Recently, the question of “block-logic came up for discussion. Marvin Wilson has appealed to “block-logic” as an argument against Reformed theological method. Since I happen to own a copy of Wilson’s book, it is worthwhile to revisit this issue, assessing Wilson’s view separately and directly, minus the interference of a middleman.
I would have brought this up earlier, but due to technical difficulties, I was in computer hiatus for about a month. I’ll begin by excerpting what I take to be the gist of Wilson’s argument:
Hebrews often made use of block logic. That is, concepts were expressed in self-contained units or blocks of thought. These blocks did not necessarily fit together in any obviously rational or harmonious pattern, particularly when one block represented the human perspective on truth and the other represented the divine.
Let us turn, then, to some of the many examples of block logic found throughout Scripture. The book of Exodus says that Pharaoh hardened his heart, but it also says that God hardened it (Exod 8:15; cf. 7:3). The prophets teach that God is both wrathful and merciful (Isa 45:7; Hab 3:2). The NT refers to Jesus as the “Lamb of God” and the “Lion of the tribe of Judah” (Jn 1:29,36; Rev 5:5). Hell is described as both “blackest darkness” and the “fiery lake” (Jude 13; Rev 19:20). In terms of salvation, Jesus said, “whoever comes to me I will ever drive away,” yet no one can come “unless the Father draws him” (Jn 6:37,44). To find life you must lose it (Mt 10:39). When you are weak, then you are strong (2 Cor 12:10). The way up (exaltation) is the way down (humility) (Lk 14:11). “Jacob have I loved and Esau have I hated (Rom 9:13; cf. Mal 1:3).
Upon a more careful reading of the biblical text one can often observe that the Bible views one block from the perspective of divine transcendence—God says, “I will harden Pharaoh’s heart”—and the other from a human point of view—“Pharaoh hardened his heart” (Exod 4:21; 7:3,13; 8:15). The same is often true of scriptures which deal with themes of predestination/election and freewill/human freedom.
Samuel Sandmel’s discussion is particularly helpful…”The Jewish view—we might call it providence—never concluded that a totally unalterable future lay ahead, for such a view contradicted God’s omnipotence and mercy…Unless God’s proposed destiny for a man is subject to alteration, prayer to God to institute such alternation is nonsensical.”
Neither God nor his Word may be easily contained in a box for logical or scientific analysis. Both God and his Word have a sovereign unpredictability that defies rational, human explanation. The Christian dogmatic tradition has much to learn from the Jewish community at this point, particularly in its attempt to understand Jesus and Paul.
In this connection, Jewish biblical scholar Pinchas Lapide writes that…[Jesus] would certainly have detested as arrogant blasphemy any attempt to unravel and neatly systematize the mysteries of God.
In a similar context, Lapide reinforces the above point by commenting on Gentile Christians who try to squeeze Jesus and his paradoxes into a “logical straightjacket.” Says Lapide, “He [Jesus] is still protesting, ‘I am not cleverly-thought-out book; I am a human being, with all the inherent contradictions.’” Lapide’s point is well taken. It drives the Christian back to the Gospels to consider anew such saying as Mt 10:34, in which the “Prince of Peace” (Mt 5:9; cf. Isa 9:6-7), says, “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.”
To the Jew, the deed was always more important than the creed…Neither did he feel compelled to reconcile what seemed irreconcilable.
It is our conclusion that the Church’s propensity for categorizing or methodologically organizing great theological systems of thought is at best risky business.
Our Father Abraham (Eerdmans 1998), 150-153.
Okay, let’s go back through all this piece-by-piece, beginning a few general observations
1. Wilson is an ecumenist. That’s why he wrote the book in the first place. So he has an agenda. This doesn’t mean that we can dismiss his arguments out of hand. But he does not come to the data as a disinterested exegete.
In particular, it is necessary for Wilson to take the church down a few notches in order to narrow the distance between the church and the synagogue.
2. In addition to his ecumenical subtext, Wilson also has a theological ax to grind. It is obvious that he is hostile to Calvinism, and he uses his examples of block-logic as a pretext to disprove Calvinism.
Again, that doesn’t mean that we a free to dismiss his claims without benefit of argument. But he isn’t concerned with block-logic qua block-logic, but as a club to take a whack at Calvinism.
i) The facile appeal to “paradox” and the like is, of course, popular in liberal and evangelical theology alike. In the case of evangelical theology, this serves an apologetic purpose. If you can’t win by means of logic, you can achieve a stalemate by the opportunistic appeal to paralogic.
My point is not to deny that there is a dimension of mystery to the ways of God. But the ready appeal to paradox is not substitute for exegesis. If sound exegesis should yield a paradoxical result, so be it. But much more often, paradox is introduced to prejudge and preempt unwelcome exegesis.
In addition, the dialectical theologian suffers from the same unprincipled selectivity as the relativist. He is more than happy to use logic to prove his point when his point is provable, but he abandons logic when the very same logic would disprove his point. Frequently, then, paradox is a pious fraud for a rather unscrupulous selectivity.
ii) The Bible was written to be understood. Scripture is the revelation of man’s duty to God and to his fellow man. It is our duty to believe what is true and to disbelieve what is false. And it is our further duty, where feasible, to act in accordance with our belief. You cannot act on a paradox, as Wilson uses the term, for a paradox would present you with mixed signals.
iii) Calvinism is not attempting to predict or second-guess God’s will. Rather, Reformed theology is taking God’s revealed will as its point of departure. We are not putting God in a box: God is putting us in a box—for our own safekeeping.
iv) For all his talk of paradox, Wilson seems not to know what a paradox is. In particular, he fails to draw an elementary distinction between a literary paradox and a conceptual paradox. A literary paradox is a rhetorical device designed to express the truth in a provocative fashion. It is true on one level, but false on another, and the duty of the reader is to decrypt the truth-claim by discerning the intended level of meaning.
v) Imagine how much fun a liberal would have with Wilson’s glib invocation of paradox. He could easily relativize the prescriptions and proscriptions, affirmations and denials of Scripture by pitting one against the other and playing both ends off against the middle. Yes, the Bible forbids adultery, sodomy, and bestiality, but this must be held in creative tension with what the Bible has to say about the love of God and neighbor-love.
4. Should we assume that Jewish liberals like Lapide and Sandmel, who are ultimately and fundamentally hostile to the Christian faith, enjoy some unique insight and authority on the meaning of the NT? For example, is Jesus just another human being, with all the attendant contradictions? In what sense is a sinless and impeccable Savior, even in his humanity, riddled with inherent contradictions? What does this say about Wilson’s Christology?
Let us also remember that these men are children of the Enlightenment, spiritual progeny of Moses Mendelssohn. Their intellectual ethos is a world apart from Jesus and the Apostles—much less OT times.
Again, that doesn’t mean that we are absolved of considering their claims. But to blindly defer to their judgment is simply naïve. Christians can read the Talmud too, and have done so—including such Reformed scholars as Lightfoot, Gill, and Duncan.
5. On the face of it, Wilson’s description of historical theology is ill-informed at the very point where it needs to be well-informed regarding the long history of Jewish philosophical theology and its impact on Scholastic theology and beyond (e.g., Philo, Saadia, Gabirol, Costa ben Luca, Halevi, Isaac Israeli Maimonides, Gersonides, Crescas, Spinoza).
6. Wilson has a very low view of the church. He almost treats 2000 years of church history as a wrong turn. Does he think of gentiles as squatters on hallowed ground? No doubt the church has much to learn from the synagogue. And the synagogue has much to learn from the church.
i) It is almost funny how libertarians argue against Calvinism. Election and predestination of explicit biblical categories. By contrast, freewill is not a biblical category at all. Rather, the libertarian regards this faculty as a presupposition of moral incumbency. Unlike election and predestination, which you can actually find in Scripture, freewill is not something you can find in Scripture. Rather, it is something the libertarian brings to Scripture. So the burden of proof lies entirely upon the libertarian, not the Calvinist. The Calvinist is beginning where Scripture begins--with Scriptural categories. The onus is on the libertarian to show that there is something else in Scripture which mitigates the force of the predestinarian passages.
ii) Scripture does not treat the will of God and the will of man as equitable cofactors. In the Gospel of John, the human response is traced by to the will of God, in terms of whom he chooses to draw or harden (e.g. Jn 6; 12; 17). Likewise, in Rom 9-11, the human response is contingent on God’s plan and providence. A Calvinist is lifting his harmonistic principle direct from the pages of Scripture, where the human will is subordinated to the divine will. We are not putting God in a box. Rather, we are taking God as his word.
iii) All that Scripture assumes is that man is able to entertain hypothetical situations, to grasp the moral and practical consequences of each action, and to take appropriate action if he is so inclined. A sinner was free to do the right thing had he wanted to do the right thing. But he was not free to choose what he wanted to do. He was, rather, in bondage to an evil heart.
8. It is quite unscriptural to say that the deed is more important than the creed. What’s the difference between a good deed and a misdeed? You can only do the right thing if you know the difference between right and wrong in the first place. You can only do the truth if you know the truth. Certainly the Bible has no use for a deedless creed. But neither has it any use for a creedless deed. In fact, there is no such thing as a creedless deed. Behavior is belief in action. It is pretty pathetic when an Evangelical teacher like Wilson can indulge in such breezy and morally disreputable principles.
9. It is misleading and quite inaccurate to set up a contrast between the divine and human perspectives in Scripture. This is like setting up a contrast between a novelist and his storybook characters. Now the novel will, indeed, present the viewpoint of the characters. But it will do so from editorial viewpoint of the novelist himself. Scripture gives us the divine perspective, not only on God, but also on man. This is what God thinks of man.
10. To speak of reconciling the irreconcilable begs the question. To say that we should make no attempt to reconcile two seemingly irreconcilable teachings is to canonize a snap judgment, as if our first impression were sacrosanct. Now, to begin with, paradox is person-variable. The examples that strike Wilson as paradoxical may not strike someone else as paradoxical. And this brings us to the next point. Wilson is confounding his subjective impression with the objective sense of Scripture.
A paradox is a relation between two assertions. Scripture does not assert a paradox. Rather, a paradox is a relation between two assertions of Scripture. The teaching of Scripture lies in the respective assertions, and not in our person-variable impression of whether they generate a paradox.
11. For Sandmel to claim that a fixed future would contradict God’s omnipotence and mercy is not a claim which he derives from the teaching of Scripture—to judge by Wilson’s quote. No exegetical argument is offered in support of this claim.
What we have, rather, is Sandmel’s theory of what of is implied by predestination, on the one hand, and divine freedom, on the other. This is not an interpretation of Scripture, but instead, Sandmel’s interpretation of the concept of predestination in relation to the concept of divine freedom.
And, frankly, his theory fails to survive rational scrutiny. If the future were fated in some way independent of God nature and will, then that would, indeed, infringe on his sovereignty. But if the future is predetermined because God himself has predetermined the course of future events, then it is nonsensical to say that this infringes on God’s freedom of action, for the fixity of the future is, in that case, the tangible transcript of God’s freedom to choose.
Sandmel’s objection would only make sense if he believes in a finite, fickle, and fallible God who is riddled by doubts and second thoughts about his plan for the world. Or perhaps Sandmel doesn’t believe that God even has a plan for the world. The world is just a lab experiment, a chemical reaction.
Likewise, Sandmel’s claim that predestination and prayer are nonsensical is not something given in Scripture itself. There is nowhere in Scripture in which his claim is taught, either expressly or implicitly.
Rather, this is only his theory of what preconditions must be in place for there to be petitionary prayer. And notice that he doesn’t even offer a rational argument for his claim. He merely posits a nonsensical relation between the two and leaves it at that. And he seems to be wholly ignorant of arguments to the contrary in Thomism and in Calvinism.
What we have in Wilson, as well as his Jewish authorities, is a shallow, knee-jerk reaction which makes a virtue of superficiality—as if our initial, unthinking, unreflective impression should be the rule of faith. And this appears to be seconded by a studied ignorance of a preexisting literature to the contrary.
12. BTW, notice that there is nothing in Wilson’s argument, such as it is, which is based on the psycholinguistic conditioning of the Hebrew language, per se.
Moving, now, from the general to the specific, let us examine his exegetical examples, one-by-one:
1. “The book of Exodus says that Pharaoh hardened his heart, but it also says that God hardened it (Exod 8:15; cf. 7:3).”
What we have here is a simple cause-and-effect relation. Exod 8:15 says that Pharaoh hardened his heart in fulfillment of God’s hardening process, which God had announced in advance of the fact (4:21; 7:3). These two units fit together in a perfectly rational and harmonious pattern of promise and fulfillment, cause and effect. Their relation is only illogical to an illogical mind like Wilson’s.
2. “The prophets teach that God is both wrathful and merciful (Isa 45:7; Hab 3:2).”
This is only a paradox if you insist, in simple-minded fashion, that God is both wrathful and merciful at the same time with respect to the same object. But the Bible itself is guilty of no such simplistic reasoning.
It distinguishes between God mercy towards the elect and his wrath upon the reprobate. It distinguishes between his retributive judgment upon the reprobate, and his remedial punishment of the elect—which is an expression of divine mercy. It distinguishes between the way in which he views people in Adam and how he views them in Christ.
3. “The NT refers to Jesus as the ‘Lamb of God’ and the ‘Lion of the tribe of Judah’ (Jn 1:29,36; Rev 5:5).”
This betrays a terribly wooden handling of figurative language. A metaphor is a picturesque analogy. It assumes a literal point of commonality between one object and its analogue. And t also makes due allowance for various points of disanalogy in the relation.
To compare one metaphor with another commits a level-confusion, for the writers of Scripture never intended to coordinate their figures of speech. To compare a metaphor with the object for which it stands is a first-order relation; to compare one metaphor with another metaphor is a second-order relation. The Bible writers don’t operate at that level of abstraction.
Each theological metaphor has its own literary history, its own context and connotations. No, you can’t just map one metaphor onto another, but that has nothing to do with block logic. It has, rather, to do with the difference between literal and figurative discourse, as well as the unique history and thematic development of each theological metaphor.
Even so, it would be quite possible to harmonize the sheepish metaphor with the leonine metaphor if we isolate and identify what each of these literally and distinctively signifies. These are only disharmonious if, like Wilson, one chooses to single out the incidental physical attributes of each which were never intended to count in the analogical relation.
4. “Hell is described as both ‘blackest darkness’ and the ‘fiery lake’ (Jude 13; Rev 19:20).”
This is even more inept than #3. It commits the same fallacy as #3, but adds yet another blunder by juxtaposing one writer’s figurative usage with another writer’s. But if there were such a thing as block-logic, it could not be attested by taking two different authors who may be ignorant of each other’s usage. At most, it could only be attested by showing that the same author reasons in self-contained units of thought.
5. “In terms of salvation, Jesus said, ‘whoever comes to me I will ever drive away,’ yet no one can come ‘unless the Father draws him”(Jn 6:37,44).
Here we have, once again, a simple cause-and-effect relation. If God does the drawing, then those whom he draws will come in response to his irresistible initiative. Their coming is the necessary effect of his causal action in drawing them to himself. Why do they come? Because he draws them. Why does he draw them? To make them come. And, of course, he wouldn’t draw them to himself in order to drive them away. Absent his action, they are already aloof. He draws them to bring them to himself.
This relation is only illogical to an illogical mind like Wilson’s. What is there in this lucidly logical and transparent transaction that Wilson finds so difficult to figure out?
The problem is, in part, that appeal to paradox becomes addictive. You lose all mental discipline, all incentive to think through a problem. Indeed, you begin to see a problem where none exists.
The motive is not to solve problems, but multiply difficulties in order to justify your repudiation of certain disagreeable doctrines. If you dislike the sovereignty of God, you invoke the universal solvent of a “paradox” to excuse your rebellious unbelief.
6. “To find life you must lose it (Mt 10:39).”
This is a good example of Wilson’s failure to distinguish between literary and conceptual paradox. What we have here is a case of literary, not conceptual, paradox--with a double entendre on the meaning of “life.” To find eternal life you must forfeit your mortal life.
7. “When you are weak, then you are strong (2 Cor 12:10).”
This is the same thing as #6. We are weak, but God is strong, and our infirmity sets the stage to dramatize the surpassing power of God’s grace. Has Wilson never read 2 Cor 12 in context?
8. “The way up (exaltation) is the way down (humility) (Lk 14:11).”
Once more, this is a literary paradox—a rhetorical device. If we humble ourselves in this life, we will be exalted in the life to come; if we exalt ourselves in this life, we will be cast down in the life to come. That expresses the literal and commonplace principle in Biblical ethics of the eschatological reversal of fortunes, viz., the first shall be last and the last shall be first.
9. “Jacob have I loved and Esau have I hated” (Rom 9:13; cf. Mal 1:3).
How do these two “units of thought” not fit together in any “rational or harmonious pattern”?
If God said that “Jacob have I loved, and Jacob have I hated,” then that would indeed, present a paradox. But there is nothing even apparently self-contradictory about God harboring different attitudes towards different objects. This is only illogical to an illogical mind like Wilson’s.
10. “Mt 10:34, in which the ‘Prince of Peace’ (Mt 5:9; cf. Isa 9:6-7), says, ‘Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.’
This reiterates his tone-deaf ear for figurative language. But beyond that incorrigible fault, it systematically bungles the real meaning of Isa 9:6.
i) In Biblical usage, a “prince” is a warrior king (e.g., Gen 21:22; Dan 8:11,25).
ii) “Prince of peace” forms a synonymous parallel” to “mighty God,” which is a title for the divine warrior.
iii) This picks up on the martial imagery of vv4-5, with their dual allusion to the Exodus and the defeat of Midian at the hands of Yahweh, the Lord of hosts.
iv) The motif of the messianic warrior king in 59:17-18; 63:1-6 is a carryover from 9:1-7.
The title therefore denotes a figure that brings peace by means of military conquest. First there is war, then there is peace. Peace is the end-result of war, of vanquishing his enemies and subjugating his adversaries on the field of battle.
That’s the picture in Isaiah. It is, of course, largely figurative, yet the depiction is not without a literal element of truth as well. For God is the Judge of all the living and the dead, and at the end of the church age he will forcibly defeat and despoil the ungodly.
You might suppose that a man with a doctorate in Semitics from Brandeis would be sensitive to literary imagery, be able to read a text in context, know how to handle figures of speech.
Wilson fails to do this, not because he can’t, but because he won’t—because it would get in the way of his agenda. At the end of the day, all he offers is not block-logic in Scripture, but block-logic in himself—for Wilson’s thought process fails to cohere together in any rational or harmonious whole.
Marvin Wilson informs me that he is not a Messianic Jew. Rather, he is "a Christian who worships at an evangelical, Congregational Church" (private email, 4/27/05). In that event, he doesn't bring any insider's perspective on the Jewish mindset. This doesn't mean, of course, that his position can be discounted without further ado, but it does mean that he is a gentile trying to get inside the Hebrew mind, and in that respect, he has no inherent advantage over any other gentile Bible scholar.