We all are well aware of the negative effects of tension. It causes headaches, called tension headaches, because of the sensation of a ‘tight band’ squeezing around the crown of the head. We try to avoid tension in relationships and, generally speaking, in most areas of life. Except of course where tension is necessary, such as a tension bridge. Remove the tension there and disaster will follow. But there is another area in which tension is good and necessary, and that is in the doctrines of the Biblical revelation.
Tension is inherently ‘tense’, and therefore requires our careful attention. Theologically (a convenient way to refer to the study of God), tension is a key element that holds together some of the core Biblical doctrines, while at the same time leaves us scratching our heads in wonder. And for those of us who are Bible teachers, we need to take what we first of all learn as students (a true Bible teacher is a lifelong Bible student), and present it to our listeners in a way that they can digest it.
But this is no small task when dealing with the subject of an infinite God and a finite creation. Why is this so challenging? When two natures, such as God’s and man’s, coexist throughout the written pages of Biblical revelation, you will inevitably face what I call a Biblical dichotomy, the tension between two seemingly incompatible truths. This tension is at the core of major Biblical themes and is absolutely God’s design.
Take for instance God’s sovereignty (Rom 9:15-23; 1 Tim 6:15-16; Rev 4:11) and man’s free will (John 3:14-18; Matt 11:28). We see both in these and many other verses, whether implicitly or explicitly, therefore we must accept both and we had better teach both. How they work together, I do not know. But God does know and we don’t have to understand exactly how they coexist. The fact that they do compels us to be humble before God and responsible for our actions. We accept both truths with all the tension that accompanies them. Hold a preference towards either direction of God’s sovereignty or man’s freewill, and our view will be become imbalanced biblically. The theological bridge will collapse.
Or how about Christ’s two natures in one person? He was human, having entered our time-space continuum at a certain point in history, (Luke 1:30-31) yet he also existed prior as the eternally divine Son (John 1:1-4; John 17:5). Scripture clearly declares both. This is a great mystery indeed, and has been the subject of debate and the catalyst for many heretical movements. The movements themselves were the result of man’s attempt to remove the tension from one side or the other. So much so that the council at Chalcedon (AD 451) had to address and clarify the church’s position on Christ’s nature and person. And even though the creed that was established at that council continues today to help us talk about Jesus correctly, it does not demystify the incarnation in any way. We are still perplexed in our finite intellect and understanding. Here again, we can only concur with the apostle Paul when he said,
“And without controversy great is the mystery of godliness:
God was manifested in the flesh,
Justified in the Spirit,
Seen by angels,
Preached among the Gentiles,
Believed on in the world,
Received up in glory.” (1Tim. 3:16 NKJV)
One final example of this dichotomy is found in the subject of the kingdom of heaven. It is both present spiritually, and yet to come physically (Matt 16:28; Matt 26:29). The kingdom consists of God’s people now, all true believers everywhere in whom Christ dwells and rules as King (Luke 17:20-21; Col 1:27), but a time also will come when he will establish his kingdom on earth, bringing with him in his glory those very same believers (Matt 24:30; 2 Peter 3:13, 1 Thess 4:15-17).
There are many other examples of seemingly incompatible truths, and in such cases we do our best with the help of the Holy Spirit and the reasoning faculties of our God-given minds. But when still we fail intellectually to reconcile two truths, we must steer away from the temptation to downsize one or overrun the other. For doing so will be to forfeit the whole counsel of God (Acts 20:27), and weaken the tension which God has purposefully given in the Biblical accounts (2 Peter 3:15-18) .
At the end of the day, let’s remember we are finite creatures that have received a revelation of, and from, our infinite creator. Some things just need to be left in a balanced tension. The dichotomy cannot be eliminated so long as we have two perspectives and two natures throughout the revelation of the Scripture, God’s and man’s. Indeed, the author of Hebrews seems to acknowledge the presence of this dual-natured fact when he says,
“For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” (Heb. 4:12 ESV)
Do you notice there is a dividing that takes place as the Word of God cuts into the whole of our being, distinguishing between the physical and spiritual aspects? Therefore, we must be content to lay aside our intellectual pride and put on humility in the garment of faith. With this I do not mean that some revelation goes against reason and therefore we blindly acknowledge it by faith at the cost of reason, but rather that some things transcend reason. And transcending is a different story altogether.
Paul the apostle was perhaps the most generously inspired biblical writer when it comes to giving us the mysteries of God. He himself said,
“For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.”
(1Cor. 13:12 ESV)
If Paul, the messenger of the mysteries, only knew in part, I think we ought to concede that we also only know in part. And until we are in glory, this wont change. Lastly, John the apostle similarly acknowledged his limited knowledge regarding our glorified state when he said,
“Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is.” (1John 3:2 ESV)
In summary, God, who is Spirit, has revealed certain truths to mankind, who is physical. And he has done so the only way we possibly could understand that revelation: through man in human language. Therefore, we need to be careful and resist the temptation of squeezing our theology into a neat system that appeals to our finite intellect alone. We must remember that God and his revelation will by nature transcend our best thinking.
And along these lines, we need to avoid division among the body of Christ over the nonessentials. Countless well-intended men and women have tried to ‘figure it all out’, and consequently been divided over their intellectual conclusions. As a result today, we have many many denominations that take varying positions on certain Biblical doctrines. And worse still, an ever-increasing number of cults. Their very presence is testimony of our inability to package God’s Word in such an airtight system that there is no longer any dispute over any one particular subject. Although this really isn’t the topic of this post, it does help illustration the point I want to make.
Scripture, while its primary message can be aprehended by a child, will always leave the best of scholars standing dumbfounded halfway across the theological ‘tension’ bridge. I don’t know about you, but when I find myself there, rather than trying to take down the bridge, I prefer to stop and enjoy the view.