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Reflections

The Difference between Mystery and Contradiction in Theology

By Kenneth R. Samples - December 18, 2018
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The God of the Bible is infinite and eternal while human beings are finite and temporal. That means humans can never fully comprehend or exhaustively understand God.1 Yet those profound limitations do not mean human beings can’t know God or enjoy a personal relationship with him. Also, because many, if not all, of the things Christians believe about God involve mystery, it does not mean those beliefs involve logical contradiction.

Because people, especially skeptics, often equate mystery with contradiction, let’s define logical contradiction and then show how mystery differs from it in the context of Christian theology.

Differentiating Contradiction from Mystery

The idea of a logical contradiction refers to two statements that negate or deny one another (A cannot equal A and non-A). Two contradictory statements cannot both be true at the same time and in the same way. Here’s an example of a logical contradiction:

Kenneth Samples is a human being.
Kenneth Samples is not a human being.

These two statements cannot both be true because they deny or negate one another. In other words, if one of the statements is true, then the opposite statement is necessarily false. In logic, we say that they have opposite truth value. Thus, logical contradictions are always false by their very nature.

A theological mystery, on the other hand, is something very different. A mystery in Christian theology refers to something that is believed to be true on the basis of biblical revelation but the limited human mind cannot fully comprehend it. The idea is meaningful and to some degree understandable, but ultimately incomprehensible. Here’s an example of a mystery from Christian theology:

Jesus Christ has a divine nature.
Jesus Christ has a human nature.

Both of these statements reflect Scriptural teaching, and according to Christian theology both reflect orthodox Christian truth.2 Yet while orthodox Christians believe both statements are true, no one knows exactly how they are true. Finite creatures cannot comprehend how a single person can have two distinct natures (one divine and one human). But the two statements do not reflect a formal contradiction because they do not negate or deny one another (the two natures neither negate nor mingle).

So historic Christian theology insists that these two statements are not a logical contradiction, but instead a divine mystery. They are truths that do no damage to reason but they do defy full human comprehension.

Thus all logical contradictions are mysterious, but not all mysteries are contradictions. Also, contradictions are necessarily false, but mysteries can be true though not fully comprehended.

Furthermore, virtually everything that the God of the Bible has revealed about himself to human beings involves mystery. This mystery is necessarily so because God is an infinite and eternal being while humans are finite and temporal beings. A partial list of essential Christian theological beliefs that involve mystery includes the Trinity, the incarnation, the atonement, creation, providence, regeneration, election, predestination, God’s attributes, and the image of God in humankind.

God being mysterious and incomprehensible doesn’t mean the idea of God is logically contradictory. Christian thinkers through the centuries have respected both logic and mystery when doing theology. We would do well to understand the differences while employing a measure of humility and grace as we seek to explain Christian beliefs to non-Christians.

Reflections: Your Turn

What positive and negative things come from God’s being mysterious? Visit Reflections on WordPress to comment with your response.

Endnotes
  1. Christian theology typically divides God’s attributes into two categories: incommunicable (either qualities not shared with human beings or harder to detect in humanity) and communicable (qualities shared with human beings). God’s infinite and eternal qualities would fall under the incommunicable category. For an exploration of God’s attributes, see chapter 8 of my book, A World of Difference: Putting Christian Truth-Claims to the Worldview Test.
  2. For a discussion of how Jesus Christ can have both a divine nature and a human nature, see chapter 9 of my book, Without a Doubt: Answering the 20 Toughest Faith Questions.

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  • Theology
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