Contradictions are Carnal

There was a time when people understood that holding to contradictory beliefs was a bad thing. And I don’t mean bad as in annoying or socially unacceptable only, but bad as in immoral. Philosophers and theologians alike strove to present logically consistent systems of thought devoid of any contradictions between their constitutive propositions. With postmodernism’s essentialist declarations concerning anthropology, language, morality, and epistemology (see here), however, contradiction has come to be viewed, ironically enough, as an essential part of human intellection. Systems of thought that purport to be contradiction-free, consequently, are judged to be either hopelessly philosophically naive or arrogant and dishonest. And this, of course, includes religious systems of thought.

Now, in the world, Christianity is thought to be naive and/or dishonest because it asserts that it and it alone is true. Within many professedly Christian churches, the same sentiment is directed against those who assert that certain doctrines are foundationally true, such that a denial of these doctrines indicates that one is lost. Whereas the world demands that Christians abandon our uniqueness and let religious bygones be bygones, many in professedly Christian churches demand that we abandon orthodoxy and let doctrinal bygones be bygones.

In both instances, what is being embraced is the postmodern idea that contradiction is inevitable, even in the pages of God’s Word. Additionally, what is implicitly embraced is the conviction that contradictions, in fact, are good, seeing as they push forward a progressively unfolding and expanding theological dialectic which will never resolve in this life. This open-ended dialectic is seen as the means whereby Christians may be epistemically humbled and led to soften their tone regarding the core doctrines of Christianity.

But Scripture doesn’t support this view of contradictions. In fact, consistently teaches that contradictions are evil, wicked. For instance, consider what Paul says in 2nd Cor 1:17 –

Was I vacillating when I wanted to do this? Do I make my plans according to the flesh, ready to say “Yes, yes” and “No, no” at the same time?

In this passage, Paul explains that saying yes and no at the same time, and in the same sense, is not morally neutral, it is according to the flesh, or carnal. It is to be, in essence, what James calls “double-minded” in James 1:5-8. He writes –

If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him. But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways.

Such self-contradictory thinking renders us unstable, unable to think and act in accordance with the truth. Self-contradiction is part and parcel of what is not knowledge at all. In 1st Tim 6:20 Paul writes –

O Timothy, guard the deposit entrusted to you. Avoid the irreverent babble and contradictions of what is falsely called “knowledge…”

Contradictions, then, are neither profound, enlightening, good, spiritual, or godly. Rather, contradictions are carnal.

Who Cares?

Some may ask why it is important to point out that contradictions are carnal. There are many reasons I can give, but I think these three are among the greatest.

  1. False teachers are bitterly opposed to clear thinking. If a teacher trades in contradictory statements regarding his doctrine or his personal life (e.g. whether he is or is not involved in a given sinful relationship or behavior), then we may properly identify him as, at the very least, a threat to the stability of the church. At worst, he is an enemy of God and his church who must be publicly rebuked, renounced, and removed from the pulpit. In either case, he is unfit for the ministry of the Word and should be avoided.
  2. Understanding that contradictions are to be eliminated from our thinking will cause us to be more cautious in our doctrine and in our life. The goal of being without any contradictions in our thinking should lead us to strive toward that end, knowing that being consistent in our thinking is not an empty academic exercise but an exercise in godliness.
  3. Contradictions are false, and we are to be people of the Truth, who believe the truth, and who are led by the Spirit of Truth to walk in the way of truth.

In regeneration, we are given the mind of Christ. Let us be conformed by his Word to think as he does – without contradictions.

Soli Deo Gloria
-h.

Advertisements

The Doctrine of Immortality in the Early Church – Book Review

19381161The Doctrine of Immortality in the Early Church by John H. Roller

“The Doctrine of Immortality in the Early Church” is a brief work filled with quotations from church fathers, quotations which are not given detailed explanation that would substantiate the author’s belief that they — because they employ binaries such as life/death, immortality/destruction, etc — support the contemporary doctrine of conditional immortality.Given our historical and cultural distance from the historical and cultural backdrop of the writings of the fathers, it is all too easy to interpret their use of the aforementioned binaries as meaning what our present day colloquial speech may, in some instances, mean. So when examining the works of the fathers, it is isn’t enough to collate passages that contain words and phrases that seem to support one’s doctrine. Rather, it is necessary to explain one’s justification for interpreting those words and phrases to mean something identical to or concordant with one’s doctrine.

Ironically, by not presenting the passages he cites in a historically informed manner, but instead simply citing them and adding parenthetical remarks such as “not torment,” Roller is not presenting an “unbiased view.” Rather, he is begging the question and stacking the deck. In addition to these fallacies, we have to add his use of the word-concept fallacy, implying that because Clement did not use the phrase “immortal soul” or “immortality of the soul” that he held to the same conditionalist doctrine which Roller holds.

The question Roller does not ask is this — “What exactly do the fathers mean when they claim that the soul is not immortal”?

A cursory study of Patristic scholars will reveal that the consensus opinion of specialists in this field is that the fathers have employed Platonic language in the service of explaining Christian doctrine over and against the Gnostics. The fathers denied that the soul was divine, immortal, etc, and affirmed that it was created by God, sustained in existence by him, and given life or deprived of life by him.

Because the fathers deny the Gnostic doctrine of the immortality of the soul, in the case of those who have the divine spark at least!, conditionalists like Roller believe they were conditionalists in the contemporary sense of the word. However, that is not the case. The fathers to a man believed in the immortality of the soul, but they were also conditionalists. How so? They affirmed that the existence of anything is conditioned upon the will of God alone, while they also affirmed that the soul has been created in such a way that it does not undergo deconstruction/disintegration/decomposition into constituent parts as the body does.

The soul exists and lives conditionally, then, as an immortal entity. This is not the conditionalism of Roller, the Adventists, or contemporary annihilationists.

What makes Roller’s book attractive is its claim to being unbiased, as well as its claim to only deal with the original authors themselves. It would be nice if we could gather a long list of quotations from the fathers and decide what their theology was simply by such proof-texting. Unfortunately, if we really want to know what these men meant when they asserted that immortality was not natural to man, or that immortality was a gift for those whose faith has been placed in Christ, then we need to do more historical research on these men in order to better understand their use of binaries and phrases that have come to mean something completely different than what many contemporary authors may assume.

Roller claims that Athenagoras is one of the first, if not the first, fathers to believe that immortality was naturally proper to the soul. However, that is not the case, as a simple reading of Irenaeus, as well as an in-depth examination of scholarly patristic writing on the issue very quickly reveals. The church fathers were not conditionalists, but held to a view similar to the one contemporary orthodox Christians hold. Conditionalism, and Soul sleep (which Roller also seems to embrace), was not held by any but the heretics.

Arnobius the heretic, the Arabian heretics, and Tatian the heretic held to these such views. Moreover, prior to these heretics, it was the Gnostics themselves who taught that those who were not spiritual would be annihilated in body and soul (see Heracleon’s Commentary on the Gospel of John, for instance where he treats Matthew 10:28 in the same way that conditionalists today do).

If you want to know what the church fathers believed about immortality, it would be best to read patristic scholars, and those who are familiar with patristic scholarship, on the matter. Roller’s book is not a good place to learn about the fathers, but does serve to educate one about how not to do historical research.