27 September, 2016

The Nature of Biblical Truth: An Examination of the Idea of Paradox, Contradiction and Antinomy in Scripture

Dr. Robert L. Reymond

[Taken from “A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith” (1998)Chapter Four, pp. 95110 - PDF version HERE]

TWO ADDITIONAL MATTERS pertaining to the nature of biblical truth have to be addressed before any treatment of the Bible as God’s inspired Word is compete. The first has to do with the nature of the assertions that Holy Scripture makes about God and reality in general: Are they univocally or analogically true? And is the knowledge which we derive from these assertions of Holy Scripture univocally or only analogically true? Some theologians today insist that God’s knowledge of himself and of things in general, and human knowledge of these same things, even though the latter accords with God’s intended meanings in revealed Scripture, never coincide at any single point. The relationship between these “two knowledge contents” is said to be “analogical” and not “univocal.”

The second issue has to do with the matter of paradox. Is paradox a legitimate hermeneutical category in the interpretation of Scripture? Again, in our day some of our finest evangelical scholars insist that, even when correctly interpreted, the Scriptures will often represent their truths to even the believing human existentnot least because of its analogical characterin paradoxical terms, that is, in terms “taught unmistakably in the infallible Word of God,” which, while “not actually contradictory,” nevertheless “cannot possibly be reconciled before the bar of human reason.”1


Is Biblical revelation about God univocal or analogical? Can we know God as he is in himself, or is an analogical comprehension the most we can hope for?2 The difference is this: A given predicate applied to separate subjects univocally would intend that the subjects possess the predicate in a precisely identical sense. The opposite of univocality is equivocality, which attaches a given predicate to separate subjects in a completely different or unrelated sense. Now lying between univocality is analogy. A predicate employed analogically intends a relationship between separate subjects based upon comparison or proportion. Can the content of God’s knowledge of himself and the content of man’s knowledge that is gained from God’s verbal revelation be univocal (the same), or must it inevitably be either equivocal (different) or analogical (partly alike, partly not alike, that is, proportional to the specific subject’s nature)?

Thomas Aquinas (12241274) was one of the first Christian theologians to deal formally with this issue.3 He was not the first, of course, to address the issue of the nature of knowledge and the functions and limits of language. Augustine (354430), for example, had grappled with these issues in his treatise De Magistro and, incidentally, had come to radically different conclusions. Aquinas declared that nothing can properly be predicated of God and man in a univocal sense. To do so and to say, for example, that God and man are both “good” and to intend by “good” the same meaning, is to ignore the difference between the essences of God the Creator (his existence is identical with his essence) and of man the creature (his existence and his essence are two different matters). But Aquinas saw too that to intend an equivocal meaning for “good” would lead to complete ambiguity and epistemological scepticism. Therefore he urged the way of proportionality or analogy as the via media between univocality and equivocality. In other words, the assertion, “God and man are both good,” means analogically that man’s goodness is proportional to man as God’s goodness is proportional to God, but it also means that the goodness intended cannot be the same goodness in both cases. In sum, of this Aquinas was certain: nothing can be predicated of God and man in the univocal sense. Rather, only analogical predication is properly possible when speaking of the relationship between them.

But now a problem arises, for what is it about any analogy that saves it from becoming a complete equivocality? Is it not the univocal element implicit within it? For example, if I assert that an analogy may be drawn between an apple and an orange, do I not intend to suggest that the apple and the orange, obviously different in some respects, are the same in at least one respect? Why, otherwise, would I be drawing attention to the relationship between them? While it is true that the one respect in which I perceive that they are similar will not be immediately apparent to anyone else without further explanation on my part, it should be clear nonetheless to everyone, if I assert that they are analogous one to the other, that I believe that in some sense a univocal feature exists between themin this case, it may be that I have in mind that they are both fruit, or that they are both spherical, or that they both have extension in space or have mass. I intend to suggest that, for all their differences, they have something in common. The predicate indicates something that is equally true of both. What I am urging here is that the success of any analogy turns on the strength of the univocal element in it. Or, as Edward John Carnell has stated, the basis for any analogy is nonanalogical, that is, univocal.4 Aquinas’s dilemma is that he wanted to have his cake and eat it too. He wanted to affirm the analogous relationship between God and man on the one hand, but he denied all univocal coincidence in predication respecting them on the other. But if he affirms the relationship between God and man to be truly analogous, he cannot consistently deny that in some sense a univocal element exists between them. Or if he denies all univocal coincidence in predication between God and man, he cannot continue to speak of the predicative relationship between them as one of analogy. As a matter of fact, Gordon H. Clark has argued that Aquinas’s doctrine of the analogia entis (analogy of being) between God and man is actually not analogical at all but really an equivocality.5

How are we to respond to this issue? Let us consider the pronouncements of the widely respected Reformed theologian Cornelius Van Til. In his theology and in his apologetics Van Til always made it his goal to be true to a single and initial ontological visionthe distinction between the Creator and the creature. Throughout his writings Van Til insisted again and again that human knowledge is and can only be analogical to divine knowledge.6 What this means for Van Til is the express rejection of any and all qualitative coincidence between the content of God’s mind and the content of man’s mind. That is to say, according to Van Til, not only is God’s knowledge prior to and necessary to man’s knowledge, which is always secondary and derivative (with this I am in total agreement), not only is God’s knowledge self-validating, whereas man’s knowledge is dependent upon God’s prior self-validating knowledge for its justification (with this I am also in agreement), but also for Van Til this means that man qualitatively knows nothing as God knows a thing.

In his An Introduction to Systematic Theology, Van Til writes: “All human predication is analogical re-interpretation of God’s pre-interpretation. Thus the incomprehensibility of God must be taught with respect to any revelational proposition.”7 In his introduction to Warfield’s The Inspiration and Authority of the Bible, Van Til declares:

When the Christian restates the content of Scriptural revelation in the form of a “system,” such a system is based upon and therefore analogous to the “existential system” that God himself possesses. Being based upon God’s revelation it is on the one hand, fully true and, on the other hand, at no point identical with the content of the divine mind.”8

In a Complaint filed against the presbytery that voted to sustain Gordon H. Clark’s ordination examination, to which Van Til affixed his name as a signatory, it was declared a “tragic fact” that Clark’s epistemology “has led him to obliterate the qualitative distinction between the contents of the divine mind and the knowledge which is possible to the creature.”9 The Complaint also affirmed: “We dare not maintain that [God’s] knowledge and our knowledge coincide at any single point.”10 It is important to note here that it is not the way that God and human beings know a thing that the Complaint declares is different. Both the complainants and Clark agreed that God knows everything by eternal intuition whereas people learn what they know (excluding certain innate ideas) discursively. Rather, insists Van Til and certain of his students, it is the content of man’s knowledge that is qualitatively distinct from God’s knowledge.

Because of his particular ontological vision Van Til insists that all verbal revelation coming from God to humans will of necessity be “anthropomorphic,” that is, it must assume “human form” in order to be understood at the level of creaturely finite comprehension. But Van Til is equally insistent that this divine self-revelation, by the Spirit’s enabling illumination, can produce in men a “true” knowledge of God, although their knowledge will be only “analogical” to God’s knowledge of himselfit will never correspond to God’s knowledge at any single point! How Van Til can regard this “never corresponds” knowledge as “true” knowledge is, to say the least, a serious problem. Perhaps he means that the Creator is willing to regard as “true” the knowledge that men derive from his self-revelation to them even though it is not univocal at any single point, because due to human finiteness he had to adapt his revelation to creaturely finite comprehension. God’s verbal revelation to human beings, in other words, since it is “creature-orientated” (that is, “analogical”), is not a univocal statement of his understanding of himself or of anything else and this can never produce anything higher than a creaturely (“analogical”) comprehension of God or of anything else. If this is what Van Til means, it is difficult to see how, with his explicit rejection of the univocal element (see his “corresponds at no single point”) in man’s so-called “analogical” knowledge of God, Van Til can rescue such knowledge from being in actuality a total equivocality and no true knowledge at all. It is also difficult to see how he can rescue God from the irrationality in accepting as true what in fact (if Van Til is correct) he knows all the while coincides at no single point with his own knowledge, which is both true and the standard of truth.

Against all this, Clark contended that Van Til’s position leads to total human ignorance:

If God knows all truths and knows the correct meaning of every proposition, and if no proposition means to man what it means to God, so that God’s knowledge and man’s knowledge do not coincide at any single point, it follows by rigorous necessity that man can have no truth at all.11

He further argues:

If God and man know, there must with the differences be at least one point of similarity, for if there were no point of similarity it would be inappropriate to use the one term knowledge in both cases. . . . If God has the truth and if man has only an analogy [this “analogy” containing no univocal element], it follows that he (man) does not have the truth.12

Clark illustrates his point this way:

If . . . we think that David was King of Israel, and God’s thoughts are not ours, then it follows that God does not think David was King of Israel. David in God’s mind was perchance prime minister of Babylon.

To avoid this irrationality, . . . we must insist that truth is the same for God and man. Naturally, we may not know the truth about some matters. But if we know anything at all, what we know must be identical with what God knows. God knows the truth, and unless we know something God knows, our ideas are untrue. It is absolutely essential therefore to insist that there is an area of coincidence between God’s mind and our mind. One example, as good as any, is the one already used, viz., David was King of Israel.13

Clark concludes:

If God is omnipotent, he can tell men the pain, unvarnished, literal truth. He can tell them David was King of Israel, he can tell them he is omnipotent, he can tell them he created the world, and . . . he can tell them all this in positive, literal, non-analogical, non-symbolic terms.14

Of course, as far as the extent or quantity of their respective knowledge data is concerned, Clark readily acknowledged that God knows more and always will know more than men and women—this hardly even needs saying. But if we are to allow to human beings any knowledge at all, Clark urged, we must insist that if God and man both truly know anything, then what they know must have some point of correspondence as far as the content of their knowledge is concerned. I wholeheartedly concur, and I believe that Francis Schaeffer’s dictum is right on target: human beings may indeed have “true though not exhaustive knowledge.”

Certain biblical references seem to support Van Til’s contention that God’s knowledge and man’s knowledge are always and at every point qualitatively distinct. Van Til himself pointed to Deuteronomy 29:29, Job 11:7–8, Psalm 145:3, Isaiah 40:28, 55:8–9, Matthew 11:27, Luke 10:22, John 1:18, 6:46, Romans 11:33, and I Timothy 6:16 as supporting his contention that with respect to any revelational proposition God still remains, even after the revelatory act, the incomprehensible God.15 However, a close examination of these verses will show that, while they do not deny the immeasurable wisdom and knowledge of God they are primarily concerned with underscoring the human need of propositional revelation to know God savingly. Job 11:7–8, Psalm 145:3, Isaiah 40:28, Romans 11:33, and I Timothy 6:16, while certainly affirming the infinity of God, need simply mean that men and women, beginning with themselves and refusing the benefit of divine revelation, cannot, as Paul so forcefully declares in I Corinthians 1:21, come to God though their own wisdom, or, said somewhat differently, that men and women will always be dependent upon divine informational revelation for a true and saving knowledge of God. Franz Delitzsch captures the essence of the intention of these verses when he comments on Psalm 145:3:

Of Yahweh’s “greatness . . . there is no searching out, i.e. it is so abysmally deep that no searching can reach its bottom (as in Isa. xl. 28, Job xi. 7 sq.). It has, however, been revealed, and is being revealed continually, and is for this very reason thus celebrated in ver. 4.16

As for Deuteronomy 29:29, Matthew 11:27, Luke 10:22, and John 1:18, 6:46 (see v. 45), these verses actually teach that human beings can know God and his thoughts truly to the degree that he reveals himself in his spoken word. Finally, Isaiah 55:89 far from depicting “the gulf which separates the divine knowledge from human knowledge,”17 actually holds out the real possibility that people may know God’s thoughts and urges them to turn away from their own thoughts and to learn God’s thoughts from him. In 55:7 God calls upon the wicked man to forsake his way and thoughts. Where is he to turn? To the Lord, of course (55:67). Why should he forsake his way and thoughts? “Because,” says the Lord, “my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways” (55:8). The entire context, far from affirming that God’s ways and thoughts are beyond the capacity of humans to know, on the contrary, expressly calls upon the wicked man to turn away from his ways and thoughts and to seek God’s ways and thoughts. In doing so, the wicked man gains ways and thoughts which, just as the heavens transcend the earth, transcend his own. Far from teaching that an unbridgeable gulf exists between God’s thoughts and our thoughts, these verses actually call upon the wicked man, in repentance and humility, to seek and to think God’s thoughts after him. Again, Franz Delitzsch rightly interprets these verses:

The appeal, to leave their own way and their own thoughts, and yield themselves to God the Redeemer, and to His word, is urged on the ground of the heaven-wide difference between the ways and thoughts of this God and the despairing thoughts of men (Ch. xl. 27, xlix. 24), and their aimless labyrinthine ways. . . . On what side the heaven-wide elevation is to be seen, is shown by what follows. [God’s thoughts] are not so fickle, so unreliable, or so powerless.18

None of these verses teaches that man’s knowledge of God can be only at best “analogical,” in the Van Tilian sense, to God’s knowledge. On the contrary, some of them expressly declare that in dependence upon God’s propositional self-revelation in Scripture, human beings can know some of God’s thoughts truly, that is, univocally (though of course not exhaustively), that is, that they can know a revealed proposition in the same sense that God knows it and has revealed it.

None of this is intended to suggest that the Scriptures contain no figures of speech. Of course they do. For example, the Bible is filled with metaphors (Ps. 18:2“The LORD is my rock, my fortress”) and similes (Isa. 1:30“You will be like an oak with fading leaves, like a garden without water.”). But metaphors and similes intend univocal meanings, and once the appropriate canons of grammatical-historical hermeneutics have determined the precise literal meaning of a metaphor, its meaning must be precisely the same for God as for man.

Christians should be overwhelmed by the magnitude of this simple truth that they take so much for grantedthat the eternal God has deigned to share with us some of the truths that are on his mind. He condescends to elevate us poor undeserving sinners by actually sharing with us a portion of what he knows. Accordingly, since the Scriptures require that saving faith be grounded in true knowledge (see Rom. 10:1314), the church must vigorously oppose any linguistic or revelational theory, however well-intended, that would take from men and women the only ground of their knowledge of God and, accordingly, their only hope of salvation. Against the theory of human knowledge that would deny to it the possibility of univocal correspondence at any point with God’s mind as to content, it is vitally important that we come down on the side of Christian reason and work with a Christian theory of knowledge that insists upon the possibility of at least some identity between the content of God’s knowledge and the content of man’s knowledge.19


Bible students should be solicitous to interpret the Scriptures in a noncontradictory way; they should strive to harmonize Scripture with Scripture because the Scriptures reflect the thought of a single divine mind.20

But many of our finest modern evangelical scholars are insisting that even after the human interpreter has understood the Bible correctly, it will often represent its truths to the human existenteven the believing human existentin paradoxical terms, that is, in terms “taught unmistakably in the infallible Word of God,” which, while not actually contradictory, nevertheless “cannot possibly be reconciled before the bar of human reason.”21 It is commonly declared, for example, that the doctrines of the Trinity, the hypostatic union of the divine and human natures in the person of Christ, God’s sovereignty and human responsibility, unconditional election and the sincere offer of the gospel, and particular redemption and the universal offer of the gospel are all biblical paradoxes, each respectively advancing antithetical truths unmistakably taught in the Word of God that cannot possibly be reconciled by human reason.22 James I. Packer likewise affirms the presence of such paradoxes in Scripture in his Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God, although he prefers the term “antinomy” to “paradox.” He writes:

An antinomy—in theology, at any rate—is . . . not a real contradiction, though it looks like one. It is an apparent incompatibility between two apparent truths. An antinomy exists when a pair of principles stand side by side, seemingly irreconcilable, yet both undeniable. . . . [An antinomy] is insoluble. . . . What should one do, then, with an antinomy? Accept it for what it is, and learn to live with it. Refuse to regard the apparent contradiction as real.23

Cornelius Van Til even declares that, because human knowledge is “only analogical” to God’s knowledge, all Christian truth will finally be paradoxical, that is, all Christian truth will ultimately appear to be contradictory to the human existent:

[Antinomies] are involved in the fact that human knowledge can never be completely comprehensive knowledge. Every knowledge transaction has in it somewhere a reference point to God. Now since God is not fully comprehensible to us we are bound to come into what seems to be contradictions in all our knowledge. Our knowledge is analogical and there must be paradoxical.24

While we shun as poison the idea of the really contradictory we embrace with passion the idea of the apparently contradictory.25

All teaching of Scripture is apparently contradictory.26

All the truths of the Christian religion have of necessity the appearance of being contradictory. . . . We do not fear to accept that which has the appearance of being contradictory. . . . In the case of common grace, as in the case of every other biblical doctrine, we should seek to take all the factors of Scripture teaching and bind them together into systematic relations with one another as far as we can. But we do not expect to have a logically deducible relationship between one doctrine and another. We expect to have only an analogical system.27

What should one say respecting this oft-repeated notion that the Bible will often (always, according to Van Til) set forth its truths in irreconcilable terms? To say the least, one must conclude, if such is the case, that it condemns at the outset as futile even the attempt at the systematic (orderly) theology that Van Til calls for in the last source cited, since it is impossible to reduce to a system irreconcilable paradoxes that steadfastly resist all attempts at harmonious systematization. One must be content simply to live theologically with a series of “discontinuities.”28

Now if nothing more could or were to be said, this is already problematical enough because of the implications such a construction carries regarding the nature of biblical truth. But more can and must be said. First, the proffered definition of “paradox” (or antinomy) as two truths which are both unmistakably taught in the Word of God but which also cannot possibly be reconciled before the bar of human reason is itself inherently problematical, for the one who so defines the term is suggesting by implication that either he knows by means of an omniscience that is not normally in human possession that no one is capable of reconciling the truths in question or he has somehow universally polled everyone who has ever lived, is living now, and will live in the future and has discovered that not one has been able, is able, or will be able to reconcile the truths. But it goes without saying that neither of these conditions is or can be true. Therefore, the very assertion that there are paradoxes, so defined, in Scripture is seriously flawed by the terms of the definition itself. There is no way to know if such a phenomenon is present in Scripture. Merely because any number of scholars have failed to reconcile to their satisfaction two given truths of Scripture is no proof that the truths cannot be harmonized. And if just one scholar claims to have reconciled the truths to his or her own satisfaction, this ipso facto renders the definition both gratuitous and suspect.

Second, while those who espouse the presence in Scripture of paradoxes are solicitous to point out that these paradoxes are only apparent and not actual contradictions, they seem to be oblivious to the fact that, if actually noncontradictory truths can appear as contradictories and if no amount of study or reflection can remove the contradiction, there is no available means to distinguish between this “apparent” contradiction and a real contradiction. Since both would appear to the human existent in precisely the same form and since neither will yield up its contradiction to study and reflection, how does the human existent know for certain that he is “embracing with passion” only a seeming contradiction and not a real contradiction?

Third (and related to the second point), there is the intrinsic problem of meaning in any paradox so defined. What can two truths construed as an unresolvable contradiction mean? What meaning would a four-cornered triangle convey to us? What meaning would a square circle have for us? David Basinger explains:

If concepts such as human freedom and divine sovereignty are really contradictory at the human level, then . . . they are at the human level comparable to the relationship between a square and a circle. Now let us assume that God has told us in Scripture that he had created square circles. . . . The fundamental problem would be one of meaning. We can say the phrase “square circle,” and we can conceive of squares and we can conceive of circles. But since a circle is a nonsquare by definition and a square is noncircular by definition, it is not at all clear that we can conceive of a square circlethat is, conceive of something that is both totally a square and totally a circle at the same time. This is because on the human level, language (and thought about linguistic referents) presupposes the law of noncontradiction. “Square” is a useful term because to say something is square distinguishes it from other objects that are not squares. But if something can be a square and also not a square at the same time, then our ability to conceive of, and thus identify and discuss, squares is destroyed. In short, “square” no longer remains from the human level a meaningful term. And the same is true of the term “circle” in this context.

But what if we were to add that the concept of a square circle is not contradictory from God’s perspective and thus that to him it is meaningful. Would this clarify anything? This certainly tells us something about God: that he is able to think in other than human categories. But it would not make the concept any more meaningful to us. Given the categories of meaning with which we seem to have been created, the concept would remain just as meaningless from our perspective as before.29

Fourthand if the former three difficulties were not enough, this last point, only rarely recognized, should deliver the coup de grace to the entire notion that irreconcilable (only “apparent,” of course) contradictions exist in Scriptureonce one asserts that a truth may legitimately assume the form of an irreconcilable contradiction, he has given up all possibility of ever detecting a real falsehood. Every time he rejects a proposition as false because it “contradicts” the teaching of Scripture or because it is in some other way illogical, the proposition’s sponsor only needs to contend that it only appears to contradict Scripture or to be illogical, and that his proposition is simply one of the terms (the Scripture may provide the other) of one more of those paradoxes which we have acknowledged have a legitimate place in our “little systems,” to borrow a phrase from Alfred, Lord Tennyson.30 But this means both the end of Christianity’s uniqueness as the revealed religion of God since it is then liable tonay, more than this, it must be open tothe assimilation of any and every truth claim of whatever kind, and the death of all rational faith.

Now if one has already conceded that the Bible itself can and does teach that truths may come to the human existent in paradoxical terms, it begs the question to respond to this by insisting that one must simply believe what the Bible says about these other claims to truth and reject those that contradict the Bible. Why should either proposition of the “declared” contradiction be preferred to the other when applying Scripture to a contradicting truth claim? Why not simply live with one more unresolved antithesis? The only solution is to deny to paradox, if understood as irreconcilable contradictories, a legitimate place in a Christian theory of truth, recognizing it for what it isthe offspring of an irrational age. If there is to be an offense in Christianity’s truth claims, it should be the ethical implications of the cross of Christ and not the irrationality of contradictories proclaimed to men as being both true.

Certainly there are biblical concepts that we cannot fully understand. We may never be able to explain, for example, how God created something from nothing, how he can raise someone from the dead, or how the Spirit of God quickens the unregenerated soul (see John 3:8).31 Such concepts are mysteries to us, but they are not contradictions in terms. Again, it is true that the living God, upon occasion, employed paradoxes (understood as apparent but reconcilable contradictories) in his spoken word. But he did so for the same reason that we employ themas rhetorical or literary devices to invigorate the thought being expressed, to awaken human interest, to intrigue, to challenge the intellect, and to shock and frustrate the lazy mind. But the notion that any of God’s truth will always appear to the human existent as contradictory must be rejected. Specifically, the notion that the cardinal doctrines of the faiththe Trinity, the person of Christ, the doctrines of gracewhen proclaimed aright must be proclaimed as contradictory constructs is a travesty.

Certainly it is possible for an erring exegete so to interpret two statements of Scripture that he thinks that they teach contradictory propositions. But either he has misinterpreted one statement (maybe both), or he has attempted to relate two statements that were never intended to be related to one another. To affirm otherwise, that is, to affirm that Scripture statements, when properly interpreted, can teach that which for the human existent is both irreconcilably contradictory and yet still true, is to make Christianity and the propositional revelation upon which it is based for its teachings irrational, and this strikes at the rational nature of the God who speaks throughout its pages. God is Truth itself, Christ is the Logos of God, neither can lie, what they say is self-consistent and noncontradictory, and none of this is altered in the revelatory process.

But does not the classical doctrine of the Trinity present, if not a real contradiction, at least an apparent one? The widely acclaimed “paradox” of the Trinitynamely, that three equals one and one equals threeis in fact not one at all. If the numerical adjectives “one” and “three” are intended to describe in both cases the same noun so that the theologian intends to say that one God equals three Gods and three Gods equal one God in the same way that one might say that one apple numerically equals three apples and three apples numerically equal one apple, this is not an apparent contradiction or paradox. This is a real contradiction which not even God can resolve! Nor would he even try to do so! But this is not what the church teaches by its doctrine of the Trinity, although this representation is advanced all too often not only by lay people but also by good theologians. For example, rejecting the traditional distinction that God is one in one sense (essence) and three in another sense (persons), Van Til writes:

God is a one-conscious being, and yet he is a three-conscious being . . . the work ascribed to any of the persons is the work of one absolute person. . . . It is sometimes asserted that we can prove to men that we are not asserting anything that they ought to consider irrational, inasmuch as we say that God is one in essence and three in person. We therefore claim that we have not asserted unity and trinity of exactly the same thing.

Yet this is not the whole truth of the matter. We do assert that God, that is, the whole Godhead, is one person . . . within the ontological Trinity we must maintain that God is numerically one. He is one person. . . . Yet, within the being of the one person we are permitted and compelled by Scripture to make the distinction between a specific or generic type of being, and three personal subsistences.32

But no orthodox creed has ever so represented the doctrine. In fact, it is apparent that all of the historic creeds of the church have been exceedingly jealous to avoid the very appearance of contradiction here by employing one noun“God” or “Godhead”with the numerical “one” and another noun“persons”with the numeral “three.” The church has never taught that three Gods are one God or that one person is three persons but rather that “in the unity of the Godhead there are three persons” (Westminster Confession of Faith, II/iii), the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and that while each is wholly and essentially divine, no one person totally comprehends all that the Godhead is hypostatically. Certainly some of the divine attributes which insure the unity of the Godhead may be unknown to us. But when the Bible refers to the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, it intends that we think of three persons, that is, three hypostatically distinct centers of self-consciousness within the Godhead, whereas when it employs the imprecise and flexible title “God,” it refers either to the Godhead construed in their unitary wholeness (for example, Gen. 1:26) or to one of the persons of the Godhead, specifically which one to be determined by the context (for example, “God” in Rom. 8:28 refers to the Father while “God” in Rom. 9:5 refers to the Son). Thus construed, the doctrine of the Trinity does not confront us with even an apparent contradiction, much less a real one. The Triune God is a complex Being but not a contradiction!

Similarly, the Christian church has never creedally declared that Christ is one person and also two persons or one nature and also two natures. Rather, the church has declared that the Lord Jesus Christ, “being the eternal Son of God, became man, and so was and continues to be God and man, in two distinct natures and one person forever” (Westminster Shorter Catechism, Question 21). Note again: Christ is one person possessing the full complex of divine attributes and the full complex of human attributes. Christ is complex, surely, but he is not a contradiction!

Let not one conclude from this rejection of paradox (as Marston has defined it) as a legitimate hermeneutical category that I am urging a Cartesian rationalism that presupposes the autonomy of human reason and freedom from divine revelation, a rationalism which asserts that it must begin with itself in the build-up of knowledge. But make no mistake: I am calling for a Christian rationalism that forthrightly affirms that the divine revelation which it gladly owns and makes the bedrock of all its intellectual efforts is internally self-consistent, that is, noncontradictory. Christians believe that their God is rational, that is, that he is logical. This means that he thinks and speaks in a way that indicates that the laws of logicthe law of identity (A is A), the law of noncontradiction (A is not non-A), and the law of excluded middle (A is either A or non-A)are laws of thought original with and intrinsic to himself. This means that his knowledge is self-consistent. And because he is a God of truth he will not, indeed, he cannot lie (see Tit. 1:2; Heb. 6:18). Accordingly, just because God is rational, self-consistent, and always and necessarily truthful, we should assume that his inscripturated propositional revelation to usthe Holy Scriptureis of necessity also rational, self-consistent, and true. That this view of Holy Scripture is a common Christian conviction is borne out, I would suggest, in the consentient willingness by Christians everywhere to affirm that there are no contradictions in Scripture. The church worldwide has properly seen that the rational character of the one living and true God would of necessity have to be reflected in any propositional self-revelation which he determined to give to human beings, and accordingly has confessed the entire truthfulness (inerrancy) and noncontradictory character of the Word of God. Not to set the goal of quarrying from Scripture a harmonious theology devoid of paradoxes is to sound the death knell not only to systematic theology but also to all theology that would commend itself to men as the truth of the one living and rational God.


1.     R. B. Kuiper, cited approvingly by George W. Marston, The Voice of Authority (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1960), 16. Kuiper’s entire statement is as follows:
“A paradox is not, as Barth thinks, two truths which are actually contradictory. Truth is not irrational. Nor is a paradox two truths which are difficult to reconcile but can be reconciled before the bar of human reason. That is a seeming paradox. But when two truths, both taught unmistakably in the infallible Word of God, cannot possibly be reconciled before the bar of human reason, then you have a paradox.”

2.  I have adapted pages 96–102 from Robert L. Reymond, Preach the Word! (Edinburgh: Rutherford House Books, 1990), 17–26.

3.     See his Summa Contra Gentiles XXXII–XXXIV.

4.  Edward John Carnell, An Introduction to Christian Apologetics (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1948), 147.

5.   If Clark is correct, and I am persuaded that he is, Aquinas’s natural theology, which was grounded in his understanding of the analogia entis, is also defective, for he was, of necessity, working with two different meanings for the word “existence” as that single predicate applies to God and to sensory data; thus his argument from the existence of sensory data to the existence of God commits the error of equivocating, that is, using a single word with two different meanings in the same argument.

6.     See, for example, Cornelius Van Til, The Defense of the Faith (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1955), 56, 65, and Common Grace (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed. 1954), 28.

7.     Cornelius Van Til, In Defense of the Faith, vol. 5, An Introduction to Systematic Theology (Nutley, H.J.: Presbyterian and Reformed (1976), 171, emphasis his.

8.     Cornelius Van Til, introduction to The Inspiration and Authority of the Bible, by Benjamin B. Warfield (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1948), 33, emphasis supplied; see also his An Introduction to Systematic Theology, 165, for the same contention.

9.     Minutes of the Twelfth General Assembly of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, 1945, 15.

10.   Ibid., 14, emphasis original

11.   Gordon H. Clark, “Apologetics,” in Contemporary Evangelical Thought, ed. Carl F. H. Henry (New York: Harper Channel, 1957), 159.

12.   Gordon H. Clark, “The Bible as Truth,” Bibliotheca Sacra (April 1957): 163.

13.  Gordon H. Clark, “The Axiom of Revelation,” in The Philosophy of Gordon H. Clark, ed. Ronald H. Nash (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1968), 76–77.

14.   Ibid., 78.

15.   Minutes, 12.

16.   Franz Delitzsch, Biblical Commentary on the Psalms (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, n.d.), 3:389.

17.   Minutes, 12.

18.   Franz Delitzsch, Commentary on Isaiah (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, n.d.), 2:358.

19.   Some of Van Til’s students have attempted to extricate their revered mentor from the serious difficulty in which he has ensnared himself. John M. Frame, in his monograph Van Til: The Theologian (Phillipsburg, N.J.: Pilgrim, 1976), argues that Van Til means nothing more by his denial of identity of content between the divine and human minds than that God’s knowledge, unlike human knowledge, is original and self-validating (21). It is true that Van Til does not teach this, and with such teaching I have no quarrel. But I have to agree with Jim Halsey who argues in his review article, “A Preliminary Critique of Van Til: The Theologian” (Westminster Theological Journal XXXIX [Fall 1976]: 120-36), that Van Til indeed intends, because of “ontological considerations,” to deny qualitative identity of knowledge content in the divine and human minds, and that Frame has missed Van Til’s point (128-31) and accordingly has not accurately represented his theory of knowledge (133). I suggest that the quotations from Van Til which I have already offered support Halsey rather than Frame. Gilbert Weaver, both in Jerusalem and Athens, ed. E. R. Geehan (Phillipsburg, N.J.: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1971), 323-27, and in The Philosophy of Gordon H. Clark (303-5), also contends that by “human analogical thought” Van Til only intends to refer to the “process of reasoning” in man and not to his knowledge content as such. If this is all that Van Til intends, one wonders what all the fuss was about back in 1945 between Van Til and Clark over the doctrine of the incomprehensibility of God, since both agreed that the divine and human “reasoning processes” were different, God’s being eternally “intuitive,” man’s being in the main discursive. Consequently, I do not agree with Frame or Weaver (neither does Ronald H. Nash), since Van Til himself says, as we have noted, that a proper doctrine of human analogical knowledge will deny all qualitative coincidence between the content of God’s knowledge and the content of man’s knowledge. But this is no longer analogy at all but a form of equivocality, which God, according to Van Til, chooses to call true although it coincides at no point with truth. This contention ultimately ascribes irrationality to God and ignorance to man, and hence has no legitimate place in a Christian epistemology.

In both his The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God (Phillipsburg, N.J.: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1987) and his more recent Cornelius Van Til: An Analysis of His Thought (Phillipsburg, N.J.: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1995), 92-93, in connection with his discussion of the Van Til/Clark controversy, Frame has continued to defend (not uncritically by any means, to be sure) Van Til’s basic view regarding the analogical character of man’s knowledge by insisting that both men, because each emphasized his particular “perspective,” simply failed to understand the real concern of the other. He urges that his proposed “multiperspectivalism in theology helps restore the proper balance, because it helps us to see that some doctrines that are apparently opposed are actually equivalent, presenting the same truth from various vantage points” (Knowledge, 235; Analysis, 170-75). Frame’s refusal to dismiss Van Til’s faulty “perspective” on human analogical knowledge is, in my opinion, part of the explanation for what I perceive as weaknesses in Frame’s own “multiperspectival” approach to theology. For the interested reader who desires a brief but fuller analysis of Frame’s approach, I would refer him to Mark W. Karlberg, “On the Theological Correlation of Divine and Human Language: A Review Article,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 32, no. 1 (1989): 99-105.

20.   I have adapted pages 103–10 from Reymond, Preach the Word!, 27-34.

21.   R. B. Kuiper, cited approvingly by George W. Marston, The Voice of Authority, 16.

22.   Marston, The Voice of Authority, 17, 21, 70, 78, 87.

23.  James I. Packer, Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God (Chicago: Inter Varsity Press, 1961), 18-25.

24.   Van Til, The Defense of the Faith, 61, emphasis supplied.

25.  Cornelius Van Til, Common Grace and the Gospel (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1973), 9.

26.   Ibid., 142, emphasis original.

27.   Ibid., 165-66.

28.   Happily, and not unexpectedly, Van Til’s practice here is much better than his theory. In fact, John M. Frame in his Cornelius Van Til: An Analysis of His Thought, 161-65, demonstrates that Van Til is “one of the most systematic of thinkers,” stressing logical relationships among doctrines “more than almost any other recent theologian” (162).

29. David Basinger, “Biblical Paradox: Does Revelation Challenge Logic?” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 30, no.2 (1987): 208, emphasis supplied.

30.   Tennyson writes:
Our little systems have their day,
They have their day and cease to be.
They are but broken lights of Thee,
And Thou, O Lord, art more than they.
                                                —In Memoriam.

31.   If someday he tells us how he did these things, then of course we will be able to understand them.

32.   Van Til, An Introduction to Systematic Theology, 220, 228, 229-30, emphasis supplied.

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