The Truth in Both Extremes

The Truth in Both Extremes: Paradox in Biblical Revelation, by Robert S. Rayburn★★★★★

This book was read in digital format on my iPad. I did this for two reasons. First, the printed version was considerably more expensive than the digital version. Secondly, the book is very heavily referenced, and the references were quite valuable to read, which was much easier to do in the digital format. Rob Rayburn was my pastor for approximately 25 years, and the book was written in a pastoral format, quite easy to read, as though Dr. Rayburn were speaking directly to you. Rayburn gave a series of 8 sermons in 2001 which were the core of what this book was all about. In those sermons, pastor Rayburn summarized what is contained in this book. This book expands upon his sermons and provides a more systematic approach to the notion of opposing tensions in Scripture that are not intended to be reconciled.

The first two chapters develop the concept of opposing and seemingly contradictory truths presented in Scripture, with no Scriptural mention of how to explain these diametrically opposite truths. As Rayburn notes, he did not invent the notion of doctrinal tensions in Scripture. Giants of the faith, including Augustine, Calvin, many Puritans, Spurgeon, as well as JI Packer develop this notion that complex truths are presented in Scripture, both of which are to be believed, both of which must be held with equal weight, and both must not be attempted to be synthesized into a “new” truth, à la Hegel.

Subsequent chapters each individually cover a specific topic of two truths held in tension. I use the phrase “held in tension” as Rayburn frequently will use that term, though it is a tension that is held only if it really bothers you that a Biblical truth might be presented in two extremes. The first is that of the doctrine of the Trinity, that God is one, yet God is three. It doesn’t seem right, but then, why would we assume that God is ontologically “simple”. (N.B., in a way, God is ontologically simple, but I am not interested in arguing this point at this time). The next chapter discusses how Jesus was both man and God, and not a fused entity (tertium quid), both natures present and distinct, both without suggestion that Jesus was “half-man, half-God”, but instead, fully man and fully God simultaneously. Next, Rayburn attacks the “sticky” dilemma of the sovereignty of God and freedom of man, i.e., man’s full responsibility for sin, yet God foreordains all that would come to pass. In my own humble opinion, for a God that exists outside of time and space, the converse would be more challenging for God to create; man’s full freedom without God’s sovereignty or the very dull and uncreative possibility of God’s sovereignty without man’s freedom. This doctrine shows God to be super-cool!!!!!

Pastor Rayburn then waxes pastoral (what he does best!) in the challenge of man’s assurance of salvation yet the need for attention to carefully walk the Christian life. This segues into the issue of how many people will be saved, few or many? The Scripture rightfully answers “both” without explanation, save for the admonishment to carefully attend to one’s own salvation. Are we saved by faith, or by works? Both. We are saved fully by faith, and fully by works, yet we have no reason to boast. It is God’s work. The Christian response to joyfully accept both polarities is most appropriate. The next chapter addresses two vexing issues. 1. Scripture promises both a life of wealth and blessing, as well as a life of troubles. Seeing both extremes in Christians throughout the ages leaves no doubt that both aspects may be true, and certainly with Job, that both may be true with the same person. 2. Does God answer our prayers? Yes and no. Whatever we ask in His name will be granted to us… or, will it? Scripture partially answers this question, as sometimes we ask selfishly or for evil gain, sometimes our prayers will be granted in the distant future, but often we may not ever realize an answer to our prayer. Yet Rayburn, in his inimical fashion, provides a good argument to continually seek the Lord in prayer, and that we will do.

The chapter on Biblical ethics and the dialectical truths contained therein is a bit problematic, and I find Rayburn’s arguments occasionally to be weak. Suffice it to say that Rayburn quotes (perhaps a touch critically) the ethical writings of John Murray, though I tend to lean in favor of Murray and not Rayburn. Yet, there is much in the Ethics chapter that is not controversial. Proverbs will often present opposing truths and expect a heart of wisdom to know when each truth should appropriately be applied. Issues of dealing with sinners in the church, dealing with the Government, dealing with the ordination of women in the church, and other issues are all discussed and not necessarily controversial. Then, Rob goes on to discuss the issue of lying vs. telling the truth. Should one lie to save a life? Doesn’t the Scripture occasionally advocate lying and show examples of God telling a lie? I tend to lean with Murray on this issue in the way he suggests that certain Biblical historical events are not necessarily normative. I feel that the issue is made problematic in that ethicists will usually present the dilemma as an either-or situation. Conversely, rarely do ethicists ever suggest that there might be a third alternative, and the ethical dilemma is more a fabrication than the way we should be thinking in complex situations. Finally, Dr. Rayburn delves into the sticky issue of unity in the church, while preserving the church from falsehood and heresy. Clearly, this is an issue that demands wisdom from on high, and will not be answered by weighing either unity or division too heavily.

Pastor Rayburn concludes by summarizing the need for the Christian to acknowledge that many of one’s beliefs will be two competitive, dialectical truths, both of which must be assumed to be true and yet both must equally be believed and acted upon by the Christian. To that, I heartily agree. There are just a few points that I wish would have been better developed in the book.

  1. How is a biblical Christian dialectic different from a Hegelian dialectic? Is not a Christian concession that two dialectical truths suggestive that A and non-A are both true caving in to the notion that truth does not or cannot exist? Rayburn perhaps should have committed one chapter to the philosophy of Biblical dialecticism.
  2. What are the boundaries to the dialectical principle? What about applying the dialectical principle to the issue of gender confusion? Could it be okay to say that one is both male and female as a dialectic? What about theological issues? Is Scripture the word of God or the word of man? While we accept the notion that Scripture contains man’s personality, is it possibly a dialectal issue that we can occasionally dismiss, as Karl Barth and others have done? How can the dialectical principle be abused in interpreting Scripture? If the 8th commandment against bearing false witness may be dialectical, what about the other nine commandments? Might there be an occasional reason, out of love, to commit adultery? Might I occasionally bow to other gods to save skin? Perhaps in edition 2 of this book a fuller argument might be presented.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book. It is heavily referenced, and the references were also a delight to read. The book discusses a truth that is often poorly presented to Christians, leading to more confusion than good. It is a book that I would recommend to all Christians. It is not written in an academic style, and thus should be able to be consumed by most intelligent Christian folk.