Choosing Paradox – Part One
James Anderson is the Assistant Professor of Theology and Philosophy at Reformed Theological Seminary and his book, Paradox in Christian Theology, is his ode to biblical paradox, not in the sense that such paradoxes present us with theological puzzles or problems to be solved, but rather are tokens the ineffable God and creator has given us in order to induce religious passion and worship as we leap headfirst into the absurd. Fittingly, Paradox in Christian Philosophy opens and closes with a favorable quote and a final reverential bow to Søren Kierkegaard. That’s because according to Anderson:
. . . theological paradox reminds us of our creaturely limitations and of the transcendence of God. It confronts us with divine incomprehensibility and fosters reverent awe and epistemic humility.
Furthermore, in keeping with a central thread in the Christian narrative, paradox (with its attendant notion of divine mystery) invites *faith,* requiring us to trust God’s self-revelation despite the fact that it disaccords at points with our rational intuitions (about identity, unity, personhood, etc.) . . . Just as Abraham trusted God’s self-revelation in the face of seeming absurdity — the pregnancy of a pensioner and the sacrifice of a son — and was commended for his faith, so it is possible that God means us to trust the self-revelation of this triunity and his incarnation in the face of seeming illogicality, as opposed to leaning on our own understanding. (282 – 283)
Of course there is nothing illogical about God telling Abraham that his ninety year old wife will bear him a son or that he should sacrifice this same child. Some things may be hard to believe perhaps, which is why Abraham laughed when God told him that Sarah would bear him a son (see Genesis 17:17), but miracles and difficult commands are hardly the equivalent of square circles. Unlike the late Christian philosopher Gordon Clark (who gets only a passing if not deprecating mention in the book), Anderson does not believe that logical paradox in Scripture function, as Clark famously said, as “a charley-horse between the ears that can be eliminated by rational massage.” For Anderson the presence of logical paradoxes in Scripture act as intellectual fetishes or spiritual markers designed to invoke a sense of awe and devotion that call us to submit our minds to absurdity and incoherence. That’s not to say that Anderson believes that any and all claim to “biblical paradox” is justified, rather it is the recognition that at certain points in our theology logic needs to be curbed, which is a nice way to say abandoned.
For example, when explaining why he believes Christians are rational for believing apparent contradictions in Scripture, what he calls his “RAPT model” or the “Rational Affirmation of Paradoxical Theology,” Anderson remarks:
It is crucial to recognise that the RAPT model does not rule out the use of deduction and inference in theology, but merely implies certain constraints on the application of logical principles . . . But if we grant that some elements of divine revelation *could* strike us as paradoxical on account of limitations in our noetic apparatus, then we can permit any valid inference from revelational data *provided its conclusion does not explicitly negate other revelational data.*(276)
Of course, the problem here is one in which all Van Tilians fall into and which is why Van Tilianism is positively un-Reformed, is the failure to recognize that truth is, by definition, non-contradictory and biblical teaching is therefore similarly non contradictory. Valid inference from true premises cannot contradict any other true proposition. Reformed believers hold that the Christian faith is a rigorously deductive system (see Westminster Confession 1.6) and that the Scriptures presents to the mind a system of logically harmonious propositions. This is, after all, one of the central evidences that the Scriptures are indeed the Word of God (see Westminster Confession 1.5) . If Van Tilians like Anderson actually believed the Westminster Confession they would know that in Scripture there is a logical harmony or “consent of all” and not just some of the parts, and that the meaning of Scripture is “not manifold, but one.” Consequently, if an inference from revelational data were to “negate other revelational data” then we would know that the inference was invalid. Yet, Anderson maintains that valid inferences from Scripture can and will, at certain points, “negate other revelational data.” This is a complete departure from Reformed orthodoxy. For Van Tilians like Anderson the true mark of the Reformed faith is the recognition and embrace of impenetrable and hopelessly irreconcilable paradoxes or “apparent contradictions.”
There was a time when those following in Calvin’s footsteps were accused of being too logical, if such a thing were possible. Now we have entire so-called “Reformed seminaries” polluting the minds of countless men teaching them that at various points in their study of Scripture logic must be curbed and that they’re even “rational” for believing contradictions. Not only that, these poor souls are instructed that both sides of any seeming contradiction may both be true and that to fail to properly genuflect before irreconcilable paradoxes, i.e., contradictions that men like Anderson simply assert are not “real,” is to be guilty of the unpardonable sin of “rationalism.” Can there be any wonder why Calvinism remains in the backwaters of broader evangelicalism? According to Anderson reason is the enemy and heterodoxy is rooted in attempts to harmonize any number of paradoxical doctrines (specifically but not limited to the doctrines of Trinity and the Incarnation).
For example, concerning the Trinity Anderson’s maxim, and what frames all the arguments presented in his book, is that “the trinitarian who wishes to remain orthodox will inevitably face paradox, while the trinitarian who aims to banish paradox will end up heterodox.” (12) Even more important, if not damning to the central thesis of Anderson’s book, is the Confession’s insistence that “all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined, and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture” (WCF 1.10). Doctrinal formulations, no matter how universally revered or how widely accepted, are not infallible deliverances but are to rest on the “Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture,” and, contrary to Anderson, the Holy Spirit does not speak yes and no. Therefore, logical paradoxes as they reveal themselves in our doctrinal formulations, provided they are legitimate concerns (because paradox is often in the eyes of the beholder), then the doctrines may be subject to revision or modification in the light of Scripture and this is something Anderson rejects as a matter of course. Arguing against “doctrinal revisionism” Anderson states:
Indeed, the basic contention of any present-day claimant to the title of ‘Christian church’ — be it Protestant, Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, or otherwise — is that it stands at the end of a historical line of continuity, defined in terms of societal identity, which can be traced back to the original institution established by Christ and the apostles .
. . . Clearly not just *any* doctrinal discontinuity is sufficient to disqualify a religious body from claiming continuity with the apostolic church . . . However, matters are rather more serious when the discontinuity in question concerns those teachings that have historically been held as central to the faith — in particular, those expressed in the early creeds — and evidently this presents a difficulty for doctrinal revisionists. Would a religious body that opts to revise the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity still qualify as part of the ‘one holy catholic and apostolic church’? (130-131)
According to Anderson any tampering with the traditional so-called “ecumenical” creeds is a path too dangerous to contemplate, but how does that follow? For example, if one were to, say, modify the doctrine of the Trinity in such a way as to jettison a meaningless and unintelligible word like “substance,” something Gordon Clark successfully did in his monograph on the Trinity, would it place Protestants like Clark outside the “one catholic and apostolic church”? I don’t think so. And, even if it did in the narrow minds of some, so what? Last I checked Rome Catholic denial of the sole and authoritative role of Scripture, justification by faith alone, and the Gospel in general place them in discontinuity with the “one catholic and apostolic church.” Does Rome’s denial or revisionism of central doctrines such as these undermine their claim to be a ‘Christian church’ ? I would hope so. Evidently not for Anderson. Historically more recent doctrinal developments, such as those that came out of the Reformation, are not nearly as sacrosanct as those found in the so-called “ecumenical creeds” nor are they significant enough to impugn a “religious body’s” claim to the title “Christian.” After all, Anderson claims it is on the basis of the ecumenical creeds that Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox along with Protestants can justify their claim to be “a Christian church.” However, what is it about the so-called “ecumenical” creeds that make them somehow above any further reflection or even revision? Anderson doesn’t say. He just believes that in the case of the ecumenical creeds “Doctrinal revisionism is a path over unstable ground, theologically speaking, and its advocates should be prepared to accept that their proposals could well involve nothing less than a change of religious identity.” (131)
Which brings us to another example of where Anderson breaks from the Reformed creeds specifically in his following remarks concerning the Athanasian Creed:
The creed is held as an authoritative statement of orthodoxy by Roman Catholics, Anglicans, and most conservative Protestant denominations. Eastern Orthodox do not regard the Athanasian Creed as infallible, since not only was it not decreed by an ecumenical council but also it unmistakeably bears the stamp of Western, Augustinian theology. Nevertheless, the Orthodox hold it in high regard .
This is simply false. The Eastern Orthodox are not the only ones who do not regard the Athanasian Creed as infallible. According to the Westminster Confession this is also the traditional conservative Protestant position as well. Beyond WCF 1.10 cited above, WCF 31.4 states under the “The Role of Synods”:
All synods or councils since the apostles’ times, whether general or particular, may err, and many have erred; therefore they are not to be made the rule of faith or practice, but to be used as an help in both.
Note carefully, regardless of how long a particular creedal statement has been affirmed and believed, regardless how venerated or ecumenically embraced it may be, “All [and not just some] synods or councils since the apostles’ times, whether general or particular, may err, and many have erred.” There is no Protestant belief in the infallibility of any creedal statement. To suggest there is, as Anderson has done, is patently dishonest. Even the Westminster Confession, which is without question the high watermark in all of confessional Christianity (Roman church/state objections to the contrary notwithstanding), is open to revision and in fact has been revised as our understanding of God’s Word has advanced. After all, I don’t think too many Presbyterians would object to the idea that magistrates may no longer call synods or that they no longer have a say in “matters of religion.”
What makes the so-called ecumenical creeds exempt from any and all revisions? Nothing so far as I can tell. That’s not to say that the ancient creeds are of no value or help, they are, if nothing else they help us to see the various pitfalls and errors their authors sought to avoid along with their reasons why, but the Protestant position is that “all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined, and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the scripture.” Scripture alone is the final authority and if the only faithful reading of even the Athanasian Creed requires a contradictory understanding of the truths of Scripture and the nature of God, and as we shall see it does not, then we could know that the Athanasian Creed needs, at very least, to be revised or modified. The idea of sola scriptura when it comes to the so-called “ecumenical creeds” is something Anderson clearly rejects, which makes sense since the entire force of his book rests on this rejection.
Ignorance is certainly no virtue, but it seems to me that the job of the theologian is to try and harmonize seeming contradictions as they might arise in our study of Scripture, not affirm, promote and encourage them. James Anderson disagrees and spends the opening sections of his book defending the notion that irresolvable logical paradoxes in Scripture make up the very heart of the Christian faith and then devotes the rest of his book explaining why Christians are rational for affirming, maintaining, and defending them.
Now, I have to hand it to Anderson, he doesn’t waste time on the trivialities most Van Tilians tend to latch onto. Inanities like God’s imagined desire for the salvation of all while actually saving only some as claimed by advocates of the contradictory doctrine of the so-called “well meant” or “free offer” of the Gospel. He doesn’t even concern himself, except in passing, with the presumed “insoluble paradox” of God’s sovereign predestination over “whatsoever comes to pass” while maintaining the indisputable truth that men are responsible for their sinful thoughts and actions. That’s not to suggest that Anderson doesn’t believe or promote a contradictory understanding of these and other doctrines central to the Christian faith, rather he simply avoids these topic perhaps because he knows the paradoxes entailed in these confused formulations are easily untied. Instead, and to his credit, Anderson goes for the jugular and bases his affirmation of implicit contradictions in Scripture on the historic doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation. Admittedly, Anderson denies that either the Athanasian or Chalcedonian definitions are explicitly contradictory, rather these doctrines contain implicit contradictions. Anderson writes:
I suggest . . . that the type of contradiction, apparent or otherwise, involved in paradoxical Christian doctrines is best characterised as *implicit* contradiction. The problem is that certain statements of Christian doctrine seem to imply further claims that in turn explicitly contradict *other* statements of Christian doctrine (or certain natural implication of those statements). For example: while the Definition of Chalcedon may not explicitly state that Jesus *was* aware of everything (including the date of the Parousia) and also that Jesus *was not* aware of everything, it nonetheless appears to *imply* those very claims by virtue of the balanced christology its authors sought to articulate. (109)
Anderson’s point is that in order to maintain, as orthodoxy requires, that God is both one and three in two different senses or that Jesus Christ is one person with two natures is not to assert a contradiction. Only as these doctrinal formulations are explicated and their meanings examined do explicit contradictions arise.
The first doctrine Anderson tackles in his quest for the biblical and doctrinal incoherence he needs in which to base his RAPT theory on is the Trinity. Now, and I want to stress, and as strongly as I possibly can, that according to Anderson the only faithful reading of the Athanasian Creed and only one which qualifies as orthodox is where God is said to be in some sense both one person and three persons. Anderson writes:
Is not God (at least in the Judeo-Christian tradition) a *personal* being? Does this not suggest that if there is only one God, there is only one divine person? How then can this one divine person also be *three* divine persons? (11)
Admittedly, reprobate Jews, Arians like present day Jehovah Witnesses and Muslims might think of God is one divine person, but Christians, with the exception of perhaps Van Tilians and assorted Neo-Orthodox or Liberal theologians, do not think that God is one divine person. Later on Anderson argues:
If we allow that Christians can be warranted in believing that God is both one divine being and three divine beings . . . what basis for objection remains when someone claims, for example, that God is both identical to the world and distinct from the world?(264)
Interestingly, Anderson answers this charge (and ones like it) by stating:
Crucially, there must be available no alternative, *non*-paradoxical set of claims T* derived from an interpretation of the revelational data that is of comparable plausibility (linguistically speaking) to the paradoxical reading from with T is derived [T being a set of component claims of any specific doctrine — SG]. (266)
Of course, there is a non-paradoxical set of claims for the doctrine of the Trinity derived from an “interpretation of revelational data” with more than just “comparable plausibility” — linguistically speaking or otherwise — and that is the “social trinitarian” view where the distinct Persons of the Godhead share a generic or definitional unity. This is the view advanced by Christian thinkers as diverse as Gordon Clark, Richard Swinburne, Thomas Morris and others.
The problem, according to Anderson, is that only a strict numeric unity, as oppose to the generic unity of Persons, is permissible and is the sine qua non of orthodoxy. He claims that Augustine held to such a numeric view of unity, therefore the creed he inspired (the Athanasian Creed which is believed to have been written sometime around 850 AD and arguably an improvement on Augustine) can only be understood if we maintain God is both one person and three persons. The problem is, as Clark points out in his treatise on the Trinity, and after some lengthy quotes from Augustine (something oddly missing from Anderson’s treatment), is that it’s not at all clear what Augustine had in mind at all. Clark writes:
Augustine finds himself unable to define various terms especially person and substance. However, he is neither confused nor trapped into a contradiction, for he clearly says that the Godhead is one in one sense and three in a different sense. (52-53)
However, and in spite of such confusion, according to Anderson it is only in the sense where God is said to be both one person and three person that orthodoxy rests. Writing on Triablogue Anderson quips: “It is somewhat ironic then that Clark has been dubbed ‘America’s Augustine’, since it was Van Til, and not Clark, who in fact championed an Augustinian understanding of the Trinity.”
So, for those who may not know or may have forgotten exactly what Van Til taught concerning the Trinity, and what Anderson maintains is the “Augustinian understanding of the Trinity,” here is a sample:
We turn from our consideration of the incommunicable attributes of God to that of his triunity. The fact that God exists as concrete self-sufficient being appears clearly in the doctrine of the Trinity. Here the God who is numerically and not merely specifically one when compared with any other form of being, now appears to have within himself a distinction of specific and numerical existence. We speak of the essence of God in contrast to the three persons of the Godhead. We speak of God as a person; yet we speak also of three persons in the Godhead. As we say that each of the attributes of God is to be identified with the being of God, while yet we are justified in making a distinction between them, so we say that each of the persons of the Trinity is exhaustive of divinity itself, while yet there is a genuine distinction between the persons. Unity and plurality are equally ultimate in the Godhead. The persons of the Godhead are mutually exhaustive of one another, and therefore of the essence of the Godhead. God is a one-conscious being, and yet he is also a tri-conscious being.
When Scripture ascribes certain works specifically to the Father, others specifically to the Son, and still others specifically to the Holy Spirit, we are compelled to presuppose a genuine distinction within the Godhead back of that ascription. On the other hand, 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 . . .We need both the absolute cotermineity of each attribute and each person with the whole being of God, and the genuine significance of the distinctions of the attributes and the persons. “Each person,” says Bavinck, “is equal to the whole essence of God and coterminous with both other persons and with all three”. . . Over against all other beings, that is, over against created beings, we must therefore hold that God’s being presents an absolute numerical identity. And even within the ontological Trinity we must maintain that God is numerically one. He is one person. (Introduction to Systematic Theology, 220-229)
Concerning the above passage John Robbins observers in his booklet, Cornelius Van Til: The Man and the Myth:
Professor Van Til asserts that God is one person eight times in this one lengthy quotation: “God . . . is numerically . . . one;” “We speak of God as a person;” “God is one-conscious being;” “the work of one absolute person;” “We do assert that God, that is, the whole Godhead, is one person;” “God’s being presents an absolute numerical identity;” “God is numerically one;” “He is one person.” He takes great pains to make it clear that he rejects the doctrine of the Trinity, one God in three persons, as “not the whole truth of the matter.” God is both one person and three persons, just as his existence can and cannot be proved.
And, as Dr. Crampton notes in his piece, “Why I am Not a Van Tilian,” this is a view shared by many other Van Tilians not just Anderson:
Lamentably, this peculiar teaching has spread. John Frame, a disciple of Van Til and professor of apologetics at Westminster Theological Seminary, also says that “Scripture…does refer to God as one person” (20). Speaking of the Trinity, Van Tilian Gary North writes: “We are not dealing with one uniform being; we are dealing with Persons who constitute a Person.”
David Chilton, another follower of Van Til, has written: “The doctrine of the Trinity is that there is one God (one Person) who is three distinct Persons ‑ Father, Son, and Holy Spirit ‑ and that each of those Persons is Himself God. There are not three Gods ‑ only One. Yet those three Persons are not different ways or modes of God making Himself known to us, nor are they to be confused with one another; they are three distinct Persons. Cornelius Van Til states it about as clearly as anyone has….”
One of Van Til’s more creative and imaginative disciples, James Jordan, has added another twist: While Van Til, Frame, and North state that God is one person and three persons, Jordan adds tri‑theism. God, says Jordan, is one essence and three essences. He writes; “First of all, God is One and Three in essence. The Father and the Son are One; the Father and the Spirit are One; the Son and the Spirit are One; and the Three are One. This is a mystery, and is an ontological or metaphysical reality. But second, the Father, Son, and Spirit are each persons, and they exist in Society. There are relationships between them.” Jordan’s one and three essences are another deviation from Christian orthodoxy, and the notion is as Biblically and logically fallacious as saying that God is one person and three persons.
Now it is simply jejune to argue, as some have done, that these are merely “apparent contradictions.” These are irreconcilable contradictions. It is a violation of the law of contradiction to say that God is one person and three persons, or one essence and three essences, at the same time and in the same respect. But this is precisely what Van Til taught and many of his disciples are teaching. It is a strange alchemy that can make 1 = 3 and 3 = 1.
As we can see, when Anderson asserts a numerical identity between the unity and diversity in the Trinity he is in fact asserting a blatant contradiction. There is nothing implicit about it. The only thing implied or rather disguised in Anderson’s book is his commitment to Van Til’s irrationalism. If God is both one person and three persons there is nothing “paradoxical” about it. It is a bald contradiction and a very real one at that.
Now concerning the question of numeric verses generic unity there is no compelling reason to believe, and I think many readers might be shocked that this is what Anderson has in mind, that orthodoxy requires or even implies that God is one person and three persons. Even if such a profoundly confused position was asserted by Augustine, and according to Clark it is not at all convincing that Augustine was claiming anything near as radical as Van Til, the problem is the idea of numerical identity is not as airtight as Anderson claims. For example, in The Trinity, a book which Anderson arrogantly dismisses in a reply to Dr. Crampton as “neither sophisticated or influential,” Clark notes:
Hodge and Shedd differ on federal headship and traducianism because, apparently, Shedd defends a numerical unity of Adam and his posterity, while Hodge does not. The difficulty here, relative to the latter two doctrines as well as to the Trinity, is the meaning of numerical oneness and the problem of individuation.
The most obvious phase of the difficulty lies in the fact that species and genera can be counted as well as individuals. This pussy, Timothy Ticklepitches by name, and this puppy, Sport, are two numerically different animals. But feline and canine are also numerically different species. One is as numerical as the other. We can count and number species as easily as we can individuals. In the case of Shedd and federal headship, with the exception of one peculiarly worded sentence, Shedd could be numbering species rather than individuals; though Hodge does not think so. The present writer has the impression that some theologians count species, that some have no clear notion of numerical unity, that some therefore oscillate, and that many are confused. This judgment is justified because hardly any of them study the theories of individuation. (102-103)
And concerning Clark’s Augustinianism and the doctrine of the Trinity:
Plato held that acts of justice, imperfect as they are, presuppose a real Justice in the Ideal world. Similarly dice, children’s playing blocks of various sizes, and some other things, are imperfect copies of the real Cube. Cebes, Simmias, and Crito, imperfect, changing men, are men because the participate in the eternal, immutable reality of the Ideal Man.
The objection, now, is that if the similarity among the three men requires the Ideal Man, there must be a still superior MAN to account for the similarity between Cebes and the Ideal Man. This, called the Third Man objections, leads to an infinite regress.
Applying this to the Trinity one could argue that the similarity among the three Persons presupposes a higher Person than the three. Of course, if this were so, there would also be an infinite regress of Persons, Super-persons, and so on.
This line of argument is defective against Platonism and even more impossible against Trinitarianism. . . . With respect to the Trinity a series of considerations apply. Most obviously Plato argued from the changing things in the sphere of “Becoming” to the immutable realities in the sphere of “Being.” But the three Persons of the Trinity are already immutable and eternal, so that nothing higher is conceivable. It would be like asserting that three mutable cubes require a fourth mutable cube. But a genus is not one of its included individuals.
Furthermore, as has been hinted, Augustinianism differs from Platonism. Plato had Ideas. Augustine has truths or propositions. In reading what Augustine wrote, most people fail to note what he did not write; namely, they fail to note that he has no theory of abstraction. Instead of abstract ideas, he has truths. The present treatise follows Augustine on this point: There are no such things as abstraction and abstract ideas.
A critic may reply, “how is that? Does not the identity or similarity of the propositions constituting the three Persons require a fourth Person above them?” No, it does not, at least if personality requires, among other things, those propositions that are not common to the Three. The propositions relative to the term Father, and Arius’ misused term Ingenerate, and to the terms Son, Generated, incarnated, are not common to all three Persons. But if Father and Son are essential to personality, there cannot be a fourth person in the Godhead. (107-108)
As should be obvious, there is no compelling reason to hold to the kind of numeric unity Anderson asserts is essential to orthodoxy. Of course, Anderson will object that the kind of generic unity advanced by Clark and others implies tri-theism, but that’s hardly the case as any simple reflection on Clark’s arguments above should make clear. Beyond that, arguments from omnipotence (see Thomas Morris’ very interesting “thought experiment” in The Logic of God Incarnate, 213-214) and omniscience (see Joel Parkinson’s argument why three omniscient Persons cannot be divided or separated in “The Intellectual Trinunity of God”) further support the kind of generic unity Anderson rejects.
Now, perhaps it is always possible that there is a lack of sophistication on Anderson’s part that accounts for his rejection of a clearly rational and non-contradictory understanding of the unity and diversity we find in biblical trinitarianism. On the other hand, perhaps it’s just his choice as there is simply no requirement in orthodoxy to assert the kind of contradictory nonsense we find in the Van Tilian trinitarianism Anderson champions. Actually, as anyone can see from the citations provided from Van Til above, orthodoxy strictly prohibits it. Anderson simply chooses the path of incoherence, paradox and irrationality when a satisfactory and non-contradictory solution to the problem of the Trinity is readily available and easily defended.
Next, we’ll look at the problem of the Incarnation for in it we may find the kind of paradoxical doctrine Anderson needs to support the kind of leap of faith he believes is required by orthodoxy.