Paradoxes and Christian Faith: an apologetic concern

Just back from the weekend’s Greer-Heard Conference, I’d like to say a few things about a paper given there by my friend Dr. David Bertch. David is a committed Christian and a clear thinker whom I respect greatly. His paper, “The Future of Atheism Continually Confounded by the Paradoxes of the Faith,” was on paradoxes and how we should embrace them, or at least not fear them. Handouts were not available, so I’m going by memory and notes I took (though he invited anyone interested in a copy to email him [see link above]). If I’m guilty of misrepresenting his position, I deeply apologize.

After an interesting historical survey of thinkers (especially philosophers) and the paradoxes they have embraced, David turned to the relationship between Christian faith and paradoxes. He named two examples of such paradoxes: the Trinity and the Incarnation of Christ. Having earlier set up a distinction between logical paradoxes (I suppose he had in mind such things as Zeno’s paradoxes of motion) and other paradoxes (there was unfortunately no title given to this second category), such as the two named examples, David explained that Christians should not be troubled by the latter. There was no discussion of the first category there, so we’ll limit discussion here to the latter, as well.

Now, I don’t think too highly of paradox (an attitude I’m rethinking after the paper). Call me a child of the modern era, but I’d like appeal to paradox to be a last resort. Let’s table that sentiment for now. We must straight away admit that we (at least I) have no philosophical explanation for either the Incarnation or the Trinity; at least we have no generally accepted explanation (I’m not interested in discussing what would constitute a “generally accepted” explanation here). I confess that we take these things on faith, and I’m happy to do so. Are they actually paradoxes? I’m not so sure they are. I suppose it depends on what we mean by “paradox.” Regardless of these things, it seems to me that once we declare something a paradox, we stop trying to rationally explain it. This, of course, does not necessarily follow; it does, however, seem to be common practice in the Church.

Notice that what Christians are wont to call a paradox, non-Christians often call a flat contradiction. It’s likely that most of us know someone who rejects the Christian faith, saying something like: “it’s based on ridiculous contradictions”; “it sounds nice, but I simply cannot affirm such obvious logical contradictions as the Incarnation and the Trinity.” Whether there are legitimately two (or more) categories of paradoxes is irrelevant: non-Christians place these examples in the “logical paradox” (aka, “contradiction”) category, regarless of what Christians maintain. Thus my apologetic concern: how are we to give these people an answer (cf. 1 Pe 3:15)? It sounds pious to say “you must simply take this by faith, friend”, but we should likely expect “you should enroll in Logic 101, friend” as the amicable response. We must give them a better answer–and Christian philosophers are trying (I’m thinking of Tom Morris’s _The Logic of God Incarnate_ and Mike Rea and Jeff Brower’s articles [1] “Understanding the Trinity” and [2] “Material Constitution and the Trinity“).

I’d like to suggest we be a bit slower to embrace or appeal to paradox in giving an account of our Christian faith.

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