Bible - General Questions

Are There Paradoxes In Scripture?

By Dr. Paul M. Elliott
Many postmodern church movement say there are. Are they right?

From the TeachingtheWord Bible Knowledgebase

Many postmodern church movement say there are. Are they right? To answer this question, we must first define the term.

A reader wrote to us:

I recently heard someone say that the Scripture's teaching on God's sovereignty in salvation and man's responsibility to believe are both true and that they are a paradox. I noticed as I read through your site that Dr. Elliott specifically writes that the Scripture contains no paradoxes. So I am asking for help to understand this. If the sovereignty/responsibility issue is taught in Scripture (and I believe that it is) then how are we to define it? What is wrong with calling it a paradox? Thank you so much for your help.

I greatly appreciate this reader's excellent question. I must be constantly striving to learn to communicate God's truth more clearly, and it is helpful to know when I have missed the mark.

Two Kinds of Paradox

To begin answering this question I need to distinguish between two kinds of paradoxes. A rhetorical paradox is an apparent (but not actual) contradiction that is used for effect in communication -- to emphasize contrast. We find many examples of rhetorical paradox in Scripture, such as these:

There is one who scatters, yet increases more; and there is one who withholds more than is right, but it leads to poverty. (Proverbs 11:24)

He who finds his life will lose it, and he who loses his life for My sake will find it. (Matthew 10:39)

Jesus said to her, "I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me, though he may die, he shall live. And whoever lives and believes in Me shall never die. Do you believe this?" (John 11:25-26)

But in all things we commend ourselves as ministers of God: in much patience, in tribulations, in needs, in distresses, in stripes, in imprisonments, in tumults, in labors, in sleeplessness, in fastings; by purity, by knowledge, by longsuffering, by kindness, by the Holy Spirit, by sincere love, by the word of truth, by the power of God, by the armor of righteousness on the right hand and on the left, by honor and dishonor, by evil report and good report; as deceivers, and yet true; as unknown, and yet well known; as dying, and behold we live; as chastened, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing all things. (2 Corinthians 6:4-10)

The things that are said in these passages are rhetorical paradoxes, but they are not logical paradoxes. A logical paradox is a statement in which two (or more) things are self-contradictory. They cannot both (or all) be true at one and the same time. White cannot be black, true cannot be false. A man cannot also be a horse or an automobile. It is logical paradox that I have in mind when I say that "Scripture contains no paradoxes." God could not assert a logical paradox without ceasing to be God, because to do so would make Him a liar.

Scripture Contains No Logical Paradoxes

Scripture's clear teaching that God is sovereign in salvation and that man is responsible to believe falls into neither category of paradox. Both are true, and the two are not contradictory, and they are not merely statements for effect. Can we fully understand how that is so, this side of Heaven? Indeed, we cannot. But the answer is not to place these things in the category of paradox, because this opens the door to all sorts of wrong thinking about Scripture. We see much of that today in the Emergent Church movement, which embraces this wrong idea of paradox in Scripture and therefore tells people that each of us must construct his own "truth" which may contradict someone else's "truth" -- about the nature of God, the way of salvation, and many other matters. The answer, when we think we see logical paradox in Scripture, is to remember the nature of God -- that He cannot lie -- and bow the knee to His revealed truth.

"For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I also am known" (1 Corinthians 13:12). Commenting on this verse, Matthew Henry wrote that our present perception of revealed truth involves

clouds and obscurity; but hereafter the things to be known will be near and obvious, open to our eyes; and our knowledge will be free from all obscurity and error. God is to be seen face to face; and we are to know Him as we are known by Him; not indeed as perfectly, but in some sense in the same manner. We are known to Him by mere inspection; He turns His eye towards us, and sees and searches us throughout. We shall then fix our eye on Him, and see Him as He is, 1 John 3:2. We shall know how we are known, enter into all the mysteries of divine love and grace. O glorious change! To pass from darkness to light, from clouds to the clear sunshine of our Saviour's face, and in God's own light to see light! (Psalm 36:9). Note, it is the light of Heaven only that will remove all clouds and darkness from the face of God. It is at best but twilight while we are in this world; there it will be perfect and eternal day.1


  1. Passage discussion in Matthew Henry's Concise Commentary on the Whole Bible (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1997).


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