Paradoxology Part 2: Refusing Paradox

Click here for the introduction.

Click here for Part 1.

Scripture presents Christians with a number of paradoxes—places where unresolved tension exists between two or more teachings. There are any number of examples. The most basic is probably the doctrine of the Trinity. Scripture teaches that the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God. It also teaches that there are not three Gods, but one God. This is not a contradiction—we do not say that God is three and not three (or one and not one) in the same sense at the same time. We instead recognize that God is three in person and one in essence—that He is three in a sense and one in a different sense. Paradoxes like these do not trouble most Christians today because they have been hashed out by our predecessors centuries ago. The hardest work has been done for us already; we have inherited a vocabulary and theological framework that makes these concepts less troublesome (though their difficulty becomes apparent when attempting to explain them to non-Christians). The doctrine of the Trinity remains a mystery—we do not understand the mechanics of how God is three persons in one essence. Nevertheless, the Church agrees upon a logical resolution.

Other paradoxes prove to be more difficult. The Bible provides us with sufficient detail to be able to describe who God is. However, it does not always provide us with sufficient detail to suggest answers to other paradoxes. Unfortunately, this does not stop many theologians from presenting their speculations as definitive solutions—even after they have been shown as failures because they deny parts of the paradox. Compounding the problem is that after the Reformation, the Church at large lost much of its ability to achieve unity on the kind of common theological framework that exists for earlier controversies. What is more, many improper speculative resolutions have become part of the heritage of different denominations. As a result, many of these paradoxes have become not just difficult, but thorny.

One of these thornier issues is the doctrine of predestination—that God Himself chooses who will be saved. The basic form of the paradox is comprised of three key points:

  1. We are clearly told that God has unconditionally elected his church to heaven from before the foundations of the world—not on the basis of what they have done, but wholly by His own work (Rom 9:1-29; Eph 1:3-11, 2:4-9).
  2. We are clearly told that God wants everyone, without exception, to be saved. If anyone is not, it is his own doing. (1 Tim 2:4; John 3:16; Matt 23:37).
  3. We are clearly told that not everyone will be saved (Mark 16:16; Rev 21:8; Matt 25:41-46).

This set of teachings is a paradox—a puzzle which many Christians have unsuccessfully tried to solve—and many traditions have their own errant “solutions.” Calvinists try to solve it with their concept of “double” predestination—that God chose some people for heaven and others for hell before the foundation of the world according to His will. They try very hard to save points #1 and #3, but do so by sacrificing point #2. The result is that God authors people into hell. Rather than wanting everyone to be saved, he wants some people to be damned and then makes it happen. Arminians, on the other hand, try to solve the paradox by means of a conditional election—God has foreknowledge of which people will choose to believe and which won’t. He then elects people accordingly. This theology jettisons point #1 in order to save #2 and #3. God “elects” based on the way we react to his offer of grace—not true election, but a mere foreknowledge or recognition rather than His sovereign choice. Finally, universalists try to solve it by declaring that everyone will be saved—that because God wants all to be saved and is entirely responsible for it, every sinner will end up in heaven eventually. This theology jettisons #3 for the sake of #1 and #2. Hell becomes a mere myth or metaphor despite Scripture’s clear teaching to the contrary.

Each of the three groups mentioned above has provided a solution that makes sense. However, it is achieved by discarding at least one of the clear teachings of Scripture–it makes sense without fitting the facts. Even worse, doing this requires obfuscating those verses which teach these things. Of course, hermeneutics which make clear Scripture unclear are unhelpful; when those hermeneutics become habits, the errors are compounded. Calvinists, for example, are forced into teaching that Jesus did not die for everyone because God doesn’t want everyone to be saved. Because God’s election is reactive, Arminians have to teach that our salvation begins to depend on what we add to God’s work (our belief, our decision, etc). Salvation ceases to be through grace alone by faith alone because of Christ alone, but hinges on our having adequate works of our own. When we obscure one teaching, it is not long before we are forced to deny others. It is anybody’s guess as to what we will be left with by the end.

How is the Lutheran approach to issues like this different? Lutherans, in contradistinction to Calvinists, Arminians, and universalists, consciously hold all three of the points to be simultaneously true. Rather than requiring a solution that makes sense, we retain the tension between them. God elects people to salvation completely apart from their works, he wants all to be saved, but not everyone is saved. We do not insist on having any explanation beyond that. There are some uncomfortable consequences to this with respect to how we teach, because we have to say “I don’t know” to certain questions. How can this be? Why are some saved but not others? We do not claim to know; we only claim what Scripture claims—that this is so. Reason wants to understand how this works, and it is right to so want. Nevertheless, in the face of the brute fact that it does not understand, reason must submit to a faith which receives assurance that in this time and place, we have been told all that we need.

Holding onto this paradox does not mean holding onto a contradiction. “God wants all to be saved but does not want all to be saved” is a contradiction. God wants all to be saved but does not save everyone is a mystery. Like a child complaining that a difficult riddle is impossible, declaring a paradox to be a contradiction is ultimately a failure in imagination. There is logical room for a solution. For example, one reality that could provide simple coherence to Biblical predestination is the possibility that God wants all to be saved but wants other mutually exclusive things as well. Which things? We do not know (although we know it cannot be our cooperation in salvation). Why mutually exclusive? We do not know (although we know it cannot be that he wants some people to go to Hell). Is this possibility even the real answer? We do not know; there could be many other possibilities. We do not know any of these things because we were not told any of these things in Scripture. We can speculate about possibilities, but have insufficient information to come up with a definitive answer. Nevertheless, we can still spot the false answers given by Calvinists, Arminians, and universalists because they disregard at least one of the sides of the paradox taught in Scripture.

This is a humbling reality. It was not given to us to be that confident fellow who has all the answers to all the hard questions. More important than being that fellow, however, is that we treasure what God has taught us in Scripture. We must be honest about our shortcomings rather than covering them up through obfuscation, oversimplification, or outright denial of what God has taught us in His word. When a paradox is handed to us, we must receive it as such.

19 Responses to Paradoxology Part 2: Refusing Paradox

  1. B. Gordon says:

    So interesting Matt. A bunch of thoughts.

    First century Christianity had a heavily Jewish context and to the Jews salvation was corporate (Israel). These verses of election mean this. The Church is elected to salvation. Protestant northwest Euros (guilty here!) have a very individualist worldview.

    There are universalists like Origen who teach that the Greek word for eternal can mean a very long time. Thus Hell is real but not forever. This rather combines Hell and purgatory.

    There’s a strong and laudable tendency to fear giving man credit so that everything becomes work salvation, even the exercise of free will. I’m not sure this is what St Paul was referring to. It seems to me the Holy Spirit doesn’t possess us to the exclusion of free will (in a sort of good antithesis to the evil of demon posession ).

    This author has some interesting thoughts on Luther and faith/grace/works. I don’t think he’s anti Lutheran.

  2. Matthew Etzell says:

    Matt is far more learned regarding Lutheran doctrine than I, but here is my understanding for whatever it may be worth.

    As I understand it, Lutherans do not deny the existence of free will with regard to worldly matters; what Lutherans deny is that the unregenerate man has free will with regard to godly matters (because the unregenerate man is spiritually dead). The Holy Spirit doesn’t override our free will; we simply don’t have any free will to bring about our own salvation (though Scripture does say we are capable of resisting the Holy Spirit). The unregenerate man cannot choose to have faith; the Holy Spirit creates faith in the unregenerate man (by means of the preaching of God’s Word and the right administration of the Sacraments), thereby regenerating him (though he is capable of resisting/rejecting this regeneration).

    • B. Gordon says:

      No doubt these things have always confused me. You can resist and reject but not cooperate or choose. It seems cooperate is the opposite of resist/reject.

      • Matthew Etzell says:

        If we are discussing justification, then cooperation is impossible. The unregenerate man can do nothing to bring about his own justification, because he spiritually dead; the regenerate man is already fully justified (by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone), so there is nothing left for him to contribute to justification. And there is no such thing as partial justification; one is either justified or not. One can resist/reject justification, but not cooperate in justification, in the same sense than a physically living man can kill himself (rejecting his physical life), but a physically dead man cannot make himself alive.

  3. Matt says:

    Wow, this takes me back. I can’t believe I’ve been doing this for a decade now.

    Anyways, great conversation, gentlemen. Matthew has done a good job of summing up free will & justification, so I won’t add to it.

    With respect to corporate salvation:

    There is a sense in which salvation was seen corporately among Jews of that time. That said, the New Testament spends time specifically bucking against that corporate sense in favor of individual faith (John the Baptist in Matthew 3, Jesus in John 8, Paul in Romans 9 & Hebrews 3-4, etc.) So I don’t think we ought to exclusively read election that way (though God clearly also has predetermined purposes for nations just as much as for individuals. And you’re right that today’s hyper-individualism is alien to the text as well.)

    With respect to Hell:

    First, Origen was a genius, but also hugely into speculation, so he isn’t exactly the most reliable Church Father. This isn’t the sort of thing I would trust him on.

    Second, even if the Greek word for eternal *can* mean “a really long time”, that doesn’t mean it *does* in any particular instance. (Kind of like how we use the word “forever” in the exactly same way, but context makes it clear which sense we mean.) Plus, there are places in the Bible that don’t use “eternal” but still get the same point across (e.g. “better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into hell, where the worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.”) Trying to make Hell temporary is just not a fair way of reading the text as a whole.

    Don’t get me wrong, I personally hate the idea of an unending Hell. Nevertheless, it’s one of those things where it’s not what I would do if I were God, but since I’m not God, I’ll just have to accept that what He has said is genuine goodness even if I don’t yet understand how. I get the appeal of universalism, but trying to force the Bible to agree with me is a trap I don’t want to fall into.

    I haven’t had a chance to read the Touchstone article yet, but I’ll try to comment on that as well.

    • B. Gordon says:

      This is always so confusing since God “gets the credit” yet it seems one must do something. If it’s Word and Sacrament, then one must hear the word and participate in the sacrament. This seems like cooperation. It feels so often that the discussion is over semantics of the phrase “works.”

      Did you have a chance to read the Touchstone article?

      • Matt says:

        We certainly participate in the Sacraments, and we do cooperate in a sense. By way of analogy, the windmill must cooperate with the wind in order to turn, but the wind is nevertheless the only party making turning happen. It’s passive cooperation.

        Humans aren’t passive in the same way that a windmill is because we’re not the same kind of being. We have wills, intellects, and so forth that are always active. But we decide to do good *because* God is sanctifying our wills. We learn to do good *because* God is sanctifying our minds, etc. We are active in the sense that we are participating with our entire being, but we are passive in the sense that God is the one acting on our entire being and setting it apart from sin. It’s a cooperation without synergism.

        I did finally have a chance to read the Touchstone article. It was… difficult for me to read because the author uses a lot of terminology that originates from Lutheran theology, but seldom uses it in the Lutheran sense. Sometimes I think it’s just that he’s critiquing Reformed misappropriations of those terms. Other times, I’m not sure where he’s getting it. For example, I’ve never encountered anyone in any branch of Protestantism who thought “faith alone without works” also excluded Christ’s works.

        But as to his arguments: I appreciate that he wants the sacraments to be central to Christian life and salvation–they are and ought to be. The Sacramentarians had a terrible effect on the Reformation. But I think he ends up conflating the substance of salvation (which is the unity with Christ by his taking on of human nature and so forth that he talks about) with our categories of God’s actions in subjective salvation (justification and sanctification). There’s no contradiction there in Luther’s thought as he alleges because those are two distinct aspects of salvation. The result is pretty messy.

        And it does end up being an anti-Lutheran view by the end. As a rule, 99% of people who have ever said “historical figure X was completely misunderstood by both his closest followers and his contemporaries, but people living hundreds of years later figured out what he really mean” have been completely wrong. This is no exception.

        I could point out various errors (e.g. simul justus et peccator refers to having both a perfect and a sinful nature, so Jesus was by no means simul justus et peccator as he contends; James was very clearly writing about justification before men rather than before God; faith is not a work per se, but rather certainty and assurance as Hebrews defines it; etc). But in the end, he’s committing the same errors as Rome by trying to make our natural participation in the Christian life a contribution to our salvation rather than a consequence thereof. And I don’t mean a chronological consequence (he’s generally correct to cast some aspersion on some of the more rigid flowcharts different protestants have come up with in that respect), but an ontological consequence.

        The view he presents isn’t something that would reform the Reformation but overturn it (which is how ecumenicism usually works.)

        • B. Gordon says:

          Interesting. He doesn’t endorse or believe Rome’s (or Orthodoxy’s) claims so his reformed reformation wouldn’t be “become Catholic.” I think you’re right nevertheless that it would overturn the heart of the reformation, it’s soteriology, etc. I guess you’d have a new type of church, soteriogically Catholic/Orthodox while remaining outside those communions. By coincidence, my background is Anglican Catholic so the thinking fit well for me.

          I am interested in the actual though process of a Lutheran believer, particularly in a time of so little faith. Of lukewarm faith. Does the average Lutheran believer fall in and out of justification/salvation if/when they doubt, if/when they sin gravely? It seems the Lutheran thinking is distinct from the generic American evangelical thinking but, to my embarrassment after so many years, I’m still not sure I understand it.

        • B. Gordon says:

          Also I forgot to thank you for your time. And I hope my comments don’t come off as trolling which isn’t my intent.

        • B. Gordon says:

          Lutherans distinguish justification and sanctification, right? Do Lutherans see justification as a one time occurrence and then sanctification (through faith) is cultivated by Word and Sacrament?

        • Matt says:

          I am going to take your questions out-of-order, but hopefully I cover them all.

          Do Lutherans distinguish justification / sanctification? Yes. Justification is our being declared righteous before God–essentially the binary question of whether we are saved or not. Sanctification is God’s transformative work on a justified person–which is simultaneously accomplished and ongoing depending on whether you’re looking from a temporal or eternal perspective.

          Is sanctification cultivated by Word and Sacrament? Yes; Word and Sacrament are the means by which God works both justification and sanctification in a person.

          Is justification a one-time occurrence? Depends on exactly how you mean that. We distinguish between “objective justification” and “subjective justification.” Objective justification is what Christ accomplished on the Cross–atoning for the sins of the entire world. That is a one-time for all occurrence. It is finished.

          Subjective justification is an individual receiving the benefit of Christ’s work by faith. This is “one-time” in the sense that it’s binary & instantaneous–you’re either justified or not. However, a person can conceivably fall in and out of faith multiple times during their lifetime. So it’s not necessarily a singular occurrence. “Status” is probably a better category than occurrence.

          How does that falling into/out-of faith happen? It can happen by mortal sin–by which Lutherans mean any grave sin that is fundamentally incompatible with faith and drives it out (e.g. think David & Uriah/Bathsheba; he knew damn well what he was doing, which is why Nathan had to come to rebuke and restore him.) It can also happen by starving yourself of Word and Sacrament (basically, you slowly treat Christ and His work as nothing and so they eventually become nothing to you.)

          It can happen by doubt in the sense that one can deliberately reject the Faith (“Jesus was just a man,” “he never existed,” “He didn’t die for me” etc.) But it doesn’t happen by doubt in the sense of feelings of uncertainty (e.g. “how could a good God let my child die?”), ignorance with respect to some detail of the faith (e.g. “I don’t understand how this all works”), and so forth except insofar as one steadfastly follows those kinds of doubts into deliberately rejecting the faith. (for more on this subject, see

          Does falling away/returning happen to the “average” Lutheran believer? I don’t think so, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s uncommon. I lapsed for about 8 years during high school and college without ever explicitly rejecting Christianity. Did I truly lose saving faith during that time? I’m honestly not sure, though I’m sure I would have eventually had God not called me to repentance and returned me to church. This may sound odd, but whether I did or not doesn’t really matter to me. My faith is in Christ–I don’t need faith in my faith. One way or another, I’m trusting Him to bring me through.

          So what is the thought process of a Lutheran in a time of little/lukewarm faith? It basically comes down to this: A) If you’re weighed down by any manner of sin or doubt, then hear the Gospel–know that Christ died for you and has forgiven you; receive that forgiveness in the Sacraments and in confession/absolution from your pastor. B) If you’re complacent for any reason and think none of it matters, then hear the Law–know the debt you’ve incurred, the sin you’re perpetually unable to avoid, and your inability to deal with these things on your own. Then when the Law does what it’s supposed to, go to A.

          The Church’s role, of course, is to faithfully and continually provide all of that (law, gospel, word, sacrament, etc.) to her people. Whenever she’s doing that well, it’s not going to be a time of lukewarm faith. Today’s circumstances, of course, suggest that many of us are *not* doing that well.

          I think I got everything you mentioned there, but feel free to ask more if I missed anything (or if I just confused the matter.) You are quite welcome to my time, so don’t worry about trolling; I can tell your questions are honest.

        • B. Gordon says:

          Matt thank you for the lengthy response which I read right after you posted it. I have been mediating on it but will give you a breather before I ask more questions. I just wanted you to know that your time wasn’t wasted and I have read your lengthy and thoughtful response a couple of times.

        • B. Gordon says:

          “However, a person can conceivably fall in and out of faith multiple times during their lifetime.”
          “It can happen by mortal sin ….. It can also happen by starving yourself of Word and Sacrament”

          At the theological level, certainly at the Ecclesial level there are great differences with Catholicism. But at the level of day-to-day experience and practice of the believer, there seem to be fewer than I thought.

          For example, one’s status can change with mortal sin (yes I know the precise definition of that might be different) and through a general failure to practice the faith (Word and Sacrament in the case of Lutheranism). It seems the main difference is the requirement in Catholicism for sacramental confession and absolution with an ordained priest in order to restore salvific grace.

          That’s not to minimize the many differences. I just mean the day-to-day practice as the common layman, with limited grasp of formal theology, understands it.

          “Does falling away/returning happen to the “average” Lutheran believer? I don’t think so, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s uncommon.”

          You would think that the falling away would happen every time one sins gravely with knowledge. We’re so mired in temptation (to doubt, to sin, etc.) in our society – it’s hard to believe the average, sincerely trying Christian doesn’t go through this quite a bit.

          I could see being a Lutheran before being a Calvinist. The Lutheran way of thinking doesn’t seem nearly as alien to me.

          Very high Church “Anglo-papist” Anglican background for what it’s worth.

        • B. Gordon says:

          One question I always wonder is how does one know if one’s faith is enough for justification? Justification itself may be binary but is faith? All or none? Yes, there are genuine-phonies probably in every church (treating church like a social club) but so many people, born-into-the-faith and converts have mixed motivations. For example, some of us find Christian culture appealing and come to it that way. We’re not always broken by the sin of severe things like drug addiction with these dramatic conversion stories.

          I try to imagine how one would know. I suppose if one is praying and talking to God in private then the faith and repentance must be sincere since one is not displaying for others – only God knows.

          Hard questions.

          There’s the question of grave sin. I mean, someone said that sin is enacted unbelief. I think they mean willful sin with knowledge.

          This is where Catholicism appeals to me in that salvific grace of the sacraments seems to have a more “objective” understanding. Maybe not the right word but that grace isn’t dependent on my subjective experience of faith (that’s in my head and heart) but rather on the Church and it’s sacraments. Of course, in a sense that means dependence on men and that has its own problems.

          Sorry for the semi-rambling noodlings.

          I have lacked strong denominational convictions for quite a long time.

        • Matt says:

          There’s definitely some truth to the day-to-day similarities with Rome. The Lutherans were traditionalists. Unlike other factions in the Reformation, they sought to keep as much as possible–just corrected in light of the Gospel. So we have the Sacraments and confession/absolution and so forth. We just have a Gospel orientation to them (i.e. come receive the free gift of forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation in these various ways) rather than a Law orientation (i.e. do these things according to the proper rubric or else you won’t merit salvation.)

          I also wanted to add that mortal sin is more than just grave sin with knowledge. There are besetting sins (addictions, for example) that people fall into with knowledge through weakness all the time. Mortal sin is more about steadfastly refusing to struggle against sin and deliberately embracing it as truly good. When a person does that, they inevitably keep the God who they know tells them otherwise at a distance. Sometimes it’s possible for that to happen all at once with grave sins; sometimes it can happen slowly through “lesser” sins. But it’s always about whether it kills faith in any given instance.

          So our version of mortal sin is extremely subjective. Which is why if you wonder whether you’re forgiven for any particular sin, you always always always look to the cross and Christ’s promises (including the Sacraments) for your answer. If you look at yourself, the evidence is always going to be a mixed bag because we’re all still sinners. But Christ died for willful, knowledgeable, and grave sins as well. It’s just that rendering yourself unable to look to Him and what He’s done for you is a big freakin’ problem.

          So how do we know if one’s faith is enough for justification? I’d say the question itself is flawed. Faith can be stronger or weaker, yes (we see that all the time in Scripture.) It’s also true that stronger is better than weaker in some respects (we see that too). But Jesus also tells us that size doesn’t really matter in other respects–even faith the size of a mustard seed can accomplish the impossible.

          Justification is an example of the latter. It’s not the quantity of faith that matters, but the object faith. One who trusts in Christ is justified no matter how well or poorly or completely he is trusting. Now, that kind of faith inevitably has consequences in life (i.e. sanctification), but there’s also no flowchart or timeline for those consequences by which we ought to be judging salvation.

          So again, if one wonder’s whether their faith is enough, the last thing they should be doing is looking at themselves. It’s about the object–about Christ. You look there, and the answer is always “yes” because looking to Christ *is* saving faith.

          And that does include looking to the Sacraments because Baptism, the Eucharist, and Confession/Absolution are literally Christ’s promises of salvation. Christ said that whoever believes and is baptized shall be saved–so remember your baptism! Christ said that this is his body and blood given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins–so partake of it! Christ said that if you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven–so go to your pastor, confess your sins, and hear Christ’s forgiveness from him!

          So the Lutheran perspective still has an objective understanding of the grace of the sacraments. Again, it just has that Gospel-orientation to it that’s not always there in Rome.

          And the Sacraments are why I would also rank Calvinism pretty low on the denominational totem pole. I don’t need symbolic rituals–I need Christ’s promises attached to powerful and effective rites he specifically gave us.

          If you don’t mind, I do have a question for you as well: What exactly do you mean by “Anglican Catholic”? I’ve described myself as “Lutheran Catholic” from time-to-time, but I know it’s not a phrase most people would use, and it’s not something most people that call themselves Catholic would recognize as legitimate. So I’m curious how you would define an anglo-papist background.

        • B. Gordon says:

          We converted through a continuing Anglican church, specifically the Anglican Church in America/Traditional Anglican Communion. Basically groups of traditional, high church Anglicans that split from ECUSA in the 60s and 70s over women’s ordination and other progressive novelties. Anglican Catholic is the high church wing of Anglicanism and gained a lot of traction in the 19th century (e.g. John Henry Newman who ultimately converted).

          Our bishop, who sat in another city, converted to the Catholic Church through the personal ordinariate. Our parish chose not to go down that path. So we’ve been on quite a journey for some time even spending some time in a sedevacantist Catholic church.

          I’ve heard the term Anglo Papist much less often than Anglican Catholic but basically some Anglicans recognize the Pope as the legitimate Patriarch of the West, just not the Vicar of Christ.

  4. B. Gordon says:

    Certainly the NT warnings to real, converted Christians about the consequences (which seem eternal) of falling back into sin had a great effect on my views. I don’t think Lutherans are “once saved always saved” I assume the view is saving faith must be nurtured by the grace of word and sacrament which are works of God not works of man. Fruits of saving faith then follow.

    With Catholics there’s less separation of faith and works of faith, that is faith is less abstracted. There are still sacraments and it seems there is more theological room for cooperation with grace.

    BTW the Touchstone author is Protestant not Catholic or Orthodox and criticizes priestcraft so it’s not pro Papist propaganda.

  5. B. Gordon says:

    I would never accept temporary hell as a personal dogma assuming my church left it open. I would remain open to “forever” – the faith is not MINE to define.

    Either way, a long time sounds most unpleasant and shouldn’t provide comfort and excuses for sinners.

    And anyway it seems the best way to love God is with perfect contrition not saving my own neck from consequences.

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