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!

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Is Paradoxical Theology Irrational?

A recent visitor to this blog mistook our advocacy of paradoxes for an endorsement of irrationality. He is not alone; I have found this is often the initial response to any mention of theological paradox. The commonness of this response is perhaps a reflection of the inroads made by humanistic rationalism during the 20th century, and the influence it still holds over the minds of "deep thinkers." Nowadays, the prevailing philosophy held (perhaps unconsciously) by the average person in America has swung way over toward irrationalism. Our aim is to embrace neither of these extremes, and instead to hold up the Biblical balance of rationality without rationalism, and acceptance of paradox without irrationalism. 

Logic is a reliable tool, or framework, for interpreting knowledge, yet it is not in itself a "source" of knowledge. Like all tools, it has its usefulness and limits. Where would one be if one had only logic, but no other knowledge of any kind? Think about this for a moment! To even state the laws of logic, one has to start with something a priori. Just as nothing can be properly deduced apart from logic, nothing can be known in the first place apart from presupposition.

This reminds me of the old joke about the brilliant atheist whom God challenged to create life out of nothing. The atheist said, "Sure, no problem," and then reached down to pick up a handful of dirt. A thundering voice immediately said, "Hey, no cheating! Go make your own dirt!" If you think about it, this is actually two or three jokes in one.

When we realize that logic is a tool for working with the raw materials of knowledge that God has graciously provided, we find ourselves free from the need to reconcile everything with everything before we will believe anything. We still attempt to reconcile as much as possible. We don't even consider giving up on the practice of logical thinking. But at the same time, we don't elevate our proposed solutions to an authoritative level, and we don't refuse to believe the facts of divine revelation just because we fail to reconcile them. We don't make our ability to understand a matter the measure of its truthfulness. We start with Truth and then seek understanding.

My response to the commenter was as follows:
I certainly don't want to give the impression that irrationality is entailed in the type of theological paradox I embrace. Rather, my belief in paradox is built on the solid foundation of Scripture as the Word of God, and flows logically from my presuppositions, as illustrated in the following premises and conclusions: 
P1 The Bible is the highest and surest source of knowledge: inerrant, infallible, and authoritative.
P2 The Bible clearly (that is, perspicuously) teaches certain distinct doctrines which, when compared side by side, appear to human minds to be logically incoherent.
P3 The Bible does not explain in detail how all of these doctrines interrelate.
P4 The Bible does not imply that any of these doctrines actually contradict one another (and strongly implies the opposite).
P5 The Bible teaches that man has mental limitations due to creaturehood, depravity and incomplete information.
P6 The Bible teaches that God possesses perfect and exhaustive knowledge of all things, and no possibility of self-deception.
P7 Even with perfect logic, the reliability of one's logical conclusions is proportional to the amount of correct information one possesses (i.e., partial information easily leads to false conclusions). 
C1 (Based on P1, P2, P3, P4) All doctrines taught by the Bible are entirely true, compatible and non-contradictory, without regard to any human being's ability to explain their interrelations.
C2 (Based on P5, P6, P7) The Bible reflects the perfect logical conclusions of a perfectly logical God, even if no human being can explain the logic used to reach those conclusions. 
As you might guess, I am no formal logician or philosopher. Still, I think my crude attempt holds water.
In short, I would not say my theological system is based in any sense upon irrationalism. For further discussion of this topic, I recommend James Anderson's excellent quote found in the sidebar of this blog:
"By advocating paradox I don't want to give the impression that I'm giving a carte blanche to not think philosophically, to not think deeply, about these doctrines. Quite the opposite. . . . My position is that with each of these doctrines we reflect on them as hard as we can, we penetrate them as best we can based on the Scriptural data that we do have, but we also recognize that there are going to be limits, and that those limits are actually a positive thing and not a reflection of some inherent problem in the doctrines or in the process of theological reflection. . . . I think we can make progress, we can make considerable progress, in understanding these doctrines and resolving some of the . . . initial difficulties that we have with them, but at the same time recognizing that we're always only going to get so far and when we bump up against the limits of our capacity to formulate them in certain ways or to resolve certain difficulties in them, we shouldn't be too concerned about that. We certainly shouldn't say, 'Okay, we need to admit that Christians are ultimately irrationalists.' No. We don't need to say that at all. . . . It's a Biblically constrained rationality. It's a middle way between rationalism, of which I think [Gordon H.] Clark was a representative, and irrationalism, of which, to take an example I think the Neo-Orthodox - Karl Barth - would be an example, where you're saying that there are actual contradictions in there. So I think it's navigating a Biblical middle way between these two extremes: having too high a view of the human intellect, and perhaps too low a view of the intellect, of our ability to know the things of God."
That quote gives us essentially the same idea, but from a "real" philosopher!

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