Accepting Paradox in Theology

Certain aspects of theology invite greater measures of debate and careful thought. One of my professors called these topics the “sticky wickets” of theology. The theological relationship between the sovereignty of God and the responsibility of man is one such sticky wicket. What should we make of it? Is God sovereign over all things? Yes! Is a man responsible to make his own choices? Yes! Do these two facts of theology appear to contradict? They do.

When we notice this apparent tension, we have a tendency to resolve it in one of two ways. And both ways require teaching these two truths so that one qualifies the other.

  • Option 1: God is sovereign over all things, but man is entirely responsible to make his own decisions (and so God is not sovereign in the fullest sense).
  • Option 2: Man is responsible to make his own decisions, but God is ultimately sovereign over all things (and so man is not responsible in the fullest sense).

I have wrestled with this tension and the natural tendency to lean one way or the other. But there is another option – to accept the tension. One reason for arriving at this conclusion is that Scripture itself seems to accept it. Consider how the following verses present this tension as though it is entirely reasonable. Notice how each present both sides of the theological balance. (I’ve italicized the elements that highlight the responsibility of man and placed in bold the elements that highlight the sovereignty of God.)

  • Matthew 23:37 – O Jerusalem, Jerusalem . . . how often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not!
  • Luke 22:22 – And truly the Son of man goeth, as it was determined: but woe unto that man by whom he is betrayed!
  • John 6:37 – All that the Father giveth me shall come to me; and him that cometh to me I will in no wise cast out.
  • Acts 2:23 – Christ, being delivered by the determinate counsel and fore­knowledge of God, ye have taken, and by wicked hands have crucified and slain.
  • Acts 2:38-39 –  Then Peter said to them, “Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is to you and to your children, and to all who are afar off, as many as the Lord our God will call.”

Recognizing the statements of God’s sovereignty and of man’s responsibility, you can see how Scripture juxtaposes both elements side by side. Each element is entirely genuine and entirely true, and so is the apparent tension.

Now, notice that I’ve called this tension apparent. Why? Because in the mind of God, I am convinced that there is no tension at all. And yet, I do not have the complete mind of God. My mind has difficulty accepting this tension, but my heart has embraced it because I trust God and the revelation He has provided. It is a theological paradox, and I accept it.

O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! how unsearchable are his judgments, and his ways past finding out! For who hath known the mind of the Lord? or who hath been his counseller? Or who hath first given to him, and it shall be recompensed unto him again? For of him, and through him, and to him, are all things: to whom be glory for ever. Amen (Rom. 11:33-36).

5 replies
  1. Christopher Harper
    Christopher Harper says:

    You’re making a really important point here. Too many of us freely move from the pages of scripture into our own understanding. We try to “complete the thought” or “fill in the blanks.” Some even use “if this – then that” reasoning. Instead of coming to terms with what we know for certain (the actual text of scripture), we try to discern that which we are certain we don’t know. Thanks for the reminder.

  2. TOvermiller
    TOvermiller says:

    Yes, I agree with you that I have to be willing for my theological system to have some “unfilled blanks” and thoughts that are completed only in the mind of God (Deut. 29:29).

  3. Craig Giddens
    Craig Giddens says:

    It’s not scripture, but our man made theological systems that cause the confusion. Once these theological systems get imbedded into our minds its difficult to be objective with the truths of the Bible. If we keep verses in their context and rightly divide the word of truth as Paul commands us, the “paradoxes” fade away. This particular issue confuses us because we look at it through the lens of man’s theology. Man comes up with his theological definitions of God’s sovereignty and the will of man and that’s where we get tripped up. Let the Bible define the terms and we see no conflict.

  4. Dr. Ken Burkett
    Dr. Ken Burkett says:

    Well-worded comments. I couldn’t agree with you more. A sense of “balance” and a little humility are necessary traits of the theologian. Lacking these, he will likely be unwilling to accept the tension of which you speak.
    I recently preached a sermon at my church in which I likened divine sovereignty and human responsibility to two parallel rails of the same train track: the train of salvation requires both rails to run upon. If one tries to run that train on only one rail, he ends up with a theological train wreck!
    The blog and podcasts are a worthwhile endeavor. Keep up the good work!

  5. TOvermiller
    TOvermiller says:

    Thank you for your supplemental thoughts and words of encouragement. I listen to your sermons from time to time over at Sermon Audio from time to time. Pastors need to hear preaching too! They are a real help and encouragement. God bless you.

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