A New Series On Theological Paradox

The legitimacy of the concept of theological paradox has come up time and time again on this blog. In an article published by the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society in 1987, David Basinger wrote that the concept was incoherent and dangerous as it would seem to render thought unintelligible. After all, if the fountain of intelligibility is the law of non contradiction, and if there is no discernible difference between an apparent contradiction and a real contradiction, how can meaningful communication still be preserved? I wrote about Basinger here in 2008.

In an article called “Van Til: Philosopher of Paradox” (which you can read about here), John Frame sought to defend the concept of apparent contradiction from the likes of theologians like Basinger. (It might be of interest to the reader to point out that David Basinger is an open theist). Earlier I wrote,

Frame raises the question of intelligibility. If from our (human) perspective an apparent contradiction is indistinguishable from an actual contradiction, how can it be intelligible to us? For Frame, all interpretation is application. With this in mind, a paradoxical doctrine in Scripture can still be intelligible if it demands a particular response from us. An example of this is the image of God. For Van Til, the doctrine of humanity bearing the image of God is paradoxical. He believed that humanity has (in one sense) and has not (in another) lost the image of God as a result of the Fall. The senses are never distinguished, so we have an apparent contradiction. Does this render the doctrine unintelligible? No, because there is a clear application.

What has made this debate so pressing to me in the past was over the question of the ordination of women. Doug and Becky Groothuis had developed an argument in favour of the egalitarian position by pointing out an (apparent) contradiction with the complementarian position. And yet, from my point of view, the complementarian position had greater exegetical warrant. So, what is one to do? At the time I concluded that faithfulness could mean that one might have to affirm the existence of apparent contradictions if the opposite meant denying the most faithful interpretation of Scripture. If Scripture is in any way a ‘norming norm’ then it ought to hold greater epistemic warrant than objections to the contrary, all other things being equal.

This issue has come up again in my studies with Jerry Walls’ and David Baggett’s Good God: The Theistic Foundations of Morality. In chapter 4, Walls and Baggett lay out a five part argument against Reformed theology gathered under the acronym, CERTS. Their five logical problems with Reformed theology are: C = Compatibilism; E = Euphemism; R = Radical voluntarism; T = the Terrible Tenet (unconditional election); S = a Semantic issue (equivocation on the meaning of love).

At one point, Walls says that Reformed theology should be jettisoned because its logical problems are insurmountable. In essence, Walls believes that Scripture can’t teach what Reformed theologians say that it does because that would mean that God authored a logical contradiction, which is impossible by definition. In other writings, Walls decries the use of the category of apparent contradiction as an escape hatch, citing David Basinger’s 1987 JETS article.

As I was working through this all over again, Andrew recommended a recent monograph that defends the concept of theological paradox. It’s called Paradox in Christian Theology: An Analysis of Its Presence, Character, and Epistemic Status¬†and it’s written by Dr. James Anderson, professor of philosophy at Reformed Theological Seminary. For a helpful summary of the book by Paul Manata, click here.

Anderson defines a paradox/apparent contradiction as a set of claims which taken in conjunction appear to be logically inconsistent. For Anderson, there are two key questions when it comes to theological paradox:

1) Are any essential Christian doctrines genuinely paradoxical?
2) Can a person rationally affirm a paradoxical doctrine?

Anderson answers in the affirmative to both questions. I hope to work through his monograph in a series of blog posts, while relating it Jerry Walls’ discussion of Calvinism.

For my next post we’ll look at the Trinity and why Anderson believes that an orthodox affirmation of the Trinity entails believing it to be a paradox.