Paradoxology Part 1: What is a Paradox?

Click here for the introduction.

What exactly is a paradox and why is it important to theology? Simply put, a paradox is a kind of riddle or puzzle that a person comes across—something that appears to be a contradiction, but really is not. Perhaps the most famous example of this is the chicken and the egg.

Our experience presents us with two points: 1) chickens always hatch from eggs, and 2) eggs always come from chickens. So which one came first, the chicken or the egg? On the face of it, the question appears unanswerable due to a contradiction. Each one—chicken and egg—originates with the other, so it creates a kind of logical loop between the two; there is no apparent beginning point. The beginning implied by the question therefore seems impossible.

Of course, one cannot actually take it as a real contradiction. One cannot, for instance, say that this “hypothetical egg-laying bird” suggested by the paradox is an impossible creature on the basis of it having no logical way that it could have come into being. That chickens exist is a brute fact. And so, we rest assured that the paradox does have an answer and suggest possibilities. For a creationist, the chicken came first, for he believes that although our experience is that chickens only come from eggs, there was a time prior to human experience when chickens were created by God. For an evolutionist, the egg came first, for although our experience is that chickens only come from eggs, there was a time prior to human experience when a bird that was almost but not quite a chicken laid a chicken egg. Both points of the paradox remain intact (our experiences of laying and hatching are not denied), but it is also acknowledged that there is more going on than is clear from the points themselves.  And so we find that a paradox is kind of riddle that presents a tension between two or more points; it makes a solution seem impossible but nevertheless indicates that there is one, though it be unknown.

The concept is important to Christian theology because we encounter such riddles in Scripture—even when it comes to important doctrines. Unfortunately, not every paradox has answers as obvious as that of the chicken and the egg. Our faith seeks understanding, but it does not always find it. How should Christians react to such difficulties? In our zeal to wholly understand what is given to us, we are often tempted to remove the tension by misrepresenting the different points of the paradox. We understandably want to wrap our heads around God’s Word, but in our pride and impatience, we take shortcuts which provide a solution that comes at the expense of Scripture’s clear teachings.

Lutherans have a long tradition of attempting to practice theology while keeping that tension intact when no adequate solution has been offered. In Part Two, we will examine how Lutherans handle one such paradox: the doctrine of predestination.