James Anderson: Paradox and Christian Theology a book Review

Paradox and Christian Theology Review by Mike Robinson

Logician Frege was felled by it (Mathematics erected upon pure logic). Russell’s Magnus Opus was made obsolete almost before it was printed (set theory). Modern Quantum Mechanics was struck by it (light simultaneously as wave and particle). Theologians have tried to rationally circumvent it (two natures one person). By what? Paradox! And in Paradox In Christian Theology: An Analysis of Its Presence, Character, and Epistemic Status, James Anderson elegantly discusses essential doctrines of Christianity that are paradoxical, but retain epistemic warrant (resembling Plantinga’s application of the term warrant).

“I confess that I can make neither head nor tail of it. Don’t you think that you have kept up your mystery long enough, Mr. Holmes?” “Certainly, colonel, you shall know everything” (Arthur Conan Doyle).

Anderson cogently establishes that the doctrine of the Trinity, Incarnation, and the crucifixion of God’s Son are not essentially contradictory, but apparently appear epistemically incongruent. Among the many exceptional chapters are:

• The problem of paradox (in Christian theology)
• The paradox of the Trinity (Nicea, Modalism, Post-Nicene Fathers, and more)
• The paradox in the Incarnation (Chalcedon, Post-Chalcedonian)
• Responding to Paradox
• Warranted Christian Doctrines
• A Model for the rational affirmation of paradoxical theology
• The model defended & other outstanding apologetic, epistemological, and theological material.

Anderson observes: “To you it has been given to know the mysteries of the kingdom of God, but to the rest it is given in parables, that ‘Seeing they may not see, And hearing they may not understand'” (Luke 8:10).

Anderson seems to draw upon Cornelius Van Til’s notion of Paradox (p. 4), nonetheless Van Til is noted only one lone occasion in the Index (3 X in the Bibliography) as John Frame (1 x in the Bibliography) and Greg Bahnsen are entirely absent in the Index. However there is an abundant use of Alston, Plantinga, and Aquinas (this is not a criticism, just pertinent information to assist the reader). Anderson makes the important point that many of those who advocate the possibility of paradox in Christian theology do not address “in any depth the prior question of what constitutes rationality: what is required for belief to be judged ‘rational’ and whether adherence to paradoxical doctrines can ever meet the relevant epistemic requirements” (p. 5). This historical deficiency is of utmost importance if one aspires to present an epistemic ground to affirm or reject the notion of paradox in theology. Professor Anderson takes great care to define his employment of the term paradox as “synonymous with apparent contradiction. A ‘paradox’ thus amounts to a set of claims which taken in conjunction appear to be logically inconsistent. Note that according to this definition, paradoxicality does not entail logical inconsistency” (p. 6). He adds “we are not positing an exception to the laws of logic, but merely acknowledging an element of imprecision in our systematic comprehension of data” (p. 276).

The author strives to answer two key questions relating paradox to theology:

1. “Are any essential Christian doctrines genuinely paradoxical?”
2. “Can a person rationally believe a paradoxical doctrine?” (p. 6).

Anderson answers in the affirmative on both questions with the caveat that this does not necessitate logical inconsistency. The good professor adds: “Only divine revelation has the epistemic authority to ‘trump’ our natural intuitions about what is metaphysically possible and what is not” (p. 266). This work has an exceedingly technical aspect suffused within, yet the author writes in a style that makes this work accessible to the budding apologist and many who lack training in epistemology or theology. It covers weighty concepts that most philosophers deliver solely to academicians, but herein Anderson’s exposition is precise and well delineated forasmuch as he defines numerous complex terms as the pages are unfurled (great for upper high school and college).

This is an excellent work on a crucial topic that most theologians avoid or sweep under their epistemic shag carpet (John Frame and Van Til endowed the church with fine work on the reality of Paradox in theology).

“By which, when you read, you may understand my knowledge in the mystery of Christ” (Ephesians 3:4).

Paradox in Christian Theology is commanding, wide-ranging, accurate, and encumbered with powerful apologetic and theological argumentation; an indispensable addition to the library of all apologists, ministers, philosophers, informed students, and epistemologists.

Clarkian W. Gary Crampton wrote an unfavorable review of Anderson’s book, however his charges do not take into account that which Anderson has clearly written. There are a couple of problems with Crampton’s objection of Anderson’s use of the concept of Paradox. Anderson responds to Crampton’s spurious assault: “Since my book defines a paradox as “an apparent contradiction” it certainly follows that there is a subjective element to paradox. Appearances, in the nature of the case, are always appearances to someone (i.e., a conscious subject). Does it follow that the issue of whether there are theological paradoxes is “totally subjective”? Not at all. One might as well argue that the issue of whether the sky appears blue is “totally subjective”. Subjectivity does not entail subjectivism. Furthermore, I don’t claim that the doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation have not been “reconciled before the bar of someone’s human reason.” What I do claim is that no Christian theologian or philosopher to date (Gordon Clark included) has offered precise and intelligible formulations of those doctrines that are both biblically orthodox and free from any apparent logical difficulties. I don’t rule out that some bright mind will one day come up with such formulations—and I’d be among the first to celebrate that accomplishment—but our track record thus far suggests that we ought to temper our expectations” (A Response to W. Gary Crampton’s Review, p. 11).

Anderson adjoins: “I believe it’s clear from Dr. Crampton’s review that his presuppositions are not well supported by the Bible. (If they were, it wouldn’t be so difficult for him to find biblical support for them without having to press-gang verses into doing philosophical work that goes far beyond their contextual meaning.) The fact is that the Bible doesn’t directly address the question of whether or not biblical doctrines could present to us as paradoxical. It seems the only way to answer that question is to consider the biblical doctrines themselves, to see whether they really are susceptible to formulations that avoid paradox without distorting what the Bible actually says (e.g., about God’s triunity or Christ’s divinity and humanity)” [Response p. 16].

In contrast to Crampton’s unfounded critical review, the always bright and erudite scholar Paul Helm wrote in his review of Anderson’s book(Helm’s Deep: Paradox and Mystery): “Anderson has written is a book of great importance to those concerned both with the relation of Christian theology to reason, and with the question of the reasonableness of Christian belief. In the first half of the book he raises questions about doctrinal coherence, and in the second half he raises how deep our understanding of the mysteries of the faith can hope to be, and whether it is reasonable to believe what we cannot understand. Anderson has admirable contributions to each of these areas. His treatments of the questions are thorough and clear, with a good theological grasp and a philosophical mind” (Helm’s Deep, Paradox and Mystery, p. 1).

“Anderson is chiefly concerned with what are usually called the mysteries of our faith, with what he calls paradoxes. He understands paradoxes to be sets of statements that are apparently contradictory. (The way that the author ties ‘mystery’ to the test of logic, and does not treat it as a hold-all for any theological difficulty, is excellent)” [Paradox and Mystery, p. 2).

“There is much to learn and to ponder from Anderson’s book” (P & M, p. 3).

also see my Innovative book that utilizes  new Apologetic Research: Truth, Knowledge and the Reason for God HERE