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!

Thursday, July 10, 2008

How do we respond to paradoxes?

When faced with a paradox, there are several common responses:

1. Agnosticism/Skepticism - Simply throw up your hands declaring that nothing can truly be known and then go do whatever you like. Leads to a life of depravity and godlessness. This is not an option for Christians, since God has given us clear teaching and expects us to take it to heart.

2. Imbalance - Choose one side of the paradox and emphasize it until the other side is forgotten or overlooked. Leads to extreme dogmatism. This is not an option for Christians, since it requires us to ignore or explain away portions of God's Word.

3. Rationalism - Attempt to explain and solve the paradox by using complicated reasoning and relentless logic. Leads to pride (and possibly insanity!). This is not an option for Christians, since God opposes the proud.

4. Faith - Embrace both sides of the paradox. Accept that you are a finite being with a limited intellect. Believe that God has given both sides of the paradox for His glory and your good. Don't wait until you understand everything, but fall down adoring before the ONE Who does understand. Leads to humility and worship. This is the only real option for Christians who are faced with Biblical paradoxes.

This is not to say that we should never attempt to understand how things work or develop theories of how paradoxes might be solved. When approached humbly, such reasoning can be of great value. However, it is foolish for anyone to think he can FULLY explain the Trinity, the two natures of Christ, the virgin birth, or the relationship between God's sovereign election and human choice. These issues have been debated by great minds thoughout history - and they're still not fully explained.

Here's what we need to remember:

The moment we stop worshipping God, we begin to go off course. Do not trust the reasoning of your mind when you are not humbly aware of your finiteness and focused worshipfully on God's greatness. Come back to Him and be captivated by His wondrous grace again, then begin to think deeply. This is the safe course of theological reflection.


  1. Human Choice and The Hardening of Pharaoh’s Heart

    Like many I have struggled with this concept but have never gotten a satisfactory answer from any one. It seems that to except the surface reading of the following texts is to be guilty of promoting some doctrine of double predestination or making God the author of evil. Here is where I am on this issue so far. I welcome your comments, correction and clarification.

    Scripture seems to reveal three possible ways a person’s heart can be hardened. These ways are defined below:

    1. A person can (out of their own depravity) harden their own heart against God and His people.
    2. God can passively harden a person’s heart by creating or allowing circumstances that lead to bitterness and anger toward Him and His people.
    3. Lastly, it seems that God can actively cause a persons heart to have an increased hostile disposition toward Himself and His people; a disposition to the degree and rapidity of which that they would not have attained left solely to their own depravity.

    Notice the following texts:

    Exodus 4:21
    The LORD said to Moses, "When you go back to Egypt see that you perform before Pharaoh all the wonders which I have put in your power; but I will harden his heart so that he will not let the people go.

    Exodus 7:3
    "But I will harden Pharaoh's heart that I may multiply My signs and My wonders in the land of Egypt.

    Exodus 11:9
    Then the LORD said to Moses, " Pharaoh will not listen to you, so that My wonders will be multiplied in the land of Egypt."

    Exodus 11:10
    Moses and Aaron performed all these wonders before Pharaoh; yet the LORD hardened Pharaoh's heart, and he did not let the sons of Israel go out of his land.

    Proposition one is of no debate amongst most sober minded people. The fact that a person can harden their own heart is attested to in many passages. Not the least of which involves the subject of this post. See Exodus 8:15 where Pharaoh hardens his own heart.

    The second and third propositions are where delicate and dubious distinctions are made. I shall now attempt to define the second proposition of “Passive Hardening”; and then express my three objections concerning it. The explanation I normally here from theologians concerning the “Passive Hardening” theory is that “God did not actively harden Pharaoh’s heart, but the miracles that God worked made use of the evil already present in Pharaoh’s heart”. In other words the miracles served as a divinely provided conduit through which Pharaoh could convert his “Potential Evil” into a type of expressed “Kinetic Evil”. The evil was stored up. The miracles only served as a type of pressure release valve allowing Pharaoh to voluntarily exercise his own evil will.


    I want this explanation to be true; but there are some obvious problems with this concept. First, the explanation seems to be adding more to the text than is being said. The scriptures are well able to communicate a distinction between God allowing something and God causing something. In fact we have no problem identifying (and excepting) distinctions between God acting passively or actively when the outcome on the subject is good or neutral behavior. Notice the following verses:

    The king's heart is like channels of water in the hand of the LORD; He turns it wherever He wishes (Proverbs 21:1).

    “Now in the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, in order to fulfill the word of the LORD by the mouth of Jeremiah, the LORD stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia, so that he sent a proclamation throughout all his kingdom, and also put it in writing, saying (Ezra 1:1)

    In both cases we would have to say that the lord is at least influencing the heart (or spirit) of these men. It would be dishonest (and incoherent) to say in the example of Proverbs 21:1 that “the Lord merely makes use of the goodness in the heart a king. The “channeling of the water” suggests influence over the subject’s desires. An influence, I might add, that is designed to bring about a certain outcome as opposed to another. This influence may not be independent of the subjects will; but it would have to be effectual in order to not be pointless. I contend that we must approach the passages concerning hardening with the same logic in which we approach the passages concerning softening.


    A second objection I have with this theory is that it appears to undermine the Biblical purpose of miracles. Miracles are designed to foster belief and repentance not unbelief and hardness of heart. Notice the words of our Lord in Luke 10 vs13: “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the miracles had been performed in Tyre and Sidon which occurred in you, they would have repented long ago, sitting in sackcloth and ashes”. The miracles that Jesus had done certainly revealed the obstinance of these wicked cities toward God; but the miracles did not influence them to remain unrepentant. Further more, Jesus’ rebuke suggest that miracles should naturally psoften a heart and bring it to timely repentance. The texts now in consideration seem to reiterate this truth. In Exodus 7:3 and 11:9 the Lord specifically says that He will harden Pharaoh’s heart in order to multiply His wonders in the land. The logic is simple. If Pharaoh were to repent and release the Israelites after the first three of miracles then the Lord would not have an opportunity to carry out the remanding seven. If the Lord wants to multiply His wonders the solution would be to harden Pharaoh’s heart so that the miracles could continue to be displayed. This course of action implies that the miracles would have softened Pharaoh’s heart, if left to himself, and not hardened it as some contend. Pharaoh’s constant tergiversation affirms this truth.


    My third objection takes umbrage with the use of the term “Passive” in the expression “Passive Hardening” Notice Romans 8:17-18:

    17 For the Scripture says to the Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I may show My power in you, and that My name may be declared in all the earth.”[a] 18 Therefore He has mercy on whom He wills, and whom He wills He hardens.

    Whether the author’s intent is to represent Pharaoh as symbol of national corporate hardening or an example of individual hardening goes beyond the scope of this post. We know for sure that the author considers pharaoh’s hardening to be an actual personal event in its original context. We also know the word used for “hardens” when referring to the current issue is in the active voice. The idea being, as God hardened then he also hardens now. If the word were passive we would expect the text to read: “ He has mercy on whom He will, and upon whom He allows hardness to act upon, to him it acts.” If this were the case, would this not be what we are seeing with pharaoh during the entire Exodus episode? When Pharaoh initially hardens his own heart; is it not always reflexive and God allowed?

    My final objection is more of a sub-objection of the current one. I believe the term passive hardening is a bit of a misnomer. What is being described as a “Passive Hardening” seems to be best described as a ”Secondary Hardening”. Whether or not God uses secondary causes (miracles) or directly influences that person’s heart is only a matter of degree. Second degree murder is not as active as first degree murder, but it is still murder. And more to the point, there is no such thing as “Passive Murder”. The passive designation is an honest attempt to preserve the moral integrity of God’s character. Unperceptively we fail to realize that if it is wrong for God to actively harden a person’s heart, it is wrong even if through secondary causes.


    Option three appears to be the explanation that is most faithful to the texts in treatment. Sill, one issue remains. We believers hold that God can not do evil of any sort or degree. So before my final conclusion let me affirm some things:

    1. God did not cause any of Pharaoh’s actions or behavior. There was no “puppet” to “puppet master” relationship. All of Pharaoh’s physical and verbal expressions were of his own initiative.

    2. God did not place any specific evil ideas or suggestions in Pharaoh’s mind. God did not function as a sabotaging advisor or, even worse, as a tempter. Pharaoh’s rebellion originated within his own creatively sinful heart.

    Yet the fact remains. God did something to Pharaoh’s heart. That something was to harden it. Now the question that must be asked is: “Is the hardening of a heart an evil act?” The answer depends on who is doing it. It is evil for a person to murder, receive worship, intentionally make others sick, and harden their own heart. It is not evil for God to do any of these three former things. Apparently it is not evil for God to harden the heart of another. These actions are the divine prerogatives of the Creator over his creation. I must conclude that if Pharaoh hardens his heart in rebellion against God; then He reserves the right to cause a metaphysical change in Pharaoh’s heart. A change that He knows will inevitably lead to (not cause) a magnified opposition toward Himself. For God to influence a person’s heart in such a way that it allows them to go from a heart hardened, “Libertarian Free Willed” person into a heart hardened “Compatibilistically Willed” person; is not evil. Such a person has had, and refused, their opportunity to humble themselves before the Lord. By their refusal they have imperiled themselves to the possibility of God’s active and Biblical hardening.

    Thanks and God Bless! Jawara

  2. Jawara,

    Thanks for bringing up a great topic and making several great points about it. This is a favorite Scriptureal issue for those who hold to a more hard-core (hyper) Calvinism and don't have much appreciation for a paradoxical approach. But I believe the whole Biblical revelation on this issue is a perfectly balanced account which points to both human choice/responsibility/culpability and divine sovereignty. I'll publish two posts to discuss this, hopefully building on what you have said. The view you have represented is plausible, and I hope to add a little to it rather than critique or disagree.

    Bless you brother,


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