sun before his crucial photographic experiment could be performed and the answer to the problem secured.
Similarly, whether we call our theological questions "problems" or "mysteries," to declare that clearer understanding of what is revealed can never, in this life, clear up our mysteries, is sheer arbitrary dogma, and negative dogma at that. I have discussed elsewhere13 the scriptural meaning of the word mystery. It should be quite apparent that Marcel's usage of the word is quite contrary to that of the New Testament. A mystery is a secret. It may be hard to understand, but quite uniformly the New Testament writers, Paul especially, explain and clarify the mysteries to which they refer.
Further, in the article to which I am referring, we are told,14 "Whatever may be the case in philosophy, in Christianity, as I see it, paradox is not a concession: it is an indispensable category, a sheer necessity-a logical necessity!-if our faith is to be unswervingly Biblical."
These words lead to the point that in common usage our word logical has different meanings. Strictly, the word signifies that which corresponds to the technical science of logic, the backbone of which is the law of contradictories. But the loose usage is well established in good literature. We may properly say "The early explorers logically expected that they would find in the southern hemisphere great continents in the same proportion to the area of the ocean as in the northern hemisphere." In this latter sense, "logical" simply means "That which may reasonably be expected."
When we read "paradox is . . . a logical necessity," we do not understand that according to the science whose backbone is the law of contradictories we are to expect and believe propositions which violate this law. The kind of paradox which we expect, as Christians who believe the Bible, is not the paradox which violates the law of contradictories, but the paradox which reveals astonishing, unexpected truths.
Yet we read15 ". . . before the bar of logic Biblical paradox is no mere seeming; it is a contradiction which cannot be broken down by the resources of human logic, not even by the resources of spirit-illuminated logic-at least in the world which now is." And again, "To be Biblically loyal must we postulate propositions which contain logically incompatible statements, doctrines which from the standpoint of reason are contradictory? Undeniably there are such paradoxes; and undeniably, therefore, we must formulate such propositions . . . at bottom what are those creeds except distilled paradoxes? Hence we must postulate paradox."16
In the article under review, the author proceeds to enumerate and discuss seven major paradoxes, that is, seven major doctrines in which, according to formal logic, he thinks, Christian theology must be held to be self-contradictory.
(1) "The Ontological Paradox." The author here introduces an extended quotation from Luther, including the words "But if He [God] should say from above, 'No, 2 and 5 are 8,' then I should believe against my reason and feelings." And the author concludes "There, starkly put is the ontological paradox of the Gospel."17
On the contrary, if I should think for a moment that I heard the voice of God saying 'T and 5 are 8," 1 should, on a moment's reflexion, know that it was not the voice of God which I had heard. The God of the Bible "cannot lie," and the statement "2 and 5 are 8," is simply a lie. The basic fallacy in what is here called the "Ontological Paradox" is the non-biblical assumption that the being of God is one in the sense of absolute simplicity without complexity. This has been stated in traditional theology, but it is not Biblical. It is Thomistie, derived in part from Aristotle, Metaphysics book Lambda. The Bible plainly teaches that "There is but one only the living and true God," and that the one only God subsists in complexity as Three Persons, each of whom possesses in absolute completeness all the substance and attributes of Deity. Even what little we know of human psychology ought to show us that here is no formal contradiction. James Orr suggests the complexity of individual human psychology in different centers of consciousness as a partial analogy to the Triunity of God. "Corporate personality" is not an unfamiliar concept in social psychology. True, these human analogies do not explain the Being of the Triune God, but from these illustrations it should be clear to all that when we preach the Gospel and declare the Trinity we are not asking men to believe a formal contradiction.
(2) "The Cosmological Paradox." Under this heading the author presents five distinct paradoxes, and it is hard to see any "logical" grounds for his subordination of these to the one heading. However, I shall pursue his order, since I do consider his article as an excellent presentation of the view which I would earnestly strive to correct.
(a) "Creation Out of Nothing." This doctrine is said to be "inconceivable," but here, as in so many instances, the word "inconceivable" is ambiguous. Probably the author means "beyond our imagination." There are many processes of which we cannot form a clear mental picture, but which are nevertheless rational concepts.
Creation out of nothing is not self-contradictory; it is the most probable cosmogony. The universe of things is made up of classes and particulars each of which is finite and perishable, none of which are evidently eternal. There are many reasons for doubting that the material universe is itself eternal. These I have discussed elsewhere. But if anything does now exist, then something must be eternal, or else something comes from nothing without a cause. If it is improbable that the material universe itself is eternal, it is still more improbable that something comes from nothing without a cause.18 That the material universe was created, not from previously existing materials by a Personal Creator is the most probable of the alternatives ever suggested. In any case, the concept of creation out of nothing, surprising though it is, is not in any sense self-contradictory. Logically, either it is true or it is false, but there is no paradox involved.
(b) "Transcendent and Immanent." In this section the author quickly shifts ground from transcendence and immanence, in which obviously there is no contradiction, to impassibility and its opposite. He says "He [God] cannot, therefore, he thought of or spoken of in the passive voice. He is impassible."l This statement is preceded by the sentence, "That technical term of theology [impassible] is best understood from the grammatical use of the word 'active' and 'passive' for the two 'voices' of verbs."
To point out that in the Bible God is frequently the subject of a passive verb, is not a sufficient answer to this alleged paradox, for the notion of the impassibility of God has crept into the history of theology in a subtle manner and is firmly lodged in tradition. In the ancient church Sabellianism falsely taught that there is but one Person in the Deity, and that the Person who died on the cross is none other than God the Father, who assumed the mode of the Incarnation. The heresy of Sabellianisin is a denial of the distinguishable Person of the Son, as well as the denial of the distinguishable Person of the Holy Spirit. But it is true that historical theology has sought to answer Sabellianism, not only by pointing out its anti-Trinitarianism, but also by advancing the doctrine of the impassibility of God.
Certainly if Deity is incapable of suffering, and if we maintain the Deity of Jesus Christ who suffered on the cross, we have a formal contradiction. But the answer is that the doctrine of the impassibility of Deity is wholly unbiblical, a merely pagan philosophical concept which has crept into Christian tradition through Thomas Aquinas from Aristotle's Unmoved Mover. The Bible presents no impassible God, but rather the opposite. In the Bible there is no paradox of impassibility.
In this same connection the author of the article under review introduces what seems to me a distinct subject, perfection and changelessness. Here again the problem comes wholly from pagan philosophy and not in the slightest degree from the Bible. God's perfection in the Bible is always presented as dynamic. God's character is perfect and does not change. God is always consistent and changeless in His actitities.
(c) "Timelessness and Compassion." Here again we have the intrusion of a wholly pagan concept. Thomas Aquinas and Aristotle do have the notion of the Supreme Being existing in a static eternal Now, but this concept is wholly foreign to the Bible. God is clearly declared to be eternal in the sense that His Being has no beginning and no ending, and in the sense that His character is perfectly consistent at all times and under all circumstances. But the Bible never presents God as timeless in this static Aristotlelian sense.
(d) "Immutable and Compassionate." This is the same confusion expressed in different words.
(e) " . . . a Satanic power which . . . opposes God, a power so formidable that it could be conquered only by the death of incarnate Deity. But how can we reconcile this evil reality with monotheism and yet do justice to the Scriptural data concerning the power of this reality, a malignant will capable of defying God and necessitating the redemptive strategies of Gethsemane and Calvary?"20
This is more serious, not because it is at all difficult to see the fallacy, but because it is quite amazing that an evangelical should state the problem of evil in terms of God's limited ability to conquer the Devil! It is perfectly true that the Bible teaches that Christ by His death has potentially destroyed the power of Satan. This is clearly taught in Hebrews 2:14. But nowhere does the Bible teach that Satan's power could not have been destroyed in some other way, or that it was Satan's power which made necessary the sacrifice of Christ. Always in the Scripture Satan, since his fall, is presented as completely subject to the permissive will of God. This is well illustrated in the early chapters of Job, and in Christ's reference to the "binding" of the "strong man."It may be argued philosophically that the permission of the existence of Satan actually intensifies and makes more vivid the sinfulness of sin, and the marvel of grace (cf. Luke 15:7); but that Satan could not have been destroyed except by the death of Christ is a preposterous non-biblical notion. It is not Satan but the holy character of God which requires the sacrifice of the cross. If God is to be just, as He eternally is, and at the same time the Justifier of the unjust, then the sacrifice of Christ is ontologically necessary. See Romans 3:26.
(3) "The Epistemological Paradox." The author argues, "Christianity insists ... that such [Gospel] truth comes to us exclusively along the narrow corridor of Hebrew history. It insists . . . that such truth comes to us climactically in the strange career of a young Jew gibbeted on a cross. It insists, too, that such truth comes to us alone through the instrumentality of Holy Scripture . . ."21
But this is not what the Bible teaches! Peter said to Cornelius, "Of a truth I perceive that God is no respecter of persons; but in every nation he that feareth Him, and worketh righteousness, is accepted with Him."22 Paul plainly described God's purpose that all men should "seek the Lord, if haply they might feel after Him and find Him, though He be not far from every one of US."23 Paul emphatically proclaimed at Lystra that God "left not Himself without witness."24 Harnack, in his work, The Mission and the Erpansion of Christianity in the First Three Centuries, points to the universal design of the Old Testament prophecies. I have written elsewhere of the Biblical picture of Christ as a cosmic figure. Is it in vain that Abraham is said to be a believer in Christ, just as we are? True, the Judeo-Christian tradition is the main stream of revelation, but the Bible contains many references to the fact that Christ is "The Light that lighteth every man."25 Who was Melchisedec? Or Balsam? Or who were the Magi who came to worship Christ at His birth? Did not these, outside the main stream, know the grace of God in Christ?
True, there is no salvation through any other name than the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, but the Christ of the Bible is the eternal Son of God "whose goings forth have been from old, from everlasting."26
(4) "The Anthropological Paradox." Under this heading the author groups three paradoxes.
(a) It is alleged that the Bible teaches that the image of God in man was wholly lost when man became a sinner, and yet that "the image of God can never be lost even in the greatest sin." But surely one must be a lover of paradoxes to find any contradiction in what the Bible actually teaches on this subject. I have referred above to the words of Christ as recorded in John 10 quoting from Psalm 82. Nowhere does the Bible teach that man's guilty, corrupt, and lost condition in sin involves the total loss of the image of God. (b) Man's actions are said to be "simultaneously free and foreordained." But as I have pointed out elsewhere, Calvin in a truly Biblical distinction, explicitly teaches that God's permissive decrees are a part of His total decree. Has the writer never read Charles Hodge's great chapter on the distinction between necessity and certainty?
To insist that there is here a paradox is to lay down the arbitrary dogma that whatever ought not to be, ought not to be permitted! One of the truths (among many errors) in the Progressive Education Movement is the value of learning by experience. By permitting Pharoah to Sin27 God brought into actuality in revelation His power, His name, His wrath, His ability to save, and His glory. Thus, by permitting this sin, He immeasurably enriched the spiritual and ethical values of the history of our redemption.
(c) "The Doctrine of Original Sin . . . is Biblical. You and I are guilty before God by virtue of Adam's sin." The writer forgets that the same representative principle by which the Bible teaches that we sinned through our representative, teaches that we died for our sins through our Representative on the cross of Calvary. After all, it takes serious meditation to comprehend the sociological fact of representation, even in secular sociology. It is no wonder that Biblical sociology has been so much neglected. But the point here in view is that the representative principle, in original sin, and in the atonement of Christ, is either true or false. There is no contradiction in the plain statement of the representative principle. Evangelicals must hold the principle to be true.
(5) "The Christological Paradox." In this case the difficulty depends entirely upon a pagan assumption brought in by Thomas Aquinas and others, the notion that God is the absolutely absolute or the infinitely infinite, as Spinoza says. Where in the Bible does one find that God is "unconditioned" in this sense of the word? I have written elsewhere at length in regard to the revealed attributes of God. Certainly the Bible teaches that God is omnipotent, omniscient, eternal, immutable in His character; but the notion that God is "unconditioned" in the sense in which this writer uses the term, is wholly unbiblical. The God of the Bible is intimately related to all the on-goings of the affairs of His universe.
The doctrine of the Incarnation does not teach that a square became a circle without ceasing to be a square. The doctrine of the Incarnation teaches that, since man is created in the image of God, there is no inconsistency in the concept that God has become man without ceasing to be God. See again the discussion of Christ in John 10, and His quotation from Psalm 82. (6) "The Soteriological Paradox." One may deny that Christ, being free from sin, bore my sin in His own body on the cross of Calvary, but no one can point out any contradiction in the statement that He did so. Furthermore in the statement of this so-called paradox it is assumed that the Bible teaches that Christ was a third party, originally unconcerned in my act of sin. On the contrary, the Bible teaches that Christ is the party sinned against, the second Person of the Triune Godhead. He is God against whom all sin is ultimately directed.
(7) "The Eschatalogical. Paradox." Under this heading two alleged paradoxes are presented.
(a) The doctrine of the resurrection of the body is here declared to be contradicted by obvious physical facts. The fallacy, I think, lies in failure to note that numerical identity is in no way dependent upon identity of parts. Scarcely anyone would deny that the body in which one lives at the age of threescore and ten is the same body in which one was born. Yet probably there is not one molecule now in this body which was not added long after the individual's birth. The Bible simply teaches that the numerical identity of the body in the resurrection is one with the numerical identity of the body in which a mortal life is lived. The Bible is totally silent in regard to the molecular identity of the parts. The resurrection is a miracle, not involving any contradiction whatsoever.
(b) The paradox of "An Infinite penalty inflicted for finite transgression." But to speak of "finite transgression" is to neglect what the Bible actually teaches in regard to the nature of the sin of rejecting the grace of God in Jesus Christ. I have written at length on this subject. Let me point out briefly that the phrase translated "in danger of eternal damnation," in Mark 3:29 literally means "guilty of eternal sin." The one who rejects the grace of God in Jesus Christ and who is to be punished forever is one who has taken a settled attitude of hostility toward God's grace in Christ as mediated by the Holy Spirit. He is "guilty of eternal sin." He will never repent.28 This fact is brought out by many Scripture passages. For example "If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they believe though one should rise from the dead."29 One may deny that the scriptural doctrine of eternal punishment for eternal sin is a profound truth, but certainly there is no contradiction in the doctrine itself.WHERE DO PARADOXES BELONG?
Having enumerated the above alleged paradoxes, the writer proceeds in a little over four pages to attempt to show that he is not denying the rationality of the Christian faith. He tries to show that "the acceptance of paradox is no excuse for intellectual sloth."30 I must state that for me this portion of the writer's argument is ineffective. In formal logic we learn that if a false statement is taken as true, every other conceivable statement is also true. Among Copi's illustrations one I remember is, "If Hitler was a great general, then I am a monkey's uncle!"
If something which the Bible declares to be true seems to me for the moment to be false, for me the only proper attitude toward the problem is to study and pray and wait for further light, while I cling to those plain and simple truths which are clearly revealed and not contradicted. But on the other hand, I am not required to believe that the Incarnation involves a contradiction analogous to the statement that a square has become a circle without ceasing to be a square. I am not required to believe that in the nature of God, 3 equals 1 at the same time and in the same sense of the words. I reply that as one who believes what the Bible really says, I refuse to hold such propositions permanently in suspense. ("Tension" I believe is the more melodramatic word!) I refuse to give allegiance to contradictions.
Paradoxes have a place in Christian experience and in Christian testimony; so has smallpox and so have broken bones. When I am confronted with an apparent paradox the last thing in the world that I can do with it is to accept it. I may have to wait for some time before the apparent contradiction is resolved. But, thank God, many apparent contradictions have been resolved by prayer and careful study. It seems to me that the only consistent attitude for one who believes in the God of truth, is to pray for a resolution of apparent contradictions as rapidly as God makes possible, and in the meantime to keep paradoxes in rigid quarantine until they are cured.REFERENCES: