Biblical Dialectics

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I encountered some really thought-provoking stuff on Biblical Dialectics by Reformed preacher Robert Rayburn on the 7th of January. You can find his sermons on this topic here (“Reading the Bible for All It’s Worth”), here (“Biblical Dialectic Intro”) and here (“Preaching the Poles”). Basically, he says that:

Biblical truth is universally presented in dialectical form.

He quotes some people:

I love the simplicity of the Scriptures; and I wish to receive and inculcate every truth precisely in the way, and to the extent, that it is set forth in the inspired volume… I have a great jealously on this head; never to speak more or less that I believe to be the mind of the Spirit in the passage I am expounding… I would run after nothing and shun nothing… the truth is not in the middle, and not in one extreme, but in both extremes. (Charles Simeon)

Preach the antinomies of truth, and carry each out a far as it is possible to carry it. But don’t attempt to reconcile them. These two lines [/ \] will meet if produced far enough. But if I try to make them meet, I give one or other of them a twist, and so reduce it from being a straight line. If the stones of an arch were to become animated and speak, the stones on the right hand would say, ‘Right-hand pressure is right pressure,’ and the stones on the left hand would say, ‘left-hand pressure is right pressure,’ but by pressing in opposite directions they keep up the keystone of the arch. (Rabbi Duncan)

Christianity got over the difficulty of combining furious opposites by keeping them both, and keeping them both furious. (Chesterton)

To the list, I would add Jacques Ellul in his “The Subversion of Christianity” who wrote:

There is revelation only as the contradictions are held together.

We see biblical truth presented in dialectical form in doctrines like Luther’s “always at the same time sinners and justified”, how the Kingdom is already here yet not yet in its fullness, how Jesus is wholly man and wholly God, how God is three yet one and even how the bible seems to speak much about justification by grace yet judgement by works. The latter is something I’ve been thinking about lately. I do see the bible talks a whole lot about justification by grace alone through faith alone, yet there are also so many passages talking about works. I wrote about the tension I saw between law and grace here:

…up till this point of my life in my struggles with the issue of law and grace/gospel (and I’ve read a lot about it), I still cannot reconcile bible passages which seem to say that Salvation is totally free and all we have to do is believe, and bible passages which seem to say that Salvation requires obedience of us… What I’m saying is that I see there’s a tension in Scripture. We can easily get rid of that tension by leaning this or that way. When we do so, we have to somehow interpret away passages that seem to support the other side. And when this happens… it doesn’t seem right. What I mean is that it becomes a bit obvious that we’re trying to interpret away the certain passages that don’t fit into our pre-determined mindset of how it should be like. Down the ages, Christians have tried to take one side or the other. The fact that there’s a great division between Roman Catholics and Protestants – and further greater division within these two branches – prove that Scriptures are not absolutely clear in this area. There seems to be bible verses that support both sides. People end up staunchly on one side because they think only one side is the truth and they take a side and when faced with Scriptures that seem to support the other side, they will interpret away somehow. At this moment of my life, this is the way I see it: there seems to be tension in Scripture concerning this passage.

If indeed what Rayburn says is true, then that would at least “solve” centuries of disagreements between the Protestant and Roman Catholic Church. If Rayburn is right, then it also helps us to understand why there are so many disagreements about doctrines and so much division among believers and churches. The “fault” really is that the Bible presents contradictory beliefs! In our desire to simplify the truth or come up with a simple doctrine that encompasses all the contradictions and explain the contradictions away, we lean towards one side of the truth. And others lean towards the other side. And that’s why very often we hold to opposite beliefs and are hostile against one another.

So is Rayburn right in saying that truth is presented in a dialectical form in the Bible? I don’t know. To me, it’s a bit weird to say, for example, we’re justified by grace and yet judged by works! It can’t both be true! But who knows…

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  1. I believe you have overstated Rayburn’s point. Rayburn would never affirm your statement that “…the Bible presents contradictory beliefs!” He even expresses his concern over the use of the word ‘antimony’ because it implies the presence of an actual contradiction. Though I don’t wish to put words in Rayburn’s mouth, I imagine he would agree that the presence of an apparent contradiction does not necessitate the presence of an actual contradiction. His illustration of the two lines that appear parallel, but, if drawn out far enough, would actually meet, makes this point well. Just because two lines appear parallel, doesn’t mean they actually are. We simply have a limited perspective. That same is true about the dialectic truths in holy scripture.

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