Paul Helm reviews "Paradox in Christian Theology"

Here is a review from Professor Paul Helm of James Anderson's great book Paradox in Christian Theology (borrowed from his blog).

Some ships, decked in bunting, set sail with a great fanfare and to the sounds of a brass band. Others, carrying an equally valuable cargo, weigh anchor and make for the open sea unnoticed. James Anderson’s book, Paradox in Christian Theology, (Milton Keynes, Paternoster, 2007) has slipped out almost unnoticed. There has certainly been no fanfare, and though it has received several favourable reviews as far as I can tell it has not yet been much appreciated by that sector of the Christian public likely to enjoy and benefit from it.

This is a pity. For what Anderson has written is a book of great importance to those concerned both with the relation of Christian theology to reason, and with the question of the reasonableness of Christian belief. In the first half of the book he raises questions about doctrinal coherence, and in the second half he raises how deep our understanding of the mysteries of the faith can hope to be, and whether it is reasonable to believe what we cannot understand. Anderson has admirable contributions to each of these areas. His treatments of the questions are thorough and clear, with a good theological grasp and a philosophical mind. A rare combination. He writes clearly and carefully, with no inclination to fudge or equivocate over the central questions that he raises. He and shows a good knowledge of the primary and secondary sources. His treatment also raises further questions for discussion. My aim here is simply to note some of its main features in the hope that it will whet some appetites. Though it is written from an avowed Reformed perspective, (Anderson is Assistant Professor of Theology and Philosophy, R. T. S., Charlotte, North Carolina), the theses of the book are intended by the author for wider consumption, so this is not by no means a mere ‘in house’ Reformed production.

Anderson is chiefly concerned with what are usually called the mysteries of our faith, with what he calls paradoxes. He understands paradoxes to be sets of statements that are apparently contradictory. (The way that the author ties 'mystery' to the test of logic, and does not treat it as a hold-all for any theological difficulty, is excellent). Take for example the dogma of the Holy Trinity. This states, inter alia, that the one God exists in three persons each of whom is wholly divine. The fact that the church denotes this state of affairs as one substance (or essence) in three persons (or hypostates) prevents the doctrine from falling to the immediate self-contradiction that ‘God is one person in three persons’ would entail. God is one substance (or essence) in three persons. But that is not the end of the matter. For each of these persons is God, fully God, not divine in some watered-down sense: the Father is fully, wholly, God; and the Son, and the Spirit. And yet the Son is not the Father nor the Spirit, and so on. The three persons are wholly God, but distinct, having distinct properties. The Son could not be the Father, nor the Father the Spirit, and so on. So each of the Father, the Son and the Spirit is one and the same God, yet each person has distinct properties. This flouts the principle that if X is identical with Y then necessarily whatever is true of X is true of Y. Not in the case of the Trinity, or so it seems. An apparent self-contradiction.

Anderson clearly expounds this paradox, as well as that arising from the Incarnation, though these are not the only paradoxes, of course. He surveys the chief attempts that have been made in the history of dogmatic discussion to soften or eliminate the appearance of incoherence. In the case of the Trinity one move is to argue that ‘being fully divine’ operates rather like ‘being fully human’. Tom, Dick and Harry are three individuals, each fully human. They are distinct individuals, but share this common nature, human nature. But the consequence of this is tri-theism, or at least of a godhead of three individuals having a common divine nature, none of them being numerically identical with the one divine essence. In the case of the incarnation, the thesis of kenoticism typically argues that in becoming human the Son divests himself of some divine properties, making him less than fully divine, and so not truly divine.

It is in this sense that Anderson demonstrates that essential Christian doctrines, the doctrines formulated in the great Creeds of the Church and taken over largely unmodified by the magisterial Reformers, are paradoxical. The cost of strategies that are designed to remove or lessen the paradoxical element outweigh the benefits. The appearance of self-contradiction resists the best efforts of the most insightful believer, but actual inconsistency has not been demonstrated either. To suppose that there was actual and demonstrable inconsistency at the doctrinal centre of the Christian Faith would be to suppose the logical incoherence of the Faith; in fact to suppose that the Faith was no Faith.

That’s the problem, an abiding problem, the paradoxes at the centre of the Faith. Anderson then turns his attention to the question of whether it is rational to adhere to a faith which has paradoxes at its heart. So the author's question is: does belief in the mysteries of the faith, or beliefs which entail such mysteries, have warrant for the believer? ‘Warrant’ signifies reliance upon the epistemology of Alvin Plantinga (Warranted Christian Belief, NY, Oxford University Press, 2000, and elsewhere). As befits his project, this part of the book is written in a more purely philosophical style which makes some assumptions about the reader’s knowledge of modern epistemology, for example, modern attempts to analyse the concept of knowledge. The reader without such a background will need to exercise some patience at this point, but patience will be rewarded. The chapters are a good summary introduction to the work of Plantinga, and to what he has to say about basic theistic belief, and more especially about the operation of the Spirit upon the testimonial evidence of Scripture in properly forming convictions about ‘the great things of the Gospel’, as Plantinga himself puts it.

Anderson in effect is extending Plantinga's argument to belief in creedal formula which rest purely on a foundation of Scriptural testimony. The argument (roughly) is : If belief in the great things of the Gospel is warranted by the testimony of Scripture, as Plantinga plausibly argues, then doctrines adequately based on that testimony are also belief-worthy, even though they contain paradoxical elements. Anderson’s distinctively Reformed conviction about the necessity and sufficiency of Scripture become evident here. So he links his idea of paradox to biblical testimony regarding divine incomprehensibility. It is because God’s nature and his ways are past finding out that our present understanding of the divine nature contains paradoxical elements. But these are due, Anderson in effect argues, to the present limitations of our cognitive apparatus (and not, for example, to our creatureliness.) In defending his position Anderson has interesting things to say about the relation of doctrine to Scripture, logic as a hermeneutical tool, and much else.

Some further questions may be raised about the central claim of the book. Is Anderson’s argument not in effect an endorsement of implicit faith? For he is defending the view that it is reasonable to believe what we may not understand, which is another way of saying we may believe a statement whose meaning is known to be unclear. And does holding that there are paradoxes (in Anderson’s sense) at the heart of the Faith not inhibit the pursuit of that greater understanding that is characteristic of the great tradition of Faith Seeking Understanding from Augustine onwards? For what is the point of seeking further understanding of matters which we know are, under present circumstances, beyond our comprehension? The answer presumably is: we may seek and gain more understanding while still falling short of a full understanding.

There is much to learn and to ponder from Anderson’s book.


David Reimer said…
Helm concludes with: "There is much to learn and to ponder from Anderson’s book."

And there is much to learn and ponder from his blog, too.


(And if you're interested in "signs", Blogger is giving me the letters "w-o-r-t-h" to use as "word verification" for this comment submission!)
Robin Parry said…

thanks for the blog link and the weird word verification - is it a sign?)

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