The eminent Evangelical scholar and theologian, Wayne Grudem, is the latest recipient of our famous t-shirt. These words of wisdom from his Systematic Theology text will tell you why.
We find in the New Testament that Jesus and the New Testament authors will often quote a verse of Scripture and then draw logical conclusions from it. They reason from Scripture. It is therefore not wrong to use human understanding, human logic, and human reason to draw conclusions from the statements of Scripture. Nevertheless, when we reason and draw what we think to be correct logical deductions from Scripture, we sometimes make mistakes. The deductions we draw from the statements of Scripture are not equal to the statements of Scripture themselves in certainty or authority, for our ability to reason and draw conclusions is not the ultimate standard of truth — only Scripture is.
What then are the limits on our use of our reasoning abilities to draw deductions from the statements of Scripture? The fact that reasoning to conclusions that go beyond the mere statements of Scripture is appropriate and even necessary for studying Scripture, and the fact that Scripture itself is the ultimate standard of truth, combine to indicate to us that we are free to use our reasoning abilities to draw deductions from any passage of Scripture so long as these deductions do not contradict the clear teaching of some other passage of Scripture.7
This principle puts a safeguard on our use of what we think to be logical deductions from Scripture. Our supposedly logical deductions may be erroneous, but Scripture itself cannot be erroneous. Thus, for example, we may read Scripture and find that God the Father is called God (1 Cor. 1:3), that God the Son is called God (John 20:28; Titus 2:13), and that God the Holy Spirit is called God (Acts 5:3 – 4). We might deduce from this that there are three Gods. But then we find the Bible explicitly teaching us that God is one (Deut. 6:4; James 2:19). Thus we conclude that what we thought to be a valid logical deduction about three Gods as wrong and that Scripture teaches both (a) that there are three separate persons (the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit), each of whom is fully God, and (b) that there is one God. We cannot understand exactly how these two statements can both be true, so together they constitute a paradox (“a seemingly contradictory statement that may nonetheless be true”).8 We can tolerate a paradox (such as “God is three persons and one God”) because we have confidence that ultimately God knows fully the truth about himself and about the nature of reality, and that in his understanding the different elements of a paradox are fully reconciled, even though at this point God’s thoughts are higher than our thoughts (Isa. 55:8 – 9). But a true contradiction (such as, “God is three persons and God is not three persons”) would imply ultimate contradiction in God’s own understanding of himself or of reality, and this cannot be.
When the psalmist says, “The sum of your word is truth; and every one of your righteous ordinances endures for ever” (Ps. 119:160), he implies that God’s words are not only true individually but also viewed together as a whole. Viewed collectively, their “sum” is also “truth.” Ultimately, there is no internal contradiction either in Scripture or in God’s own thoughts.
Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine, 34. Italics original. bold added for emphasis.
This is a good basic overview of the THEOparadox thesis. All of the salient points are there. Dr. Grudem deserves not only the t-shirt, but the THEOparadox hat, shoes, tie, bumper sticker, coffee mug, keychain, belt buckle and wall poster as well.
Dr. Grudem's Footnotes:
7 This guideline is also adopted from Professor John Frame at Westminster Seminary.
8 The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, ed. William Morris (Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 1980), p. 950 (first definition). Essentially the same meaning is adopted by the Oxford English Dictionary (1913 ed., 7:450), the Concise Oxford Dictionary (1981 ed., p. 742), the Random House College Dictionary (1979 ed., p. 964), and the Chambers Twentieth Century Dictionary (p. 780), though all note that paradox can also mean “contradiction” (though less commonly); compare the Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. Paul Edwards (New York: Macmillan and The Free Press, 1967), 5:45, and the entire article “Logical Paradoxes” by John van Heijenoort on pp. 45 – 51 of the same volume, which proposes solutions to many of the classical paradoxes in the history of philosophy. (If paradox meant “contradiction,” such solutions would be impossible.)
When I use the word paradox in the primary sense defined by these dictionaries today I realize that I am differing somewhat with the article “Paradox” by K. S. Kantzer in the EDT, ed. Walter Elwell, pp. 826 – 27 (which takes paradox to mean essentially “contradiction”). However, I am using paradox in an ordinary English sense and one also familiar in philosophy. There seems to me to be available no better word than paradox to refer to an apparent but not real contradiction.
There is, however, some lack of uniformity in the use of the term paradox and a related term, antinomy, in contemporary evangelical discussion. The word antinomy has sometimes been used to apply to what I here call paradox, that is, “seemingly contradictory statements that may nonetheless both be true” (see, for example, John Jefferson Davis, Theology Primer [Grand Rapids : Ba ker, 1981], p. 18). Such a sense for antinomy gained support in a widely read book, Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God, by J.I. Packer (London: Inter-Varsity Press, 1961). On pp. 18 – 22 Packer defines antinomy as “an appearance of contradiction” (but admits on p. 18 that his definition differs with the Shorter Oxford Dictionary). My problem with using antinomy in this sense is that the word is so unfamiliar in ordinary English that it just increases the stock of technical terms Christians have to learn in order to understand theologians, and moreover such a sense is unsupported by any of the dictionaries cited above, all of which define antinomy to mean “contradiction” (e.g., Oxford English Dictionary, 1:371). The problem is not serious, but it would help communication if evangelicals could agree on uniform senses for these terms.
A paradox is certainly acceptable in systematic theology, and paradoxes are in fact inevitable so long as we have finite understanding of any theological topic. However, it is important to recognize that Christian theology should never affirm a contradiction (a set of two statements, one of which denies the other). A contradiction would be, “God is three persons and God is not three persons” (where the term persons has the same sense in both halves of the sentence).