June 30, 2020

Contradiction and Paradox

Barry Cooper
Contradiction and Paradox

God does not ask His people to abandon logic and simply accept the teachings of His Word on faith. Today, Barry Cooper helps us distinguish between a paradox and a contradiction.


What’s the difference between a contradiction and a paradox, and why does it matter?

The law of contradiction and noncontradiction are principles of logic. And logic is vital to the discussion of theology.

Most of us know instinctively what a contradiction is. An example of a contradiction would be a square circle, a silent noise, or a tiny giant. The law of contradiction says that something cannot be X and yet not X at the same time and in the same way.

It’s important to say “in the same way,” because not everything that seems like a contradiction actually is a contradiction. For example, it’s not a contradiction to say that I’m a son and a father at the same time, because in this case we’re talking about my relationship to different people. I’m Graham Cooper’s son, but I’m also Adaline Cooper’s father. There’s no contradiction there. But of course, there would be a contradiction if I say that I’m the son and the father of the same person. That would be a contradiction and therefore impossible.

By the way, during my research on this subject, I was able to conclude that the phrase “can somebody’s father also be their son” is the stupidest thing I’ve ever typed into Google.

This careful distinction between what is and what is not a contradiction might seem like I’m splitting hairs. But actually it’s important for lots of reasons.

Let me give you a particular example. You sometimes hear people say that the Trinity—the biblical idea that God is three and yet one is a contradiction and is therefore impossible. If you say that God is three and yet one, some people will look at you as if you’re talking about a square circle. And they may well accuse you of being a polytheist—a believer in three gods rather than one God. The law of noncontradiction says that you simply cannot have one being who is also three beings.

And actually, I would agree with that. You can’t have one being who is also three beings. That would be a violation of the law of noncontradiction.

However, you can have one being who is also three persons, and this is a crucial distinction to make. It is possible for God to be three and yet also one, just as it’s possible for me to be a son and yet also a father. Because we’re talking about different categories.

So, God is one in essence, and yet He’s three persons, and that is not a contradiction because the way He is one is different from the way He is three.

The Trinity, then, is not a contradiction. It’s what we call a paradox. A paradox is something that may seem like a contradiction on first appearance but is not.

So here’s an example of a paradox: the more you try to impress a person, the less impressed they’re likely to be. Here’s another one: the more you learn, the more you realize how little you know.

Or to take one from Scripture, think of Jesus’ words in Matthew chapter 16: “Whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”

These sort of paradoxes sound contradictory at first blush, but when you investigate further, they turn out not contradictory at all.

And it’s important to make this distinction. Maybe during a Bible study or even a sermon, you’ve heard a well-meaning Christian imply that there are certain things in the Bible—like the Trinity—where the usual rules of logic have to be suspended. We just have to “accept them on faith.”

But that’s not the case. God doesn’t ask us to accept contradictions. As it says in 1 Corinthians chapter 14, “God is not a God of confusion but of peace.”