In old times, the first chapter of a Systematic Theology book or the first lecture of a Systematic Theology class would be named by a big word: “prolegomena.” The prolegomena of a study is the introduction to that study. It is where the basic terms are defined, the methodology of the study is justified, and a motivation for the study is provided. It is very common to also include various warnings about the limitations of systematic theology, and about how theologians can be led into error by misunderstanding these limitations. Properly, systematic theology is limited by the extent of what the Bible tells us. We can’t know things about God unless He has revealed them. Therefore, a systematic theology works out the implications (the possible deductions) of Scripture and organizes them in a helpful way.
This article is about the idea of tensions in Scripture. Many of these prolegomenatic warnings include the idea that the systematic theologian must embrace the tensions in Scripture. Many pastors and systematic theologians these days are concerned that the systematic theologians are far too quick to simply pick a system and then cram the Scriptures into it; basically misinterpreting the Scripture to serve a system. The idea that theologians might misinterpret Scripture in to make it fit their system seems to be a valid worry. Let’s call this problem the “hyper-systematization” problem. What use is a hyper-systematic theology that requires the theologian to misinterpret Scripture? It isn’t much use.
However, the idea of embracing tensions in Scripture doesn’t seem get us where we want to go either. Of course, the concept of “embracing the tensions” is often times put forward as a vague analogy whose ambiguity renders the statement meaningless. Lots of times it just means “stop trying to solve the problems of Scripture!” Or “bro, why can’t you just accept that God doesn’t think the same way as you?” However, the serious user of the “embrace the tension” analogy probably means that one should remain somewhere in the middle of two interpretations or somewhere on the spectrum between two interpretations. One ought not to embrace one position and fully reject the corresponding opposite position if Scripture seems to support both. For example, one ought not to let go of the doctrine of predestination, for fear of ignoring or misinterpreting Ephesians 1:11, but one also must hold on to free will because of Matthew 23:37. Therefore, we must trust that God has some purpose for giving us this tension. Embracing the tensions is put forward as a solution to the problem of hyper-systematization.
This article does not address the idea that we must hold on to contradictory propositions. Embracing the tension, for purposes of this discussion, is not embracing the ideas that (1) men have free will and (2) men do not have free will. This is trivially wrong. It is a contradiction and, therefore, cannot be true. This article evaluates the idea of “embracing the tensions” between two propositions that are seemingly inconsistent, but not contradictory.
This article explains why the idea that we should “embrace the tensions” is the wrong solution to the hyper-systematization problem. Again, the hyper-systematization problem is the problem of misinterpreting Scripture to make it fit a theological system. This article also explains where an “embrace the tensions” analogy might be helpful.
Embracing the Tensions is Not a Solution
Before addressing the “embrace the tensions” solution head on, a couple of examples might be helpful. First, consider a situation where your friend Rex tells you that he just got finished riding upon a giant bird. Of course, you picture Rex soaring in the air above the landscape. However, you later are corrected by Rex’s brother Tex who laughs at you and says: “Rex rode today, but he never rides anything that can fly.” You now have some options. You can (1) believe Rex and doubt Tex, (2) believe Tex and doubt Rex, and (3) embrace the tension and believe both. But isn’t it hard to understand how one could embrace the tension between the testimonies of Rex and Tex? Maybe you don’t quite go so far as to believe that Rex rode a winged creature, yet you don’t commit to believing that what he rode was a non-bird. What exactly can it mean to embrace the tension here? I think it is much better to think a little harder and discover option 4. Option 4 is to (4) believe Rex and Tex but realize that that not all birds fly. Perhaps Rex rode an ostrich. Then Rex was entirely correct in saying he rode a giant bird and Tex may still be right in saying that Rex wouldn’t ride a flying creature. The apparent tension is resolved after you discover option 4. The point of this example is to take “embracing the tension” outside the normal theological context and see if it really makes any sense. It would be silly to insist that you shouldn’t believe option 4 because embracing the tensions, is better.
In the Elder Days, the evil Melkor, the most powerful of the Ainur, deceived many of the other Ainur; the chief of whom was Mairon, who was later called Sauron in The Lord of the Rings. The other Ainur who were deceived were later called balrogs. For years, Tolkien experts have wrangled over the question of whether or not balrogs have wings. According to the Peter Jackson film, the particular balrog that was defeated by Gandalf the Grey surely had wings. You can see them on the screen. But some Tolkien experts argue that there aren’t any good reasons to believe that balrogs have wings (Dr. Corey Olson at Washington College for example). In one of his lectures, Dr. Olson says that if balrogs had wings, the balrog who fought with Gandalf the Grey would not have fallen when Gandalf destroyed the bridge underneath him. Moreover, Gandalf would have been silly to break the bridge because the balrog would have simply flown back to safety and breathed fire upon the whole company. This makes sense, but there are also passages in Lord of the Rings such as: “…[the balrog’s] wings spread from wall to wall…” The author of this article has not yet formed a strong opinion on the matter of winged balrogs, but for purposes of this example, we have a few options. We can (1) believe the balrog had wings and take the falling of the balrog as a mistake on the part of the author, (2) believe that balrogs have no wings and misinterpret the passage in Lord of the Rings that says “its wings spread…” and (3) embrace the tension. Again, what would it be like to embrace the tension? Would we believe that the balrog had wings before approaching the bridge and then that the balrog lost his wings after Gandalf broke the bridge? Do we just refuse to think about the question? How, exactly can we embrace the tension? Rather, we might resort to option 4, which is (4) to believe that the balrog had wings but could not fly. This way, we can be faithful to the passages in Tolkien that speak of the balrog’s wings and we can understand why the balrog fell. This is another example of when it would be nonsensical to embrace the tension between two statements rather than seeking to discover the reason why both statements are true.
Isn’t this ordinarily how we think? If we are trying to describe the duck-billed platypus to a biologist, we might say that it is a mammal who lays eggs and has a bill like a duck. When we say this, we don’t want the biologist to embrace the tension. We want him to narrow down the options and realize that it is the Platypus of which we speak. We use statements that seem inconsistent to help sharpen the picture of what we are talking about. This is the art of description. A large bird that doesn’t fly can’t be a sparrow, a hummingbird, or a toucan. It must be an ostrich or something in that vicinity. Saying that the description “a large bird that doesn’t fly” has tension is a rather unhelpful statement. There’s only tension in the mind of the person who hasn’t yet thought of the ostrich.
One might object that the examples of the winged balrogs, duck-billed Platypuses, and ostriches are not representative of biblical examples. Perhaps embracing the tension is useless and meaningless in these three cases, but not in the cases of Biblical doctrines. To answer, lets return to the predestination vs. free will problem. Is it any better to embrace the tension between the predestination of Ephesians 1:11 and the free will of Matthew 23:37 that it is to embrace the tension of the liftless balrog? Well, we still have to wonder if embracing the tension means anything at all. Embracing the tension just a way to dodge the difficult questions that these passages pose. That this case is different than the case of the winged balrogs is not obvious. We have similar options. We can (1) believe that Eph 1:11 is true and misinterpret Matt 23:37, (2) believe Matt 23:37 and misinterpret Eph 1:11, (3) embrace the tension, or (4) discover some way in which both passages can be true.
Look at these options for a minute. Isn’t choosing #4 a large part of what systematic theology is all about? In systematic theology, we seek to learn what the Bible says about many subjects. So, we take individual Biblical passages and form an overall understanding of each subject. If a Bible passage does not fit into one particular system, we adjust the system so that the system fits with all known Scriptural data. If someone tells us they rode a giant bird who can’t fly, we don’t embrace the tension, we think of an ostrich. If Tolkien tells us that balrogs have wings yet they sometimes fall great distances when they lose their footing, we wonder if they might possess wings that don’t allow them to fly proficiently. We don’t embrace the tension. If someone talks about mammals that lay eggs, we don’t embrace the tension, we think of the platypus. When a systematic theologian comes across a passage of Scripture that is inconsistent with his system, he adjusts his system. So, we see that embracing the tension is the opposite of doing systematic theology. Doctrinal issues surely differ from issues of the Tolkien legendarium, but it is difficult to see how they differ in any way that requires us to introduce the idea of embracing tensions.
This is not to say that it is always easy to harmonize two apparently inconsistent passages of Scripture. This is definitely not the case. However, what I have argued is that embracing the tension is not a solution to the hyper-systematization problem.
So, why might there be statements in the Bible that seem to create tension? Perhaps it is for the same reason that Rex might tell us about mammals that lay eggs. If Rex tells me he just saw a mammal, he hasn’t told me much. But if he tells me that he saw it lay an egg, he’s become much more specific. He’s sharpened my understanding what he saw. He’s narrowed it down from the class of all mammals to 5 possible mammals. Then, if he says that this mammal had a bill like a duck, now I know what he is talking about. Perhaps God reveals statements that seem inconsistent so that we can know things more specifically and accurately. Perhaps God wants to take us from a general understanding to a more specific understanding on specific issues. He tells us that he has foreordained whatsoever comes to pass, yet he tells us that we are responsible for our actions. Perhaps he wants to teach us something about “responsibility” or “foreordination” that isn’t immediately obvious. If you did not know about the duck-billed platypus, you might have thought Rex was contradicting himself when he spoke of the mammal who laid the egg. You certainly would not have tried to embrace the tension.
Embracing the Tensions in Another Light
Perhaps none of this is satisfying. I’ve just showed that embracing the tension is useless in systematic theology for solving the hyper-systematization problem, but I haven’t solved the problem. The key is to recognize that the hyper-systematization problem does not arise when systematic theology is done perfectly. Ideally, systematic theologians would understand all of Scripture and its implications. Then, they would put their heads together and develop doctrines that are faithful to the whole of Scripture. This thought might cause some of us to giggle, because we haven’t seen this happen. In short, this is not an ideal world. Our minds are impaired by sin and nobody seems to know enough to solve all the problems and harmonize all the passages. The solution, as I’ve shown, is definitely not to introduce a meaningless concept like “embracing the tensions.” The solution is to pursue the ideal. Pressing onward and pushing hindrances aside; praying that God would help us understand. I may never have a perfect systematic theology, but I can continue the work of learning, systematizing, praying, and adjusting my system when I encounter passages that contradict my system. Jesus promised us that the Holy Spirit would guide us into the truth (Jn 16:13). We have to trust this and not give up by embracing the tension.
There is a good concern, however, that underlies the use of the “embrace the tension” analogy. Pastors and theologians want us to avoid taking extreme unbiblical stances and being tossed to and fro by every wind of doctrine. You shouldn’t become a free willist when you read Matt 23:37 and then become a predestinationist when you read Eph 1:11. You shouldn’t be a Unitarian when you read Deut 6:4 and a Trinitarian when you read Matt 28:19. You’ve got to keep your balance, so to speak. You need to allow your knowledge of Deut 6:4 to inform your reading of Matt 28:19 and vice versa. Moreover, when we come to a passage that threatens to teach a doctrine that is wildly different than what the rest of the Bible teaches, we practice moderation and don’t thoughtlessly embrace that doctrine. Here, it can be helpful to realize the apparent inconsistency between two passages. This realization might properly be called understanding the tension. In fact, sometimes our muscles tense up when we are wrestling with two paradoxical passages, so we are literally in tension. In addition, some of us have grown to love such situations. We have wrestled with seemingly inconsistent passages before and have come to resolve the past tensions we have experienced, so when we start to feel the tension, we embrace it and get to work on resolving it. We know that resolving tensions is a great way know God better and we are excited for the opportunity to sharpen our knowledge of God. In this light, it is proper to embrace the tension, but because we know that the purpose of embracing a tension is to relieve it.
So, where have we been? We have discussed winged balrogs, ostriches, and duck-billed platypuses. The purpose was to show that the normal idea of “embracing the tensions” in theology does not solve the problem of hyper-systematization (the hyper-systematization problem is the problem of misinterpreting Scripture to make it fit a theological system). Rather, the solution is to formulate one’s systematic theology based upon Scripture and to adjust one’s system to fit passages that contradict it. We also have seen that a purpose for these tensions in Scripture might be to help us understand God in a more specific way. Just as telling someone that we saw a large bird that has wings but can’t fly is better for describing the ostrich than simply saying we saw large bird, God may reveal propositions that seem inconsistent so that we may know Him more accurately after we resolve the apparent inconsistency. In systematic theology, we are to recognize these tensions and resolve them, not leave them be.
 To prove this here would take us off track. But it seems obvious that to embrace a true contradiction is to deny absolute truth. Among other problems, this embroils one in self-referential incoherence.
 To be sure, Dr. Olson has other reasons for believing that balrogs have no wings. If Dr. Olson reads this, I hope he will pardon the fact that I took his statement out of context and that I did not do justice to his entire argument.