The Law of Contradiction
No lie is of the truth (1 Jn. 2:21)
Copyright © 1995 by Phillip R. Johnson. All rights reserved.
The law of contradiction means that two antithetical
propositions cannot both be true at the same time and in the
same sense. X cannot be non-X. A thing cannot be and not be
simultaneously. And nothing that is true can be
self-contradictory or inconsistent with any other truth.
All logic depends on this simple principle. Rational thought and meaningful discourse demand it. To deny it is to deny
all truth in one fell swoop.
Until a little more than a hundred years ago, the law of
contradiction was almost universally accepted by philosophers
as a self-evident truth. Francis Schaeffer attributed the
decline of 20th-century society to the demise of the law of
contradiction. He suggested that when philosophy abandons this
principle it sinks beneath "the line of despair" and ultimately
makes suicide the only viable course of action.
Scripture very clearly affirms the law of contradiction. First
John 2:21, for example, is explicit: "No lie is of the truth."
Many other passages, such as 2 Timothy 2:13, ("[God] cannot deny
himself") either assume or reiterate the law of contradiction.
Lots of well-meaning Christians, however, seem to operate with
the misconception that biblical revelation is somehow exempt
from the law of contradiction. They suggest that God's truth
can contravene logic if God is so pleased. They often point to
the doctrine of the Trinity or pit divine sovereignty against
human responsibility as evidence that revealed truth is
But Titus 1:2 tells us that "God . . . cannot lie." Therefore
even God's Word must be in harmony with the law of
contradiction. One clear, unresolvable contradiction would be
enough to destroy the trustworthiness of the whole. That's why
the enemies of truth are so eager to try to prove that God's
Word contradicts itself.
Certainly we who love truth ought to jealously guard against any
suggestion that God's revelation is internally inconsistent. But
more than that, we need to defend the law of contradiction
itself, because this is a biblical principle, and it lies at
the root of all truth.
I'm troubled when terms like paradox and antinomy are
bandied about by Christians without sufficient explanation.
Neo-orthodoxy built a whole theology of contradictory ideas by
labeling every incongruity a "paradox." But be warned: when
the neo-orthodox use the term paradox they are actually
speaking of real contradictions. Their whole system is
designed to accommodate those contradictions. Thus they have
baptized irrationality and labeled it Christian. But it is not
I'm frankly not even comfortable with the common use of the term
antinomy to describe the tension between divine sovereignty
and human responsibility. According to the Oxford English
Dictionary, antinomy is "a contradiction between two equally
binding laws; a conflict of authority; and a contradiction
between conclusions which seem equally logical." I don't believe
a true contradiction exists between divine sovereignty and human
responsibility. (If you believe these doctrines plainly
contradict each other, you'll have to demonstrate where the
contradiction lies. I don't believe any such "contradiction"
real or apparentexists. But I'll save that discussion for
What about Jesus' "paradoxical" statements"the first shall be
last," "you must lose your life in order to save it," and so
on? These are not contradictions, but plays on words. Jesus
was not asserting contradictory propositions, but merely using
oxymoronic language to stress the point He was making.
The Trinity is certainly difficult (no doubt impossible) for
the human mind to fathom, but self-contradictory it is not. We
do not believe that God is three in the same sense that He is
one. A reading of the church councils' teachings on this
doctrine will reveal that historic orthodoxy has carefully
avoided the language of contradiction. The church Fathers knew
very well that to concede the critics' charge that this truth is
self-contradictory would have been tantamount to saying that
Christianity itself is false.
What they knewand modern Christians often missis that
whenever our language shifts into the vocabulary of antinomy and
contradiction, the words themselves no longer communicate. If we
overthrow the law of contradiction, literally anything might be
true. Black might mean white and hot might mean cold and
everything would mean nothing. This is exactly where most modern
men and women now livein the abyss of existentialism, where
Joe and Sally might hold world-views that flatly contradict one
anotheryet both earnestly deny that if one system is right the
other must be wrong. This type of thinking seems merely affable
and benign, yet it destroys the very concept of truth.
Many discard the law of contradiction precisely so they can
declare truth falsehood and make righteousness evil. Therefore
the notion that truth might be inconsistent with itself is one
of the most popular but pernicious misconceptions held by the
unbelieving men and women of our age. It is a concept hostile
to truth and fraught with deadly danger. That's why it is
absolutely crucial that we who believe every word of God is
true must oppose irrationality with every fibre of our being.
Consider this, for example: if antithetical propositions can
simultaneously be true, then who are we to say that those who
deny the deity of Christ are actually wrong? If contradictory
propositions can be true, then Arianism might actually be just
as true as Trinitarianism. What's the point in defending any
truth in a system like that? See the problem?
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