Logic and Scripture
Rev. Ron Hanko
Does logic have a place in the study of Scripture?
Modern evangelical theologians have, at best, given a
very ambiguous answer to this question. While not entirely rejecting the
use of logic—who can?—they nevertheless refuse to face many of the
logical consequences of their own teachings, teach many logically
inconsistent doctrines, such as the doctrine of two contradictory wills
in God, and decry those who insist on a logical construction of the
truth as rationalists.
When their inconsistencies are pointed out, they sneer
at "mere human logic." They love to speak of "mystery," "antinomy,"
"tension" and apparent or real contradictions in the Word of God.
What are we to think of all this?
The appeal to mystery sounds very pious to most
believers since Scripture also speaks of the mystery. But are these
people following the biblical concept of the "mystery" when they use the
word to mean "contradiction" or "paradox?" Does God's Word, in speaking of
mysteries, ever refer to doctrines that contradict each other and are
impossible to understand? Can there be truths about God or Scripture
teaching that contradict each other?
Along the same lines, does God’s incomprehensibility
mean that we can believe contradictory things about Him? Is it, at least
at times, impossible to understand and make sense of what God says about
Himself and His Word? This would seem to be the conclusion of some
of those who so often decry the use of logic and who hold to all sorts
of contradictions in God and in Scripture—that rationality is
incompatible with God’s incomprehensibility.
Finally, is it rationalism to insist that the
doctrines of Scripture must be logically consistent with one another?
This is the charge made against those who insist that the teachings of
God's Word cannot contradict each other. Do they exalt logic over the
Bible when they seek to harmonize the truths of Scripture and to fit
them a logically coherent system? Many, of course, would claim that they
Perhaps the reason why the appeal against logic is so
successful is that the word conjures up in the mind of modern man, even
of the Christian, a cold and barren system of doctrines that have no
relationship to life and are utterly without passion or warmth. This
view of logic, however, is wrong.
It helps to dispel these wrong notions to remember
that we get the word "logic" from the Greek word "logos" translated
"Word" in John 1:1-14, and used as a name for our Lord Jesus Christ. Nor
is it any more strange to think of Christ in terms of logic than it is
to think of Him in terms of the Word. To connect logos with speech or
the spoken word is only to say that it is through Him that God speaks to
us and reveals Himself to us. To connect logos with logic is only to say
that when God speaks to us through His Son He speaks rationally and
intelligibly. That is, in fact, the miracle of revelation—not just that
God speaks to us, but that we can understand what He says and make sense
James O. Buswell says,
When we accept the laws of logic, we are not
accepting laws external to God to which he must be subject, but we
are accepting laws of truth which are derived from God’s holy
character ... The Bible as a book written in human language claims
to speak the truth. If the word truth is not meaningless, it implies
the laws of truth, that is, the laws of logic.
We do not deny, of course, that an operation of the
Spirit is necessary for natural man to understand what God says. The
problem, however, with the unbeliever is not that what God says is
unintelligible or irrational, but that natural man is a fool. He will
not understand. He is a bit like a foreigner who pretends not to
understand English in order to avoid an unpleasant confrontation with
Logic is simply right thinking and the rules of logic
the rules for right thinking. If we get that into our minds we will not
think so disparagingly of logic. Surely God wants us to think rightly
about Him, about right and wrong, and about all other things. And by the
same token it must be sin to think wrongly about God, about His truth or
about morality. To say that right is wrong or that wrong is right is a
matter of wrong, sinful thinking (Isa. 5:20). Right thinking, at least
about the things of God, is not only proper, it is required of us and
all wrong thinking condemned (Ps. 50:21; Phil. 4:8).
Right thinking then, is thinking in harmony with all
that the Word teaches. We must think what God thinks. We have His
thoughts in the Word. And so, just as in confessing we say what he says,
so in thinking we think what He reveals—His own thoughts (Ps. 10:4) We
must therefore, bring "into captivity every thought to the obedience of
Christ" (II Cor. 10:4).
Such right thinking, however, is rational and makes
sense. Right thinking will not only be thinking that is based on the
Word of God but thinking that is, therefore, intelligible and rational.
Exactly because the "thoughts" of the Word are God’s revelation they are
not irrational, senseless, contradictory and impossible to understand.
We agree at this point with Gordon Clark, who asks,
Does it not seem peculiar, in this connection,
that a theologian can be so greatly attached to the doctrine of the
Atonement, or a pietist to the idea of sanctification, which
nonetheless is explained only in some parts of Scripture, and yet be
hostile to or suspicious of rationality and logic which every verse
of Scripture exhibits? (An Introduction to Christian Philosophy,
Nor is it any help to sneer at "mere human
arithmetic" as Gordon Clark suggests elsewhere when he asks, "Two plus
two is four for man, but is it eleven for God?" ("God and Logic,"
Trinity Review, no. 16).
Rationalism and Rationality
All this leads us to another important point, a
defence of rationality. Rationality is not the same as rationalism. When
someone insists that it is a contradiction, impossible nonsense, to say
that God wants and does not want the salvation of the reprobate, he is
immediately charged with rationalism. But he is only being rational.
That is something different. The thing that needs to be made clear is
that it is not rationalism to be rational and to insist that the truth
be rational and make sense. Rationalism is thinking that does not start
with God and with Scripture and therefore always goes nowhere. It is in
fact rationalism which has lead modern man to the brink of total
irrationality and anarchy in philosophy, art, science and ethics. In
severing his thinking from Scripture he has ended up with nonsense.
Francis Schaeffer says,
Christianity has the opportunity, therefore, to
speak clearly of the fact that its answer has the very thing modern
man has despaired of—the unity of thought. It provides a unified
answer for the whole of life. It is true that man will have to
renounce his rationalism, but then, on the basis of what can be
discussed, he has the possibility of recovering his rationality. You
may now see why I stressed so strongly, earlier, the difference
between rationalism and Rationality. Modern man has lost the latter
(Escape from Reason, p. 82).
When, therefore, a theologian seeks to think things
through and to reconcile the teaching of Scripture with itself he is not
being a rationalist. It is in fact the task of the theologian to
systematize the truths of Scripture so that they all relate to one
another and do not contradict each other. To throw out logic and
rationality is to destroy even possibility of doing theology. Yet this
is what many theologians insist must be done.
The question here, therefore, is not that of
revelation versus rationalism but whether revelation is
rational—whether, when God speaks, He speaks in contradictions and
paradoxes, He speaks irrationally. A contradiction, i.e., that a square
is round, is nonsense. Someone may believe it, but in that case they can
well be accused of being irrational, even insane.
It is such contradictions that theologians defend
when they say that God has two wills, that He wants and does not want to
save all men, that He loves the unsaved and does not love them, or that
in first loving them and then not loving them He remains unchangeable.
To reject such contradiction is not rationalism, but rationality and a
rejection of all irrationality.
It is at this point that the whole subject of the
mystery arises. In defence of their contradictions theologians say, "It
is a mystery." To someone who has given the matter little thought, this
seems very good. After all, the Bible speaks of mysteries, and in
everyday usage of the word seems to mean "something we cannot
understand." So the theologian seems perfectly justified in using the
word mystery to mean "something impossible to understand—a
However, that is not the biblical meaning of the word
mystery. In Scripture the word means "something the natural man cannot
understand because he is a fool, but which is revealed to God’s children
by God himself and which can and must be understood by them."
Paul speaks in Ephesians 3:3-5 of the mystery "which in other ages was
not made known unto the sons of men, as it is now revealed unto his holy
apostles and prophets by the spirit." Nor is this mystery understood
only by the theologians and leaders like Paul, but was given so that
"when ye [i.e., the ordinary members of the church] read, ye may understand my
knowledge in the mystery of Christ."
Even in the common usage of the word, however, the
theologians are wrong to stretch its meaning to cover their
contradictions and paradoxes. When we speak of the doctrine of the
Trinity as a mystery, we do not mean, in other words, that the doctrine
of the Trinity is self-contradictory and irrational only that we do not
fully understand it.
If the doctrine of the Trinity meant that God was one
God and three Gods or one Person and three Persons (as Cornelius van Til
says) it would be a contradiction and would be unintelligible. God
cannot at the same time be one God and three Gods. But the Trinity means
only that God is one God and three Persons. That maybe difficult to
understand fully, but it is not a contradiction—not a mystery in the
sense of contradiction.
Nor are the doctrines of God’s sovereignty and man’s
responsibility a mystery in the sense that they contradict each other.
If they did we would have to choose between them. Thankfully, we do not.
They are a mystery in that we do not fully understand how they are
reconciled, but they do not contradict each other. They are not a
paradox. We agree, therefore, with Herman Hoeksema, who says,
They would be contradictory if the first proposition denied what
is affirmed by the second. But this is not true. The first
proposition asserts something about God: He is absolutely sovereign
and determines the acts of man. The second proposition predicates
something about man: he is responsible for his moral acts. Does the
first proposition deny that man is responsible? If it does you have
here a contradiction. But it does not. Those who like to discover a
contradiction here, usually the enemies of the truth of God’s
sovereignty, simply take it for granted that to assert God is
sovereign even over man’s acts is to say the same as that man is not
Clark-VanTil Controversy, p. 40).
To say that God loves and does not love the reprobate
is not a mystery but a contradiction. It is impossible to make sense of
the idea that God loves the reprobate for a while and then ceases to
love them and yet remains unchangeable. It is such contradiction that we
reject and that ought to be rejected in Reformed theology.
Logic and the Doctrine of God
There is more at stake here than just the question of
whether or not we can believe contradictions, as many modern theologians
say we can and ought. The very nature and being of God is at stake.
One very basic attribute of God is His simplicity, an
attribute about which one usually hears little. The first article of the
Belgic Confession lists this attribute first:
We all believe with the heart, and confess with
the mouth, that there is one only simple and spiritual being,
which we call God; and that he is eternal, incomprehensible,
invisible, immutable, infinite, almighty, perfectly wise, just, good
and the overflowing fountain of all good.
But the attribute is so little known that the
language of the Belgic Confession sounds strange to our ears.
God’s simplicity means that He is undivided. This is
true first in reference to the three Persons of the Trinity—that they
are not separate gods but together one God. It is also true in
connection with God’s attributes. They cannot be divided from one
another, or set one against another. There is, for example, no division
or conflict between His justice and His mercy. His mercy will always be
just and His justice merciful. There is, therefore, no contradiction or
disharmony in God. He is one and undivided in His Person, in His
attributes, in His purpose and will, and in His works. His works are
never at odds with His purpose, nor His purpose with itself.
This attribute is denied by those who are willing to
find contradiction in God’s will or between God’s will and His works.
Not only do they promote irrationality, they deny His simplicity and are
in conflict with what Scripture teaches about God (I John 1:5). To find
contradictions in God is to deny God. There are many things about God we
cannot fathom, many things we cannot fully understand, but there is no
darkness in Him at all.
Logic and the Doctrine of Scripture
The "theology of paradox and contradiction" is also a
denial of the doctrine of Scripture. If there is contradiction in
Scripture, then Scripture is no longer revelation. A contradiction
"reveals" nothing. It makes understanding and comprehension impossible.
Nor, if Scripture has contradictions in it is it perfect and infallible.
A contradiction, however one looks at it, is an imperfection, a mistake.
The regula Scripturae, the rule of Scripture,
one of the great Reformation principles, means that there is a
consistent line of teaching that runs through Scripture from beginning
to end. This, of course, follows from the fact that it is the Word of
God. If it were just a series of books written by different men we would
expect neither unity nor consistency, but because the Holy Spirit is
author of Scripture, it has both unity and consistency in all that it
says. That is implied in Jesus’ words in John 10:35: "The Scriptures
cannot be broken." To find in them contradictions, whether in what they
say about God or in matters of historical detail, is to deny that that
they are God’s infallible Word.
This is not to say that we understand every passage
of Scripture. There are certainly passages that are difficult for us to
reconcile, but anyone who believes in the infallibility of Scripture
would insist that then we simply do not understand. To admit that they
really are contradictions is to say that there are mistakes in Scripture
and that is to deny them their authority as the Word of God.
Logic and Neo-orthodoxy
What is most frightening, though, about the tendency
to admit contradiction both in Scripture and in theology is that this is
the very heart of neo-orthodoxy. The idea that faith is able to believe
contradictions—that is the very essence of faith to believe unreasonable
things—is the essence of Karl Barth’s paradox theology. He described
faith as "a leap in the dark" insofar as it accepts all sorts of
contradictions: God both elected and reprobated Esau (both loving and
hating him); God elects and reprobates all men; God is omniscient
(all-knowing) and yet limited in knowledge.
His followers went even further. Brunner flatly
denied the infallibility of Scripture by teaching that the Bible is full
of contradictions but that God can and does reveal Himself to us through
these things. Theology, according to Brunner, is not concerned with
rational intelligible truth, nor is the Bible a system of truth.
According to him the contradictions and discrepancies in Scripture are a
matter of God’s condescension to us and that the only important thing is
to "encounter" God through the Scriptures, not to understand and believe
Many evangelicals today have taken this same view of
faith, of Scripture and of God. They, too, say that Scripture does not
have to be coherent and consistent in every part, that the knowledge of
God can be full of paradoxes, antinomies and contradictions and that
faith by its very nature is able to accept such contradiction and
irrationality without question.
An example that comes to mind is that of the Reformed
minister who tried to defend the well-meant offer of the Gospel and
common grace by such an appeal to irrationality. He was trying to answer
the charge that for God to show love and grace to the reprobate in
natural gifts and in a well-meant offer of the Gospel makes God
changeable, i.e. He loves them now and stops loving them when He sends
them to Hell. In defending himself, this man said that God was
unchangeable but as sovereign could nevertheless "decree for Himself a
series of different dispositions." In other words, though He is
unchangeable, He could as sovereign decide that He would change His
attitude toward the wicked reprobate. Put even more simply, he was
saying that though God is unchangeable He can change.
Neo-orthodox Karl Barth put it this way:
We may believe that God can and must only be
absolute in contrast to all that is relative ... but such beliefs
are shown to be quite untenable and corrupt and pagan, by the fact
that God does in fact be and do this in Jesus Christ. We cannot make
them the standard by which to measure what God can or cannot do, or
the basis of the judgement that in doing this He brings Himself into
self-contradiction ... He is absolute, infinite, exalted, active,
impassable, transcendent, but in all this He is the one who is free
in His love and therefore not His own prisoner. He is all this as
the Lord and in such a way that He embraces the opposite of these
concepts (i.e., He is also relative, finite, passive, able to
suffer and surpassed in glory) even while He is superior to them (Church
Dogmatics, IV, i, 55, pp. 183ff.; italics mine).
What is Barth saying? He is saying that God’s freedom
and sovereignty mean that He can be infinite and finite at the same
time, exalted and inferior, omnipotent and impotent, immutable
(unchangeable) and yet subject to change. Nor is Barth’s reference to
Jesus Christ anything but a smokescreen to obscure the fact that He is
in fact denying God’s absolute omnipotence, immutability and infinity.
That Christ, in His human nature, was limited, changeable, finite and
born in time, we do not deny. But that is not what Barth means. He
means, as the first part of the quote shows, that it is pagan to think
or say that God is absolutely and without qualification omnipotent,
omniscient, immutable and infinite. He must also be impotent, limited in
knowledge, mutable and finite.
If you object that his is blatant contradiction or
paradox, Barth will most assuredly agree with you and tell you that is
why it is a matter of faith—faith does not understand, but simply
believes the irrational. That, unconsciously or otherwise, is the same
conclusion to which many today in defending their paradoxes and
Interestingly, Barth’s conclusion regarding theology
is: "It can never form a system, comprehending and as it were ‘seizing’
the object" (Church Dogmatics, II, 3, p. 293). This is simply to
say that not only theology but that which it seeks, the knowledge of
God, is impossible.
We do not deny then, that faith must often accept the
fact that it does not fully understand. We only deny that faith is such
a "leap in the dark" that it can accept nonsense and unreason. If God is
God, if revelation is truly a revealing of God, and if Scripture is
infallible and unbreakable, it cannot be so.
The danger here is not small. In many ways, paradox
theology strikes at the fundamentals. The idea that there can be
contradictions in God and in Scripture and that faith can accept these
contradictions opens the door to all the errors of the subjectivism with
which the church is plagued today. By subjectivism we mean the teaching
that feeling and experience are more important than doctrine and truth.
"We must not argue for the truth or try to prove that it is correct," so
many say. We can only feel that it is correct and accept it blindly. To
try and make sense of it, to do theology or to teach doctrine is to
destroy all possibility of passion and love and to lapse into deadness.
Our feelings and experiences may very well contradict Scripture but that
does not make them wrong. Faith demands that we follow them even if they
In opposition to such error we set ourselves in
opposition to all "theology" of paradox and contradiction, whether it is
that of Barth, Niebuhr and Brunner, or that rather more ignorant version
of the same that passes as evangelicalism today.