Mystery and Contradiction

The other day I said this about logic: “if it is a wooly-mindedness that is embraced on purpose, it is heresy. This is because denying the law of non-contradiction is the royal gateway to every heresy imaginable.” Given the incoherent nature of the days we live in, I thought it was neccessary to unpack this a bit.

The law of non-contradiction says — and you would think says uncontroversially — that A cannot be not A in the same way, and in the same respect. It is not violated when Smith is a boy and then later is not a boy. That is not a contradiction because he is first a boy and then not a boy at different times. It is no contradiction.

The Trinity is a mystery, but not a contradictions. The doctrine of the Trinity is that God is one God and three Persons. There would be no contradiction unless someone were maintaining that there were three Gods and one God, and the word God was being used with the same definition. Trinitarian theology does not invite us to say that one and three are the same. In fact, it requires that we not say this.

The Incarnation is a mystery — Jesus is fully God and fully man, and He is one person. But this would spiral into chaos and contradiction if we were to say that He is two persons and one person at the same time and in the same way. One is not two, or at least so it seems to me. We don’t have to be able to do all the math ourselves, but we must affirm that there is math to be done, and that it stays put while God is doing it. In this huge cosmos created by an infinite God, we have plenty of head room for mysteries to overwhelm us. We have no room at all for round squares.

C.S. Lewis says it this way in The Problem of Pain — “meaningless combinations of words do not suddenly acquire meaning simply because we prefix to them the two other words, ‘God can.’ It remains true that all things are possible with God: the intrinsic impossibilities are not things but nonentities. It is no more possible for God than for the weakest of His creatures to carry out both of two mutually exclusive alternatives; not because His power meets an obstacle, but because nonsense remains nonsense even when we talk it about God.”
Keep that last phrase in the forefront of your minds for the next several decades. You are going to need it. Nonsense remains nonsense even when we talk it about God. Miracles and mystery do not erase, in any way whatever, the laws of thought. Lewis says again, in Miracles this time, that “all reality must be interrelated and consistent.” When we claim to believe that miracles happened, we are not engaged in hand-waving that will now allow absolutely anything to be affirmed so long as it is affirmed in the name of our holy religion. Miracles testify to “the unity and self-consistency of total reality at some deeper level.” All reality, total reality, makes internal sense.

I am pressing this point because I want everyone to know what happens if we cheerfully declare our independence from Aristotelian categories, and say that to apply the law of non-contradiction to theology is to surrender to Hellenism. Some actually are wanting to do this, but when you leave this particular door unlocked, it is not ten minutes before the devils come.

People like to pretend that when we abandon our slavery to Aristotle on this point, we have found the way to freedom. We have shaken free of the bondage that insists that this table cannot be also, in the same way and in the same respect, not a table. But we have not discovered a higher Christian way than paganism, but rather have found a religion that is sub-pagan, and have decorated it with Christian terms.

By the way, the fact that Aristotle was a pagan does not mean that he could not discover something important about the world. This is just common grace, and should not be a problem. I am listening to stringed music as I type this (Buddy Guy), and I am able to do this even though stringed music was first developed by Jubal, born in the line of Cain (Gen. 4:21).

But this is how it works. People generally do not spend their time fighting for their right to say that the goose is also not a goose. Appeals to mystery do not arise at the dinner table because the head of the house wants to maintain that the mashed potatoes are also not mashed potatoes at all.

The simple way to test for this is to ask a person if they believe that God could have created a world in which the mashed potatoes were not the mashed potatoes. Many Christians will say yes, because they think that omnipotence requires it. But it requires nothing of the kind. God can do anything consistent with His own nature and character. It is not the case that God can do anything. God cannot lie, God cannot be tempted, and God cannot draw round squares. This does not make logic senior to God, as though logic dictated what God may and may not do. No, logic is an attribute of God, like holiness, or righteousness, or love. It is an essential aspect of His being. It is not beneath Him, a creation of His, that He fashioned for ad hoc use in our world. It is not a creature, something that He might have created otherwise. God might have made maple trees with orange trunks, or with feathery leaves. But He could not have made maple trees that weren’t maple trees.

There is no possible world in which God would not be the God of it. And if God must be the God of any possible world, that means that any possible world must be governed in accordance with His holiness, His righteousness, His love. This being the case, any possible world must be governed in accordance with the laws of thought that are resident in God’s very nature and character.

A man might try to back away from the ramifications of this — at least in the world I live in — when he affirms something theologically that he does not want to give up, and someone else shows that this entails a contradiction with something else that he also does not want to deny. A entails B, and C entails not B, and both A and C are being affirmed by the hapless theologian. The point of this post is that you cannot get out of this jam by appealing to mystery. That is not what mystery is.

Here is a fer instance. The doctrine of definite atonement means that the death of Jesus Christ secured the salvation of all His elect (A). If you add to this the doctrine that all of Christ is given in baptism (C), this means that at some point you are going to have to affirm both salvation secured (B) and not secured (not B), and all predicated of the same people. If pressed on the point, you retreat by saying that it is a mystery, then you are saying that mysteries have the horsepower to pull a trailer-full of contradictions.

But then what happens? You cannot let in one true contradiction without your whole universe dissolving into chaos. If you let in a true contradiction in the name of Trinitarian mystery, the very first thing you lose is the Trinity. Without the law of non-contradiction, the Father can also be not-the-Father, and so on down the line. All predication about the Trinity presupposes the law of non-contradiction. All predication about anything presupposes the law of non-contradiction. This includes predication about the law itself, whether to affirm or deny. So if someone denies the law of non-contradiction, the very first thing you should do is thank them for affirming it.

The end of this road is Trinitarian atheism — for now God can both be and not be, and when sinners do this kind of thing, we know which way they will always break to resolve the tension.

And this is why pastors have a moral obligation to be intelligent; this is why they have a pastoral obligation to brook no nonsense.

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Ben Bowman
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Doug,

Perhaps you can help me with this one. “He is the first born of all creation.” Now, obviously people were born before Jesus. If Christ pre-existed with God, being God how can we say that he was ever born first? I don’t doubt all of what scripture is saying, I’m just not sure how it works exactly. Or is this one of those mystery things?

Jonathan McIntosh
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Jonathan McIntosh

Doug, Your point about God not creating logical contradictions is well made and taken, but fwiw, I think there is actually a better, safer, more theologically sound way of getting there. The statement from Lewis about “intrinsic possibility” sounds traditional and conservative enough, but taken by itself and without further qualification, is actually Scotistic in origin, and hence arguably already proto-modern, proto-secular, and proto-atheistic (the Leibnizian notion of “possible worlds,” incidentally, is another post-Scotistic fiction). The problem is that accounts such as Lewis’s don’t adequately address why the law of non-contradiction happens to manifest itself in creation the way that… Read more »

Seth B.
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Seth B.

Three cheers for Dr. Mc!

Mr. Fosi
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Mr. Fosi

I have heard this explained something like this: “It isn’t specifically about birth order or creation order per se. The term “first born”, in this context, refers to Jesus’ sonship and therefore his headship.”

Mr. Fosi
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Mr. Fosi

But I think Doug’s explanation makes more sense.

Katecho
Member

If we understand mystery in the sense of “great wonder” and “the yet unknown”, rather than in the sense of “contradiction” or “unexplainable”, then I think an injection of mystery is helpful against the remaining remnants of modernism. When modernists encounter the bizarre nature of certain quantum experiments, it makes them very uneasy, and I think this is a good thing. Certain quantum interpretations invite people to think in terms of suspended logical contradictions (Schrodinger cats that are alive and dead at the same time, etc). I think this model is not the best way to understand what is happening,… Read more »

Stephen Baker
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Yes, the appeal to “mystery” is today’s theological get-out-of-jail-free card.

RFB
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RFB

katecho,

So does “This means that information or knowledge affects how matter behaves. This does not imply any contradiction, but it is an extremely interesting result. Why does the knowable affect how matter moves?” mean something like: Jesus (Who knows like no other, as the Creator) may not have “walked” on the water, but that the water (matter) “behaved” as a result? (Just thinking about the mystery.)

RFB
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RFB

No quite Mr. Baker.

The get out of jail card is not free. It cost more than we know, but it costs us nothing.

He is the King of kings, the Creator of all, ex nihilo, and His Name is Jesus.

Welcome!

RFB
Guest
RFB

And speaking of matter, knowledge, and humility: “There are even variables we do not even understand that we cannot control,” he said.”

Stephen Baker
Guest

Well, clearly I’m not talking about jail. I’m talking about the jail of those nasty logical contradictions Pastor Wilson is writing about.

Stephen Baker
Guest

Should read that jail…

Stephen Baker
Guest

On, never mind. Stupid italics.

antexw
Member

Hope Netherlands pulls this off in overtime against Argentina … for Van Til and Bahnsen unto the glory of God.

timbushong
Member

I don’t think Doug’s point is to conjure up multiple ‘Molinistic’ possible worlds, but rather to emphasize the fact that if one holds to two mutually contradictory theological positions, then logical consistency demands that one must necessarily open the floodgate for all kinds of mutually contradictory doctrines (“impossible impossibilities”), which we usually refer to as being ‘irrational’.

antexw
Member

Hoping for Netherlands’ Van Tilian Nuclear Strength Penalty Kicks!

antexw
Member

God is just … see Holanda vs. Brasil for 3rd place this sabado. May the team predestined for victory win.

timothy
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timothy

Shorter Doug Wilson: “God did not create us for madness”

timothy
Guest
timothy

Katecho.

I clicked the “Like’ button on your comment. Well said.

timothy
Guest
timothy

You want mystery and contradiction?

Just try reconciling the “OH, YEAH, SEZ YOU…” block with a comment thread.

(:

Charles Williams
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Charles Williams

Does “common grace” exists outside of a vacuum?

“Some actually are wanting to do this…”
“People like to pretend…”
?

Andrew Lohr
Member

Ravi Zecharias was dining with a Hindu who was asking him to transcend Western either-or logic. RZ said, You mean we we can use EITHER the either-or logic OR something else? The Hindu put down his silverware and remarked, Hmmm, the dichotomy does re-assert itself.

Drew
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Drew

Doug, How do you reconcile the fact that on Sunday mornings, you read the Bible passage and then say, “These are the words of God,” and the fact that Paul explicitly states in 1 Corinthians 7:12 (KJV), “But to the rest speak I, not the Lord…” If the words that followed this statement were not spoken/written by God, then how could you read this passage on a Sunday morning and then say, “These are the words of God”? Perhaps, this is a nit-picky sort of question. But it’s one that has bothered me for a long time. Thanks, Drew

Drew
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Drew

Doug,

I think you deleted my post, which I don’t understand because it was quite relevant to the topic of Christian doctrine and the law of non-contradiction. I would really like to hear your response to my question:

In 1 Corinthians 7:12 (KJV), Paul says, “But to the rest speak I, not the Lord…” How can this be if you affirm that all the words of the Bible are God’s words?

Seth B.
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Seth B.

Rhinoceros? Imposseros!

Seth B.
Guest
Seth B.

Quick question. It looks to me like Paul is Colossians is using “firstborn” in two different senses. First, he says says Jesus is firstborn, then gives the reason “For by him all things were created…”. Then later on says, “he is the first born *from the dead*”. So one is a sort of title of preeminence, the second means he is the first to be resurrected. Right?

Rich Hamlin
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Rich Hamlin

I have a question: a friend of mine says that the Scriptures are insufficient as a presupposition for determining human ethical obligations. The door for this position is opened by means of the law of non-contradiction, which he says is a presupposition that is not explicitly revealed in Scripture (though they themselves are not in conflict with such a presupposition). He says that there may be other such presuppositions that may be necessary, which could end up revealing additional ethical obligations beyond what is revealed in Scripture, as well as revealing which ethical obligations in Scripture are not intended to… Read more »

Drew
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Drew

Doug,
Thanks for the clarification, and your response. Sorry for the accusation.

Drew