A-1 - Encouraged by What You Read?

The God of the Bible is infinite and eternal while human beings are finite and temporal. That means humans can never fully comprehend or exhaustively understand God.1 Yet those profound limitations do not mean human beings can’t know God or enjoy a personal relationship with him. Also, because many, if not all, of the things Christians believe about God involve mystery, it does not mean those beliefs involve logical contradiction.

Because people, especially skeptics, often equate mystery with contradiction, let’s define logical contradiction and then show how mystery differs from it in the context of Christian theology.

Differentiating Contradiction from Mystery

The idea of a logical contradiction refers to two statements that negate or deny one another (A cannot equal A and non-A). Two contradictory statements cannot both be true at the same time and in the same way. Here’s an example of a logical contradiction:

Kenneth Samples is a human being.
Kenneth Samples is not a human being.

These two statements cannot both be true because they deny or negate one another. In other words, if one of the statements is true, then the opposite statement is necessarily false. In logic, we say that they have opposite truth value. Thus, logical contradictions are always false by their very nature.

A theological mystery, on the other hand, is something very different. A mystery in Christian theology refers to something that is believed to be true on the basis of biblical revelation but the limited human mind cannot fully comprehend it. The idea is meaningful and to some degree understandable, but ultimately incomprehensible. Here’s an example of a mystery from Christian theology:

Jesus Christ has a divine nature.
Jesus Christ has a human nature.

Both of these statements reflect Scriptural teaching, and according to Christian theology both reflect orthodox Christian truth.2 Yet while orthodox Christians believe both statements are true, no one knows exactly how they are true. Finite creatures cannot comprehend how a single person can have two distinct natures (one divine and one human). But the two statements do not reflect a formal contradiction because they do not negate or deny one another (the two natures neither negate nor mingle).

So historic Christian theology insists that these two statements are not a logical contradiction, but instead a divine mystery. They are truths that do no damage to reason but they do defy full human comprehension.

Thus all logical contradictions are mysterious, but not all mysteries are contradictions. Also, contradictions are necessarily false, but mysteries can be true though not fully comprehended.

Furthermore, virtually everything that the God of the Bible has revealed about himself to human beings involves mystery. This mystery is necessarily so because God is an infinite and eternal being while humans are finite and temporal beings. A partial list of essential Christian theological beliefs that involve mystery includes the Trinity, the incarnation, the atonement, creation, providence, regeneration, election, predestination, God’s attributes, and the image of God in humankind.

God being mysterious and incomprehensible doesn’t mean the idea of God is logically contradictory. Christian thinkers through the centuries have respected both logic and mystery when doing theology. We would do well to understand the differences while employing a measure of humility and grace as we seek to explain Christian beliefs to non-Christians.

Reflections: Your Turn

What positive and negative things come from God’s being mysterious? Visit Reflections on WordPress to comment with your response.

Check out more from Reasons to Believe @Reasons.org

Endnotes
  1. Christian theology typically divides God’s attributes into two categories: incommunicable (either qualities not shared with human beings or harder to detect in humanity) and communicable (qualities shared with human beings). God’s infinite and eternal qualities would fall under the incommunicable category. For an exploration of God’s attributes, see chapter 8 of my book, A World of Difference: Putting Christian Truth-Claims to the Worldview Test.
  2. For a discussion of how Jesus Christ can have both a divine nature and a human nature, see chapter 9 of my book, Without a Doubt: Answering the 20 Toughest Faith Questions.

 

About The Author

Kenneth R. Samples

I believe deeply that "all truth is God’s truth." That historic affirmation means that when we discover and grasp truth in the world and in life we move closer to its divine Author. This approach relies on the Christian idea of God’s two revelatory books - the metaphorical book of nature and the literal book of Scripture. As an RTB scholar I have a great passion to help people understand and see the truth and relevance of Christianity's truth-claims. My writings and lectures at RTB focus on showing how the great doctrinal truths of the faith (the Trinity, the Incarnation, the Atonement, creation ex nihilo, salvation by grace, etc.) are uniquely compatible with reason. This approach reflects the historic Christian apologetics statement - "faith seeking understanding." I work to help myself and others fulfill Peter's words in 2 Peter 3:18: "But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be glory both now and forever! Amen." As an RTB scholar I have a great passion to help people understand and see the truth and relevance of Christianity's truth-claims. • Biography • Resources • Upcoming Events • Promotional Items Kenneth Richard Samples began voraciously studying Christian philosophy and theology when his thirst for purpose found relief in the Bible. He earned his undergraduate degree in philosophy and social science from Concordia University and his MA in theological studies from Talbot School of Theology. For seven years, Kenneth worked as Senior Research Consultant and Correspondence Editor at the Christian Research Institute (CRI) and regularly cohosted the popular call-in radio program, The Bible Answer Man, with Dr. Walter Martin. As a youth, Kenneth wrestled with "unsettling feelings of meaninglessness and boredom," driving him to seek answers to life's big questions. An encounter with Christian philosophy in Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis led Kenneth to examine the New Testament and "finally believe that Jesus Christ is the divine Son of God, the Lord and Savior of the world." From then on, he pursued an intellectually satisfying faith. Today, as senior research scholar at Reasons to Believe (RTB), Kenneth uses what he's learned to help others find the answers to life's questions. He encourages believers to develop a logically defensible faith and challenges skeptics to engage Christianity at a philosophical level. He is the author of Without a Doubt and A World of Difference, and has contributed to numerous other books, including: Lights in the Sky and Little Green Men, The Cult of the Virgin, and Prophets of the Apocalypse. He has written articles for Christianity Today and The Christian Research Journal, and regularly participates in RTB's podcasts, including Straight Thinking, a podcast dedicated to encouraging Christians to utilize sound reasoning in their apologetics. He also writes for the ministry's daily blog, Today’s New Reason to Believe. An avid speaker and debater, Kenneth has appeared on numerous radio programs such as Voice America Radio, Newsmakers, The Frank Pastore Show, Stand to Reason, White Horse Inn, Talk New York, and Issues Etc., as well as participated in debates and dialogues on topics relating to Christian doctrine and apologetics. He currently lectures for the Master of Arts program in Christian Apologetics at Biola University. Kenneth also teaches adult classes at Christ Reformed Church in Southern California. Over the years Kenneth has held memberships in the American Philosophical Association, the Evangelical Philosophical Society, the Evangelical Theological Society, and the Evangelical Press Association. The son of a decorated World War II veteran, Kenneth is an enthusiastic student of American history, particularly the Civil War and WWII. His favorite Christian thinkers include Athanasius, Augustine, Pascal, and C. S. Lewis. He greatly enjoys the music of the Beatles and is a die-hard Los Angeles Lakers fan. Kenneth lives in Southern California with his wife, Joan, and their three children.

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