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!

Sunday, February 28, 2010

What I Learned at the Monster Truck Show (SERIOUSLY!)

Some of my redneck friends had an extra ticket for the sold out Monster Jam show in Jacksonville, so I decided to go along and enjoy the raucous event with about 70,000 other people. I can't remember seeing so much camouflage material in any one place since my youth, growing up as an Army brat. The show was a thrilling experience of Southern culture and a tribute to the genius of hill billy engineering. Here are a few "spiritual" highlights from the evening . . .

Good Company

I was with a group of Christian men, including several excited new believers. After some particularly amazing monster truck action, one of my friends looked at me with a huge grin and shouted, "Monster trucks are almost as cool as Jesus!" His innocent enthusiasm almost made me laugh, but I simply smiled back with a gentle shake of the head. "They're incredible," I said, "but they ain't nowhere near as cool as Jesus." (I was using my best good 'ol boy language here).

Sitting next to me at the event was Pastor Ryan Boys of Providence Community Church. Ryan is a graduate of The Master's College and Dallas Theological Seminary, with a Master's Degree in Biblical Exegesis and Linguistics. Needless to say we had some good conversation, and I especially enjoyed listening to Pastor Ryan answer all sorts of questions from the other guys. He showed himself wise and astute in various matters, Biblical and practical alike. I thank our great God for sending men of this caliber to Jacksonville.

Thoughts and Reflections

I learned a few things from watching the monster trucks. With the right power source, some impressive things can be accomplished. But sometimes the most spectacular demonstrations are followed by the most humbling crashes. And when your wheels have been unexpectedly blown off from the overwhelming impact, your polished exterior is laying in a heap and you think you can't even move anymore, there are a bunch of folks who will run from every direction to help you out. God will put the big machinery into action to get you fixed up, because He's committed to getting you upright again. In the end, it's not the flashy finish but what's under the hood. It's not the solo performance but the group effort. I was more amazed by the rolling and tumbling of the trucks (the sheer abuse they can take!) - followed by the expertly coordinated rescues - than the high flying heroics of a multi-ton vehicle effortlessly hurtling itself 25 feet off the ground.

The Back Flip

We witnessed a great spectacle when one of the trucks quite accidentally accomplished a complete back flip in the air! The crowd went berserk. Apparently it had never been done exactly this way in any previous monster truck competition, and it was awfully impressive to see. Well, that's super, and it was real exciting - but it ain't even almost as cool as Jesus.

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.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Discussion of Moderate Calvinism and Paradoxes

I've been enjoying a conversation with Tony Byrne in the comments on a recent post, Moderate Calvinism Explained. Tony is the author of the Theological Meditations blog, which focuses on historical Reformed theology. The main topic of our discussion has been Tony's outstanding 2005 article on Paradox and Mystery. Readers interested in issues related to the philosophy of paradox and moderate Calvinism will find the article and our conversation very useful. Some of my favorite "virtual" blogging friends have also joined in a parallel discussion about the extent and intent of the atonement . . . 

David - Calvin and Calvinism 
Jeff - Scripture Zealot 
Barry - Who Am I
Reformed Rebel

It's been exciting to see Calvinists of diverse views "agree to disagree" on some of the finer points as we have discussed controversial matters with grace and humility. Only God can produce such things in our hearts.

To read the post and intriguing follow up discussion, click here.

Friday, February 05, 2010

Damned Theologians

I'm not trying to be "cute" or shocking here. The post title is based on the words of a great Reformer:

"A theologian is born by living, nay dying and being damned, not by thinking, reading, or speculating."
~Martin Luther

I saw this quoted in an article about "The Theology of the Cross" in the ever popular IVP New Dictionary of Theology (which isn't "new" anymore). According to the author of the article, Luther's point here is not merely that theology ought to be practical. Rather, this is a reflection of Luther's radical cross-centeredness. Certainly Luther isn't saying a theologian doesn't read, study and think deeply. But the difference between a godly theologian and a mere worldly philosopher is the starting point. Christian theologians find their experiential foundation at the foot of the cross. Like the pilgrim in Bunyan's allegory, they arrive there loaded down with an overwhelming burden and fully aware of their desperate plight. 

Right thinking about God - the goal of every true theologian - depends on the cross. Although the majestic shout of creation reveals some truth to us, it doesn't tell us enough. "For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made . . ." (Rom. 1:20). The created world tells us there is a great God, but it doesn't say we are sinners. It doesn't tell us how bad our sin is. It doesn't say that we are out of fellowship with this God, or that we are bent against Him in our very nature. It doesn't say He has become a man and died in our place. It doesn't tell us He has entered into our suffering and felt our temptations. Only the cross tells us those things. 

An encounter with the cross produces damned theologians. Until a man has faced himself at the cross, he cannot know his standing (or his falling!) in relation to God. Although we find forgiveness, grace and sanctification in Christ, the experience of being damned leaves a permanent mark. Although we are raised with Christ, we are still (apart from grace) worthy of condemnation. Saints are saved sinners.
Damned theologians realize they aren't worthy of the Truth they apprehend.
Damned theologians don't see their sins as "little mistakes," but as evidence of the inner depravity from which they have been miraculously saved.
Damned theologians recognize they are error prone, and rely on divine revelation more than their own thinking.
Damned theologians aren't proud of their knowledge, but grateful for every bit of Truth that has been revealed to them.
Damned theologians view suffering as part of the privilege of identifying with Christ, not an evidence of failure or unbelief.
Damned theologians don't just pursue the Truth, they rejoice in it because their life depends on it.
Damned theologians don't just study God, they know Him and worship Him.
Damned theologians don't answer the taunts of Satan with cries of their own innocence - they point to the cross and cry, "Redeemed! Redeemed! My soul is redeemed by His blood!"
Damned theologians find no righteousness in themselves, but depend on the righteousness of Christ alone.
At the cross we discover ourselves dead, and in the cross we see ourselves damned. Good theology can develop from this starting point, and no other. We must see our human condition in its entirety, gazing down the stretch of time and eternity to see what could have been - if Christ had not saved us - and say "but for the grace of God, there go I!" Certainly Christians aren't actually damned, but the knowledge of God's perfect justice and our pervasive depravity is our actual starting point. One cannot be saved until he knows he is lost. One cannot be a Christian theologian until he has lived and died and been damned to hell.

Romans 8:10  If Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, yet the spirit is alive because of righteousness. 
 2 Corinthians 1:9  Indeed, we had the sentence of death within ourselves so that we would not trust in ourselves, but in God who raises the dead. 
Colossians 3:5  Therefore consider the members of your earthly body as dead to immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed, which amounts to idolatry.

Are you dead yet? _____________________________________________________________________ 
NOTES: I've run across other versions of this quote. Although I can't say which is most accurate, the point seems to be clear. Here are some alternate translations:

"Not understanding, reading, or speculation, but living—nay, dying and being damned—make a theologian."
“One becomes a theologian not by reading, studying, learning but by living and dying and being damned!”
“By living, no—more —by dying and being damned to hell does a man become a theologian, not by knowing, reading, or speculation."
“For one becomes a theologian by living, by dying, by being damned: not by mere intellectualizing, reading, and speculating.”
“By living, even by dying and being damned one becomes a theologian, not by intellectual understanding, reading and speculating”
“By living – no, much more still by dying and being damned to hell – doth a man become a theologian, not by knowing, reading or speculation”
And for my scholarly friends, here it is in Latin . . .
“Vivendo, immomoriendo etdamnando fit theologus, non intelligendo, legendo aut speculando.”

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Troll Patrol - Answering the Critics of Sovereign Grace

I received a troll-style comment after the previous post about the Sovereign Grace Ministries Marriage Conference at Metro Life Church in Orlando, Florida. After rejecting the comment, I sent the following note to the sender in a direct email. Awhile back I wrote something similar as a comment on the sender's website, but as far as I can tell it was never published. I wonder why . . .

I have also responded to a comment made by the same person here:

Dear Sir,

Every time I post a blog article about Sovereign Grace Ministries, I get a comment from you in response. It's always the same comment, with links to some disenfranchised-with-Sovereign-Grace-Ministries websites. I see that you feel strongly about promoting these sites, and I don't blame you for trying to do what you think is right and important. However, the way you are doing this is technically called "trolling." I almost never publish a "troll" comment on my site (although I did once post your comment in order to respond to it, for your benefit and that of my readers).

I want to tell you about my experience leaving a Sovereign Grace Ministries church one and a half years ago. After admiring SGM from afar for about 10 years, I was able to become directly involved in two different SGM churches for several years. I was involved in low level leadership and very committed to the church in every way. Never did I suffer from the illusion that these were perfect churches, but they were some of the best I've seen - even with their limitations.

When I felt God was moving my family toward a different church, I went to my pastor and told him what I was thinking and why. I included some mild criticisms, but I was not in any way hostile. I asked him for his honest feedback, and whether he saw any dangers in the direction I was heading. He told me he would like very much for my family to stay, but he said it seemed clear that God was indeed moving us in another direction. He also said that my family and I were welcome to return in the future if we were so moved, and he invited me to share any further criticisms or evaluations of the church that might come to mind in the future. We conversed about this on several occasions, and he did not apply pressure or manipulation of any kind. In every way he showed a genuine concern for the well being of my family, even beyond what seemed to be in his own interest.

This is the kind of gracious, loving attitude I experienced in SGM from start to finish. It's possible that you have some real and valid bones to pick with Sovereign Grace Ministries, but based on my experiences and observations you will never get me to join your crusade.

So I ask again, kindly, please refrain from leaving troll-type comments on my blog.

Derek Ashton

I decided I would take the opportunity to provide a few more back links to Sovereign Grace Ministries and do my part to build up what these critical folks are working so hard to tear down. Funny thing is, these antagonists would want me to leave my Sovereign Grace Church - which is exactly what I did, but not for their reasons and not with their unbridled angst. The anti-Sovereign-Grace blogs display exactly the kind of unteachable, arrogant, bitter, and overly critical attitude one would expect to find in people who have responded poorly to pastoral care and correction. The tear-down campaign might say more about those who have joined it than it does about their target.

I suppose these folks will respond by criticizing me and launching a THEOparadox Survivors website, for people who have become so theologically orthodox and balanced that they just couldn't take it anymore and had to become hyper-Calvinists. At the least, I'd guess I'm going to receive the same slab of troll spam in my in-box (again).  UPDATE: To their credit, these folks have not sent me another email.

For the record - I love, appreciate and highly recommend Sovereign Grace Ministries and its leaders. God will be the judge of their faults, and also of mine (and of their critics, too).

Psalm 75
1 We give thanks to You, O God, we give thanks,
For Your name is near;
Men declare Your wondrous works. 
2 “When I select an appointed time,

It is I who judge with equity

3 “The earth and all who dwell in it melt;
It is I who have firmly set its pillars. Selah
4 “I said to the boastful, ‘Do not boast,’
And to the wicked, ‘Do not lift up the horn; 
5 Do not lift up your horn on high,
Do not speak with insolent pride.’” 
6 For not from the east, nor from the west,
Nor from the desert comes exaltation; 
7 But God is the Judge;
He puts down one and exalts another
8 For a cup is in the hand of the LORD, and the wine foams;
It is well mixed, and He pours out of this;
Surely all the wicked of the earth must drain and drink down its dregs. 
9 But as for me, I will declare it forever;
I will sing praises to the God of Jacob. 
10 And all the horns of the wicked He will cut off,
But the horns of the righteous will be lifted up.