Everything in the Christian faith is a paradox.
“You must lose your life to save it.”
“The first shall be last and the last shall be first.”
Jesus is fully God and Fully Man.
God is One God in Three Persons.
God cannot die, and yet Jesus is God and Jesus died.
Jesus died and then rose from the dead.
A Virgin gave birth to a son.
We must “die to ourselves” to find new life.
We must be “born again”.
God is Good and God is All-Powerful, and yet there is suffering and evil in this world.
God is absolutely Sovereign over all things, and yet we have Free Will.
What is a paradox? A paradox is when two apparently contradictory ideas are said to both be true at the same time, without contradiction.
Paradox is hard.
Our natural reflex when faced with a paradox is to either dismiss it as ridiculous, or else we try to make sense of it by resolving the apparent contradiction to one side or the other. That is simply human nature.
Basic logic tells us that two contradictory ideas simply cannot both be true at the same time.
That poses a problem for many people when it comes to Christianity.
When we look at the above list of Christian paradoxes, it is clear that basically the whole Christian message is one big mass of paradoxes.
We look at the most basic Christian beliefs, the Trinity, the Virgin Birth, the Incarnation, the Deity of Christ, the Death and Resurrection of Christ, Salvation by Grace through Faith in Christ. All of these are paradoxes.
You cannot understand Christianity without understanding and embracing paradox.
This is a problem for people who are more scientifically minded, and who seek to understand the rationale behind the Christian faith. Logic tells them that these things are simply impossible, and so cannot be true.
And that is understandable. Any reasonable person, when faced with a contradiction must conclude that one or both of the ideas must be untrue. It is how we are wired as human beings. It is basic logic.
Herein is the challenge of the Christian paradox. A paradox is not a contradiction. It is an apparent contradiction. It seems contradictory, but in reality it is not.
We must be willing to look beyond the surface and what seems to be a contradiction to discern the truth, often an important truth, that is expressed in and revealed in the paradox.
When faced with a paradox, we must look at the two seemingly incompatible and contradictory ideas and see how they are different, and look at the contrast between them. We must look to see whether the apparent contradiction is an actual direct contradiction or whether it is in fact a paradox, where there is no direct contradiction and the two ideas can both be true at the same time.
The key to this is to look at the above definition of the Law of Non-Contradiction. Notice the caveat, “Two contradictory statements cannot both be true at the same time and in the same way.”
When we look at the Trinity, we say, “One God in three Persons.”
Now, how can God be both one and three at the same time? Three is more than one. One is not three, and three is not one. A cannot be A and Not-A at the same time. So how can we make sense of it?
Well, let us look at the Trinity. When we say “One God”, what do we mean? There is only ONE Divine Being. One God. When God said, “I am the LORD and there is no other. Apart from me, there is no God.” (Isaiah 45:5) he means it. When he said, “Before me there was no other god formed, nor will there be after me.” (Isaiah 43:10) He meant that too.
So how then can we say, “three Persons”? Well, what do we mean by “Persons?” Here we have a semantic problem with our terminology. In modern English, “person” generally denotes a human being, and carries with it the connotation of “separate individual being”. But when we use the term “person” in Christian theology, we are not using the modern English sense of the word. Our modern emphasis on Individuality is a recent phenomenon. This obsession with our own individual uniqueness and separateness was not a part of the ancient world.
In ancient Greek, the language of the early Christians, the term “person” was more focused on the qualities of personality, such as having a mind, a will, emotions, a voice, self-awareness, and the ability to interact relationally. The connotation of separateness or individuality was not there, or not a major emphasis in ancient Greek.
There is actually a difference between the ideas of “person” and “being” in the ancient Greek. A “being” was that which makes something what it is. It is its nature, it’s essence, its substance. God’s “being” is that which makes him God. His “Divinity”. It includes all of the qualities that makes one God, Infinity, Eternality, Omniscience, Omnipresence, Omnipotence, Benevolence, Oneness, Timelessness, Immutability. These are those things which belong to God’s “being”. As such, there is only ONE Divine Being. Not three Divine Beings.
“Being” is WHAT God is. “Persons” are WHO God is. Therefore, we do not have a contradiction. The Trinity is one “what” and three “who’s”.
The key to this is to remember that in order for it to be a direct contradiction, we must be trying to say that God is one and three at the same time, and in the same way. But we are not. He is one in “being”, but he is three in “person”. If we said that there is “One God in three Gods”, that would be a contradiction, because he would be one and three at the same time in the same way or aspect. Or if we said “One person in three persons”, that, too, would be a direct contradiction. But we do not. We say, “One God (being…what God is) in three Persons” (who God is…and remember, we are using the ancient Greek sense of the word “person”, not the modern English sense). So there is no direct contradiction.
Now, here comes the hardest part of all…how can this possibly be true? Okay, so it’s not a direct contradiction, but how can something exist in this manner? There isn’t anything on earth that exists in this way. How can we understand it? How can we picture it in order to understand it?
This is where we get into trouble as Christians. This paradox is not a contradiction. But it is a Mystery.
A Mystery is a Truth that is true, but which is ultimately beyond human comprehension.
But human beings don’t like Mysteries…or rather, we don’t like leaving them as Mysteries. We like to try to solve Mysteries…like these guys…
We want to figure our what is behind the Mystery. We want it to make sense.
But that is precisely what gets us into trouble. Unlike those “pesky kids” in the Scooby-Doo cartoons, we aren’t going to unmask the Trinity…or the Virgin Birth…or the Incarnation with Christ’s dual human-divine natures…or the Resurrection…or the Mystery of Faith. We aren’t going to be able to “solve” these Mysteries. They are realities that are beyond our comprehension.
That doesn’t mean they are nonsensical or logical contradictions. We have already demonstrated that a paradox is not a direct contradiction, but only an apparent contradiction that on closer examination is found to not be contradictory. But a Mysteries of Christianity cannot be “solved” by us “poking around where we don’t belong” like the gang above.
We have to rest on faith.
We have to embrace the Mystery. We have to get okay with not understanding. We have to recognize that God exists in a manner that we cannot possibly fathom, and that the best we can do is take his word for it that he is as he says he is. We cannot understand it. We cannot even imagine it.
But…we aren’t wired that way. We have a hard time letting go of the Mystery and leaving it as a Mystery. Even if we can get past the paradox, we balk at the Mystery. Mysteries scream out to be solved.
This is the human impulse behind every Heresy ever created.
All heresy (which is a false teaching about one of the core defining doctrines of Christianity about who God is or who Jesus is which ultimately ends up undermining the Christian Gospel) results from someone trying to solve the Mystery by emphasizing one side of the paradox to the detriment of the other, thereby resolving the paradox and eliminating the mystery, making God more comprehensible to mankind.
The problem is that doing this destroys the very Truth that the paradox and the Mystery was put there to affirm. Both truths are true. You cannot affirm one and deny or diminish the other. You must affirm both at the same time.
When we resolve the paradox by emphasizing on part and diminishing the other, we lose the Truth the paradox brought. And we have just reduced God to something less that God. Something we humans can wrap our minds around.
Let me tell you this,
Any God who is capable of being comprehended by human beings is too small to be worthy of our worship.
Or, as St. Augustine put it, “If you can comprehend it, it ain’t God!”
I have been asked before how to explain the Trinity to a child. Some people believe that all Biblical Truths should be able to be explained to even a 4 year old child. But too often, what we do is come up with analogies that we know they can understand and relate to, but which actually do not teach them what the Trinity is. We will use the “Water, Ice, Steam” analogy, or the “Apple” analogy (an apple has a peel, flesh, and a core, but it is all one apple), or the “Egg” analogy (the egg has a shell, the albumen, and the yolk, but it is not three eggs, but ONE egg), or the “Roles” analogy (I am one man, but I am a father to my children, a husband to my wife, and a boss to my employees). But none of these are accurate analogies of the Trinity. We end up giving them a false understanding of the Trinity.
All heresy results from human beings attempting to make God comprehensible. It always begins with good intentions, attempting to affirm a particular truth in ways that people can understand it…but in doing so, we end up saying things about God which ARE NOT TRUE. Often times, we don’t MEAN to do this, but that is what we end up doing.
Instead, here is what we should say to a child:
“We believe that God is one God in three Persons. He is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, yet there is only one God. God is so big that we cannot possibly understand him fully. We simply believe what he tells us in the Bible about himself. Us trying to understand God is like an ant trying to understand your cartoon shows. The ant’s brain is just too tiny to understand something so awesome! Human beings cannot understand God because he’s just too big and to awesome for us to really understand. So we just have to take it on faith and trust that God is who he says he is…even if we don’t quite understand how it can be like that.“
A child actually will have an easier time accepting that than most adults will. It is we adults who need this said to us more. It is we who try to figure God out and try to bring God down to a level that we can understand. Children know that there are things too great for them to understand. Very often adults don’t know this. Children understand faith far better and far easier than most adults do. They are very trusting, and they believe what they are told. We often times aren’t very trusting, and we have difficulty believing things we cannot fully understand.
The problem with the Trinity is not how to explain it to a child…that is quite easy. A child won’t argue with me and keep saying “yeah, but…”. An adult will. The problem is in getting adults to accept the limitations of the human mind and the immensity and incomprehensibility of God. They keep wanting to reduce God to something they can understand…something they can picture in their mind…something they can explain. But that necessarily reduces God and demotes him to OUR level.
It is our own pride and hubris that insists that God must be able to be comprehended…because if we can comprehend him, we have at least some control. If we can comprehend God, we can predict him and manage him and have some sort of power over him. But if God is truly greater than we can fathom and bigger than we can imagine, and more wondrous than words can describe….if he is truly Incomprehensible, then we have NO power, NO ability to predict or control or manage him. We are utterly at his mercy and absolutely powerless before him.
….and that is as it should be.
Our response to these paradoxes, is to demonstrate to ourselves and to skeptics that they are not direct contradictions, but rather paradoxes where both seemingly contradictory statements are true at the same time.
But beyond these paradoxes are Mysteries that we cannot solve, and should not try to.
The way for us to respond to the Mysteries of Christianity is with Faith.
Faith embraces Mystery. Faith accepts human limitations. Faith does not place our own “need to understand” above God’s Truth. Faith is an admission of human weakness. Faith is trusting that what God said is true even if we cannot understand how it can be so.
Faith is hard.
But everything in Christianity comes down to Faith.
Everything in Christianity is a paradox. Everything in Christianity is a Divine Mystery. From the Trinity to the Virgin Birth to the Cross and the Resurrection to our very salvation itself.
And the only response to such Mysteries is Faith. We cannot solve these Mysteries. We can only embrace them by Faith.
That is why “in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed—a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.” (Romans 1:17)