Dedicated to the devotional, exegetical and philosophical study of theological paradox in Conservative, Thoroughly Biblical, Historically Orthodox, Essentially Reformed theology . . . to the glory of God alone!

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Biblical Foundations of Paradox, Mystery, & Irony

Following are some of the Scripture verses and passages that form the Biblical basis for a theology that deliberately and gratefully embraces Biblical paradox, mystery & irony. Note that there is much here of the sovereignty and greatness of God, and much of the weak, helpless state of fallen man. Throughout Scripture, God's knowledge is consistently presented as complete and limitless, while man's knowledge is always viewed as limited in both scope and depth.

Known & Unknown, Revealed & Hidden

From these passages, it is clear that there are some divine matters that can be known, and some that cannot be known, either because God has hidden them or because man is incapable of discovering, explaining or understanding them. It is also evident that some matters which are hidden to unbelievers are revealed to believers. They are understood only by faith. The Scriptures are remarkably candid in what they place beyond the reach of human intellect - and in what they maintain as absolutely certain and knowable for believers.

Paradoxical Irony & Paradoxical Mystery

To define the terms a little further, some Biblical paradoxes fall into the category of paradoxical irony, while others are deep paradoxical mysteries. The ironies are meant to be understood and resolved, but the mysteries cannot be fully explained. For example, Jesus ironically declares: "He who loses his life for My sake will find it." To the world this is utter foolishness, but believers who have surrendered their lives to the Lord find it both sensible and encouraging. Christ's teachings and Paul's writings are brimming with incredible statements like this. The words often seem impossible on the surface, but they point to deeper, underlying truths. These sayings are not ultimately mysterious. On the other hand, there are facts which the Scriptures clearly state but do not fully explain. These mysterious teachings will always remain partially incomprehensible to our fallen minds, no matter how much effort we put into explaining them. The incarnation and the two natures of Christ fit squarely in this category, along with many other key doctrines of the Word of God (if you doubt this, try to explain the virgin birth using human logic alone). Those of us who happily embrace Reformed theology are accustomed to wrestling with very mysterious matters such as the relation between God's hidden will (the "will of decree") and His revealed will (the "will of command"). Historically, there have been endless attempts to reconcile sovereign election and human responsibility, divine causality and the origin of sin, divine goodness and the existence of evil, universal love and limited salvation, etc. Some very worthy possible explanations have been offered, but none of them are complete. It is a grave mistake to stop wrestling with these mysteries, as God has ordained them with the intention that they should continually amaze, overwhelm and conquer us. We should not be surprised that our mental capabilities are too small to fully explain these matters. Rather, we ought to be shocked that God's wisdom and grace have allowed sinful human beings to understand SO MUCH of them. In view of our creaturehood and inherent depravity, it's a miracle that we can understand ANY of God's truth.

Skepticism & Apparent Contradictions

Skeptics have filled their books with supposed contradictions from the Scriptures. Many of these "contradictions" are the result of grasping at straws and failing to understand the context or content of the Bible. Some simply require historical or archeological clarification, or possibly a better understanding of Biblical cultures and customs. Some apparent contradictions result from overlooking the vocabulary used in the original languages, when two different words in the original are translated into the same English word. A small amount of study can easily resolve these. However, we must acknowledge the existence of a few verbal contradictions that call us to meditate on the words of Scripture and discover why the Holy Spirit inspired the words to be written as they were. See this series of posts for an example of this. There is not a single apparent contradiction in the Bible that cannot be resolved to a satisfactory extent by a thoughtful, prayerful Christian.

Christ's Teaching

The words of Christ are of special importance, as much for what they leave unsaid as for the things they reveal. They are filled with what is commonly called "rhetorical paradox" (a literary device which is designed to make the hearer think, and usually makes sense after a bit of contemplation - I like to call it "paradoxical irony"). This is a somewhat different matter than the wider logical paradox inherent in doctrines such as the Trinity, the two natures of Christ, and the relation of divine sovereignty to human choice. But one amazing fact about Christ's teaching is this: the Only One Who could explain the divine mysteries never did so. Instead He spoke in paradoxes and parables, to such an extent that in John 16:29 His disciples said, "Lo, now You are speaking plainly and are not using a figure of speech."

Paul & Mystery

Paul's use of the term "mystery" (Greek MUSTERION) is worth mentioning, but we will not deal with it extensively here. Suffice it to say, the oft-repeated and classic definition for MUSTERION as "something once hidden, now revealed" does not fit every use of the word in the New Testament. There may be more "mystery" in MUSTERION than some scholars are willing to admit. With 27 occurrences in the New Testament - and describing such important subjects as the faith, Christ, the Church, the Gospel, and God's will - this concept is worthy of further study.

Test Everything, Hold onto the Good

The following verses are offered without further commentary, in the hope that you will study them in context and in the original languages. A sincere effort has been made to use only those passages that can be properly applied to the discussion of Biblical paradox. However, if you find that I have misinterpreted something or misconstrued the intent of a verse, please use the comments to let me know.


Deuteronomy 29:29 The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our sons forever, that we may observe all the words of this law.

Job 9:10 [Job speaking of God] Who does great things, unfathomable, And wondrous works without number.

Job 36:26 [Elihu speaking] Behold, God is exalted, and we do not know Him; The number of His years is unsearchable.

Job 37:5 [Elihu speaking] God thunders with His voice wondrously, doing great things which we cannot comprehend.

Job 42:1-5 Then Job answered the LORD and said, "I know that You can do all things, and that no purpose of Yours can be thwarted . . . Therefore I have declared that which I did not understand, Things too wonderful for me, which I did not know . . . I have heard of You by the hearing of the ear; but now my eye sees You; therefore I retract, And I repent in dust and ashes."

Psalm 131:1
O LORD, my heart is not proud, nor my eyes haughty; nor do I involve myself in great matters, or in things too difficult for me.

Psalm 139:1-6 O LORD, You have searched me and known me. You know when I sit down and when I rise up; You understand my thought from afar. You scrutinize my path and my lying down, and are intimately acquainted with all my ways. Even before there is a word on my tongue, behold, O LORD, You know it all. You have enclosed me behind and before, And laid Your hand upon me. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; It is too high, I cannot attain to it.

Psalm 145:3 Great is the LORD, and highly to be praised, And His greatness is unsearchable.

Proverbs 20:24 Man’s steps are ordained by the LORD, How then can man understand his way?

Proverbs 25:2 It is the glory of God to conceal a matter, But the glory of kings is to search out a matter.

Ecclesiastes 8:16-17 When I gave my heart to know wisdom and to see the task which has been done on the earth (even though one should never sleep day or night), and I saw every work of God, I concluded that man cannot discover the work which has been done under the sun. Even though man should seek laboriously, he will not discover; and though the wise man should say, "I know," he cannot discover.

Isaiah 40:28 Do you not know? Have you not heard? The Everlasting God, the LORD, the Creator of the ends of the earth Does not become weary or tired. His understanding is inscrutable.

Isaiah 55:8-11 For My thoughts are not your thoughts, Neither are your ways My ways," declares the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, So are My ways higher than your ways, and My thoughts than your thoughts. For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there without watering the earth, and making it bear and sprout, and furnishing seed to the sower and bread to the eater; so shall My word be which goes forth from My mouth; it shall not return to Me empty, without accomplishing what I desire, and without succeeding in the matter for which I sent it.

Jeremiah 17:9-10 The heart is more deceitful than all else And is desperately sick; who can understand it? I, the LORD, search the heart, I test the mind, even to give to each man according to his ways, according to the results of his deeds.

Matthew 13:10-17 And the disciples came and said to Him, "Why do You speak to them in parables?" Jesus answered them, "To you it has been granted to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been granted. For whoever has, to him more shall be given, and he will have an abundance; but whoever does not have, even what he has shall be taken away from him. Therefore I speak to them in parables; because while seeing they do not see, and while hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand. In their case the prophecy of Isaiah is being fulfilled, which says, ‘YOU WILL KEEP ON HEARING, BUT WILL NOT UNDERSTAND; YOU WILL KEEP ON SEEING, BUT WILL NOT PERCEIVE; FOR THE HEART OF THIS PEOPLE HAS BECOME DULL, WITH THEIR EARS THEY SCARCELY HEAR, AND THEY HAVE CLOSED THEIR EYES, OTHERWISE THEY WOULD SEE WITH THEIR EYES, HEAR WITH THEIR EARS, AND UNDERSTAND WITH THEIR HEART AND RETURN, AND I WOULD HEAL THEM.’ But blessed are your eyes, because they see; and your ears, because they hear. For truly I say to you that many prophets and righteous men desired to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it.

Mark 8:17 And Jesus, aware of this, *said to them, "Why do you discuss the fact that you have no bread? Do you not yet see or understand? Do you have a hardened heart?

Mark 10:23-27 And Jesus, looking around, said to His disciples, "How hard it will be for those who are wealthy to enter the kingdom of God!" The disciples were amazed at His words. But Jesus answered again and said to them, "Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God." They were even more astonished and said to Him, "Then who can be saved?" Looking at them, Jesus said, "With people it is impossible, but not with God; for all things are possible with God."

Romans 11:33-36 Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and unfathomable His ways! For WHO HAS KNOWN THE MIND OF THE LORD, OR WHO BECAME HIS COUNSELOR? Or WHO HAS FIRST GIVEN TO HIM THAT IT MIGHT BE PAID BACK TO HIM AGAIN? For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be the glory forever. Amen.

I Corinthians 2:1-16 And when I came to you, brethren, I did not come with superiority of speech or of wisdom, proclaiming to you the testimony of God. For I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling. And my message and my preaching were not in persuasive words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith should not rest on the wisdom of men, but on the power of God. Yet we do speak wisdom among those who are mature; a wisdom, however, not of this age, nor of the rulers of this age, who are passing away; but we speak God’s wisdom in a mystery, the hidden wisdom, which God predestined before the ages to our glory; the wisdom which none of the rulers of this age has understood; for if they had understood it, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory; but just as it is written, "THINGS WHICH EYE HAS NOT SEEN AND EAR HAS NOT HEARD, AND which HAVE NOT ENTERED THE HEART OF MAN, ALL THAT GOD HAS PREPARED FOR THOSE WHO LOVE HIM." For to us God revealed them through the Spirit; for the Spirit searches all things, even the depths of God. For who among men knows the thoughts of a man except the spirit of the man, which is in him? Even so the thoughts of God no one knows except the Spirit of God. Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might know the things freely given to us by God, which things we also speak, not in words taught by human wisdom, but in those taught by the Spirit, combining spiritual thoughts with spiritual words. But a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God; for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised. But he who is spiritual appraises all things, yet he himself is appraised by no man. For WHO HAS KNOWN THE MIND OF THE LORD, THAT HE SHOULD INSTRUCT HIM? But we have the mind of Christ.

II Corinthians 9:15 Thanks be to God for His indescribable gift!

Eph 3:8 To me, the very least of all saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unfathomable riches of Christ.

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