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  • Dr. James Emery White

    James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and a former professor of theologyand culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he…

  • 2012 Mar 08

You know what an “oxymoron” is, right?


It’s a figure of speech in which opposite or contradictory ideas or terms are combined.


What’s funny is when we actually employ an oxymoron without realizing the fallacy.


For example:


*virtual reality

*original copy

*old news

*act naturally

*pretty ugly

*living dead

*jumbo shrimp

*rolling stop

*exact estimate

*civil war

*clever fool

*only choice


My only addition:  “airline food.”


In the “just wondering” category, how many times do we employ an oxymoron in the church?  And more to the point, never think of them as one?


Here’s a few that came easily to mind:


*ancient modern

*neo orthodox

*holy war

*pure evil

*living saint


But then again, the most profound of all Christian truths are, in the end, seemingly oxymoronic.  Such as:




*Alpha and the Omega

*suffering God

*one God, three persons

*virgin birth

*the first will be last

*born again

*power perfected in weakness

*chosen but free


Perhaps we need to redefine the idea of oxymoron when it comes to spiritual things.  Perhaps what appears to be a truly biblical oxymoron is nothing more than the name we give the tension of holding two opposites together when our finite human minds say “no,” but God’s truth through revelation says “yes.”


After all, didn’t the apostle Paul write to the church at Corinth that the “message of the cross was foolishness,” and that there was a need to embrace God’s declaration through the prophet Isaiah:  “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise; the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.”  Why?  Because the “foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom” (I Corinthians 1:18-19, 25, NIV).


In Wrestling with God, I wrote of the limitations of reason in regard to what it can bring to the table of spiritual truth and reality.  While important, reason alone eliminates the mysterious, the transcendent, the paradoxical, and often the aesthetic.  It leaves little room for a God beyond our five senses.


The Enlightenment made the mistake of reducing truth to what reason could produce alone, and in many ways, Christianity went through a season where it adapted itself to Enlightenment categories in order to gain a hearing.


We now know that theology suffered as a result.  Not that theology wasn’t robust during this era, it was; only that theology seemed to capitulate to Enlightenment categories.


Yet by very definition, God is suprarational, meaning beyond reason.  As Martin Luther counseled, “Faith should close its eyes and should not judge or decide according to what it feels or sees.”  This is very different than being non-rational, or even irrational, for God is not alien to our reason, simply larger than our reason.  Thus our faith is not truly a leap in the dark, but a journey toward the light.


Which means that now, apologetics and evangelism is suffering as well, for we live in a day more open and drawn to mystery than ever, yet Christianity often presents itself wholly to an enlightenment mind.  Ironic, as there are very few Enlightenment shaped minds left in existence.


In truth, much of the Christian faith is, indeed, mystery, which simply means beyond the ability of our reason to grasp.  It is not inherently self-contradictory, we just lack the ability to penetrate what an anonymous 14th century spiritual writer called “the cloud of unknowing” that encircles the Divine.


Yet it is precisely this mystery we are drawn to – and what could shape the heart of a new apologetic method.  Our very motivation for worship flows from a deep sense of awe, coupled with a love for the object worshiped.  But make no mistake, as Ben Pasley details, the awe is indispensable.  Thus the Christian faith should not only embrace mystery, but celebrate its presence.  Consider what faith would be like without it.  Our minds would instead search with restless energy seeking that which did take us beyond our rational capacities.


So maybe the “oxymorons” of our faith aren’t so bad.  Maybe they form the basis not only for the deepest of spiritual truths, but for worship itself.


So let’s add another one to the list:


The Mystery that can be known.


And then realize it is precisely this Mystery that needs to be made known.


James Emery White





James Emery White, Wrestling with God (InterVarsity Press).


Martin Luther, What Luther Says: An Anthology, ed. Ewald M. Plass.


Ben Pasley, Enter the Worship Circle.


Editor’s Note

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, which he also served as their fourth president.  His latest book is What They Didn’t Teach You in Seminary (Baker).  To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, log-on to www.churchandculture.org, where you can post your comments on this blog, view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world.  Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.

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