Biblical Discussions

Distinguishing Mystery from Contradiction

Each human language (both existing and extinct) has (or had) strengths and weaknesses. The size of the English vocabulary gives it great strength. Nearly 4 million words (including species names and biochemical terms) compared to just several thousand each for biblical Hebrew and Greek.

This great strength is also a weakness with respect to Bible translation, however, because English is rapidly changing. This can require an ocassional retranslations from the original biblical languages, while the huge difference in vocabulary size can sometimes require several different translations to faithfully and fully communicate the rich meaning, thought, and emotion in the Bible’s original texts. By no coincidence does the creation-day controversy rage most fiercely among English-speaking Christians. Such readers of the Bible may be unaware of the nuances of meaning in the various Hebrew verbs used to describe God’s creative activities in Genesis 1 and 2. With so many words available in English to describe long time periods (having specific start and end points), many readers don’t realize that in biblical Hebrew only one such word exists. Likewise, English readers may not know that many Hebrew nouns possess multiple, literal definitions. So to effectively understand the inerrant Word of God, one must study and be aware of the subtleties of biblical Hebrew and their impact on our understanding of Scripture.

As a computer software developer trained in logic, one fact of historic Christianity that leaves me intellectually wanting and desiring answers. That is the concept of mystery found within Christian theology. It is not the idea of mystery that troubles me, but rather my finite human nature that—by definition and according to historic Christianity—limits me from fully fathoming certain truths about God.

Nevertheless, my intellectual limitations afford me an opportunity to distinguish between the concepts of a logical contradiction and a theological mystery. As you continue to read my blog writings, I’ll gradually end up revealing the knowledge I have gathered to come to terms with the challenging dilemma that God defies complete human comprehension.

Logical Contradiction

A logical contradiction refers to two statements that negate or deny one another (A cannot equal A and equal 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:

Larry Marshall is a human being.

Larry Marshall is not a human being.

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

Theological Mystery

A theological mystery, on the other hand, is something very different. A mystery in Christian theology refers to something that is true but the finiteness of the human mind cannot fully comprehend it. The idea is meaningful and to some degree understandable, but ultimately defies full human comprehension. Here’s an example of one 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 theology, they also reflect orthodox Christian truth. While Christians believe these statements to be true, no one knows exactly or precisely how they are true. Finite creatures cannot fully comprehend how a single person can have two distinct natures (one divine and one human). The two natures that are one person (namely Jesus Christ) can be understood in a way that avoids contradiction.

Historic Christian theology holds that these two statements constitute a divine mystery. Thus the teaching of the Incarnation (Jesus Christ as God in human flesh) is a truth that conveys a meaningful reality but ultimately defies complete human comprehension.

All logical contradictions are mysterious nonsense, but not all mysteries are contradictions.

Contradictions are necessarily false while mysteries are true but cannot be fully fathomed. Christian theology is not alone in positing a variety of beliefs as true but unfathomable. For example, the scientific phenomenon of quantum mechanics, among other realities in the universe, is real and true but still lies beyond our full, finite human comprehension.

Furthermore, virtually everything that the God of the Bible has revealed about himself to human beings involves mystery. Such is the case because God is an infinite and eternal being while humans are finite and temporal beings. Here is a partial list of essential Christian theological beliefs entailing mystery: God’s attributes (such as his self-existence, immutability, and infinity), the Trinity, creation, the image of God in man, the Atonement, reincarnation. Whether we like it or not, all of God’s dealings with humankind involve some mystery.

Here are four points that has helped me attempt to understand the fact that God eludes my total comprehension:

1. God’s perfections make me aware of my need for humility.

2. The limitations of being human reminds me I need to pay careful attention to all that God has in His world and His Word.

3. Being made in the image of God allows me to appreciate God’s infinite perfections and my inherent finite limitations.

4. Knowing that God exceeds human comprehension means I cannot be dissatisfied in him or by him.

We can know and experience the one true and living God as he has made himself known to us—and still appreciate the truth that God, as an infinite being, will always defy human comprehension.

How’s that for a mystery we can all live with.


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