An antinomy is an apparent contradiction between two beliefs or conclusions that are in themselves reasonable; a paradox. Christians struggle with a number of such tensions: Was the Bible written by God or by human beings? If God is sovereign and good, why is there evil? Is God three persons or one? And then there’s the matter of God’s sovereignty and human responsibility.
This last one is especially challenging because of its practical application. Go too far in one direction and you’re afraid to do anything. Go too far in the other and you’re afraid you can’t do anything. What to do?
A great principle I learned in a Bible college class on Bible interpretation (hermeneutics) is the importance of maintaining the center of the biblical tension. Briefly, the idea is to take everything the Bible says on any given topic and allow each individual teaching to complement or balance out the other teachings. As A. W. Tozer once observed, “Now I have often tried to make the point that truths that are compelled to stand alone never stand straight and are not likely to stand long.”1
In a long letter to his brother Warnie, dated March 29, 1940, C. S. Lewis mentions hearing from a former pupil, Mary (Shelley) Neylan. Mrs. Neylan had received her BA in 1932 and a Diploma in Education the following year. C. S. Lewis later became godfather to the Neylan’s first child, Sarah.
Lewis shares with his brother that Mary is very near to becoming a Christian. A prospect that causes Lewis to feel “almost overwhelmed” by the responsibility of what to say next, how best to guide her along the path. His sense of accountability is commendable. I have felt the same obligation myself. But he realizes he must say something.
“This week I received a letter from my former pupil Mrs. Neylan (the Dartington Hall mistress) who is trembling on the verge of Christianity — admits that the issue ‘can no longer be avoided’ — and asks what to read and (more difficult still) who to see. I felt almost overwhelmed by the responsibility of my reply . . .
“After writing at great length I fortunately re-read her letter and discovered, that owing to her own omission of inverted commas, I had wholly misunderstood one of her points . . . so I had to do nearly the whole job over again. The letter’s gone now. I suppose if God intends to have Mrs. Neylan it won’t make much difference what I’ve written! — Yet that is a dangerous argument wh. wd. lead to it’s not mattering what you did in any circumstances.”2
I found it helps if I turn the antinomy into an opinion. It’s my opinion that I must do something. Only God can understand how it means something.
“Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!” – Romans 11:33.
- A. W. Tozer. Excerpts from That Incredible Christian, chapter 19, “Why the Holy Spirit is Given” accessed at http://tinyurl.com/nqkujjl.
- Walter Hooper, ed., The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis: Books, Broadcasts, and the War 1931-1949, Vol. II (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 2004), 378-379.