Antinomy, Or How Can They Both Be True?

Antinomy: A contradiction between conclusions which seem equally logical, reasonable, or necessary. (Oxford English Dictionary)

I think it’s safe to say that every Christian with a sphere of experience larger than that of a good-sized dog crate has wrestled with the apparent contradictions of life, faith, science and doctrine — evidence for evolution vs. a literal reading of Genesis, the sovereignty of God vs. human effort in evangelism, the priesthood of the believer vs. the offices of the Church, the justice of God vs. the mercy of God, and many other areas where one thing appears to be as true as the thing that appears to be its opposite.

This isn’t some weak, insipid syncretism, nor is it the silly illogic that argues, say, that the race-based, manstealing slavery of the American South was on the one hand “Biblically justified,” while also something whose elimination ought to be greeted by Christians with a hearty “Good riddance!” Some things are simply wrong; they cannot be tempered with opposing arguments and then presented to thinking people as a marvel of equally-true but apparent contradictions. That is not antinomy, just stupidity, like saying that a lizard is both a reptile and a mammal, or a pencil both a writing instrument and a chicken casserole, or a Toyota fuel pump both a reptile and a casserole. Antinomy never argues for the legitimacy of the illegitimate, nor does it attempt to reconcile what cannot be reconciled.

But the testimony of Scripture, from which we draw theology and doctrine, often gives us that theology and those doctrines as two sides of a co-existent, balanced, and entirely correct picture of God’s revelation — even when we can’t figure out how to reconcile the two ideas. Those of us who find these things not only comfortable, but necessary, are often accused of betraying one side or the other, or of deliberately stirring up controversy, when we simply recognize — or, at least, I do — that where two seemingly contradictory truths exist, the “weak link” is not the veracity of one or the other, but my own fallible understanding and intellect.

Theologian J.I. Packer, in his book Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God, discusses the antinomy suggested in its title, acknowledging that staunch Calvinists and hardcore Arminians, for example, have differing views of the interplay of irresistible grace and the evangelist’s work in the saving of souls. One camp acknowledges the contribution of human beings in the securing of their salvation, while both fervently, and correctly, believe that salvation is found only in Christ, only by God, and only through the Holy Spirit. The other sees “coming to Christ” as having nothing at all to do with “coming” but with “being irresistably drawn” by God’s Spirit, and yet comfortably assigns fault to the one who fails to find Christ as Savior. It’s a debate that’s caused enormous division within the Church — not because of any theological error inherent in either position, but because of the tendency of humankind to seek certainty, avoid controversy, and reject contradictions that tax our limited comprehension and, perhaps, put us at risk of being thought not sufficiently loyal to doctrine.

I suspect that if we were a Body more theologically literate and epistemologically trained, rather than a Body puffed up with the false and unnecessary, and often arrogant, stubbornness of certainty, we could engage more effectively with the world around us. But rather than living comfortably among ideas both true and yet evidently inconsistent — which requires a humble acknowledgment that we bow to truth and truth doesn’t bow to us — we become polarized and more energetically opposed to “the other” than united in the common. The effect on evangelism, cultural engagement, and prophetic testimony has been neutered, no matter how potent our argument and smug our encampment on either of two sides of an argument.

Packer says it remarkably well when he writes, “What should one do, then, with an antinomy? Accept it for what it is, and learn to live with it. Refuse to regard the apparent inconsistency as real; put down the semblance of contradiction to the deficiency of your own understanding; think of the two principles as not rival alternatives but, in some way that at present you do not grasp, complementary to each other. Be careful, therefore, not to set them at loggerheads, nor to make deductions from either that would cut across the other (such deductions would, for that very reason, be certainly unsound)… Note what connections exist between the two truths and their two frames of reference, and teach yourself to think of reality in a way that provides for their peaceful coexistence, remembering that REALITY ITSELF HAS PROVED ACTUALLY TO CONTAIN THEM BOTH (emphasis mine).”

Powerful and necessary words, which, if the believer truly endeavored to embrace them when encountering ideas that seem as true as they are different from each other, would greatly enhance his or her understanding of all of God’s truth and the subsequent ability to bring that truth to a dying world. The respect of learned non-believers would be a secondary by-product of such an approach; the initial harvest would be the cultivation of a humility and gentleness that the world hasn’t consistently, at any point in the history of the Church, ever used to describe its primary, predominant interaction with Christ’s Body. I think it’s safe to say that the effect has been devastating to all concerned.

A god whose every truth — every revelation in the natural world and every revelation in his Word — is easily identified, reconciled, and mastered by me is a god not worth worshiping. I expect that in a universe of seemingly contradictory truths, I will be the weak link in harmonizing it all. I have no problem with that; in fact, it seems to be a lovely illustration of John the Baptist’s plea that “He must increase, and I must decrease.” There’s a richness in mystery, and I thank God for Packer’s contribution to helping the Body understand its implications for the salvation of those for whom Christ — criminal and King, pauper and Lord, victim and Redeemer — died.

One Response to “Antinomy, Or How Can They Both Be True?”

  1. Ashwin says:

    This is quite good.

    I wonder if this statement put by C.S. Lewis in the mouth of the devil Screwtape might add to the discussion:
    “The fine flower of unholiness blooms at the very steps of the altar.”

    The sort of thing you lament is an integral part of this broken world. We are all vulnerable to it and guilty of it. We are all cursed by that twisted ingenuity that can turn the Gospel of Grace into a legal treatise.

    And so the Gospel is no longer presented as good news but as a burdensome set of rules that are broken at the peril of Hell. The Pharisee flourishes yet.

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