Darrow Miller and Friends

Chesterton, Paradox and Truth

Christian writer and scholar G.K. Chesterton has been called the “prince of paradox.” He loved playing with words and relished reflecting on seeming contradictions in scripture. He described a paradox as “truth standing on its head to gain attention.”

We have written about this tension, though not as colorfully as Chesterton, in Truth Lives Between Two Points.

Chesterton unpacks his concept of the use of paradox in his remarkable book Orthodoxy. I must say that this is a most unorthodox presentation of what is indeed biblical orthodoxy. My hope is that this brief review of Chesterton will draw you deeper into an appreciation, not only of the prince of paradox, but even more, of the truth found in the biblical narrative.

Chesterton treats seeming contradictions in the Bible, not by pitting one text as truth and the other false, but by showing the genius of the biblical message. The Bible presents truth as two points on a line, each to be emphasized and affirmed. “In short, Christianity got over the difficulty of combining furious opposites, by keeping them both, and keeping them both furious. The Church was positive on both points.”[1]

The God-Man: a Profound Paradox

One of the most profound examples is found in the incarnation, God taking on human form.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind … The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. John 1:1-3,14

Is Christ God, or man? Chesterton writes,

For orthodox theology has specially insisted that Christ was not a being apart from God and man, like an elf, nor yet a being half human and half not, like a centaur, but both things at once and both things thoroughly, very man and very God.[2]

The reality is that Christ was the God-Man, fully God and fully man. We are meant to bow in the face of this wonder.

ANOTHER PARADOX: The Cross of Christ

Another example is the cross. God is both righteousness and love. God’s righteousness means that man’s sinfulness must be punished. God’s love means that God will take that punishment on Himself. It is the cross where God’s love and justice meet.

Psalm 85:10 is a prelude to the meaning of the cross: Steadfast love and faithfulness meet; righteousness and peace kiss each other.

Chesterton captures this when he writes that life demands the maintenance of a tension between God’s righteousness and His love. Each is a bright color that needs to be manifest in all its glory. And the ultimate glory is the cross.

[The church] has kept [seeming paradoxes] side by side like two strong colours, red and white, like the red and white upon the shield of St. George. It has always had a healthy hatred of pink. It hates that combination of two colours which is the feeble expedient of the philosophers. It hates that evolution of black into white which is tantamount to a dirty grey … All that I am urging here can be expressed by saying that Christianity sought in most of these cases to keep two colours co-existent but pure. It is not a mixture like russet or purple; it is rather like a shot silk, for a shot silk is always at right angles, and is in the pattern of the cross.[3]

The beauty in the shot silk is in the two colors being vivid and pure in themselves and woven together in right angles.

Of human beings, Chesterton identifies man as the highest creature (Genesis 1:26-27) and the greatest of sinners (Romans 3:23).

In one way Man was to be haughtier than he had ever been before; in another way he was to be humbler than he had ever been before. In so far as I am Man I am the chief of creatures. In so far as I am a man I am the chief of sinners.[4]

Romans 12:3 affords Chesterton an example.

For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you.

Chesterton Can Help Us Live in the Tension

This is another paradox Chesterton calls us to hold in tension. “One can hardly think too little of one’s self. One can hardly think too much of one’s soul.”

Here are two more examples of Chestertons favorite paradoxes:

Charity – Charity is a paradox, like modesty and courage. Stated baldly, charity certainly means one of two things—pardoning unpardonable acts, or loving unlovable people.[5]

The sin and the sinner – Christianity came in here as before. It came in startlingly with a sword, and clove one thing from another. It divided the crime from the criminal. The criminal we must forgive unto seventy times seven. The crime we must not forgive at all … We must be much more angry with theft than before, and yet much kinder to thieves than before. There was room for wrath and love to run wild. And the more I considered Christianity, the more I found that while it had established a rule and order, the chief aim of that order was to give room for good things to run wild.[6]

Perhaps we can move away from so many of the doctrinal divisions the church is faced with, splits between law and grace, free-will and predestination, faith and works, unity and diversity, truth and love, grace and righteousness. The Bible teaches each of these. Let’s follow Chesterton and live in the glorious tension. Too many theologians emphasize one side at the expense of the other. Stop already! Let’s hold each doctrine in its bright color and live in the middle of the flaming light.

–          Darrow Miller

 

[1] Chesterton, G. K. G.K. Chesterton Collection 40 Works: Innocence of Father Brown, Wisdom of Father Brown, The Ball and the Cross, The Man Who Knew Too Much, The Crimes of England, The Man Who Was Thursday, and MORE! (Kindle Locations 47271-47273). Doma Publishing House. Kindle Edition.

[2] Ibid: Kindle Locations 47225-47227.

[3] Ibid: Kindle Locations 47312-47318.

[4] Ibid: Kindle Locations 47258-47260.

[5] Ibid: Kindle Locations 47274-47275.

[6] Ibid: Kindle Locations 47280-47285.

 

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1 Comment

  1. Peter Millward

    March 15, 2019 - 11:57 am

    …it is a paradox why Chesterton wanted to convert to Catholicism? But he has a lot of interesting points and he is right about truth to be held in tension,

    There is a big battle going on about the paradoxes of truth……

    The imagery in the Bible of the Lion and the Lamb is also communicating something powerful about who God is……scripture describing the “wrath of the Lamb” How many of us have seen a lamb angry? and yet it is there in the final book of the Bible.

    In fact it was the scripture with the image of the wrath of the Lamb that God chose to make me aware I was not ready to meet Him. “Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb! For the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand?” Revelation 6:15-17

    Today it appears many are confused about truth which is supposed to be held in tension. And I think it is effecting many churches. There is a crisis because many cannot accept what the Bible teaches about the wrath of God, eternal damnation, punishment for sin etc. For them God is all love….and He doesn’t mean a thing with all the other stuff.

    Chesterton says paradox is truth standing on its head to gain attention…. All I can say is Tyrannosaurus Rex must be standing on its head with a very loud speaker……

    I will share something recently which I saw so clearly as never before…..

    While walking around the Natural History Museum with my family at Christmas…..….I had a strong sense that all I wanted to do really was worship Jesus…I was astonished by the awesomeness of God creating such creatures…..”For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities–his eternal power and divine nature–have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.” Romans 1:20

    My mind pondered taking all this incredible spectacle in, surrounded by bones of huge whales, fantastic fossilized animals, and animals of the present day……a vast array in one one building – God’s Creation Gallery! All these incredible creatures God created…then it makes me just think how much
    more should we marvel at the one who created them, His Eternal power, divine nature and His
    invisible qualities. Is it any wonder the scripture teaches “The fear of the Lord is the beginning
    of wisdom.“ Proverbs 9:10

    Why did the God of love make Tyrannosaurus Rex (Terrible Lizard) ? Why didn’t he just make him like Barney the Dinosaur instead? wouldn’t it be easier to help make converts, because Barney the Dinosaur is so lovable? And that is where most popular theology is today or is heading in that direction – For them they would prefer if God had made fluffy toys…..the reality is God made animals
    made of blood, tooth and claw…and many are absolutely terrifying and uncompromisingly ferocious….

    What does Tyrannosaurus Rex teach us about who God is? It tells us we have every reason to fear God…..the God of Love who creates Tyrannosaurus Rex……….Chesterton was right – Paradox is truth standing on its head to gain attention.

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