Reasons to Believe

Christian Truth-Claims: Distinguishing Mystery from Contradiction

Is it acceptable for a Christian apologist to admit an aspect of Christianity leaves them uncomfortably perplexed?

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.

Logical Contradiction

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.

Theological Mystery

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. Thus the teaching of the Incarnation (Jesus Christ as God in human flesh) is a truth that conveys a meaningful reality but ultimately defies complete human comprehension.

All logical contradictions are mysterious nonsense, but not all mysteries are contradictions.3 Also, contradictions are necessarily false while mysteries are true but cannot be fully fathomed. Christian theology is not alone in positing claims as true but unfathomable. For example, the scientific phenomenon of quantum mechanics, among other realities in the universe, is real and true but nevertheless lies beyond full human comprehension.

Furthermore, virtually everything that the God of the Bible has revealed about himself to human beings involves mystery. Such is the case because God is an infinite and eternal being while humans are finite and temporal beings. Here is a partial list of essential Christian theological beliefs entailing mystery: God’s attributes (such as his self-existence, immutability, and infinity), the Trinity, the Incarnation, creation, providence, the image of God in man, the Atonement, regeneration, election, and predestination. Whether we like it or not, all of God’s dealings with humankind involve some mystery.

Coming to Grips with Uncomfortable Complexity

Here are four points that have helped me wrestle with the fact that God eludes my total comprehension:

1. God’s perfections make me cognizant of my need for humility.

2. Human limitations remind me that I need to pay careful attention to all that God has revealed (in both general and special revelation—God’s world and Word).

3. Being specially made in the image of God means that I know enough to appreciate God’s boundless perfections (e.g., divine infinity and eternality) and my inherent limitations (e.g., human finitude and temporality).

4. Knowing that God exceeds human comprehension means I will never be dissatisfied in him.

In fact, our quest is a rewarding one. We can know and experience the true and living God relationally as he has made himself known—and still appreciate the truth that God, as an infinite being, defies total human comprehension. Now that’s a mystery I can live with.

Subjects: Bible Difficulties, General Apologetics

Kenneth R. Samples

I believe deeply that “all truth is God’s truth.” As an RTB scholar I have a great passion to help people understand and see the truth and relevance of Christianity’s truth-claims. Read more about Kenneth Samples.

1. For more on the laws of logic, see Kenneth Richard Samples, A World of Difference (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2007), 42–46.

2. For more on the historic Christian doctrine of the Incarnation, see Kenneth Richard Samples, “How Can Jesus Christ Be Both God and Man?” chap. 9 in Without a Doubt (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2004).

3. R. C. Sproul, Chosen By God (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale, 1994), 30–34.