Monday, May 23

Contradiction or Paradox?

....or even mystery?

One of the most common objections made against Calvinism is that it contains contradictions. Just a couple of weeks ago so, I read someone who said that whenever he finds a contradiction in Calvinism, the Calvinists just claim it's mystery. Not that he'd really found any contradictions, but he'd found some things that seemed like contradictions to him.

Over the past few years, I've challenged several people to prove that what they claim are contradictions in Calvinism are really contraditions. No one has done it--no one has even made much of an attempt to do it--and I'm not surprised by that. Proving a contradiction is difficult unless you're speaking of very simple things, and even then it can be trickier than one might think.

In order to prove a contradiction, you have to prove that two statements are incompatible with each other--that they can't both be true at the same time. For instance, the statements "he is brave" and "he is not brave" are contradictions. Well, they are contradictions--and here's where you see how tricky this can get when you are analyzing ordinary speech or writing rather than logic problems--as long as "he" refers to the same person in each statement, and you are using exactly the same definition for "brave" in each statement. That seems like it would simple enough to determine, but differences in the definitions of a word can sometimes be subtle, and that subtle difference can make something that looks like a certain contradiction not a true contradiction.

The Bible has some statements that would be contradictions if certain words were defined the same way in each of the two statements. 1 Samuel 15:29 tells us that God "will not...have regret, for he is not a man, that he should have regret." This statement comes right after a statement in verse 11 of the same chapter where God tells Samuel, "I regret that I have made Saul king." Boil these two statements right down and you've got God doesn't regret and God does regret. If the word regret is defined in exactly the same way in both statements, these statements are contradictions. But since we believe that God doesn't contradict himself, we say that the word regret means something different in each of the two statements. In verse 29, we might say that Samuel is speaking of the sort of regret that would be reneging on a promise or changing the way one has determined to do something, while in verse 11, God is speaking of the kind of regret that is a change in attitude toward someone or something.

Usually, however, things that seem to be contradictions to us are much more difficult to set up in "he is brave" and "he is not brave" form, and when we do it, we can only do it because we make certain assumptions that may or may not be true. One supposed contradiction that critics of Calvinism like to point to is that it is contradictory to say that there is a genuine univeral call of the gospel if the saving benefits of the atonement are particular to God's people. I've dealt with this supposed contradiction here, where I attempt to show that the criticism can only be made if a certain assumption is also made about how the atonement works--an assumption that is not in accord with what scripture suggests to us about how the atonement works.

Another supposed contradiction within Calvinism is that Calvinism holds that God is sovereign in all things--he is working all things exactly according to his plan for history--and yet human beings are held rightly responsible for their choices. This would be a contradiction given certain assumptions as to what it takes for a person to be held rightly responsible for a choice. If we assume that in order to be held responsible for our decisions, God has to have a hands-off policy in regards to them (and an open theist would say that God must have a mind-off policy, as well), then yes, God's sovereignty over all things and human responsibility are contradictory ideas. The Calvinist, however, will say that a hands-off policy on God's part toward human decisions is not necessary in order for human beings to be held responsible for their decisions, for as long as the motives and reasons involved in making decisions are their own, human beings can be held responsible for decisions.

This is why most Calvinists call themselves compatibilists. They believe that certain things that seem on the surface to be incompatible--like God's sovereignty in all things and human responsibility--are in reality perfectly compatible with each other. In other words, they are paradoxical, but not contradictory. In the common way we use the word paradox, we don't mean something that is necessarily contradictory, but rather something that at first glance seems counterintuitive. It appears contradictory, yet at some deeper level actually expresses truth. In the example of human responsibility and God's sovereignty, a Calvinist might claim that since the Bible affirms both things, then the two things are compatible, even if their compatibilitly can only be fully understood at a depth of understanding that human beings don't possess. The two things may be counterintuitive, but they are not contradictory.

Some like to call these things mysteries instead of paradoxes. I prefer the term paradox because while these might be mysteries in the sense that they are things we can't completely figure out with our finite rational minds, they are not necessarily mysteries in the biblical definition of the word. Biblically, something that is mystery may be something that has not yet been fully revealed to us, or at some point was not fully revealed, but it doesn't have to be something we have difficulty wrapping our minds around once things are laid out for us. In Ephesians 3, for instance, Paul calls the reconciling of the Gentiles and Jews into one body a "mystery" because it "was not disclosed to people in former generations as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit." I don't hear anyone complaining that the reconciliation of Jew with Gentile seems contradictory or incompatible, although I'm sure many first century Jews had difficulty reconciling it, not so much with what God had genuinely said, but with what they had assumed to be true. Paradoxes are different than mysteries if we use the term mystery in the way Paul does here in Ephesians 3. Paradoxes are not necessarily things hidden from us; but rather, they may be things taught clearly in scripture that remain difficult for us to completely reconcile in our finite minds.

We ought to expect that as creatures with finite minds (and fallen minds, too), there will be things about God and the way he works that will seem counterintuitive to us. The finite tools of our creaturely minds are inadequate to give us a full grasp of the infinite God or his ways. We can expect to find paradoxes when we consider God and his workings.

We should not, however, expect to find contradictions. God is rational--infinitely rational, but rational, nonetheless. If God says "I have regret" on one occasion and "I never have regret" on another, then we have to conclude that the word regret must be defined differently in each of the two statements. If God says, "It is impossible for me to lie" and "Nothing is impossible for me", then we have to understand that there must be certain limits on the group of things that "nothing" refers to. It must mean "not anything" in the sense of "not any action within the group of all actions that do not go against God's character." When we see what we judge to be contradictory statements from a God who has revealed himself as non-contradictory, then we ought to assume that we are misunderstanding something.

I embrace paradox, but I eschew contradiction. Mystery? I wait for it to be revealed.

More on this subject:
  • From J. Mark Bertrand: Mystery: The Vital Element.
  • From Allthings2all: Calvinism: Paradoxes in Practice.
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