Weekend Broadcast

Contradiction and Paradox

A Message by R.C. Sproul

How do you answer a person who says that the Trinity is an illogical concept? Does the Bible teach contradictions? Before answering that, it is best to make sure we mean the same thing when we say contradiction. In this message, Dr. Sproul reminds us of the fine, but often misunderstood distinctions between "Contradiction and Paradox."

From the series: Defending Your Faith

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Further Study On This Topic

  1. blog-post

    Is Christianity Rational?

  2. blog-post

    Are There Contradictions in the Bible?

  3. devotional

    Contradiction Vs. Paradox

Is Christianity Rational?

R.C. Sproul

By all means! It is intensely rational. Now, I've had the question asked of me, "Is it true that you are a Christian rationalist?" I said, "By no means! That's a contradiction in terms. A rationalist is somebody who embraces a philosophy that sets itself over and against Christianity." And so, while a true Christian is not a rationalist, the Christian faith is certainly rational.

Is Christianity coherent? Is it intelligible? Does it makes sense? Does it fit together in a consistent pattern of truth, or is it the opposite of rational—is it irrational? Does it indulge in superstition and embrace Christians who believe that Christianity is manifestly irrational? I think that's a great tragedy. The God of Christianity addresses people's minds. He speaks to us. We have a Book that is written for our understanding.

When I say that Christianity is rational, I do not mean that the truth of Christianity in all of its majesty can be deduced from a few logical principles by a speculative philosopher. There is much information about the nature of God that we can find only because God himself chooses to reveal it to us. He reveals these things through his prophets, through history, through the Bible, and through his only begotten Son, Jesus.

But what he reveals is intelligible; we can understand it with our intellect. He doesn't ask us to throw away our minds in order to become Christians. There are people who think that to become a Christian, one must leave one's brain somewhere in the parking lot. The only leap that the New Testament calls us to make is not into the darkness but out of the darkness into the light, into that which we can indeed understand. That is not to say that everything the Christian faith speaks of is manifestly clear with respect to rational categories. I can't understand, for example, how a person can have a divine nature and a human nature at the same time, which is what we believe about Jesus. That's a mystery—but mysterious is not the same as irrational.

Mystery doesn't apply only to religion. I don't understand the ultimate force of gravity. These things are mysterious to us, but they're not irrational. It's one thing to say, "I don't understand from my finite mind how these things work out," and it's another thing to say, "They're blatantly contradictory and irrational, but I'm going to believe them anyway." That's not what Christianity does. Christianity says that there are mysteries, but those mysteries cannot be articulated in terms of the irrational; if that were so, then we have moved away from Christian truth.

Is the Christian faith really rational? and other questions can be found in our Questions Answered section.

Are There Contradictions in the Bible?

R.C. Sproul

Much of the debate on the integrity of the Scriptures focuses specifically on the four Gospels. When you have parallel accounts of something, you expect them to be consistent, particularly if you're maintaining that these accounts are inspired by God the Holy Spirit. We know that God may use different authors to record the same or similar events, and the authors can describe the event from their perspective, with their respective languages and literary styles. But still we would expect agreement in the substance of what is being taught if all accounts are speaking under the superintendence of God the Holy Spirit. That's why it's interesting to me that very early in church history there were attempts to write harmonies of the Gospels.

There are three synoptic Gospels—Matthew, Mark, and Luke—which give a biographical sketch of the life and ministry of Jesus. Many events are parallel among those three authors, though they don't always agree in each detail—how many angels were at the tomb on the day of resurrection, what the sign on the cross said, what day of the week Jesus and the disciples celebrated the Passover celebration in the upper room, and so forth. Those things have received a tremendous amount of careful attention by biblical scholars, some coming to the conclusion that there is no way to harmonize them and that we just have to accept that there are contradictions among the biblical writers, which would then seem to falsify any claim to divine inspiration. Others have felt that they indeed can be reconciled.

For example, one Gospel writer tells us that there were two angels at the tomb on the day of the Resurrection, and another mentions only one. Now the critical word that's absent from the text is the word "only." If one writer says there were two angels at the tomb and the other one comes along and says there was only one, there you have a bona fide contradiction between the two. If one says there were two angels at the tomb and the other says we came and saw an angel, obviously if there are two angels, there has to be one angel— there's no contradiction. There is a discrepancy; that is, they don't say exactly the same thing. The question is, Can the two accounts be harmonized—are they logically compatible with one another? A good friend of mine in seminary was very troubled by these issues and quoted one of our professors who said, "The Bible is filled with contradiction." And I said, "Why don't you go home and I'll meet you here tomorrow at one o'clock. You come back with fifty contradictions. If the Bible's full of them, then that should be an easy task." The next day at one o'clock I met him and I said, "Do you have your fifty?" He'd been up all night and he said, "No, but I found thirty." And we went through each one of them, rigorously applying the principles of logic and symbolic logic. To his satisfaction I demonstrated to him that not one of his alleged contradictions in fact violated the law of contradiction.

Now I have to say in closing that in my judgment he could have pulled out some more difficult passages. There are some extremely difficult passages in the Scriptures, and I'm not always happy with some of the resolutions, but I think that for the most part those difficult discrepancies have been thoroughly reconciled through biblical scholarship.

Contradiction Vs. Paradox

Dr. Sproul has done us a great service in helping to understand the relationship between faith and reason. We have explored the noetic effects of sin, the role of the mind, the modern neglect of the intellect and the law of noncontradiction. Today, in our final study from the series Faith and Reason, we will demonstrate how the Christian faith never abandons, but rather utilizes the law of noncontradiction.

Yesterday we said that the law of noncontradiction states that “A cannot be both A and non-A at the same time and in the same relationship.” The qualifiers “same time” and “same relationship” are very important. Some attempt to deny the law of noncontradiction by giving examples from the natural world that seem to render the law invalid. One example of this might be water. Water can be both a liquid and a gas and so therefore, the law of noncontradiction must not be true. However, the qualifier “same time,” makes this an inaccurate assumption. A molecule of water can be both a liquid and a gas, but that molecule is never both a liquid and a gas at the same time.

The qualifier “same relationship” is also very important. We see a good example of this in Christian theology. Many people mistakenly believe that when we confess the doctrine of the Trinity, we confess a contradiction. The doctrine of the Trinity, as traditionally formulated, states that God is one in essence and three in person. But this is not a contradiction because the way (or relationship) in which God is one is not the same as the way in which He is three. God is one in essence but three in person. If we said God was one in essence and three in essence, we would have a contradiction in the very being of God and would thus have to reject this teaching.

The doctrine of the Trinity is not a contradiction. Rather, it is a mystery, a paradox of sorts, something that appears at first glance to be contradiction, but when explored further really is not. The Christian faith has many paradoxes, but no contradictions.

The law of noncontradiction is presupposed in everything we do. If it were not true, all of the words on this page could have an infinite number of contradictory meanings and intelligible discourse would be impossible. The law of noncontradiction is not foreign to Christianity but is a tool to be eagerly embraced for faith and life.

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