Every Christian doctrine involves, somehow or other, saying two things at once. This doesn’t point to an occasional knot, but shows the nature of the subject itself. Prior to grappling with these theological pairs, we can describe the human condition on the one hand, and exegete the scriptures on the other. But once we get around to making theological claims, they take on a certain “both/and” structure.
God is one and three. Christ is crucified and Lord, human and divine. We are free and enslaved; in the image of God but sinners; victims yet perpetrators; saved by grace (justified), but a holy people in respect to the law (sanctified). As creatures, we are irreducibly different from the Creator, yet called to dwell in communion with him — at once a clay pot and home for a treasure. We are already but not yet in the kingdom. Humanity as a whole is re-created through the New Adam, but one is individually bound for heaven or hell, predestined and yet judged. We are given a revelation of the unknowable God. We are free and yet subject to the divine freedom. Etc. etc.
Not only are these all examples of a kind of “both/and” that includes a “yes, but on the other hand,” they are antinomies. Each assertion is paired with another with which it stands in tension. Can we discern types or categories into which we could group such antinomies? How should we understand the ways they are commonly described? And would this tell us anything theologically valuable?
Taxonomy of relations
God himself can only be spoken of by analogy. Calvin said that words about him had to be “accommodated” to our condition (Institutes, I).
At the same time, insofar as the words are themselves given to us by him, we are confident that they provide real knowledge (this itself is another antinomy). So we should expect that the antinomous nature of talk about God is itself a corollary of this nature of religious language as analogous and accommodated.
The similar and yet dissimilar nature of analogy means that its statements stand in a dialectical relationship. Thus antinomy is inherently suited to the nature of the subject. So, for example, to speak of the persons of the Trinity co-inhering one with another is to speak about a kind of being of which we do not have direct knowledge.
When we turn to the relation of God to humans, we find the form of “x, but also not x” to be an “asymmetry” (as noted here). The two statements, for example, “we are bound” and “the truly free God gives us a creaturely freedom” stand in a relationship in which the latter is the norm, and the former must be understood in its light, that is, it must be assimilated to the norm. We reorder, for example, what we thought we knew about our freedom in light of his.
Thirdly, we can consider statements about human beings themselves (though also they are seen sub specie aeternitatis). I am still a sinner, and yet I am justified. The former describes something perduring here in this vale of tears. The latter describes who I am declared to be as a result of who I will be where the circle is unbroken. Antinomies about the human being always have this salvation-historical, eschatological aspect of duality. They are variants of Cullmann’s “already/ not yet.”
Borrowing across types
Metaphysically, due to the Incarnation, and temporally, due to the Resurrection, the boundaries between the three types mentioned above are porous. We can, for example, think about how life in the Church, the Body of Christ, itself offers a borrowed or derivative coinherence. It conforms to what was called in Lutheran scholastics the communio idiomatorum. Another example might involve reflecting on what the experience of death means for the life of God. The types of “on-the-one-hand/ on-the-other-hand” may be borrowed and deployed from either side of the distinction!
These meta-logical guides are, at the end of the day, a formal rehearsal of the central claims of the faith themselves. The logic of doctrine is itself ruled by the substantive claims of the doctrines themselves. (They are, it might be added, friendly to an account of doctrine which understands it to act as a rule or grammar for Christian talk about these claims). As always, theological method follows from the truth of the gospel itself, though observations about the former can help us understand the latter.
The Rt. Rev. Dr. George Sumner is bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Dallas.