Non-Contradictions

You may have come across the “law of non-contradiction” in your religious readings. It appears frequently in apologetic writings that seek to defend certain religious doctrines. It is a simple rule that goes like this:

A concept or rule cannot be true and false at the same time.

Technically, it looks like this:

A cannot be B and not B at the same time.

Now there are truck loads of articles and books addressing this rule, but all I’m really concerned about is how it is used by church apologists to make an argument. This rule was key for me as I developed my theology in college. I was a modernist who rejected all forms of postmodern thinking.

Ravi Zacharias

One of the main illustrations that made the law of non-contradiction clear to me was a story told my one of the heroes from my college years, Ravi Zacharias. It is often repeated in churches, Bible studies, and Sunday school classes; and is one that I have used frequently.

After Zacharias had finished a lecture, a professor of philosophy challenged him on a significant point. Zacharias had pressed the law of non-contradiction. Putting it in simpler terms for his audience, he said that the law might be called an either…or system. Christian theology uses this system. For example,

Either Paul is an Apostle or he is not.

Either Jesus is the Son of God or he is not.

Either Christianity is true or it is not.

You see the rule here:

A cannot be B and not B at the same time.

Paul cannot be an apostle and not an apostle.

Etc.

The irritated professor went to dinner with Zacharias and one other school administrator to talk things over. The philosophy professor insisted that the either…or system is exclusively a western philosophical idea while eastern philosophy uses more of an both…and system of logic. So…

A can be both B and not B at the same time.

Thus…

Paul can be both an apostle and not an apostle.

Jesus can be both the Son of God and not the Son of God.

Zacharias opposed this view with a simple statement: “So you are telling me that it’s either the both…and system or nothing else, is that right?”

The philosopher puzzled over this: “The either…or does seem to emerge, doesn’t it?”

Zacharias added, “You know, even those in India look both ways before we cross the street, because they know ‘It’s either me or the bus, not both of us!’”

The main point is that the either…or system–the law of non-contradiction–is something that even Easterners use in their thinking. This is a very important distinction and has helped me a great deal over the years. It also tended to lock me in a modernist way of thinking, and I think it has done the same to several of my contemporaries.

What I erroneously took away from that illustration was that all legitimate ideas come from either…or thinking; the both…and system of thought is worthless and even deceptive. That worked for me for a while, but I started having some pretty big problems with it when I went to seminary. In my biblical and theological studies I found that you must employ the both…and system to make things work. Otherwise, those who champion the non-contradiction rule will actually contradict themselves!

Jesus is both God and man.

The church is both currently redeemed and not yet redeemed.

God is both a single person and not a single person.

A strict either…or approach would have to deny these principles, even though these concepts are central to historic church doctrines. To be sure, there are many who try to reconcile these doctrines with an either…or system; and it seems to me that the harder we try, the further we separate ourselves from the teachings of the text.

Ultimately, I think we need to learn to use both systems where appropriate (see what I did there?). It seems to me that the “either…or” system promotes a more mechanical and objective style of thinking while the “both…and” system is much more organic and subjective. There will always be a tension between the two of them, but they are both helpful.

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Categories: Biblical Studies, Philosophy, Theology | Tags: , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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One thought on “Non-Contradictions

  1. Herbert Hand

    Very helpful. I never thought this one through. I appreciate your insights.

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