God’s Sovereignty and Man’s Free Will- Paradox or Antinomy?

Packer began his chapter on one of the most debated topics in theological history with this statement, “All theological topics contain pitfalls for the unwary, for God’s truth is never quite what man would have expected.”[1] No doubt anyone who reads this would grant that the materials he presents, the logic he uses, and the Scripture he provides are fair and consistent. To begin with, he makes the distinction between paradoxes and antinomies. Unfortunately he has to modify the definition he provides from the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary of antinomy in order to show his meaning.[2] The added “appearance of contradiction” changes the definition entirely. Later on in his book he defines a paradox as “a figure of speech, a play on words. It is a form of statement that seems to unite two opposite ideas, or to deny something by the very terms in which it is asserted.”[3] This idea of a paradox seems to be more adequate in defining the responsibility of man with the sovereignty of God, especially when one considers Packer’s reconstructed definition of antinomy.[4]


Packer continued to change the meaning of words when he wrote concerning paradoxes, “The point of a paradox, however, is that what creates the appearance of contradiction is not the acts, but the words.”[5] As with his change of the definition of antinomy, so his change of this definition of paradox also hinders his ability to rightly describe how God’s sovereignty and man’s free will work together. Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary defines paradox as “something (such as a situation) that is made up of two opposite things and that seems impossible but is actually true or possible.”[6] If one takes this definition, without changing or adding any additional words, it should become apparent at once that the sovereignty of God and free will of man are best defined as a paradox. They are opposite things. In other words, God is truly sovereign. He rules the universe completely by Himself.[7] This is a statement of fact, as Packer wrote, about God’s rule in the universe of man.[8] However, the Scripture makes is equally clear that man has a free will.[9]

These two truths seem to be contradictory, for if God was sovereign (i.e. exercised complete and unequaled control of the universe) then man could not exercise a free will. The same applies for the opposite, if man had a free will (i.e. the ability to make a decision without God causing him to make it) then God would cease to be sovereign. The issue is brought into the state of a paradox when Scripture does in fact teach both.[10]

In conclusion, if one were to redefine the words paradox and antinomy, then would could determine that these two truths are in fact antinomy. However, if one were to follow the normal means of scholarship and research, then paradox is the only choice.[11]

[1] J. I. Packer, Evangelism & the Sovereignty of God (Downers Grove, Ill.: Intervarsity Press, 1961), 23.

[2] The definition he provided was, “a contradiction between conclusions which see equally logical, reasonable, or necessary.” Packer, 23.

[3] Packer, 24.

[4] Narry F. Santos does a much better job describing what a paradox is and how a writer of Scripture utilizes this unique form of communication. “A paradox is a statement that departs from accepted opinion (the etymological nuance), or an apparently self-contradictory or absurd statement (the derivational nuance). Thus a “paradox” is an unusual and apparently self-contradictory rhetorical statement or concept that departs dramatically from accepted opinion.” See Santos, Narry F. “The Paradox of Authority and Servanthood in the Gospel of Mark.”Bibliotheca Sacra 154, no. 616 (1997): 452-60.

[5] Packer, 25.

[6] “Paradox.” Merriam-Webster.com. Accessed September 14, 2014. http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/paradox.

[7] Packer listed the following verses in support of this biblical truth: Gen. 14.8; 50.20; Prov. 16.9; 21.1; Mt 10.29; Acts 9.27-28; Rom 9.20-21; Eph. 1.11. See Packer, 27.

[8] Packer continued to force his own construction of an antinomy when he wrote, “It is not a figure of speech [referring to God’s sovereignty], but an observed relation between two statements of fact.” Packer, 26.

[9] See Mt 25; Rom 2.1-16; Rev 20.11-13. Packer, 27.

[10] The definition of paradox is “something (such as a situation) that is made up of two opposite things and that seems impossible but is actually true or possible.”[10]

[11] It should be noted, however, that a doctrine of Scripture should be observed in the boundaries set by Scripture itself. Any doctrine can be taken to such an extent that Scripture nor had God ever intended. When theologians do this often times the readers are left with the impression of a contradiction when no such contradiction was ever there.


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