Paradox in Christian Theology

August 18, 2011 — 1 Comment
41p9IePaM4L. SS500 James Anderson is a fairly popular name. This particular James Anderson is currently assistant professor at Reformed Theological Seminary’s Charlotte extension site. He maintains both and his own personal site. He has Ph.D’s (yes plural) from the University of Edinburgh in both computer simulation and philosophical theology. This particular book, as you might guess, pertains to the latter and is revised version of his doctoral dissertation.


Alert readers may recognize that Anderson’s work here is divided into two sections of three chapters, bracketed by an introductory chapter and a concluding chapter. Hyper-alert readers may see resemblances to John Frame’s triperspectivalism since Anderson is examining paradox from the perspectives of its presence (existential), character (situational), and epistemic status (normative). This is nowhere stated, so it may just be a case of me applying my own framework onto Anderson’s work. Regardless, Anderson’s work is tightly ordered, carefully argued, and clearly presented. It is not however recommend for readers suffering from Cartesian demons, interfering Alpha Centaurian scientists, brain envatments, disruptive cosmic radiation, pathological obsessions and general gullibility, or possible epistemically serendipitous brain lesions. If you are free from those restraints, and interested in philosophical and/or historical theology, then this book is for you.

Chapter one introduces the problem of paradox. Anderson defines paradox as “a set of claims which taken in conjunction appear to be logically inconsistent” (p. 5-6). The rest of the book is then framed around these questions:

  • Are any essential Christian doctrines genuinely paradoxical?
  • Can a person rationally believe a paradoxical doctrine?

As you might guess, part one of the book address the first, and part two the second. Just as a spoiler, Anderson answers both of these questions in the affirmative.

Beginning in chapter two, Anderson makes the case that the doctrine of the Trinity is indeed paradoxical. Note that for Anderson this entails only that the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity makes claims which appear to be logically inconsistent, but are not necessarily so upon further analysis. Anderson frames it as a dilemma of either retaining paradox to remain orthodox or abandoning paradox and becoming heterdox. From there Anderson unfolds a brief history of the road to Trinitarian orthodoxy with reference to both ante-Nicene and post-Nicene Church Fathers, before turning to recent examples in Trinitarian theology that attempt to navigate the paradoxical divide. He surveys proponents of modalistic interpretations of the Trinity, social interpretations, relative identity interpretations, and finally those who concede to paradox. He finally concludes that “no writer from the first century to the twenty-first century has offered an explication of the doctrine of the Trinity that is both clearly orthodox and free from apparent contradiction” (p. 59).

With one paradox established, in chapter three, Anderson presents another: the Incarnation. Here, he proceeds in a similar fashion as he did the previous chapter. Rather than orienting around Nicea, the Christological controversies are pointed toward Chalcedon. With the issue of Christ’s divinity established at Nicea, the question remained how his divinity and humanity were related. Similar to the discussion of the Trinity heresies, Anderson notes that the Christological heresies most always seem to stem from trying to avoid paradoxical doctrinal stances. In discussing recent Christological interpretations, Anderson surveys kenotic interpretations, dual-psychology interpretations, and outright concessions to paradox before concluding again in this chapter that “the doctrine of the Incarnation in its historical development, credal definitions, and contemporary interpretations, indicates that it would face a comparable scenario were it to be put on trial for the same crime” (p. 106). The crime he refers to is that of apparent contradiction and most all the Church Fathers can be called in as witnesses for the prosecution.

Here of course is where the book transitions from a kind of survey in historical theology concerning the doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation to an extended discussion in philosophical theology. In chapter four the discussion turns to how to best respond to paradox, and thus sets the stage for the next section. Anderson outlines the multiple approaches one can take to resolve a paradox. The paradoxes involved in Christian theology Anderson classifies as implicit contradictions, that is, the claims made by the doctrines imply further claims that appear to contradict one another. The paths open to respond to paradox fall into two categories:

  • Strategies advocating revision to the laws of logic
  • Strategies advocating retention of the laws of logic

Each of these can then be broken down further. Strategies aimed at revision are:

  • Avoiding contradiction (Anti-Deductivism)
  • Allowing contradiction (Dialetheism)

Strategies aimed at retention can either advocate:

  • Revising doctrines (Doctrinal Revisionism)
  • Retaining doctrines (Semantic Minimalism, Complementarity)

Anderson then surveys all of these options, but eventually concludes that “each is unsatisfactory on either philosophical or theological grounds” (p. 152).

Starting off part two, chapter five presents an overview of Plantinga’s Warrant trilogy (here’s book two, and book three). As part of his project of asking whether it is rational to believe the doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation, Anderson wisely starts with Plantinga’s work for providing epistemological warrant for Christian doctrines in general. For readers not familiar with Plantinga’s work, Anderson’s chapter here provides a good primer. Anderson adopts Plantinga’s account and then attempts to further refine it before applying it to the problem of paradoxical doctrines.

In chapter six, Anderson introduces his own model for approach paradox in theology, labeled “Rational Affirmation of Paradoxical Theology” or RAPT for short. It is designed in part to fill a lacuna in Plantinga’s account (p. 215). At the heart of his model “is the claim that the paradoxical doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation are best treated as merely apparent contradictions resulting from unarticulated equivocation” (p. 225). To demonstrate this, Anderson takes the reader along for some exercises in “Trinitarian Calculus” (p. 227) before settling back down explaining more about MACRUE’s (merely apparent contradictions resulting from unarticulated equivocation) without reference to formal logic or math. As an example of one of these in Reformed theology, Anderson references the distinction between God’s decretive will and God’s preceptive will. This is usually employed to resolve a MACRUE regarding biblical statements about what God wills (e. g. all men to repent, yet some to not repent). The Trinity and the Incarnation are admittedly on a different level, considering their creedal status, but there is a similarity.

It is here though that Anderson introduces the notion of divine incomprehensibility as a way of explaining MACRUE’s.  As Plantinga had noted already, one cannot separate the status of Christian doctrines as “rational” from the status of Christian doctrines as “true.” Given the truth of the Christian worldview, we assert that God is not completely understandable (incomprehensible) to humans, therefore it follows that his revelation to humans may express ideas and concepts that seems contradictory to a finite human mind but are not to a infinite divine mind. Anderson employs an example of an individual aware of a three dimensional reality trying to explain a cone to an individual who is only aware of two dimensions. The 3D individual can easily conceive how the object could be classified as both a circle and a triangle depending on point of view, whereas for the 2D individual this a contradictory assertion (p. 229-232). Anderson concludes a bit later in the book that “divine incomprehensibility should lead us to anticipate paradox in some of our theological knowledge” (p. 241).

In chapter seven Anderson then defends his model against objections that have been raised, as well as objections he envisions could be raised. The general thrust of his argument hinges on the fact that he is discussing apparent contradictions rather than outright contradictions. Given the nature of God, it should be expected that his revelation to us may contain concepts that seem contradictory to us, but the contradiction arises from our inability to reconcile the concepts rather than them being rationally deficient. Additionally, Anderson has shown by this point that our “paradoxical doctrines do not posit logically impossible states of affairs” (p. 263).

From here, he moves on through biblical, theological, and philosophical concerns that may arise in response to his model. Two points that stick out in this last extended chapter are that “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” (p. 282), and “Christians should be prepared to allow revelational data, if it carries sufficient force, to inform and qualify their understanding and application of a priori metaphysical convictions” (p. 296). From different angles, I think Anderson makes the same point: we can be assured that our faith is rational, but we should still retain humility in our knowledge claims.

Finally, in chapter eight, Anderson concludes with an overview of the ground covered as well as some avenues for possible future research. In case you’ve missed it so far, Anderson’s overall conclusion is that “Christians who hold paradoxical views of the Trinity and the Incarnation (whether knowingly or unknowingly) can be epistemically warranted in their doctrinal beliefs” (p. 308). I think he argues his case well, and even in my limited knowledge of philosophical knowledge I think he makes a compelling case for his model. The book itself, as I said before, is a very clear read. For what it could be, Anderson does a superb job of navigating potentially confusing waters in a way that a good majority of readers can appreciate. Principally, this book will be beneficial to pastors and teachers, but will also find a good home on the shelf of more advanced lay readers who are interested in the logic of Christian doctrines in generally, or the Incarnation and the Trinity in particular.

Book Details

  • Author: James Anderson
  • Title: Paradox In Christian Theology: An Analysis of its Presence, Character, and Epistemic Status
  • SeriesPaternoster Theological Monographs
  • PublisherWipf & Stock (March, 2007)
  • Paperback: 328pgs
  • Reading Level: Seminary/Doctoral
  • Audience Appeal: Prophets interested in an explanation of the apparent logical paradoxes in Christian theology
  • Gratis Review Copy: Yes (courtesy of Wipf & Stock)

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I'm an avid reader, musician, and high school Bible teacher living in central Florida. I have many paperback books and our house smells of rich glade air freshners. If you want to know more, then let's connect!

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    […] Sander’s book, is well worth your time. Also of more academic note is James Anderson’s Paradox in Christian Theology which gives not only a historical overview of the development of doctrinal discussions on the […]

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