The Difference between Mystery and Contradiction in Theology

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The God of the Bible is infinite and eternal while human beings are finite and temporal. That means humans can never fully comprehend or exhaustively understand God.1 Yet those profound limitations do not mean human beings can’t know God or enjoy a personal relationship with him. Also, because many, if not all, of the things Christians believe about God involve mystery, it does not mean those beliefs involve logical contradiction.

Because people, especially skeptics, often equate mystery with contradiction, let’s define logical contradiction and then show how mystery differs from it in the context of Christian theology.

Differentiating Contradiction from Mystery

The idea of a logical contradiction refers to two statements that negate or deny one another (A cannot equal A and 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 deny or negate one another. In other words, if one of the statements is true, then the opposite statement is necessarily false. In logic, we say that they have opposite truth value. Thus, logical contradictions are always false by their very nature.

A theological mystery, on the other hand, is something very different. A mystery in Christian theology refers to something that is believed to be true on the basis of biblical revelation but the limited human mind cannot fully comprehend it. The idea is meaningful and to some degree understandable, but ultimately incomprehensible. Here’s an example of a 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 both reflect orthodox Christian truth.2 Yet while orthodox Christians believe both statements are true, no one knows exactly how they are true. Finite creatures cannot comprehend how a single person can have two distinct natures (one divine and one human). But the two statements do not reflect a formal contradiction because they do not negate or deny one another (the two natures neither negate nor mingle).

So historic Christian theology insists that these two statements are not a logical contradiction, but instead a divine mystery. They are truths that do no damage to reason but they do defy full human comprehension.

Thus all logical contradictions are mysterious, but not all mysteries are contradictions. Also, contradictions are necessarily false, but mysteries can be true though not fully comprehended.

Furthermore, virtually everything that the God of the Bible has revealed about himself to human beings involves mystery. This mystery is necessarily so because God is an infinite and eternal being while humans are finite and temporal beings. A partial list of essential Christian theological beliefs that involve mystery includes the Trinity, the incarnation, the atonement, creation, providence, regeneration, election, predestination, God’s attributes, and the image of God in humankind.

God being mysterious and incomprehensible doesn’t mean the idea of God is logically contradictory. Christian thinkers through the centuries have respected both logic and mystery when doing theology. We would do well to understand the differences while employing a measure of humility and grace as we seek to explain Christian beliefs to non-Christians.

Reflections: Your Turn 

What positive and negative things come from God’s being mysterious?

Endnotes

  1. Christian theology typically divides God’s attributes into two categories: incommunicable (either qualities not shared with human beings or harder to detect in humanity) and communicable (qualities shared with human beings). God’s infinite and eternal qualities would fall under the incommunicable category. For an exploration of God’s attributes, see chapter 8 of my book, A World of Difference: Putting Christian Truth-Claims to the Worldview Test.
  2. For a discussion of how Jesus Christ can have both a divine nature and a human nature, see chapter 9 of my book, Without a Doubt: Answering the 20 Toughest Faith Questions.

  One thought on “The Difference between Mystery and Contradiction in Theology

    • December 19, 2018 at 8:33 am

      Thanks for the link.

      Ken Samples

  1. December 24, 2018 at 9:56 am

    Hey I liked your post. But I do have a question, how do you determine if something that is beyond our underatanding, is just mysterieus, Or if it is a controdiction? What prevents someone from saying that their thought does not contradict Its self. its just mysterious?

    • December 24, 2018 at 10:04 am

      Christian doctrine (Trinity, Incarnation, etc.) has been presented publicly (creeds, confessions) and therefore can be evaluated for its logical coherence.

      Ken Samples

      • December 24, 2018 at 10:14 am

        I think I understand what you are saying. I guess I can make my question a little more specific. Are there any criteria that can help to determine. if something that is beyond our understanding, is a mystorie, or if it is a contradiction?

      • December 24, 2018 at 10:24 am

        If the idea or belief actually violates the Law of Non-Contradiction (A cannot equal A and equal Non-A) then it is a contradiction. But Christian truth claims have been articulated with an awareness of respecting logic yet preserving mystery. So with the Trinity, God’s oneness is in a different respect than God’s personhood so the two aspects do not negate one another.

        Ken Samples

  2. December 24, 2018 at 11:38 am

    Ok I got it, thanks for answering!

    • December 24, 2018 at 12:07 pm

      Merry Christmas, Dave.

      • December 24, 2018 at 1:09 pm

        Merry Christmas to u to

    • December 24, 2018 at 6:17 pm

      Thanks for the link.

      Ken Samples

  3. December 27, 2018 at 9:25 am

    A positive thing about God being mysterious is that a believer doesn’t have to understand something before believing it or acting on it. I guess a negative can be when someone says, “Oh, that’s a mystery and God doesn’t intend us to understand it.” This can be used as a reason for sitting on the fence about some beliefs.

    • December 27, 2018 at 9:37 am

      Thanks for your comments, Mark.

      Ken Samples

  4. January 1, 2019 at 6:14 am

    Excellent points.

    • January 1, 2019 at 8:12 am

      Thanks, J-M.

      Ken Samples

  5. Don Evatt
    February 11, 2019 at 4:13 pm

    I would like an opinion about whether another example from nature is appropriate in the discussion. I know that other simplistic analogies about the Trinity, such as four leaf clovers, are deficient and an example of modalism. But I have thought that based upon modern physics, elementary particles such as electrons both exhibit characteristics of particles (e.g., mass) and wave-like properties in quantum physics. They are both equally true at the same time. In essence they are both fully particles and fully waves so to speak. Or this just another example of well-intended moralism in your view? It may be that there will never be a perfect analogy since it is a mystery.

    • February 11, 2019 at 4:54 pm

      Hello, Don.

      Thanks for your comments. Your reference to quantum mechanic’s wave-particle duality is interesting.

      I’m no expert on quantum mechanics but I think light appears as both wave and particle but under different experimental conditions.

      Some theologians are reluctant to appeal to any analogy regarding the Trinity because of God’s uniqueness. But I agree with Augustine that some analogies can be helpful because humans are made in God’s image.

      A triangle reflects oneness and threeness simultaneously. The universe represents oneness (uni) and diversity (verse) at the same time.

      Appreciate your comments.

      Ken Samples

  6. March 1, 2019 at 5:09 pm

    I am not sure I agree with the statement, “all logical contradictions are mysterious”; I think, rather, that all logical contradictions are incoherent, whereas genuine mysteries are coherent but not fully comprehensible. I may be splitting hairs, but calling contradictions “mysterious” seems to lend some undeserved credibility, at least at first blush.

    Blessings, Ken.

    • March 20, 2019 at 12:51 pm

      Lawrence:

      The point of the article is that people often confuse mystery and contradiction. I think the reason is that both involve a type of mysteriousness (a seeming inability to understand). Yet true mystery does no damage to reason.

      Ken Samples

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