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, February 17, 2010

Fences and Contradictions - An Illustration and a Parable

Some who oppose the idea of paradox in the Bible do so for very good reasons. Many want to affirm that Scripture is free from contradiction. Some want to maintain philosophical foundations that uphold the validity of logic. Others want to emphasize the sufficiency of Scripture. Some simply desire to avoid any appearance of irrationality or confusion.

Ironically, THEOparadox shares each of these viewpoints and holds them as essential.

1. Scripture is free from actual contradiction. 
2. Logic is valid. 
3. The Bible is entirely sufficient. 
4. Irrationality and confusion are not desirable.

However, there is a vast difference between actual contradiction and apparent contradiction. The validity of logic does not rule out supra-logic. The sufficiency of Scripture does not turn it into a propositional Rubik's Cube. And a rational view of reality does not mean we can understand everything.

THEOparadox does not affirm that there are explicit contradictions in the Scriptures and in orthodox Christian theology. Rather, based on a firm commitment to inerrancy and Biblical balance, it affirms that there are implied contradictions. A paradox is formed whenever two or more true statements appear, through implication, to contradict one another. This situation can arise whenever some information is not available. The following example serves to illustrate this point.


P1 The fence was built to keep things out 
P2 The fence was built to keep things in 

Two stubborn, logically consistent people could argue about these apparently contradictory propositions for a long time before realizing that both are true. The purpose of a fence is to keep some things out and to keep other things in. At this point one would be wise to affirm both propositions, for they do not actually contradict one another. Perhaps one could quibble over which is the more prominent purpose, but there's no contradiction here. There is only an apparent contradiction because "out" seems to be opposed to "in."

P1 The fence was built to keep animals in 
P2 The fence was built to keep animals out 

On the surface, this is self-contradictory. But the types of animals haven't yet been articulated. The fence was actually built to keep certain types of animals in (e.g., sheep), and certain types of animals out (e.g., goats).

That's simple and logical enough, but this may blow your mind . . .

P1 The fence was built to keep sheep in the pen 
P2 The fence was built to keep the same sheep out of the same pen 

P1 The fence was built to keep sheep in the pen 
P2 The fence was built to keep goats in the same pen 
P3 Goats and sheep are always separated by the fence 

All of the statements are entirely true. What hasn't been discussed up to this point is the chronology involved. Each morning the sheep are led out to pasture through the south gate, while the goats are led into the pen by the north gate. Each afternoon, the animals go back to their original places again. Although these paradoxes always apply to the sheep and the goats, they do not apply to other animals, such as lions. The fence is only meant to keep lions out. Thus, we have worked through four apparent contradictions in a perfectly logical, coherent fashion, and have demonstrated conclusively that there is no actual contradiction in this scenario. But, without the help of some necessary details, there is apparent contradiction that cannot be avoided. In every case, the issue was not actual contradiction but missing information.


Imagine, if you will, that the farm on which our fence was built is private. It is located on a secluded island and carefully kept from public view. It is the only farm of its kind in the entire world. It was built from unique materials that have never been used anywhere else, and it utilizes farming techniques that are generally unknown to the world of agriculture. The farm is operated by a brilliant farmer with an IQ of 400. He writes a book to explain some things about his farm to the rest of the world. In the book, he mentions several times that the fence was built to keep animals in. However, in other parts of the book he says that the fence was built to keep animals out. The farmer never discusses the daily pasturing of the sheep and the goats. He never mentions the north and south gates. He never details the inner workings of his farm because that is not His purpose. 

As a result, some skeptics point to the farmer's book and say "this is contradictory! Surely the farm doesn't exist. He says his fence is built to keep animals in, then he says his fence is built to keep animals out. It's obviously just a fairy tale." Meanwhile, the skeptics munch on some carrots that were grown in the farmer's garden. 

Some agricultural students study the farmer's book very carefully. They diagram all of the sentences in the book, carefully noting the parts about keeping animals in. They build a fence around themselves and develop an elaborate theory to prove that the word "out" really means "in" when used in the farmer's context. Some of them throw rocks at people on the other side of the fence who say "out" and "in" are two opposite things that seem contradictory to rational people. They call these people irrational heretics and misologists.

A group of gardening enthusiasts who have met the farmer declare that he is brilliant. They use the farmer's book to develop vibrant gardens full of vegetable and livestock. They build fences carefully, leaving room for dual purposes. They defy the skeptics who claim the farmer's book is contradictory, and the agricultural experts who explain away the paradoxical aspects. These disciples readily acknowledge that the farmer's intelligence exceeds their own, noting that some of his ways are too hidden to examine, and they strive to follow his instructions even when the unrevealed information leaves them perplexed. 

Can you see how paradoxes arise from mysteries? Unless one posits that human beings have access to all of the information, paradoxes cannot be ruled out. Even if all of the information was available to us, would we find the logic and rationality required to systematize and categorize it accurately? Only the omniscient God has enough knowledge and wisdom to put all of the pieces together, but the things He has revealed to us in His Word are fully sufficient for our needs, absolutely reliable, totally trustworthy and perfectly tailored to our greatest benefit and blessing. His words are not illogical or irrational, but they are sometimes supra-logical and beyond the rational limits of our human minds. He is good in what He graciously reveals to us, and He is good in what He withholds. He is always and only good, and He builds His fences in all the right places.

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.

Soli Deo Gloria.


  1. Excellent parable! Loved it, and it made the point perfectly. Oh the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God!

  2. "1. Scripture is free from actual contradiction."

    I told one who favors Cheung, "It is out of a driving conviction that Scripture does NOT contradict itself that I pushed myself to look for the THEOparadox "third rail" in issues, which upholds the seemingly opposed implications.

    Derek, when you gonna teach on the third rail, bro?

  3. By the way, GREAT parable. Highly accurate :)

  4. Blaine,

    Thanks, I'm glad you enjoyed the parable. I'm enjoying your blog.


    Ah, the elusive 3rd rail. It's very hard to find, and it can sometimes be dangerous. Edwards found a third rail and it was a blessing, but some have built bad 3rd rails that only electrocuted and killed good theology.

    The cross is the ultimate 3rd rail, connecting God's justice and love together. Someone died to build it - yet it gives us life (thank God for the paradox in that).

    I'll talk more about 3rd rails someday, but my next development of the paradox concept will probably explore the "senseless creation of mutually exclusive categories" (i.e. that different "senses" explain, or at least make room for, seeming contradictions, and a denial of these senses is a "senseless" thing - it's a play on words of course). Or I might write about the fact that paradoxes, like mysteries, arise from information gaps. Generally we think they are information overlaps, but they're not. They're gaps. There will have to be a 3rd rail to connect those statements together.


    Thanks for your encouragement, brother!

    Grace & peace,


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