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Of Boxes and Paradoxes



In a recent sermon I made the point that some people attempt to fit everything so neatly and tidily into their theological boxes that they don’t allow themselves to hold in their minds various aspects of the truth that might seem to be in tension with each other. That was a long sentence – you might want to re-read it!

In making this point, I don’t intend to undermine the importance of careful theological reflection. Healthy Christians seek to understand all that God has said in Holy Scripture – and this necessarily involves seeking to understand how ‘this’ relates to ‘that’ and how ‘one thing’ relates to ‘another thing’. To take a simple example: since “only faith working through love” counts as valuable in God’s sight (Gal. 5:6 ESV), we must do our very best to understand what “faith” is, what “love” is, and how the two relate (what it means for “faith” to “work through love”). Careful thinking matters a great deal.

The problem is when we so enshrine and close our theological boxes that we henceforth attempt to force-fit everything into its presumed box and we no longer allow our theological system to be challenged, enriched, corrected, or refined. Healthy Christians should hold their system of theological boxes with an open hand because we know that our theological boxes are accountable to and subject to correction by Holy Scripture. Should we be thoughtful theologians? Yes! But we need to make sure that we are humble and teachable ones!

As we seek to reflect on how all of Scripture fits together in a harmonious symphony of truth, we must respect the role of logic in the thinking process. We cannot tolerate logical contradictions – which is another way of saying that we can’t play games with truth claims. If I thought that it was okay to broker in logical contradictions, then I doubt I would even bother to write this article or preach another sermon. Careful affirmations of truth are only possible and sensible in a context where human beings are intellectually honest, attentive to detail, and ready to draw a line in the sand.

However, there is a world of difference between an actual contradiction and a paradox. A paradox may be understood as an ‘apparent contradiction’ but not an actual contradiction. A paradox requires us to hold some things together in tension, always glad for what God has enabled us to understand and always trusting God for the things that we don’t yet understand. From our limited human perspective, we must acknowledge that the Christian faith contains paradoxes, complexities, and difficult sayings. But we also acknowledge that from God’s all-knowing perspective, the truth is profoundly simple. The paradoxical only seems so on the human side. But what we call paradoxical or complex is wonderfully clear from God’s vantage point.

Now the above ideas might sound a bit too theoretical, so let me give a few examples.

First, consider the Bible’s teaching about the triune God. We confess that there is one and only one God (Isa. 45:22). At the same time, we confess that this one God consists of three persons: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit (Matt. 28:19). The Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God. But there are not three gods. The three divine persons constitute, in glorious union, one God. There is no logical contradiction here. If we said that there is one God and there are three gods, that would be a contradiction. But what we actually say is that there is one God in three persons. A paradox perhaps, but not a contradiction. The doctrine of the Trinity shows us that God is fundamentally relational – indeed, that the one God is a fellowship of love. And Jesus invites us to come inside and be part of this divine fellowship. Have you come?

Second, consider the Bible’s teaching about the God-Man Jesus Christ. We confess that the Lord Jesus Christ is truly God and truly Man (Jn. 1:1-18). In the Incarnation, the eternal Son of God left the privileges of heaven and became a human being upon this earth. The King of glory became a humble servant, embraced the path of suffering, and laid down His life in the supreme act of love. God’s Son became a Man by addition, not by subtraction – that is, when God’s Son came to earth, He didn’t shed His deity but instead He added humanity to Himself. Although there is no other person in the universe of whom it can be said, “He is both God and Man”, it is not a contradiction. Of course, it would be a contradiction to believe that Jesus is God and not-God or that Jesus is Man and not-Man, but that’s not what orthodox Christians believe. Instead, we believe that our Incarnate Lord has all the essential characteristics of deity and all the essential characteristics of humanity. Mysterious? Yes, there is no one like Him! But contradictory? No. Let the analysis give way to praise: “Veiled in flesh the Godhead see; / Hail th’incarnate Deity, / Pleased as man with men to dwell, / Jesus, our Emmanuel. / Hark! the herald angels sing, / “Glory to the newborn King.”” (from the hymn "Hark! the Herald Angels Sing")

Third, consider the Bible’s teaching about divine sovereignty and human responsibility. On the one hand, the Bible is clear that God is sovereign over all things – meaning that He has orchestrated all circumstances and events that ever come to pass, and that all of these circumstances and events are woven into His perfect plan (see, for example, Deut. 32:39; Isa. 45:7, Dan. 4:34-35; Eph. 1:11, 2:10; Rom. 8:28). Now someone might wonder, ‘If God doesn’t just foresee but actually orchestrates all that ever happens (which is what the Bible teaches), then what difference do my actions make?’ That is a sensible question, and the question will test whether or not we will submit ourselves to Scripture. For Scripture is clear: although human actions are not ultimate, they are consequential, they are significant, they matter. For instance, “You do not have, because you do not ask.” (James 4:1 ESV) And moreover, each one of us will be held accountable for every single one of our words and deeds (Eccl. 12:13-14; Matt. 12:36-37).

Of course, human beings have a fine way of getting themselves into tangles over this paradox. Some wrongly seek to defend the realm of human responsibility by limiting God’s sovereignty. Others wrongly claim that God’s comprehensive sovereignty effectively reduces human beings to puppets. The wise approach is to say that although we may not fully understand how the two pieces fit together, we will let Scripture shape our thinking. So on the one hand, let God’s sovereignty produce rest in your soul – for God’s good plan shall not be derailed, and nothing falls outside the scope of your Father’s wisdom and power! But on the other hand, let the summons to responsible discipleship stir up your soul to be earnest about your walk with the Lord. "[Train] yourself for godliness" (1 Tim. 4:7 ESV) and "press on toward the goal" (Philp. 3:14 ESV)! Though others get into mental tangles, let us follow Paul’s example: “But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me." (1 Corinthians 15:10 ESV) If God’s grace has invaded your life, then work hard (exercise human responsibility) as someone who is being carried along and strengthened by that same grace (depend on divine sovereignty). You may not be able to write a book about this paradox, but you can live it!

My plan is to continue this discussion in next week’s midweek reflection by returning to 1 Timothy 2:1-7, which served as the initial impetus for this reflection. In that sermon I said that God has a compassionate concern for all people (see 1 Timothy 2:4) and that the Bible also teaches us that God only grants salvation to those whom He has chosen to save (see, for example, John 17:2; Rom. 9:6-24). One more paradox to wrestle with! Lord-willing, we will ponder this paradox next week!

In the meantime, my friends, don’t resent the paradoxes, but rather seek to live in their beauty and strength!

NOTE: Header Image/Featured Image Photo by Sigmund on Unsplash.


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