Paradoxes and Tensions in the Christian Faith
Something that modern readers of the Bible often fail to recognize is how many paradoxes and tensions there are in the Christian faith. It is frequently the case that two things which at first sight seem to contradict each other are both in fact true.
The following sort of thing happens a lot:
The Bible teaches two truths, which we can call A and B. Some people correctly understand that the Bible teaches A. However, they think that A and B contradict each other. So they deny that the Bible teaches B, and they explain away passages which teach B. Other people correctly understand that the Bible teaches B. But they too think that A and B contradict each other. So they deny A and explain away the passages that teach A. Both sets of people therefore end up denying some biblical truth.
The amount of bad teaching in the church would be much less if there was better understanding of how much paradox and tension the Bible contains.
Here are some examples of how people go wrong by failing to take account of paradoxes in the Christian faith:
Jesus as one person who is fully God and fully human
The Bible teaches that Jesus Christ is fully God (e.g., John 20:28) and also fully human (e.g., 1 Timothy 2:5), yet one person (e.g., John 1:14).
At first glance it might seem impossible that Jesus could be all these things, and since the early centuries of the church many have rejected this theology.
Some, like Jehovah’s Witnesses today, have said that Jesus was not God at all, but that He was entirely created by God. At the other extreme, some have said that He was God, but only appeared to be a man, or that He was God in a human body but had no human soul. And another group has claimed that He was fully God and fully human but that He was really two distinct persons.
In fact, however, this theology is not contradictory, even though it is difficult to understand.
God’s sovereignty and human free will
According to Scripture, God is sovereignly in control of all events, and in a real sense everything that happens comes from His hand (e.g., Amos 3:6). However, the Bible also teaches that people have free will, and that we and not God are responsible for sin (e.g., 1 Corinthians 10:13).
At first sight, these themes seem as if they might contradict each other, and there are huge numbers of Christians who minimize one or the other of them.
Those who accept Arminian theology, for example, fail to do proper justice to the sovereignty of God. By contrast, Calvinists fail to properly appreciate the reality of free will or the goodness of God.
Exactly how we reconcile God’s sovereignty with human free will is something that has been debated for many centuries. Personally, I have a lot of sympathy with Molinist theology, which is becoming increasingly popular in evangelical circles.
Nevertheless, regardless of how we attempt to reconcile these things, Scripture teaches them both, and we should take care not to explain either of them away.
Salvation by faith but accompanied by good deeds
The Bible makes it clear that salvation is by faith and not by doing good deeds (e.g., Ephesians 2:8-9). But Scripture is just as clear that people whose lives are not characterized by doing good deeds are not saved (e.g., James 2:26).
There might at first seem to be a contradiction between these points, and there are many today who say that there is. At one extreme, Roman Catholics claim that Christians need to partly earn their salvation. And at the other extreme those who hold so-called Free Grace Theology claim that everyone who makes a decision to accept Jesus as Savior is saved, even if they are living an unrepentantly sinful life.
In fact, there is no contradiction between these points. We are saved by faith and not by good deeds, but where there is genuine faith, good deeds will always, so to speak, tag along.
Forgiveness by faith and in water baptism
Many passages in the Bible refer to people being saved by faith in Christ (e.g., Romans 3:28). Yet there are also numerous passages that most naturally seem to imply that God’s standard way of doing things is to forgive the sins of new believers at the time they are baptized (e.g., Acts 2:38).
Many Christians today deny that God forgives sins in water baptism, because they think that would conflict with forgiveness by faith.
This, however, is to compare apples with oranges. Baptism can be seen as an act, which should take place as soon as someone comes to faith, and in which God normatively forgives the sins of people who are claiming forgiveness by faith. We could perhaps compare this to gaining a college degree: Faith is what gives someone the entitlement to the degree, while baptism is the graduation ceremony.
I do believe that God often acts outside His standard pattern by forgiving new Christians before baptism. Nevertheless, Scripture seems to teach that His standard pattern is to forgive in the act of baptism.
A God of love who sends people to hell
According to the Bible, one key attribute of God is that He is loving (e.g., Lamentations 3:22). However, it also teaches clearly that He sends many people to hell (e.g., Matthew 25:46).
There are some who find these things contradictory and claim that a loving God would never send anyone to hell.
In reality, however, these things don’t contradict each other. Although God is a God of love, He is also a God of justice, and justice involves inflicting punishment.
The crucifixion for us and for God
The Bible teaches often that God’s purpose in the crucifixion of Christ was to benefit people (e.g., Romans 5:8). However, it tells us too that God’s purpose in the cross was to glorify Himself (e.g., Ephesians 1:5-6).
These purposes might at first sight seem to conflict with each other, and many Christians tend to minimize one or the other of them. Some downplay passages which teach that God’s purpose in salvation was self-glorification. Others downplay passages which teach that His purpose was to benefit people, and claim that Christ’s dying for sinners was really only a means to an end, which was to give God glory.
In fact, neither aspect of God’s purpose should be downplayed. How God could have had these two different purposes in the cross is not easy to understand, but the Bible teaches them both, and we should embrace each of them.
Joy and suffering
Scripture tells us that the normal Christian life should involve significant joy (e.g., John 15:11). Yet many passages make it clear that normal Christian living also involves significant hardship and suffering (e.g., Revelation 1:9).
There are, however, large numbers of Christians today who downplay the role of suffering in the Christian life. They know that Scripture teaches that it is God’s will to give His children joy, and they simplistically assume that this must mean that we shouldn’t expect to suffer.
In actual fact, although joy and suffering are in tension with each other, they are not contradictory.
Gifts of the Spirit and reasoning
The Bible instructs Christians to desire gifts of the Holy Spirit (e.g., 1 Corinthians 14:1). However, many biblical passages also make it clear that there is a big place for reasoning with the mind in the Christian faith (e.g., Acts 19:8-9).
There are more than a few Christians today who tend to think that experiences of gifts of the Spirit make reasoning unimportant. They therefore underemphasize the role of the mind in the Christian life.
In fact, gifts of the Spirit and reasoning with the mind don’t contradict each other at all. Rather, they complement each other beautifully.
Motivated by love and to gain good things for ourselves
The Bible encourages us to be motivated to live a holy life by love for God and love for others, and not by selfishness (e.g., 2 Corinthians 5:15). Yet it also encourages us to be motivated to live a holy life by the prospect of receiving eternal blessings in heaven (e.g., James 1:12).
At first sight, these things might seem to contradict each other, and many Christians tend to minimize one or the other of them.
However, there is no contradiction here. There is a sense in which it is right to be motivated by loving God and others, and also a sense in which it is right to be motivated by wanting to do ourselves good.
Already and not yet
Sometimes we find biblical passages teaching that a certain thing has already happened, and other passages teaching that the same thing will take place in the future.
For example, Scripture tells us that those who are Christians have been saved from their sins (e.g., Romans 8:24), and that they will be saved in the future (e.g., Romans 5:9).
At first glance these things look as if they conflict with each other, and many Christians make the mistake of downplaying the already or the future aspect.
This tension is not actually very difficult to understand. Following the crucifixion-resurrection-giving of the Spirit complex of events, some things have come into existence in a partial way, but the fullness of these things will be realized in the future after the Lord returns to earth.
Two kinds of Israel
According to Scripture, the church is spiritual Israel (e.g., Philippians 3:2-3). But the Bible also seems to teach that God has future plans for ethnic Israel (e.g., Romans 11:25-29).
Huge numbers of Christians today see these things as contradictory. Many, especially those who accept dispensationalist theology, deny that the church is spiritual Israel. And many others, especially those who accept replacement theology, deny that God has unfinished business with ethnic Israel.
There is, however, no need to see a contradiction here. It seems that there are two kinds of Israel in existence today, even if it is not easy to understand the relationship between the two.
The list of examples I have given could be continued, but I believe I have said enough to make my point. It should be clear that there are many paradoxes and tensions in the Christian faith. Often things that at first sight might seem to be a case of either-or are actually a case of both-and.
I would suggest that a failure to understand this is one of the main causes of false teaching in the church today. Frequently, a Christian rightly sees that the Bible teaches a truth, and they want to support and defend that truth. But then they go wrong by supposing that that truth must mean that something else is false, although this other thing is also taught by Scripture.
I think one reason why people fail to recognize paradoxes in the Christian faith is because they are unwilling to believe something they don’t understand. They can’t understand how two biblical principles fit together, so they decide that they contradict each other.
What these people are doing – even if subconsciously – is setting up their own understanding as an idol. This is not only morally wrong, however, but it also makes no sense. Given our finite and sinful condition, it is inevitable that we will all often struggle to understand things.
If the Bible teaches two principles, we should accept them both, regardless of whether we can understand how they fit together.
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