Christian Truth-Claims: Distinguishing Mystery from Contradiction
By Kenneth R. Samples
As a philosopher trained in logic there is one feature of historic Christianity that leaves me intellectually discontented. That area of perplexity 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 painful intellectual limitations afford me an opportunity to distinguish between the concepts of a logical contradiction and a theological mystery. Later I’ll reveal the practical knowledge I have gained since coming to terms with the challenging dilemma that God defies complete human comprehension.
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:
- Kenneth Samples is a human being.
- Kenneth Samples 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.1 Contradictions are always false by their very nature. In other words, contradictions equal nonsense.
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A theological mystery, on the other hand, is something very different. A mystery in Christian theology refers to something that is true but the limited human mind cannot 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 Christian theology, they also reflect orthodox Christian truth.2 Yet, while faithful 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 in union with the one person (namely Jesus Christ) can be understood in a way that avoids contradiction (e.g., without mixing or negating the natures).
Historic Christian theology holds that these two statements constitute a divine mystery…
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