Paradox in Christian Theology (1)

paradox.jpgAnderson, James.

Paradox in Christian Theology: An Analysis of Its Presence, Character, and Epistemic Status

Milton Keynes: Paternoster, 2007. Pp. xv + 328. Paper. $33.99.




With thanks to James Spinti at Eisenbrauns for this review copy!

My interest in this book lies mainly in its treatment of the doctrine of Trinity so I don’t plan on doing a full book review, but rather I’ll offer various (even if random) thoughts on the relevant portions in a series of posts as I work through it.

I want to begin by commenting on an editorial oversight that I found amusing because it has an ironic connection to the organization I received this book from. On the abbreviations page [p. xv] it lists “ANF” as the abbreviation for “Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson (eds), The Ante-Nicene Fathers (10 vols; Edinburgh, 1867).” This of course is the standard abbreviation for that set, but when it came time to put it to use, the footnotes read “ANE” instead of “ANF” [p. 15, n. 11, 12]. As most people know, “ANE” is the standard abbreviation for “Ancient Near East” which happens to be the type of literature that Eisenbrauns specializes in. I chuckled to myself thinking it was an Eisenbraunsian conspiracy to get readers more interested in the ANE than the ANF.

Anyway, on to my thoughts… Last year I had written a post in response to a Unitarian’s definition and attempted refutation of the doctrine of the Trinity.  In his assessment he described the doctrine of the Trinity as a paradox and I objected with a quote from the Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics.  It was Jeff Downs’ comment on this post that first brought my attention to Anderson’s work.  My response to Jeff was:

After having read the abstract I’m interested to see how Anderson defines ‘paradox’ — From my reading of this unitarian article (and Geisler as well) it appears as if it is being used as synonymous with ‘contradiction’. I do however realize that it can be defined as something that appears contradictory but is nevertheless true (to this I would have no objection).

Now having the book in my hands I can say that I have no objection to the way in which Anderson defines paradox.  He defines it as something that is an apparent contradiction but not necessarily an actual contradiction. In his own words a paradox, “amounts to a set of claims which taken in conjunction appear to be logically inconsistent.” [p. 5-6]  Anderson’s thesis is that Christians may be justified in believing in some paradoxical doctrines, and that the doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation are two such doctrines.

He asserts that this actually accounts for the early controversies over the Christian doctrine of God. In his view (à la J. N. D. Kelly & Philip Schaff), the Modalists and Arians were guilty of trying to make too much sense of God in their doctrinal formulations.  He says:

In short, the overriding concern of the Fathers was not so much to develop a scrupulously coherent theology (that was arguably the principle motivation of their opponents) but to be faithful to Scripture and tradition. [p. 18]

In his survey of the early trinitarian controversies Anderson made a common error in claiming that Arius believed the Logos to be a creature “having a beginning in time.” [p. 16] Jarislov Pelikan (whom Anderson uses as a secondary source) rightly noted:

[T]he creaturely status of the Logos (and of the Son of God) was a cardinal doctrine. . . . In the ontological distinction between Creator and creature, the Logos definitely belonged on the side of the creature–yet with an important qualification. Other creatures of God had their beginning within time, but the Logos began “before times.” . . . According to Proverbs and according to the Arian exegesis of it, the Logos had been established “before the age”. . .1

Why is such a seemingly insignificant error worth noting? Because Arian thought was not as seemingly rational as one might think from Anderson’s description. It could be argued that to “begin” or “be established” or be “created” (even if in a sense different than all other creation) necessitates time.  But if Arius and the Arians believed the Logos to have had a “beginning” before time or before the ages then is not paradoxicality inherent in their belief as well?

To be continued…


1 Jarislov Pelikan. The Christian Tradition, Vol. 1: The Emergence of Catholic Tradition (100-600), (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1971), 196. Cf. R. P. C. Hanson’s The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God: The Arian Controversy, 318-381, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2006), 6-8; Rowan Williams’ Arius: Heresy and Tradition, 2nd ed., (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002), 96ff.; Lewis Ayres’ Nicaea and Its Legacy: An Approach to Fourth Century Trinitarian Theology, (Oxford: Oxford University, 2006), 54-55; and Franz Dünzel’s A Brief History of the Doctrine of the Trinity in the Early Church, Trans. John Bowden, (New York: T&T Clark, 2007), 43-44.


6 thoughts on “Paradox in Christian Theology (1)

  1. It sounds as if someone has not understood what Arianism was about, Christ was before Creation as presented by Athanasius. this would mean that he was created outside of time, you would have expected someone who examined Arianism would have been aware of this fact. However Nick how much philosophical work on paradox is presented in this work is Kierkegaard mentioned at all.

  2. Another thought does the author relate in Early Christian controversies the influence of Neoplatonism or Plato whose influence has been suggested upon Arianism as God being essentially separate from Creation. Arianism being an attempt to preserve God from change if Christ was homousios with God

  3. Andrew: I agree that Anderson seems to have missed the boat on Arianism and there’s really no excuse for it given the sources he cites (i.e., Lonergan; Kelly; Pelikan; Prestige). I’m only into the first chapter so I’m not sure how much philosophical work on paradox is presented in the book, but I’d venture to guess quite a bit. Anderson’s PhD is in philosophical theology and it is a book about paradox in Christian theology, so I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt. And yes, Kierkegaard is mentioned, but only in passing (i.e., to say that Kierkegaard famously believed that the incarnation was the absolute paradox of the Christian faitih, p. 3 cf. 61; 311).

    As per your second question, yes, Anderson does relate the controversies to neo-Platonism saying:

    For it has long been recognised that the numerical identity view of the homoousion relation between the Father and the Son leads to logical perplexities that do not trouble the generic identity view. Given the predominantly neo-Platonist philosophical atmosphere in which these early doctrinal debates were played out, to say merely that the Father and the Son share the same divine ‘form’ or ‘genus’ would invite no charge of incoherence. Indeed, had it been consistent with biblical monotheism, this solution would have sufficed to remove the sharpest teeth from the Arian argument (hence the fact it was not unambiguously advocated by the Nicene theologians is instructive). [p. 20]

  4. Hi Nick,

    Thanks for the thoughtful commentary on my book. Can I make a few remarks in response?

    You wrote: “Anderson’s thesis that the doctrine of the Trinity is paradoxical but that Christians are justified in believing in paradoxes.”

    To be more precise, I argue that Christians can be justified in believing some paradoxical doctrines, including the doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation. I don’t claim (and it isn’t an implication of my position) that Christians are justified in believing just any old paradox, as you’ll discover from chapters 6 and 7. (I’m sure you didn’t mean to imply otherwise, but I just want your readers to be clear on that.)

    Now, to the Arianism issue. You may well be right that I’ve made a “common error”. Patristics aren’t my strong suit by any stretch of the imagination and this was one of the least fun chapters of the book to write. :)

    Still, in my defence, I find the Arian position on the timelessness or otherwise of the creation of the Logos to be less than coherent. Arius certainly claimed that the Son had a beginning (Kelly, 228). But it’s extremely difficult to make sense of a ‘timeless beginning’. What kind of beginning was it, if not a beginning in time? The very concept of ‘beginning’ implies a first moment of existence in time, does it not? (If I read your last paragraph correctly, you agree on this point.)

    No doubt that’s why, when the Arians claimed “there was a then when he did not exist” but denied “there was a time when he did not exist”, the distinction was “dismissed as sophistry” by their opponents (Pelikan, 196).

    In that light, maybe this philosophical theologian could be forgiven for the slip of writing “having a beginning in time” rather than just “having a beginning”!

    Now, perhaps you will say, “Aha! So you concede that those Arians weren’t too rational after all!” But I don’t claim that the Arians were completely consistent in their theology. (Who is?) I only make the weaker claim that the Arians were rationalistic at the point where the Fathers were not, viz., on the question of whether the Son could possess the same divine nature as the Father.

    In any case, lof far greater importance is the fact that my argument in that section doesn’t at all depend on whether or not the Arians took the Son to have a beginning in time. Unless I’m missing something, that historical detail has no logical bearing on the argument I develop on pp. 16-18, which focuses on what the Arians deduced from monotheism conjoined with the Son’s distinctness from the Father. If I’m mistaken about this, I’d be grateful for correction!

  5. BTW, you’re the first to bring the ANF/ANE typo to my attention, and now that I see it I’m hugely embarrassed about it. :)

  6. James: Thanks for weighing in. I’ll change the post to reflect your comment concerning your thesis. I certainly don’t mean to give the wrong impression.

    As per Arianism and its incoherency, we’re in agreement. I was simply making the comment in response to Arians being “rationalistic” (à la Schaff & Kelly). I don’t deny that they were trying to make sense of God, but I see their formulation as paradoxical (in the sense of actual contradiction). In other words, they weren’t any less guilty of holding to paradox than the pro-Nicene party, although the pro-Nicene doctrine was only (as you argue) apparently contradictory.

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