The Validity of the Law of Non-contradiction for Religious Epistemology
by Bob DeWaay
The basic, foundational law in classical logic is the law of contradiction: A is not equal to non-A. Based on the reality expressed by this law, categories are defined, meanings conveyed, irrationalities exposed, and truth differentiated from falsehood. As a foundational law, this principle is properly basic to one's epistemology and need not be argued for or “proved.” However, in practice all ideas are debated and explanations can be given for one's inclusion of basic principles in one's foundation. The validity of the law of contradiction in religious knowledge has been challenged recently and much has been written about it. Because the law of contradiction states that A is not equal to non-A, some philosophers and theologians describe it as the law of non-contradiction as will be seen in many quotations. This terminology is more descriptive of what is being asserted (that a claim that A = non-A is a contradiction and therefore invalid) and will be used in this paper. Should the law of non-contradiction be considered foundational in religious epistemology? It is the thesis of this paper that the law of non-contradiction is universally valid, properly basic foundationally, and necessary for understanding and expressing religious knowledge.
The Relationship Between Non-contradiction and Rationality
Because the law of non-contradiction is so basic to human thinking and speaking, it is closely tied to the notion of rationality. Francis Schaeffer discusses this:
They [western philosophers from the Greeks onward] all believed in the rational. This word has no relationship to the word “rationalism.” They acted on the basis that man's aspiration for the validity of reason was well founded. They thought in terms of antithesis. If a certain thing was true, the opposite was not true . . . This is something that goes as far back as you can go in man's thinking. There is no historic basis for the later Heidegger's position that the pre-Socratic Greeks, prior to Aristotle, thought differently. As a matter of fact it is the only way one can think. The sobering fact is that the only way one can reject thinking in terms of an antithesis and the rational is on the basis of the rational and the antithesis . . . That is the way God has made us and there is no other way to think. Therefore, the basis of classical logic is that A is not non-A.1
“Rationality” has to do with the proper use of reason in understanding and describing reality, rationalism is a philosophy that rules out the supernatural. Dr. Schaeffer correctly distinguishes the terms.
The law of non-contradiction is not the whole of what it means to be rational, but it is a necessary foundation for it. Sproul, Gerstner and Lindsley state, “The law of noncontradiction is the foundation upon which all rationality is established. It is as crucial for theology as it is for all other intellectual disciplines.”2 They state the law with some necessary qualifiers: “A cannot be A and non-A at the same time and in the same relationship.”3 This is necessary to exclude using the law to compare that which has changed from one form to another with itself at different times (like a square made of elastic material that was subsequently molded into a circle) or terms that may mean different things in different relationships (like “that dog I bought was not a 'dog'” where the first use means a literal animal and the second means something with undesirable qualities).
Gordon H. Clark explains this with poignant examples:
If the law of contradiction is curbed, then a collection of letters, w-a-t-e-r, can mean not only sulfuric acid, but also at the same time and in the same sentence, tree, stone, Arcturus, the preposition because, and the cow jumped over the moon, ad infinitum. Suppose there was a word in the dictionary spelled snerp. The dictionary listed its meanings [words starting with “a” etc.] . . . That is to say, snerp bears the meaning of every word in the dictionary. Accordingly, when you write “snerp snerp snerp snerp” you mean “the adept concubine was a zymotic Zouave.” The sentence also means, “Football is a murderous sport.” A word that means everything means nothing.4
If non-contradiction is violated and “I am the Walrus” (the title of a Beatles song) then not only communication, but rational thought about reality becomes impossible. Clark continues:
Farcical? Of course it is ludicrous; and that is why the dialectical theologians and all others who object to logic are ridiculous. Whenever one curbs logic, false and true mean the same thing, metaphor means literal, and all means nothing. Therefore, when a congregation hears a minister denounce logic, thinking, and rationality, it should, metaphorically, tar and feather him and drag him out of town through the cactus. Snerp! Just like that!5
Clark's attack on “dialectical theologians” (he has in mind neo-orthodoxy starting with Kierkegaard and finding expression in Barth6) supposes that they seek to violate this law.
C. S. Evans defends Kierkegaard against the charge of irrationalism. He cites examples from Kierkegaard and concludes,
All of these contradictions are clearly cases of incongruity, not formal, logical contradictions. Furthermore, when Kierkegaard does speak of formal, logical contradictions, it is invariably in the context of a defense of the Aristotelian position that the law of non-contradiction must be upheld . . . Aristotle's argument that one must assume the principle of non-contradiction even to deny it is put forward, and in a blast at the theology of his day, which by denying the principle was able to have its cake and eat it too on many crucial issues, Climacus, in an allusion to King Lear, crisply affirms that saying yes and no at the same time is not good theology.7
Whether Kierkegaard was or was not an irrationalist, both Evans who supports him and Clark who does not agree that violating the law of non-contradiction constitutes irrationality.
Denials of the Universal Validity of the Law of Non-contradiction
There are a few brave souls who would venture to argue against logic on this point. One is John V. Dahms who engaged in a written debate with Norman Geisler about this on the pages of the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society in 1978 and 1979. Noticing that, “writers often mention the law of contradiction when they have logic generally in mind,”8 he proposes that this law has validity, but only in a limited sense. He states, “This absolute and unconditional commitment to the law of contradiction is quite surprising in view of the evidence that there are limitations to its applicability.”9 He furnishes irrational numbers like the square root of -1, Zeno's “proof that Achilles can never catch the tortoise,” the whole being greater than the sum of its parts, the possibility of virtue in ethics, and aesthetic sensibility as five examples of areas of life in which logic (the law of non-contradiction) does not apply.10
He then goes on to list doctrines of the faith that challenge the universal applicability of logic. “If the law of contradiction always holds, the Biblical view of the cross is impossible. If the Father loves the Son, he could not have sent him to endure the shame and suffering of Calvary.”11 He is not denying that Jesus was sent by the Father to die, he is denying that law of non-contradiction applies in this case. He also cites the two natures of Christ and the Trinity as other Christian doctrines that cannot be true if the law of non-contradiction is applicable to them.12 He makes a startling assertion, “All attempts to show that the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity does not involve contradiction fail. The plain fact of the matter is that Sabellians and Arians, for example, are more logical than orthodox Christians.”13
Dahms asserts that Logic has limited applicability and admits that he uses it in his article.14 In his thesis, rational propositions are related to the Father, empirical observation to the Son, and “aesthetic appreciation” to the Spirit.15 The sense of the aesthetic gives one the ability to appreciate the previously mentioned doctrines that have problems logically: “One who understands the aesthetic sense understands that the aesthetic often, if not always, involves what is contradictory. The harmonic discord that `makes' a composition in music is the introduction of a note contrary to the `logic' of the music.”16 At the heart of Dahms' epistemology is the distinction that logic applies to “being,” but not to “becoming.”17 It is difficult to comprehend how this works and he admits, “My epistemology was developed independently, and I know of none like it.”18 Aesthetic judgment takes over in areas (like that of “becoming”) where logic leaves off: “Geisler assumes that there is no other criterion than that of logic to adjudicate between statements. In my system logic has an important place in such matters, and where logic does not apply there is another criterion: the aesthetic judgment.”19
In his rejoinders, Norm Geisler goes after each of these assertions vigorously. He states, “Dahms gives one the most honest and forthright statements of what many NT scholars imply or tacitly believe - namely, that the law of noncontradiction does not apply to all Biblical truth claims. Further, he shows clearly that the implications of his conclusion lead to unorthodox conclusions that have serious (even disastrous) implications for the doctrine of inerrancy and for evangelicalism in general.”20 Geisler takes each of the examples of “logical contradiction” and seeks to show that none of them overturns the law of non-contradiction. He says that Dahms uses the law of non-contradiction even in his statements about becoming:
He insists that logic does not apply to becoming, but only to being. But the assertion that “logic does not apply to becoming” is itself offered as either (1) a logical (i.e., noncontradictory) statement about becoming or else (2) a contradictory statement about becoming. If it were contradictory, however, it would be a false statement. But if it is noncontradictory, then it is self-defeating.21
Logic and Ethics
“Arguing” against reason causes one to be entangled in many dilemmas and “self-stultifying” claims, each of which Norm Geisler latches upon and uses against Dahms' position. Appeals to human limitation do not really help either, according to Geisler:
. . . we mortals do not have any kinds of statements other than `human' statements. Even Dahms' own epistemological model, which he claims transcends the universal applicability of logic, is given in human statements. What is more, everything God has said to us in Scripture is in human language. Hence every statement in Scripture is subject to logic.22
This goes for the Trinity, the Incarnation, and ethical commands. To deny the law of non-contradiction's application in these areas is to deny their distinction from other positions.
Consider Norm Geisler's rejoinder about ethics:
In fact, the law of noncontradiction is so absolutely fundamental to the most basic of ethical assertions that an act (or intention) cannot be both good and evil at the same time and in the same sense. As Isaiah put it: “Woe be to those who call evil good and good evil” (Isa 5:20). In short, unless one begins with the premise that A is not non-A (all that is good is not nongood), how could he ever be anything but a total ethical relativist? If logic does not apply to all ethical statements, then when the Bible commands “love” it could mean “hate.”23
Dr. Geisler is right about this. Not only propositional statements (containing subject and predicate) but commands assume the validity of non-contradiction. God either commanded or did not command us to honor our parents. Honoring our parents is not the same as not honoring them (as Jesus told some who used rationalization to equivocate on this matter - Mark 7). “Escape from reason,” to use Schaeffer's phrase, is an attempt to escape from creaturely dependence on God and His self-revelation in Scripture. As Sproul, Gerstner and Lindsley assert, “Our thesis, however, is that all denials of these assumptions [noncontradiction is included] are forced and temporary.”24 We never really “escape” reason, we just temporally deny it.
Logic and Aesthetics
In his response to John Dahms' appeal to aesthetics, Norm Geisler makes two important points, that contrast is not contradiction and that “understanding” cannot be contradictory. “A contrast [like discord in music] is a conflict between two possible things, and so forth. Contradiction, however, involves what is impossible. For instance, one can have interrupting or asymmetrical factors in an artistic expression but he cannot have a given note both played and not played at one and the same time.”25 This is an important point. That which is contradictory is logically impossible and in its non-existence cannot be “appreciated” by any aesthetic sense. If the Trinity (an often used example of paradox) is truly illogical because of failing the law of non-contradiction, then it cannot be understood or appreciated aesthetically either.
Geisler elaborates on the aesthetic, “. . . if one `understands' it then it cannot involve a contradiction. How can one `understand' what is impossible? One can understand that a statement is contradictory - that is, that there are mutually incompatible elements in it (such as a square and a circle). But can one `understand' a square circle?”26 That which is absurd or impossible cannot be learned, communicated, reproduced, or explained by any means intellectual, aesthetic, or spiritual. Therefore, appeals to non-rational means of obtaining rational information are self-defeating.
It is common for people to appeal to some category that is “beyond reason” to substantiate their beliefs. Keith Yandell states, “If all religious doctrines were self-contradictory, what would follow is that all religious doctrines are necessarily false, not that religious doctrine was beyond reason.”27 He claims that a revealed religious doctrine that “no amount of reflection on our part will elicit” is not beyond “rational assessment.”28 God reveals Himself to us in a meaningful way or else we know nothing about God. It is beyond the scope of this paper to explore the details of numerous arguments about whether the doctrines of the Trinity, Incarnation, Sovereignty of God and free will of man, and other doctrines that some see as intransigent, logical dilemmas are indeed contradictory. It is our purpose to show that in order to be valid and meaningful expressions of truth they cannot be contradictory.
Considering the doctrine of the Incarnation, Norman Geisler helps us:
The fact that one cannot explain how the two natures unite in one person without contradiction has nothing to do with the obvious fact that what happens when they do is clearly not a contradiction. A contradiction would result if two natures were uniting in one nature, but not when two natures are united in one person. The mystery of the incarnation (and there is mystery) does not lie in any contradiction about what but more in our inability to comprehend how. But incomprehensibility is not the same as impossibility.29
Taking the law of non-contradiction as properly basic to one's epistemology is different from claiming exhaustive knowledge of the universe or of God. It is merely identifying a God-created component of human rationality as imagers of God that is necessary for knowing anything. There will always be unanswered questions, but whatever answers are to be considered or accepted must not be contradictory if they are to be placed on the table of debate as meaningful possibilities.
Appealing to aesthetic sense or another subjective factor is not the way to reconcile Biblical difficulties. Critics have traditionally sought to identify contradictions in the Bible to disprove it. Believers have sought to resolve apparent contradictions. By removing logic and non-contradiction from our epistemological foundation, we could instantly “remove” all problems. Norm Geisler somewhat sarcastically responds to John Dahms,
But if logic does not epistemologically dominate all truth claims, then “ease” [Dahms' term] is not the word; all Biblical conflicts and difficulties will automatically disappear! They will not be “assimilated” [again Dahms' term]; they will instantaneously be annihilated! Think of the newfound freedom a NT exegete will have. . . [examples of traditionally difficult passages are cited] For if the laws of logic do not apply to all truth claims found in the NT text, then there is no way to know whether there are any truths there whatever, because one has lost (with logic) the very basis for distinguishing truth from falsity.30
Escape from reason is indeed an expensive process.
Contradiction - a Help to Learning?
Others besides John Dahms see rationality and logic as either very limited, dangerous or beside the point in evaluating, knowing, or understanding Biblical truth claims. Marvin R. Wilson's sometimes helpful book, Our Father Abraham - Jewish Roots of the Christian Faith, has a section called “Block Logic.”31 He distinguishes Greek logic that argued from a premise to a conclusion from Hebrew “block logic” that is characterized by “. . . self-contained units or blocks of thought.”32 A key example of block logic is the means by which divine sovereignty and human will are held in tension, “Upon a more careful reading of the biblical text one can often observe that the Bible views one block from the perspective of divine transcendence - God says `I will harden Pharaoh's heart' - and the other from a human point of view - `Pharaoh hardened his heart. . .'”33 He concludes his argument on this point, “Divine sovereignty and human responsibility were not [to the Jews] incompatible.”34 He continues in this section showing that human limitation was more acceptable to the Jewish community, that “schematization” was not the method of the Bible, and that “Semites of Bible times did not simply think truth - they experienced truth.”35
Wilson does not reject rationality nor particularly the law of non-contradiction, he is discussing matters of style, culture, and literary genre that bear upon thought processes. Viewing free will and sovereignty from two perspectives is not necessarily a violation of non-contradiction; nor is the recognition of limitations on human ability to comprehend and systematize truth. Wilson's “block logic” concept depends upon and does not refute the law of non-contradiction. However, if he is saying that from a human perspective human “free” will and divine sovereignty (it is unclear if this is what he wants to assert) are both taught and in Scripture and logically incompatible, then he is engaged in a problem of meaning (or more properly “meaninglessness”) that will be discussed later. A logical contradiction is meaningless no matter how many perspectives it might be viewed from.
Gaylord Noyce goes further and endorses contradiction, “But what a richness there is in the contradictions - in those two different stories of creation, or those four portraits of Jesus, or in the divergent views on faith and works that we find in the book of James and the letters of Paul.”36 This is over against the “fundamentalist mind-set” that would try to “explain away the inconsistencies.”37 Noyce does not make it clear whether he is speaking of logical contradiction in the strict sense or “apparent” contradiction that can in theory be resolved. It is hard to see how unresolvable contradictions “stimulate faith,” or help us clarify our thinking on anything.
Charles J. Sabatino of Daemen College goes even farther down this path and finds total immanence in “. . . the utterly strange and paradoxical character of Jesus' vision . . .”38 His essay is based on the “paradox of his [Jesus'] vision: that those who are last are first, or only those who lose self can find and save self.”39 He interprets this vision as indicating, “. . . the divine not as a reality to be found distinct from humanity, but as a deeper and paradoxical moment with the human itself.”40 It turns out that for Sabatino, this paradox is between the “smaller, illusory self,” and the “Self.”41 This “Self” cannot really (according to him) be defined but he makes a stab at it: “Nevertheless, it seems to represent the ever present endowment of being which is manifest in persons as the source and final abode through which all have their being (Suzuki) and which, as such, cannot ultimately be claimed by or identified with any one. This Eastern metaphor can be helpful in understanding Jesus' meaning . . .”42 The resurrection “symbol” is reinterpreted along these lines, “. . . not in reference to the restoration of this one person who had died, but more importantly as pointing toward the more enduring meaning of that larger Self on whose behalf he had risked his life.”43
This shows the problem that arises once logical paradox (contradiction) is embraced: any meaning can be given to a text. Sabatino has made little attempt to interpret Jesus' words based on His own teachings, but finds more help from the existential philosophy of Heidegger and the Eastern notion of the “Great Doubt.”44 Paradox is the delight of Eastern thinking and some would put the Bible in the category of Eastern mysticism that loves paradox: the “blind vision,” the “sound of silence,” or of “one hand clapping” and many other meaningless phrases that help us “understand” that all categories are illusions. Sabatino concludes, “Once again, we are in the paradox of the last one, but now as one with eyes closed in order to see . . . By closing one's eyes to the necessity of the normal, one is allowed to see the strangeness of what lies beyond, but now as the closeness of everything the human finds hopeful and possible within itself.”45 Here he uses contradiction purposely, either equivocating on terms so that “lies beyond” is used in a different sense than “within” or he has said nothing rational. Such is the nature of Eastern monism: “true transcendence lies within the self, but `self' really does not exist, it is illusory.” We are right to reject such contradiction and most assuredly we ought not to read this philosophy into the teachings of Jesus.
That “Cursed” Aristotle
A common tactic of those who would escape from reason by jettisoning rationality in favor of contradiction, paradox, and epistemological relativism is to call logic “Aristotelian,” connect Aristotle to whatever may be deemed wrong with Western civilization and put the Bible into the category of Eastern mysticism. Norm Geisler comments:
“Aristotelian logic” is a catch phrase by proponents of this kind of epistemology. It implies wrongly that Aristotle's basic laws of logic are just one option among many. The truth is that all forms of logic or thought (deductive, inductive, symbolic, or whatever) must use the law of noncontradiction. Further, the phrase “Aristotelian logic” often implies that Aristotle invented it. He did not; at best, he was the first in the west to write systematically about it. God is the ontological basis for logic. It is based in his self-consistent and rational thoughts.46
Those who do not want to approach the Bible reasonably nor defend their own positions with rational exegesis sometimes charge those who use the basic principles of logic of being guilty of “Aristotelian” rationalism. They evidently suppose that they have thereby settled the issue in their own favor.
Faith needs an object and contradictions make it impossible to know what to believe or in whom to put our trust, whether or not we go to Aristotle for counsel. W.Gary Crampton explains,
The laws of logic, then, are essential for man to have knowledge. Apart from the law of contradiction, not both A and non-A, for example, Genesis 1:1 would be a meaningless proposition. “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” cannot at one and the same time mean, “In the beginning God did not create the heavens and the earth.” Eliminate the law of contradiction as axiomatic, and one has eliminated the meaning of all Scripture.47
As many contemporary evangelicals rush away from the strictures of “Aristotelian logic” as they derisively call it, they should keep this in mind: If we give up the law of non-contradiction we do not gain the ability to know God, we lose the ability to know anything. We cannot even know the subject of Genesis 1:1 without the law of non-contradiction, since “God” also could be “non-God.”
This also applies to other means of knowing God such as direct, supernatural intervention like Paul experienced (see Acts 9). When Paul asked “who” it was who so powerfully confronted him, the answer was, “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting” (Acts 9:5). Could this also mean, “I am not Jesus whom you are persecuting,” or “I am the cosmic mind of the universe with which you are one”? Non-contradiction, whether or not consciously described as a “law” is necessary for distinguishing any categories. This is why it is necessary for thought, understanding, knowledge, and communication. It is more human (as having been created in God's image) than it is strictly “Aristotelian.”
Gordon H. Clark states, “The basic law of logic is the law of contradiction. We cannot think without it.”48 He speaks of those who see logic in this sense as arbitrary, culturally determined, or evolved as irrationalists who cannot, in fact, live without that [the law of non-contradiction] which they reject. Clark reasons,
If logical principles are arbitrary and tentative, either because they are the procedural stipulations of the analytical school, or because they are the conventions of a society, or because they are behavioristic muscular habits, and if therefore it is conceivable to employ different linguistic conventions, it should be possible for these philosophers to invent a different convention and to abide by it as they express their views. Can they do so? Now, the Aristotelian law of contradiction which they reject or which they assert can be rejected requires that a given word must not only mean something, but it must also not mean something else.49
He repeats his argument cited earlier in this paper that if a word means (possibly) everything, it means nothing. Who could write a book under such conditions?
In other arguments, particularly ones by contemporary evangelicals, Aristotle is referenced to discredit rationality or theological arguments based on rationality. It is supposed that the West has been unduly influenced by Aristotle and thus Western thinkers foolishly seek to interpret the Bible by using Aristotelian reasoning.
Typical is the way Del Tarr discusses this under the heading, “The Tyranny of Aristotle”:
Many philosophers, linguists and semanticists postulate that the beginning of a great portion of the way Westerners think and communicate are traceable to Aristotle's basic laws [identity, the excluded middle, and non-contradiction are listed]. This form of logic has affected Westerners, including North American. Aristotle made his way into the Christian world through Roman Catholic theologians such as Thomas Aquinas. . .50
He sees logical propositions, conceptual thinking, abstractions, etc. as Europe's result of the “invasion” of Hellenistic thinking.51 He is concerned that as a result, “preaching in the West has for centuries sounded as if the preacher were making a case in court.”52 What did “Eastern” Stephen sound like, one wonders, after intermingling a synopsis of the history of Israel with many Biblical quotations and stating, “Which one of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? And they killed those who had previously announced the coming of the Righteous One, whose betrayers and murders you have now become: you who received the law as ordained by angels, and yet did not keep it” (Acts 7:52,53). This sounds strangely like “making a case in court,” and it got Stephen martyred (“marturion” from the Greek is a legal term for “witness”).
Attributing reason and precise deductive thinking to Aristotle and summarily removing it from Moses, Jesus and Paul is doing a grand disservice to the Biblical revelation and to history. Many Greeks were pagan mystics who, in ignorance (Acts 17:23), worshipped “gods” made by the hands of man. Regarding legal systems with due process and witnesses, Moses precedes the Greek thinkers by many years and the Pentateuch has all of these. It is time for Christians to quit trashing their own Hebraic heritage by aligning it with Eastern, mystical irrationality and start seeing the hand of God in the precise, reasonable, and non-contradictory Scriptures He has inspired. Many secular, Western civilization classes purposely leave Moses and Paul entirely out of their discussions and yet spent much time learning Greek mythology! What great rationality we gain from Artemis (see Acts 19) and company! Aristotle's philosophy was an exception in a Greek world of eroticism, mysticism and vain speculation and he only described and formalized basic rational principles that are universally human because of how God created us and were embodied (though not articulated as “laws of logic”) in the writings of Moses many hundreds of years before.
Though lamenting the influence of Aristotle on the West, Tarr never shows that the East somehow escapes from reason and communicates without the law of non-contradiction. Even far less precise languages and thought patterns that do not emphasize logical syllogisms, etc. cannot violate the law of non-contradiction and still communicate anything. No one has yet succeeded in showing how “yes means no, white means black, up means down, A = non-A, etc.” can mean anything. Irrationality is no tool of the Holy Spirit, in the East or the West. Narration (the more typical style of Eastern people) also depends on the law of non-contradiction if it is to communicate meaningfully.
Contradiction and “Contra-action”
In a fascinating essay, Douglas Fox discusses Eastern monism and its relationship to the law of non-contradiction. If all is one, then there are no objects and subjects and “meanings” of words would be unnecessary. He introduces his thesis, “Among the major principles of traditional formal logic, none has been more important than that which precludes contradiction. The present paper intents to draw attention to what may be regarded as a particular species of the fallacy assailed by this principle . . .”53 Descartes' “I think therefore I am” is not sufficient, says Fox, in “. . . accounting for any confidence we may have in the actuality of an object - of anything other than or independent of thought.”54 Fox does not reject the law of non-contradiction, but claims that more is needed:
If thought were autonomous, that is, if it did not arise from and serve action and relation, it might be possible to argue that the most important single principle of logic is that of contradiction: a statement may not simultaneously affirm and deny the same predicate. This is a beautiful principle for pure thought. But if thought and action are related in the manner indicated by Macmurray [who proposed Fox's position earlier], something more is needed.55
He thus states the following as a basic law of reality, the principle of “contra-action,” that says, “That speech is invalid which denies the possibility or effective reality of action.”56
This he says refutes the notion, “Brahman is All, and that which is not Brahman simply is not.”57 This statement does not (necessarily) involve itself in contradiction and does not violate the law of identity (A is A). The problem with the statement is that it is expressed at all, which supposes that there is a speaker (or writer) and listener (or reader). Fox explains:
It may be that a Vedantic will try to persuade me that I am wrong; he will show, perhaps, that my logical principle is based on an assumption he does not find it necessary to make, namely that action and relation are the primary realities of our existence. But I seem to have an advantage here. In the very act of trying to persuade me, he is violating his own premise.58
He further shows that the only “expression” of monism that would not be self-defeating would be pure silence.59 He therefore concludes that his proposed principle of contra-action causes all expressions of monism to be fallacious. This principle is an intriguing notion, but it rests on the prior law of non-contradiction which it presupposes.
Clarifying Important Issues
A tremendous article that deals cogently with many of these issues was written by David Basinger.60 He clarifies terms by differentiating between “mystery” and “paradox,” with mystery denoting “seemingly incomprehensible or impenetrable concepts that can be resolved by clarifying the meaning of the terms involved.”61 He uses the previously discussed Biblical teaching of dying before one can live and shows how it is easily resolved by clarifying the meaning of terms. Paradox as a literary tool does not involve logical contradiction because with this type of paradox an author consciously uses terms that are shifted in meaning to make a point or draw attention to an argument. To die in one sense (to a self centered existence) can cause one “live” in another (to a Christ centered existence). The law of non-contradiction involves A not being non-A at the same time and in the same relationship.
Basinger defines his use of paradox, “I shall use the term `paradox' to refer to those concepts or sets of concepts that do appear to be self-contradictory.”62 His argument is with evangelicals whom he calls “theologians of paradox,” who see Scripture containing apparent, logical contradictions. That which is unique and helpful about Basinger's essay is the way he shows that “apparent” contradictions that are only so on the human level but supposedly not so for God are also a serious problem if we accept them as part of the Biblical revelation:
. . . to claim that certain Biblical truths are apparently contradictory means that while from a human perspective such truths are on a logical par with the contention that something is a square circle, from God's perspective they are not . . . It appears that this is what theologians of paradox like Packer and Grounds have in mind. But if so, a number of serious problems arise.63
Why? - Because we cannot conceive of square circles and if the Bible “reveals” such things it reveals nothing meaningful at those points.
This is because on the human level, language (and thought about linguistic referents) presupposes the law of noncontradiction. `Square' is only a useful term because to say something is square distinguishes it from other objects that are not squares. But if something can be a square and also not a square at the same time, our ability to conceive of, and thus identify and discuss, squares is destroyed.64
Even if God could conceive of square circles though some category of thought that is foreign and incomprehensible to us, “Given the categories of meaning with which we seem to have been created, the concept would remain meaningless from our perspective as before.”65
Donald Bloesch has a very different opinion on this matter:
Genuine evangelical theology will not only be dialectical but also paradoxical. In its Greek derivation paradox means contrary to opinion or expectation. It is not logical contradiction as such but a new creation that interrupts logical thinking and disturbs the flow of rational discourse. It does not so much contradict the canons of logic as overturn them - but only to the finite mind. In the mind or Logos of God, all contradictions are resolved . . . It [paradox] is not a logical riddle but a new reality that cannot be fully grasped by finite reason.66
However, Basinger shows that claiming that the Biblical revelation contains paradox is to claim that parts of the Biblical revelation are, “. . . from a human perspective, nonsense.”67 In a compelling argument, Basinger states that “apparent contradictions,” known to God but not to us also fall into that category: “But if we mean by saying that a human makes a free choice that no one or no thing apart from the person (not even God) can totally determine what that choice will be, then this concept of `controlled freedom' [one means of resolving an `apparent' contradiction] is no more meaningful than the concept of a square circle at the human level, whatever may be the case from God's perspective.”68
This point ought to be taken to heart by all of us doing theology. Real contradiction is meaningless and apparent contradiction if it must remain contradictory to human understanding is also meaningless to humans, the recipients of revelation. “Meaningless revelation” is a contradiction in terms since revelation “reveals” something or someone knowable to humans. Meaninglessness cannot be construed as “knowing.” If paradox and contradiction are the way to “knowing” God and His revealed truth, we have agnosticism, not a “deeper” insight into inscrutable mysteries.
Statements Need Not Be Exhaustively Descriptive to be True
A great stumbling block to many at this point is the finiteness of human knowledge. Some claim that if we do not know a thing (or person) in its fullest sense (as it is in its essence or ultimate being), then we cannot make logical statements or deductions about it (or him or her). For humans, finiteness does not equal inescapable irrationality. A statement about reality does not have to be exhaustively descriptive to be true.
That a dog is not an earthworm is a true statement. If a six year old saw a dog and an earthworm and was able to identify the dog for what it is, would his or her identification be less valid than one made by a trained veterinarian? The trained veterinarian has a more comprehensive knowledge of dogs, but calling a dog, “dog” is no truer for him or her than for anyone else making the statement. The veterinarian knows far less about dogs than does God who knows all things. If God calls a dog, “dog” it likewise has the same meaning as the six year old and the veterinarian.
Suppose God spoke audibly and stated, “this dog is not a dog, but an earthworm.” Would this statement be meaningful to the veterinarian, the six year old or to anyone else? We could surmise that in God's ultimate reality there is something going on that we do not understand, but the statement would be confusing, meaningless or false. It would give good cause to question whether God, who cannot lie, had actually spoken. A contradiction is meaningless or false, but never clarifies anything. Knowing more about reality allows one to make more detailed and compressive descriptions about something or someone, but it does not change the relationship of the law of non-contradiction to the objects or people in question.
Basinger discusses this, “It would be foolish to contend that we as finite humans could understand God exhaustively. But it is unjustifiable to use this fact as a basis for affirming Biblical paradox.”69 Why? - “For to ask whether a Biblical concept is paradoxical is solely to ask whether it is logically consistent - that is, it is to ask whether the terms are being defined in such a way that to affirm one is to deny the other.”70 Paradox neither saves God from being subjugated to Aristotle nor helps humans understand God; but it obscures any language about God by making it meaningless and incoherent. Sproul and his co-authors state, “When the laws of logic are violated, intelligible communication ceases. The Christian faith affirms logic not as a law above God but as an aspect built into Creation which flows from His own character.”71
Gary Crampton argues:
Appeals to biblical passages such as Isaiah 55:3,9, that God's thoughts and ways are above those of mankind, in order to contradict the position taken in this article, are specious. No orthodox Christian questions the quantitative difference in God's knowledge, thoughts, ways, etc., and man's. What is questioned is the qualitative difference. That is, the difference between God's thoughts and man's thought is one of degree, not of kind. Any exegesis of this passage that concludes that God's thoughts are wholly other than man's thoughts stumbles on the command in verse 7 for the wicked to forsake his thoughts and think as God does.72
To claim that this position puts the human intellect above faith is not warranted. Basinger concurs, “To view things this way is not to give human reason preeminence over revelation or faith. It is simply to take a certain position on the essential categories of thought with which God made us.”73
This position is often assailed as “reductionist,” or rationalistic. Norm Geisler responded to such allegations in his surrejoinder to John Dahms, “I am not a rationalist, and I do not accept the validity of any allegedly logically inescapable arguments such as the ontological argument74 . . . I do not believe that only the intellect is involved in the knowing process. I believe that the whole person (with senses, feelings, and whatever) is involved. What I do not believe it that any truth claims, thoughts, knowledge, or statements with cognitive value can be both contradictory and yet true.”75
It does not answer any of the points of this discussion to attach pejorative labels to those who see the validity of the law of non-contradiction. It does not follow that to affirm logic as part of our humanness as imagers of God is to also affirm that there is nothing else to being human. If someone declared logic to be nothing more than neuro-chemical reactions in the brain, that would be truly reductionist. C.S. Lewis, in a chapter entitled, “The Self-contradiction of the Naturalist” stated, “All possible knowledge, then, depends on the validity of reasoning.”76 Anyone reading this book, Miracles, could not come away accusing Lewis of being a reductionistic rationalist. Valid reasoning does not keep us from God, the supernatural or anything concomitant with humanness.
There will always be those who see rationality as a threat to faith. There has been much debate historically about the relationship between faith and reason. The role of logic in understanding, teaching, debating, and proclaiming the faith is undeniable. The faith has cognitive content (see Paul's description of the faith in 1Corinthians 15:1-9) and as such depends upon the law of non-contradiction in its articulation as do any other beliefs and ideas. This in no way diminishes the significance of the faith nor subjugates it to rationalism. Paul placed his whole life and hope on the line in defense of the historical truth of the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ. He said, “And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins” (1Corinthians 15:17). The law of non-contradiction forces us to understand Paul's words in one way but not another. If the resurrected Christ is no different from Christ not resurrected, then his words have no purpose, meaning or significance. The key issue is the truth of Christ's resurrection. That non-contradiction is necessary to communicate this truth does not make logic superior to the truth that is proclaimed in the Gospel. The medium is not greater than the message whether it is a written, spoken, or an “inner witness” to our souls.
Those who object to logic have no alternative to offer. Faith is not an alternative to reason or rationality because these are necessary for the there to be meaningful content and understanding involved in one's faith. Everyone believes something, even rationalists. That reason is intimately involved in what one believes cannot be denied or sidestepped through convoluted sophistry. This is not an East - West issue as some falsely assume; it is a human issue. To epistemologically separate spiritual matters from material ones does not invalidate this position. Even materialists believe things they cannot presently empirically verify. The law of non-contradiction applies to every statement about reality.
John states what is effectively the law of non-contradiction we have discussed, “. . . no lie is of the truth” (1John 2:21). This could be restated, “truth does not equal non-truth.” Reason is necessary to separate truth from falsehood and John particularly has spiritual deception in mind here. Faith involves what one believes (and knows - John uses the terms nearly interchangeably in his Gospel) and in whom he or she puts ultimate trust. Rationality involves the nature of human thought. If this is correct, reason is an ontological matter and faith an epistemological one. Making faith and reason combatant to one another is making a category error. Ontologically humans are rational, what they do with their rationality is another matter. The content of the faith is expressed using necessary rational categories because it is expressed to humans. Irrational expressions call no one to anything, much less, “the faith delivered once for all to the saints” (Jude 3b).
The personal versus impersonal distinction that neo-orthodox people emphasize does not change any of the this. To believe in God as the personal object of our faith and trust does not negate non-contradiction. To believe that God is cannot equal believing that God is not even though God is indeed personal and we come to know Him in a sense that goes beyond that in which one knows an object or abstract fact. Scripture tells us that, “Without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of those who seek Him” (Hebrews 11:6). The law of non-contradiction is necessary to make faith in God meaningful, which faith is necessary (as the passage says) for the relationship - coming to God, pleasing God and believing that God rewards seekers. This does not make the basic laws of logic authoritative over God; but it does declare humans to be rational and thus accountable for their response or lack thereof to this call to faith in God.
Because no one can refute the law of non-contradiction without using it, because the law of non-contradiction is necessary to make any statement or thought about reality meaningful, and because the law of non-contradiction is universal to human rationality, the law of non-contradiction is universally valid, properly basic foundationally, and necessary for understanding and expressing religious knowledge.
All italics in quotations are the original author's.
- Francis A. Schaeffer, Escape From Reason, (Downers Grove: IVP, 1968) 35.
- R .C. Sproul, John Gerstner, and Arthur Lindsley, Classical Apologetics, (Grand Rapids: Academie, 1984) 72.
- Gordon H. Clark, In Defense of Theology, (Milford, Mich.: Mott Media, 1984) 98,99.
- ibid. 99.
- ibid. see 47,58, and particularly 59 where neo-orthodoxy is called “irrational.”
- C. S. Evans, “Is Kierkegaard An Irrationalist? Reason, Paradox, and Faith,” Religious Studies, Vol. 25 No. 3 (September 1989) 351.
- John V. Dahms, “How Reliable is Logic?” Journal Of The Evangelical Theological Society, Vol. 21 No. 4 (December 1978) 369.
- ibid. 370.
- ibid. 370-372.
- ibid. 372.
- ibid. 373.
- ibid. 374.
- ibid. 375.
- ibid. 376.
- ibid. 372.
- ibid. 378,379.
- John V. Dahms, “A Trinitarian Epistemology Defended: A Rejoinder to Norman Geisler,” Journal Of The Evangelical Theological Society, Vol. 22 No. 2 (June 1979) 146.
- ibid. 147.
- Norman L. Geisler, “`Avoid. . .Contradictions' (1Timothy 6:20): A Reply to John Dahms,” Journal Of The Evangelical Theological Society, Vol. 22 No. 1 (March 1979) 55.
- ibid. 58.
- ibid. 61.
- Sproul, Gerstner, Lindsley, 72.
- Geisler, Reply 61.
- Keith Yandell, “Some problems for Tomistic incarnationists,” International Journal for Philosophy of Religion, Vol. 30 (1991) 169.
- Geisler, Reply 62.
- ibid. 84,85.
- Marvin R. Wilson, Our Father Abraham - Jewish Roots of the Christian Faith, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989) 150-153.
- ibid. 150.
- ibid. 151.
- ibid. 151,152.
- ibid. 152,153.
- Gaylord Noyce, “Stimulating Faith by Way of Contradiction,” Christian Century, (August 13-20, 1986); 703.
- Charles J. Sabatino, “Paradox as Vision: Discovering Transcendence Within The World,” Horizons, Vol. 12 No. 1 (1985)
- ibid. 30.
- ibid. 28.
- ibid. 32,33.
- ibid. 33.
- ibid. 37.
- ibid. 31.
- ibid. 43.
- Geisler, Reply 64 n15.
- W. Gary Crampton, “Does the Bible Contain Paradox,” Trinity Review, #76, (Nov/Dec 1990), 3.
- Gordon H. Clark, “A Christian Appraisal of Contemporary Philosophy,” Trinity Review, #72, (March/April 1990), 2.
- ibid. 3.
- Del Tarr, “Preaching the Word in the Power of the Spirit: A Cross-Cultural Analysis,” in Called and Empowered: Global Mission in Pentecostal Perspective, Murray A. Dempster, Byron D. Klaus, Douglas Pekersen, ed., (Peabody Mass.: Hendrickson, 1991) 121.
- ibid. 122.
- Douglas A. Fox, “The Principle of Contra-Action,” Faith and Philosophy, Vol. 2 No. 2, (April 1985) 168.
- ibid. 170.
- ibid. 171.
- ibid. 174.
- David Basinger, “Biblical Paradox: Does Revelation Challenge Logic?” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, Vol. 30 No. 2 (June 1987) 205-213.
- ibid. 205.
- ibid. 207.
- ibid. 208.
- Donald G. Bloesch, A Theology of Word & Spirit, (Downers Grove: IVP, 1992) 79.
- Basinger, 208.
- ibid. 212.
- Sproul, 76.
- Crampton, 3.
- Basinger, 213.
- see Norman Geisler, “The Missing Premise in the Ontological Argument,” Religious Studies, Vol. 9 No. 3 (September 1973) 289-296 for a detailed discussion of this and a discussion of logical possibilities. He states, “It should be noticed that the basis of the conclusion is not the rational inescapability of the position but the non-affirmability of any other position.” (p 293) He sees the weakness of the ontological argument to be that it does not “have a rationally inescapable conclusion” and eventually converts it to what he calls a “valid” cosmological argument. (p 296.)
- Norman L. Geisler, “Avoid All Contradictions: A Surrejoinder to John Dahms,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, Vol. 22 No. 2 (June 1979) 158,159.
- C. S. Lewis, Miracles, (New York, Macmillan, 1947) 19.
Critical Issues Commentary
P.O. Box 8068
Minneapolis, MN 55408
Scripture taken from the NEW AMERICAN STANDARD BIBLE, © Copyright 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1988, The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.
All italics in quoted material are in the original.