In Praise of Paradox

K. Scott Oliphint, God with Us: Divine Condescension and the Attributes of God  (Wheaton: Crossway, 2012), 225–26:

In Praise of Paradox

I mentioned in the introduction that we must get used to the idea that antinomy and paradox will inevitably surround discussions such as this one. But the appeal to antinomy, paradox, and mystery is oftentimes troubling to those sympathetic to a less-than-Reformed understanding of God’s character and decree. In an attempted refutation of Calvinism and the “problem” of divine sovereignty, Jack Cottrell complains:

Calvinistic discussions of this problem are laced with words like paradox, antinomy, contradiction, and mystery. As Klooster says, “Divine sovereignty and human responsibility are paradoxical and beyond h man comprehension.” Despite this rather agnostic attitude, Calvinists have spent much time and energy trying to explain the unexplainable.

It may be that some Calvinists have given the impression that, in our discussions of the mysteries of the faith, we are attempting to exhaust what is inexhaustible. But surely Cottrell would not fault Calvinists any more than he would Arminians for attempting to bring together, as much as possible, what God’s revelation teaches concerning these mysteries. It is certainly not the case that the relationship of God to the world is absolutely inexplicable; rather, in whatever ways it is explicable, it will always remain for us incomprehensible as well.

This is yet another reason why it seems best to begin our discussions with the doctrine of Christ, specifically the person of Christ. Both Reformed and Arminian have agreed historically that when the Son of God became man, he did not give up his deity, his “Godness,” in order to take on a human nature. Arminians, like the Reformed, have historically been Chalcedonian in their affirmation of the incarnation.

Yet the Chalcedonian affirmations have always been seen to be paradoxical, even antinomic. [note 4: We should remember here that antinomy and paradox are always modes of creaturely expression; in God there is complete coherence and harmony such that no antinomies or paradoxes exist.] The Chalcedonian Creed is one example of the church’s attempt—and an accepted and acceptable attempt, at that—to “explain the unexplainable.” Not only so, but given that the incarnation itself is the “explanation” and application of God’s relationship to creation, we should expect that every other instantiation, indication, and explanation of such a relation would itself be paradoxical and antinomic and, in the end, incomprehensible.

The “explanations” therefore given by the Reformed of the relationship of God to creation, including his actions and reactions, will themselves be shrouded in mystery. Nevertheless, explanations are given both in biblical revelation and in theology. If we begin with christology, rather than with some abstract concept of antinomy, paradox, or mystery, we can start to see that all explanations of God’s relationship to creation can be understood properly only within the context of God’s relationship to creation as expressed in the incarnation. This, it seems to me, expands and enhances the Christ-centered approach to God’s revelation in such a way that the glory of God in his condescension, typified centrally in the gospel, is seen for what it is.

In all of this we must keep in mind, however, that there is no antinomy or contradiction in God. He is completely and exhaustively coherent in all that he says, does, and is. Thus, the admission of antinomy and paradox in Christianity points us to the complexity of God’s simplicity, the unfathomable depth that is God’s complete and incomprehensible perfection, for which, among other things, we worship him (Rom. 11:33ff.).


  1. D. A. Carson on antinomy
  2. The Logical and Emotional Problems of Evil
  3. John Piper, “The Sovereign God of ‘Elfland’ (Why Chesterton’s Anti-Calvinism Doesn’t Put Me Off)
  4. Joel Arnold, “Theological Antinomy: A Complementarian Model for Paradox” (PhD diss., Bob Jones University, 2011), xii + 318 pp.


  1. says

    “the complexity of God’s simplicity”
    Wowsers! Good phrase and I cannot disagree. I wonder, however, who is Oliphint’s audience? For those seeking to understand (or undermine such as the likes of John Hick) the Incarnation of God in Christ, this narrative from Oliphint would seem shrouded in obscurity. Through the eyes of those of us who are already committed to Chalcedonian Christology, this makes good sense. But from the eyes of others, this may appear to be nothing but pedantic nonsense. Nevertheless, thanks for posting; seems like a good read.

    Chalcedonically yours,

  2. says

    Gregory of Nazianzus uses Paradox brilliantly, as he uses all the forms of rhetoric. Understood as a form of reverence in which we both confess and hide the mystery of God’s nature, paradox becomes the logic of the Kingdom, not speaking of incoherence but of a name above all names.

    So: “He comes forth, God with what he has assumed, one from two opposites, flesh and spirit, the one defying and the other deified. O the new mixture! O the paradoxical blending! “He Who Is” comes into being, and the uncreated is created and the uncontained is contained, through the intervention of the rational soul, which mediates between the divinity and the coarseness of the flesh. The one who enriches becomes poor, he is made poor in my flesh that I might be enriched through his divinity. The full one empties himself for he empties himself of his own glory for a short time, that I may participate in his fullness. What is the wealth of his goodness? What is this mystery concerning me? I participated in the image and I did not keep it; he participates in my flesh both to save the image and to make the flesh immortal. He shares with us a second communion, much more paradoxical than the first; previously he gave us a share in what is superior, now he shares in what is inferior. This is more godlike than the first; this, to those who can understand, is more exalted.”

    The reason I think paradox is the logic of the kingdom is that it insists on two truths while refusing both the either/or fallacy in which we give preference to our understanding of one truth at the expense of another, and the balancing act in which we pare down or limit both the two truths in order to avoid choosing between them. Paradox is a confession that our system of naming (and all language, the codification of our entire structure of scientific logic, is simply a complication of the naming system) is insufficient to classify the nature of the one whose name is above every name.

    So to the question of whether God is knowable, Gregory insists on the fulness of both yes and no, pursuing each to its end, and as a result we receive the knowledge of God’s essence and his energies. This in turn proves a much better way of speaking about God than to speak of his “attributes” as if God belongs to an Aristotelian class of which he merely happens to be the only one in his group, instead of above both nature and being and yet the fountain of all nature and being, or to speak more clearly, more and other than we will ever be able to mean by the words “nature” and “being.”

    As to the sovereignty/responsibility question, paradox is the only answer, not because it refuses to answer but because it is the only way to avoid wimping out. This question does not properly belong to soteriology. It is deeply involved in the question of what it means to be Creator and to be creature, and is simply a narrowing down of the larger question of how creation can exist in the first place since God is all. This is the same question, applied to the specific area of will. The biblical answer, of course, is that God is all IN all. And I wonder why no one notices that the scriptures don’t even speak of man having a will, as an organ of the soul, instead assuming that all the movements of man’s being originate in his heart. Will, as an act of determining or desiring, is seen to be an effect of something deeper. So, I do not like the terms in which this debate have been cast and find them meaningless.

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