The Paradoxical Nature of Christianity

A few weeks ago, I read a reference to the “paradoxical nature of the Christian faith.”

I chaffed.

I already had a chip on my shoulder. And apparently my working definition of paradoxical was a very narrow and technical one. I understood a paradox to be a statement or proposition that was utterly self-contradictory. This is a strict paradox, and I must mention for my own vindication that it is, indeed, the true definition of the word.

However, it has come to my attention that in common usage paradox can refer to a statement or proposition that only appears to be nonsensical, but may be true enough once it is properly explained or understood. I will call this a flexible paradox.

In this flexible sense, I can easily affirm that Christianity is full of paradoxes. Afterall, doesn’t the authentic Christian life consist of giving everything we have in order to gain what we cannot earn?

Consider the following:

Galatians 2:20 (NASB)
20 “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me.

Luke 17:33 (NASB)
33 “Whoever seeks to keep his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life will preserve it.

1 Corinthians 3:18 (NASB)
18 Let no man deceive himself. If any man among you thinks that he is wise in this age, he must become foolish, so that he may become wise.

Matthew 23:12 (NASB)
12 “Whoever exalts himself shall be humbled; and whoever humbles himself shall be exalted.

Matthew 20:16 (NASB)
16 “So the last shall be first, and the first last.”

Each of these statements sounds at first to be self-contradictory, but when the meaning is understood each is obviously quite logical. Flexible paradox.

But then there are other Christian paradoxes that we tend to embrace in the strict sense. As far as I can tell these arise, without exception, from systematic theology. This is where the chip on my shoulder comes in. We are perfectly willing to investigate the scriptures via intellect and logic, but when our own conclusions come to an impasse, we decide that this must be the point where truth and reason depart. Isn’t it at least as likely that some earlier erroneous assumption is the source of tension? There are several examples, but since my purpose is not to step on any particular toes or challenge any specific systems of theology—one example will do nicely to illustrate my point.

God’s will is always done, but things that are contrary to his revealed will occur all the time.

Our response to such a “mystery” varies,  but it is nearly always inadequate, cowardly, or compromised.

Response 1: We come up with elaborate resolutions that are equally as problematic as the original tension.

Response 2: We decide that it is both true and self-contradictory according to human reasoning—the problem is that our finiteness can’t handle it.

While I cannot say that the latter is an impossibility, there are other options. And since God is both the one who has revealed these things to us and the one who gave us the intellect through which he intended us to process them, I am inclined to believe these other options are far more likely.

Option 1: Some of our base assumptions about God and his creation have faulty and extra-biblical origins that we ought to re-asses. It is interesting and disturbing to discover how many of the things we affirm about God and his relationship to creation have far more to do with ancient philosophy and/or tradition than with the word of God.

Option 2: Some of our conclusions aren’t consistent with the amount of detail we have been given. It is not that the truth defies reason, just that it has not been fully disclosed. We are missing too many pieces of the puzzle to make definitive statements about the complete picture.

Option 3: Very closely related to option 1, only more broad in its scope. It is a paradox of our own making. It is, at least in part, untrue—and it is the untrue portion that creates the apparent paradox.

In regards to the question of God’s will and the clear rebellion against it (and other questions like it) I think it might be wise to stop making confident assertions with inadequate justifications and start asking better questions.

In what sense is God’s will done? By this do we mean that God has the final say or that his will is carried out in every detail? How do we define the terms we are using? What convictions inform our view? What, in turn, forms the foundation for those convictions? And so on and so forth…

To be sure, greater minds than mine have done this and continue to do this. But do they do it adequately, or do they always stop short at some point?

I do not deny that there are aspects of the Christian faith that are difficult to wrap our minds around. We have no frame of reference for eternality, for example. In our experience, everything begins or ends. Christianity claims many things that cannot be empirically proven. That does not mean that these things are at odds with reason, simply that they cannot be confirmed or denied by it. I don’t think this falls within the realm of paradox.

Isaiah 55:9 (NASB)
9 “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, So are My ways higher than your ways And My thoughts than your thoughts.

This verse is often quoted to support strict paradox.  But isn’t this simply a call to trust God’s wisdom? To recognize that he has at his disposal unimaginably greater amounts of information and virtue than we do? I don’t see anything in this statement or its context that indicates we should expect revealed truth to be self-contradictory.

So, do I think Christianity is paradoxical in the strict sense?

Obviously not.

But I’m very open to your thoughts and interested in your feedback.

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5 thoughts on “The Paradoxical Nature of Christianity”

  1. Yes, it’s important to distinguish between the literal meaning of the word and the ‘usual’ meaning.

    I think you’ve given the “God’s will” issue its true perspective. The bald statement, “God’s will is always done” has to be challenged as you have done. The paradox, of course, is that the all-powerful and all-loving God should allow his will to be flaunted by his creatures day by day, with consequences as dire as the cross, causing untold suffering. How his love must constrain his power a thousand times a day.

    “Never again,” he said to Noah. How we humans would regret having made such a promise. What grace that we are protected by his love.

    1. And yet, in Noah’s case, it was exactly the free will of humans who drove God to say “Enough” and send the flood. He saw how terrible they were to one another, treating each other with such cruelty, and for this reason, God put a stop to it, allowing Noah and his family to continue on.

    2. Interesting, this discussion brings up something that was on my mind as I wrote, but didn’t have room to include.

      I know this is not what you are saying, Ian, but sometimes people find it paradoxical that God can be a God of wrath and justice and at the same time be a God or love, compassion, grace, and mercy.

      There is no more contradiction in God possessing contrasting character traits than anyone else. I can be angry at my kids for a wrong they have done, and at the very same moment feel tremendous love and compassion for them.

      I can be a generally quiet person and at the same time have things that cause me to become very animated.
      God himself says he is more patient and compassionate than he is wrathful and angry – but he is both.

      God is just and God becomes angry, but he also desires that as many as possible be saved. I am so thankful for his passionate desire for each of us, and for his patience. 🙂

  2. I am doing Philosophy & Ethics for my A Levels (a British qualification in case you’re American), currently looking at the topic of Determinism and Free Will, and my mind has come across the same paradox. I came to the conclusion that there is a Paradoxical nature of God. This article was extremely interesting and thought provoking. I shall be thinking about this topic for a while to come indeed… 🙂

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