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!

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Crossed Sabres!

I was minding my own business and trying to avoid controversy for awhile, but another paradox duel has broken out ... so let's talk about it. Here we will learn some important things about paradox and the law of non-contradiction.

This time it's James Anderson vs. Turretin Fan (links to their posts are at the bottom). Since the two of them crossed swords a few weeks ago, TF has been mulling over the subject of theological paradox and trying put together an argument. He follows a very typical pattern that I have seen over and over from those who refuse to accept the idea of Biblical paradoxes. Essentially, he reduces the paradox concept to this obviously false proposition: "A can be both A and non-A, at the same time and in the same sense."

No, No, No! Belief in paradox is not a rejection of the law of non-contradiction (at least not for me, and certainly not for James Anderson). In the Neo-Orthodox concept of paradox, the laws of logic may be suspended or denied, but paradoxes in Reformed theology don't work that way. The reference to the law of non-contradiction is nothing more than a straw man.

Despite his aversion to paradox, I appreciate Turretin Fan for the way he upholds the core truths of Reformation theology and defends the faith against heresy. But I don't appreciate the way he moderates comments on his site. In the past he has been unwilling to publish comments from me, no matter how constructively or graciously they are presented. Below are the comments I sent to Turretin Fan in response to his argument against paradox. I'll take his refusal to publish this as an admission of defeat. (UPDATE: TF has published my comment, and responded here as well. I think the discussion has taken a step in the right direction. FURTHER UPDATE: TF has even invited me to comment on a particular post on his site. I guess it just took some time for him to warm up to me.)
TF, I think the point is being missed here.

Let's take the classic example of divine sovereignty and human responsibility (indeed, this is Packer's famous "antinomy"). It's clearly not a case of "A is both A and non-A." It's more like this: A implies non-B, and B implies non-A. Yet both A and B are Biblical propositions (and therefore true).

A. God is completely sovereign. (this IMPLIES that created beings are not responsible)
B. Man is fully responsible for his choices. (this IMPLIES that God is not completely sovereign)

The two propositions do not directly contradict one another. They only appear to contradict on the basis of what they imply. Yet the implications are natural and reasonable (some might even say they're necessary, but I wouldn't).

Since Scripture does not give us the resolution for this, we have just grounds to affirm that there is an area of mystery between these two Biblically TRUE propositions. The paradox arises when human beings try to understand HOW the two propositions relate to one another, and as our minds interpret their implications. There is no ACTUAL CONTRADICTION, but in our minds there appears to be one (apparent contradiction = paradox).

If it was simply a matter of "A cannot be both A and non-A," the whole matter would be simple. But it's more complicated than that.

If Scripture sets forth two propositions with apparently contradictory implications, but it remains silent on how the implications can be reconciled, then we are left with unresolved paradoxes. Our various attempts to explain them are mere man-made theories which may or may not be true.

In the end, don't we have to say Scripture is more weighty than human reason? Only by elevating human reason to the level of Scripture can one affirm categorically that all Biblical paradoxes are resolvable.

Stated formally, my argument looks like this:

P1) A and B are Biblically warranted propositions
P2) A implies that B cannot be true
P3) B implies that A cannot be true
Conclusion 1 (based on P1 alone) Both A and B are true
Conclusion 2 (based on P2 & P3) The relationship between A and B is an unrevealed mystery, and the implications of A and B form an unresolved paradox.

As long as the information which is needed to resolve the paradox is unrevealed (or if, as some would argue, we are incapable of receiving it), the mysterious relationship and the paradoxical implications remain.

This has nothing at all to do with "A cannot be both A and non-A." For me, belief in that rule is what leads to an affirmation the existence of humanly unresolvable paradoxes. I wonder if the real reason so many people chafe at this is that our proud hearts simply can't tolerate not knowing - and not being able to know - the divine secrets. Wasn't that part of the motivation that led to the fall of our race?

Grace & peace,
Derek Ashton

Turretin Fan against Paradox:
James Anderson for Paradox:

TF has added this:


  1. Mr. Ashton,

    Aside from the way you are using "paradox" - I don't think we have any major disagreements. Your post doesn't seem to interact with mine except at the semantic level of insisting on a different definition of "paradox" (though without actually addressing the options for defining "paradox" that I had presented in my post).

    I think I was pretty clear in my post that I have no problem with merely apparent contradictions.

    By the way, the star wars graphic is nifty. May I have your permission to use it?


  2. Turretinfan,

    Thanks for that clarification. And thanks for publishing my comment. Good or bad, it's a response to your post and may help to clarify some things for the interested reader. Since I'm a vocal proponent of James Anderson's book, I feel compelled to respond to these issues.

    Now, I'm not sure how I failed to interact with your post, since what you call the "semantic level," the definition of paradox, is critical to my (and James Anderson's, and probably a large portion of Reformed thinkers') approach to understanding Scripture and theology. And this definition is the very foundation upon which you built your argument. For me, it is absolutely essential to define paradox correctly, otherwise I'm just going over the waterfall of irrationality with Barth and Brunner.

    That said, I really do appreciate what you do in the body of Christ and your contribution as a blogger. I prefer to have more rigid logicians (such as yourself) examine my reasoning, because it helps me know how close to that irrational waterfall I might be getting. The purity of our Gospel message depends on our not causing "unnecessary offense" by presenting illogical ideas. At the same time, we have to present the truth of the Gospel as above the "common reasoning" of sinful man. As Paul said, "The foolishness of God is wiser than men." I guess I'm a bit of presuppositionalist at heart. And a preacher, too, if you can't tell!

    I think it's important to say that I don't equate my version of paradox with James Anderson's. I think we're very close, but Anderson is much smarter than I am and he's developed the concept on a much deeper level. I wouldn't want anyone to identify him with any mistakes or misstatements I might make. For the most part, I defer to his wisdom on these matters. I'm really more of a devotional writer than a philosopher, although I'm interested in the deeper theology, too.

    Feel free to use the Star Wars graphic. It's based on James Anderson's remark, that after you have read his book you will surely "come over to the dark side." That's why I have him pictured as Lord Vader. It's amazing what one can do with Photoshop, and I'm glad you like it.

    Please feel free to let me know of any faults or weaknesses you may find in my approach.

    Derek Ashton


Feel free to respond to anything written in the posts, or to the comments left by others. All comments are reviewed before they are published.

Please be charitable. If you disagree, do so with grace. Keep your words positive, focused, and on-topic. We don't expect everyone to agree, but we do expect everyone to treat everyone else with respect and grace, speaking the truth in love.