Phil Johnson and the Law of Contradiction

I came across a good article by Phil Johnson called the Law of Contradiction.  I do not agree with the great Phil Johnson on everything, but I think this material is highly beneficial.  I also believe that John MacArthur holds very similar, if not identical, views.

Phil JohnsonIn introduction, he writes:

The Law of Contradiction means that two antithetical propositions cannot both be true at the same time and in the same sense. X cannot be non-X. A thing cannot be and not be simultaneously. And nothing that is true can be self-contradictory or inconsistent with any other truth.  All logic depends on this simple principle. Rational thought and meaningful discourse demand it. To deny it is to deny all truth in one fell swoop.

The denial of logic is, indeed, to deny truth.  Then, he continues with some historical commentary.  Criticism might be offered of Johnson that he is forcing human logic and secular philosophy upon God and his creation.  His article is careful to ground his affirmation of logic in God’s Word.  Here is how he does this in the following paragraphs:

Scripture very clearly affirms the law of contradiction. First John 2:21, for example, is explicit: “No lie is of the truth.” Many other passages, such as 2 Timothy 2:13, (“[God] cannot deny himself”) either assume or reiterate the law of contradiction.
Lots of well-meaning Christians, however, seem to operate with the misconception that biblical revelation is somehow exempt from the law of contradiction. They suggest that God’s truth can contravene logic if God is so pleased. They often point to the doctrine of the Trinity or pit divine sovereignty against human responsibility as evidence that revealed truth is sometimes contradictory.
But Titus 1:2 tells us that “God . . . cannot lie.” Therefore even God’s Word must be in harmony with the law of contradiction. One clear, unresolvable contradiction would be enough to destroy the trustworthiness of the whole. That’s why the enemies of truth are so eager to try to prove that God’s Word contradicts itself.
Certainly we who love truth ought to jealously guard against any suggestion that God’s revelation is internally inconsistent. But more than that, we need to defend the law of contradiction itself, because this is a biblical principle, and it lies at the root of all truth.

Phil certainly deserves a high five for this.  Granted, the law of contradiction is a philosophical principle.  The question is:  Is this philosophical principle Biblical?  I think we must agree with Johnson that it is.  Johnson, then comments on the use of paradox among Christians.

I’m troubled when terms like paradox and antinomy are bandied about by Christians without sufficient explanation. Neo-orthodoxy built a whole theology of contradictory ideas by labeling every incongruity a “paradox.” But be warned: when the neo-orthodox use the term paradox they are actually speaking of real contradictions. Their whole system is designed to accommodate those contradictions. Thus they have baptized irrationality and labeled it Christian. But it is not true Christianity.
I’m frankly not even comfortable with the common use of the term antinomy to describe the tension between divine sovereignty and human responsibility. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, antinomy is “a contradiction between two equally binding laws; a conflict of authority; and a contradiction between conclusions which seem equally logical.” I don’t believe a true contradiction exists between divine sovereignty and human responsibility. (If you believe these doctrines plainly contradict each other, you’ll have to demonstrate where the contradiction lies. I don’t believe any such “contradiction”— real or apparent—exists. But I’ll save that discussion for another article.)
What about Jesus’ “paradoxical” statements—”the first shall be last,” “you must lose your life in order to save it,” and so on? These are not contradictions, but plays on words. Jesus was not asserting contradictory propositions, but merely using oxymoronic language to stress the point He was making.
The Trinity is certainly difficult (no doubt impossible) for the human mind to fathom, but self-contradictory it is not. We do not believe that God is three in the same sense that He is one. A reading of the church councils’ teachings on this doctrine will reveal that historic orthodoxy has carefully avoided the language of contradiction. The church Fathers knew very well that to concede the critics’ charge that this truth is self-contradictory would have been tantamount to saying that Christianity itself is false.

The depths of God’s revelation are, no doubt difficult to plummet, and I empathize with all those who see mystery in the Scriptures.  We are in this together.  However, to assert that contradictions or irresolvable paradoxes exist in revelation is to accuse God of irrationality.  We should realize that it is our own misunderstanding of revelation that makes it appear contradictory.  Some criticism should probably be offered: when Phil says “no doubt impossible” in parenthesis, I think we need not follow him.  After all, even if the Biblical teaching on the Trinity remains mysterious to Phil, myself, and all the authors Phil has read, this is no justification for the general assertion that the human mind can’t fathom the Biblical revelation on the subject.  Rather, the Scriptures teach that God has spoken in order that we may understand, and, not only understand, but to take it further and teach it to others (2 Tim 3:16).

Next, Johnson uses arguments such as Gordon Clark used against the views of paradox offered by Van Til, Bavinck, and Kierkegaard and against the Neo-Orthodox theologians to show that communication presupposes a knowledge of the law of contradiction.[1]

What they knew—and modern Christians often miss—is that whenever our language shifts into the vocabulary of antinomy and contradiction, the words themselves no longer communicate. If we overthrow the law of contradiction, literally anything might be true. Black might mean white and hot might mean cold and everything would mean nothing. This is exactly where most modern men and women now live—in the abyss of existentialism, where Joe and Sally might hold world-views that flatly contradict one another—yet both earnestly deny that if one system is right the other must be wrong. This type of thinking seems merely affable and benign, yet it destroys the very concept of truth.
Many discard the law of contradiction precisely so they can declare truth falsehood and make righteousness evil. Therefore the notion that truth might be inconsistent with itself is one of the most popular but pernicious misconceptions held by the unbelieving men and women of our age. It is a concept hostile to truth and fraught with deadly danger. That’s why it is absolutely crucial that we who believe every word of God is true must oppose irrationality with every fibre of our being.
Consider this, for example: if antithetical propositions can simultaneously be true, then who are we to say that those who deny the deity of Christ are actually wrong? If contradictory propositions can be true, then Arianism might actually be just as true as Trinitarianism. What’s the point in defending any truth in a system like that? See the problem?

To relinquish logic is to deny the Christian worldview, which teaches that God is truth.  This means that Justice, Morality, Righteousness, and, yes, Logic are defined according to who God is.  God does not transcend Truth.  God is Truth.  Truth is what God knows.  God does not transcend Righteousness.  He is Righteousness.  Righteousness is God’s acts.  God does not engage in some higher concept called righteousness.  He defines it.  In the same way, God does not transcend Logic.  God is Logic.  Logic is God’s thought.

Does this mean we think like God?  God’s thoughts are not our thoughts right?  Not all our beliefs and ways of thinking are common to God’s; especially God’s loving forgiveness versus our conceited selfishness.  God exhaustively knows everything, we only can only know that which God revealed to man in His Word, and this we even struggle to understand and know.

I read a sermon the other day on the image of God by John MacArthur.  He said:

Now, that happened on day six and as we noted when we studied that, man was made in God’s image. What does that mean? It means he had self-consciousness, not just consciousness like animals have but self-consciousness. He had personality, cognition–that is, the ability to rationally process information, he had intelligence. He had–and I think this is such a notable thing about man–creativity and it is staggering to look around the world and see the immense creativity of man. (The Creation of Man)

Pit Viper 5I’m not quite sure what he meant by self-consciousness, but he explains “personality, cognition”  as rationality and intelligence.  Creativity may also be lumped into intelligence.  In other words, John MacArthur believes that our ability to think logically is part of, if not entirely, the image of God.  Gordon Clark argues for this position very compellingly in The Biblical Doctrine of Man, Calvin more or less argues for it in The Institutes of Christian Religion, and I argued for it in my post:  I am the Image of God.  This “mere human logic” which differs from God’s Logic is what we call illogic.  As the Spirit conforms us into the image of God, we think more and more like the God who’s mind is Logic; more like Christ, the incarnate Logos.

In another post defending the law of contradiction, Johnson writes:

HorseGordon Clark used to define paradox as “a charlie horse between the ears.” I don’t agree with Clark about everything, but he was right to defend the coherence of truth. When faced with two difficult truths we find hard to reconcile, we ought to view it as an opportunity to work out the kinks in our thinking and try to gain a better understanding of truth. If two biblical truths seem to contradict, we need to take another look and be humble enough to acknowledge that perhaps we have misunderstood one or the other (or both) of the seemingly contradictory ideas. We need to understand—like those mathematicians did at the start of the 20th century—that if “truth” really contradicted itself, the very concept of truth would be moot. Christians of all people ought to stand firmly against every charge that truth is inherently self-contradictory. (Most Ingenious Paradox)

Johnson rightly exhorts us to take advantage of the opportunity to grow in our understanding of God when we are faced with two difficult truths.  This is how we know God.  When an implication from one Scripture passage seems to deny another, don’t call it a paradox.  Adjust your perspective so that you see the coherent picture that the Bible presents.  Easier said than done, but that’s the way it is.  Often such truths act like bumpers on a logical lane of a bowling alley.  As the Holy Spirit rolls us full speed down the lane of sanctification through knowledge (2 Pet 1:3) of God, certain Bible passages on both sides keep us from ensnaring ourselves in the gutters at the extreme edges.  Let’s use the passages which bump us to redirect our path.  Let us know, let us press on to know the Lord (Hos 6:3).

[1] I do not mean to equate the teachings of the great reformed teachers, Bavinck and Van Til, with those of Kierkegaard and the Neo-Orthodox.  However, the argument applies just as strongly to their views on this subject as it does to Bavinck and Van Til.

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  • Ian Hodge

    “Christians should employ the law of contradiction, whether positively or negatively, as a means by which to systematize the facts of revelation. Whether these facts are found in the universe at large or in the Scripture. The law of contradiction cannot be thought of as operating anywhere except against the background of the nature of God.”

    Van Til, C. (1979). An Introduction to Systematic Theology. The Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company: Phillipsburg, NJ.

    • Thanks for the comment Ian. I’m not exactly sure what you are trying to say here.

      But, on another note, I’m curious as to what you think Dr. Van Til meant by “The law of contradiction cannot be thought of as operating anywhere except against the background of the nature of God.” I’m not as familiar with Van Til as some of our other writers here on, but this statement seems remarkably obscure to me. Do you think he means to assert that there are sectors (“…operating anywhere…”) of the world, or in thought in which the law of contradiction doesn’t apply? On the other hand, where exactly is “against the background of the nature of God.”? I know it’s a metaphor. Maybe you can shed some light on what it means.