Friday, February 4, 2011

Mystery vs. Contradiction

 Biblically, a “mystery” is something heretofore unknown or unexplained, typically revealed in whole or in part in the New Testament. The apostle Paul spoke of the Gospel as a mystery in 1 Cor. 2:7. “But we speak the wisdom of God in a mystery, even the hidden wisdom, which God ordained before the world unto our glory.” He speaks of the Resurrection of believers as a mystery in 1 Cor. 15:51. Jesus himself taught the kingdom of God and its relation to the Messiah was a mystery in Mark 4:11.

What a mystery is not is a “contradiction.” A contradiction is one truth, proposition, or state of affairs that stand in opposition to another truth, proposition, or state of affairs. The laws of logic dictate that contradictory propositions cannot both be true at the same time and in the same sense. This law is called the law of noncontradiction. In Plato’s work, Socrates says, “It’s plain that the same thing won’t be willing at the same time to do or suffer opposites with respect to the same part and in relation to the same thing.”[1] Indeed, it has been claimed, “anyone who denies the law of noncontradiction should be beaten and burned until he admits that to be beaten is not the same as not to be beaten, and to be burned is not the same as not to be burned.”[2]

Too often, people affirm two logically contradictory positions and then explain it away by appealing to mystery. This is simply unscriptural and logically faulty. It’s not true, for example, that God’s forcing a free action is a mystery. It is simply a contradiction. A good example of a mystery is the Trinity.[3] It is beyond our comprehension just what it is like to be the Godhead, for example. A mystery is something that we cannot fully comprehend, but it does not violate reason.

Perhaps one may be tempted to claim this is man’s logic and reasoning, and thus God is not subject to it. But this holds a key question: from what does logic, and hence truth, flow? The Biblical answer is God. In John 14:6 Jesus is the truth. In John 8, Jesus holds the truth, and the truth is identical to God in action. If God is the source of truth, and God is knowable, two things follow: 1. Truth is knowable. 2. If we are in error the error should be demonstrable. That is to say, it is simply not enough to claim someone is in error; the error in reasoning must be shown.

Maybe at this point an objector assumes that we may tell the difference between a mystery and a contradiction by saying those things which are true are mysteries, while those which are false are contradictions. In this scheme the problem becomes a circular one. Contradictions are just those things wherein we test for falsehood! If a test for falsehood is thus removed, one will have a difficult time enforcing the law of noncontradiction on any proposition or claim. The consequences of this are both inconsistent and terrible.[4]

When one is examining a teaching or a doctrine and he cannot explain how something is true or how it operates, he may rightly appeal to mystery. What he may not do is take two contradictory propositions and hide behind the cover of a mystery. To do so only denies truth, which comes from God himself.
                [1] Plato, The Republic.

                [2] Avicenna, Metaphysics, I. Topics I.11.105a-4-5.

                [3] Some may be tempted to insist the Trinity is indeed contradictory since the doctrine teaches there are three in one. However, a contradiction purports opposing premises to be true in the same time and in the same sense. The Trinity does not propose there are three persons and one person, or three beings and one being, but rather three persons in one being.

                [4] Of course, some astute readers may note it does not matter if the results are inconsistent, since consistency assumes the law of noncontradiction. However, our strong intuition is that even if such an argument against the law were to be right, it would be consistent—which just assumes the law one is trying to disprove!

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