We all know that paradoxes are two ideas that seem contradictory or mutually exclusive, yet are actually both true in a way that does not yield completely to our either/or logic. In fact, it is both/and thinking that solves these false dilemmas.
Profound Truths As Paradox
Such pairs include ideas like the balance between mercy and justice, love and truth, or predestination and free will. However, one of the keys to rightly applying these paradoxical pairs is to avoid the mistake of thinking that they must be applied equally.
The Weighted Paradox
In fact, with most of these, the proper approach is to emphasize one almost to the exclusion of the other (like in a 90/10 ratio). The primary principle applies the majority of the time, but with appropriate limits set by the other principle for outlying, more extreme applications in which the secondary, paradoxical principle eclipses the main principle to keep it from being applied absurdly.
Example 1: Predestination and Free Will
Although this example is probably the most contentious and debatable, I employ it because, as a former victim of Arminian holiness, which emphasized our personal responsibility (free will) to repent and stay holy, I know that the lack of a balancing principle (predestination) can make Christianity a torment. The result is that preachers can weigh down parishioners with unrealistic expectations of ‘sanctified’ goodness that depend, not on the grace and response to the work of God, but on the level of devotion and will of the individual.
Equal and opposite evils can result from Calvinism unrestrained by a workable integration of man’s free will. Many Christians may want to explore Molinism, which is a fantastic integration of these two extremes. Whether or not you think the 90/10 ratio is predestination/free-will, or vice versa, is up to you. However, I personally would argue for a ratio defined in this way:
To the extent that God’s power is greater compared to man’s power, in that ratio should we emphasize the roles of predestination and free will in salvation.
Example 2: Love and Truth
As I mentioned in my critique of “love fundamentalism,” if we only emphasize love (the perhaps right emphasis within the paradox) to the exclusion of truth, we are not only creating hurtful error (though perhaps less hurtful than hateful declarations of truth), we are failing to reach those who feel like you are forcing them to give up truth in order to embrace your view. 3 As it is often said,
Truth without love is sentimentality
Love without truth is brutality
I think, if you allow us the crude assumption that the emphasis of these can be boiled down to a ratio, that love is our primary approach to others, but truth is in there to keep us from slipping into a “saltless” kindness – all of our conversations ought to be seasoned (not inundated) with salt (Colossians 4:6) – too much salt ruins the meal or the conversation.
Example 3: Egalitarianism and Complementarianism
I must admit that in this discussion, egalitarians deny that any paradox exists between gender and authority-based roles – but as a partial complementarian, I think the 90/10 emphasis (women can engage in 90% of ministry, but there is a 10% limiting principle of male headship in the home and local church) is meaningful, helpful, and correct. 4 5
Example 4: Jesus’ Divine/Human Nature
Even here, I think we can claim that, since Jesus put aside his power as God to become fully human, he was primarily human while here, except sinless. These scriptures seem to indicate that emphasis:
Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to deathâ€”even death on a cross! (Phil. 2:6-8)
Jesus gave them this answer: “Very truly I tell you, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does. (John 5:19)
By myself I can do nothing; I judge only as I hear, and my judgment is just, for I seek not to please myself but him who sent me. (John 5:30)
So Jesus said, “When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am he and that I do nothing on my own but speak just what the Father has taught me. (John 8:28)
The principle of weighted paradoxes may be applicable to many other seemingly intractable dilemmas in theology. What are your favorite (or most annoying) paradoxes that could use such a treatment?
- Holding Biblical Truths in Tension: The Need of the Hour (pastgorhistorian.com) ↩
- There is No Such Thing as “Theological Tension” (The Pedestrian Christian) ↩
- Less Dangerous: The Love Fundamentalists (wholereason.com, accessed 2015.07.27) ↩
- Why I am a Soft Complementarian (wholereason.com) ↩
- Women, Men and God, John Stott’s Complementarianism (wholereason.com) ↩