The one who comes from above is above all; the one who is from the earth belongs to the earth, and speaks as one from the earth. The one who comes from heaven is above all. He testifies to what he has seen and heard, but no one accepts his testimony. The man who has accepted it has certified that God is truthful. (John 3:31-33)
Truth is one by definition. It is singular – there is only one truth and not many truths. It is self-consistent – there is no self-contradiction in the truth. It is exclusive – anything that contradicts the truth must be false. There are, however, many philosophies that claim to be the truth. Here I refer to philosophy in the general sense of a principle, a way of thinking, and mainly a system of thought. Religion is included in this meaning of the word, but if you are suspicious of the word in a discussion about the Christian faith, then you can replace it with belief, or thinking, or perhaps doctrine.
Although it appears that there are many philosophies, each with their own methods, premises, and conclusions, there are in fact only two main philosophies. There is a philosophy from above, the heavenly philosophy. There is a philosophy from below, the earthly philosophy. One consists of revelation. The other consists of speculation. One is a message from heaven. The other is the opinion of man.
One comes from an all-powerful and all-knowing God. The other is the product of human delusions, inventions, and preferences. It is a result of man’s delusions, because he has deceived himself into thinking that his methods can discover truth. It is a result of man’s inventions, because he often simply makes things up. And it is a result of his preferences, because his methods, his delusions, and his inventions have been selected to please his sinful dispositions and to excuse himself from God’s demands.
The philosophy from below is an attempt to escape or to replace the philosophy from above. Thus although there is an appearance of variety, all non-Christian philosophies are reduced to one because they are in fact all earthly philosophies. They never rise above the subjective and irrational principles of mere men. This is the simple dividing line: divine revelation or human speculation.
There was a theologian who wrote, “All teaching of Scripture is apparently contradictory.” Such a statement, of course, is blasphemy. He was never able to offer an acceptable explanation or to demonstrate that the doctrines of Scripture were all apparently contradictory, and his followers have been entirely unsuccessful in explaining away this and similar statements that he made. Nevertheless, he was a professor in apologetics, and he was, and still is, hailed as one of the greatest defenders of the faith in the previous century.
My interest is not to discuss his sin of blasphemy, but rather to explain it in terms of our present discussion. Why did he blaspheme? He was convinced of his position on God’s incomprehensibility, which led him to insist that our knowledge of God is nothing more than an analogical knowledge. This view of God was not derived from Scripture, but was imposed on Scripture, so that he did not regard only God as incomprehensible, but also the Scripture as incomprehensible. Thus he said that “Scripture is apparently contradictory” – all of it.
I have shown in another publication that the Bible does not in fact teach that God is incomprehensible. God is not incomprehensible in himself, for otherwise he could not fully know himself, and that would contradict his omniscience. He is incomprehensible to us only in the sense that he is infinite, so that there is always more about him to know than we already know. But what we do know, we know univocally, and not analogically – that is, unless we do not really know it.
So the relevant divine attribute is his infinity, and not his incomprehensibility, which is not a divine attribute at all. But now think about this. What would mislead a person into thinking that incomprehensibility is a divine attribute, when the Bible teaches no such thing, and when it does not fit in with other clearly defined divine attributes? The answer is that the doctrine is a projection of a human attribute, that man is finite. Whether or not we fully comprehend God, he is fully comprehensible in himself, since he fully comprehends himself. When we assert or imply that he is not fully comprehensible in himself – that this characteristic is a divine attribute – then we have imposed the implication of a human attribute on our understanding of God. When we do this, we are speaking about God not as he reveals himself, but as earthly men speaking about earthly things. Since God is not an earthly thing, when we continue in our earthly way of speaking while referring to him, the result is confusion, heresy, and even the great sin of blasphemy.
This theologian was fond of saying that we are to “think God’s thoughts after him,” but this was the one thing that he did not do. Because he held on to the philosophy from below, he failed to speak about God the way that Scripture itself speaks about God – the way that God speaks about himself. Unless God confesses that his own thoughts about himself entail apparent contradictions, or unless God confesses that his own revelation about himself entail apparent contradictions, it is not up to this theologian to determine this. A person who thinks God’s thoughts after him would affirm that his verbal revelation is obviously non-contradictory and undeniably self-consistent. He would reject all this rubbish about how it is impossible to understand an infinite God in an immediately coherent manner – the omniscient and omnipotent God made us, and he knew how to speak to us, even in our fallen condition.
If God is self-consistent, knows that he is self-consistent, and reveals himself as self-consistent, then a person can perceive apparent contradictions in God’s words about himself only because of something in man – because of the way man grasps and perceives things. But this is the opposite of thinking God’s thoughts after him. Rather, it is to insist on using our own perspective, or our own thoughts, to examine and interpret God’s thoughts. It is to think man’s thoughts about God, even apart from and in antagonism to God’s revelation about himself. This way of thinking refuses to learn from God as to how we should think about God.
Thus the philosophy from above ended up invading his thoughts and clashing with his thoughts, rather than converting his thoughts. And the contradictions that he perceived were not contradictions that appeared within revelation, but they were contradictions between the philosophy from above that was in Scripture, and the philosophy from below that was in his mind, and that he refused to abandon.
This was evident in his method of apologetics, in which he approved man’s methods of discovery, including the reliability of sensation and the scientific method. He claimed that biblical presuppositions account for them. But I have shown in my other works that these are false and irrational in themselves. It is impossible for them to lead to true conclusions about anything. To say that biblical presuppositions account for them is to say that these biblical presuppositions are also false and irrational.
He made a lot of noise about pressing the antithesis between Christian and non-Christian thought, but even at the very foundation of his system of thought, he tried to make divine philosophy endorse human philosophy, to make the philosophy of authority appease and approve the philosophy of rebellion. In this manner, he paid lip service to divine revelation, but retained all the evils and fallacies of human speculation.
Despite his pretension, he could not let go of his man-centered thinking, and it is for this same reason that many people continue to follow him. This philosophy offers a mask of submission to revelation, but at the root is subversion against revelation, and man’s methods and judgments are jealously guarded as preconditions to even enter into the knowledge of revelation. He was so obsessed with justifying this tension within himself, and so possessed by the drive to make the heavenly philosophy bow to his earthly philosophy, that he even banded together with others to persecute those who affirmed that God’s revelation was clear and coherent, so that all apparent contradictions were easily resolved.
In any case, by nature apparent contradictions tell us something about the person who perceives them, and not the matter that supposedly contains these contradictions. If you see a contradiction where none exists, as this is what it means to see an apparent contradiction, then all this tells us is that there is something wrong with you. You are defective in some way. And if you see a contradiction in God’s clear and coherent doctrine, then all this tells us is that there is something wrong with you. To resolve this, we must not only explain the Bible to you, but we would have to adjust your perspective and your attitude.
Yet, is it possible to share the view from above? Is it possible to grasp and adopt God’s thoughts, and God’s way of thinking? This is a most important issue. Although he claimed that it was possible, this theologian did not really believe it, and he persecuted those who knew better than he did, and thought that he was doing God a service. But he was not the only one. As long as the earthly philosophy survives, it will persecute the heavenly philosophy. By the light of heaven, man’s thoughts are exposed as inferior and irrational, but in his rebellion he refuses to renounce them.
We must take warning from this, because it is popular to appeal to God’s incomprehensibility to excuse man’s refusal to accept revelation. Since this excuse draws attention to God’s greatness, it appears to honor him, but the effect is to deny what he has revealed to us – the clarity of it, the simplicity of it – in order to protect human beliefs and opinions, or to excuse the refusal to adopt this higher and true philosophy. The admission of incompetence gives the appearance of humility, and at the same time excuses one’s refusal to change. The admission of finitude, when done for this reason, is offered only to preserve one’s comfort. It is a false humility. God is not deceived by it.
Let me give you another illustration, so that you would not think I am targeting one person for criticism. In a sermon on Psalm 73, in which the Psalmist stumbles over the prosperity of the wicked, Lloyd-Jones says, “We are dealing with the ways of Almighty God, and He has told us so often in His Book, ‘My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways.’ Half our trouble arises from the fact that we do not realize that that is the basic position from which we must always start.” This statement is then used to justify the assertion that perplexity about the ways of God, such as that which the Psalmist experienced, is neither “surprising” nor “sinful.”
The verse that he cites comes from Isaiah 55. We will read verses 8 and 9: “‘For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,’ declares the LORD. ‘As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.'” Verse 9 makes this passage especially relevant for us, since it states that God’s thoughts are higher than man’s thoughts just as the heavens are higher than the earth. This coincides with our consideration regarding the philosophy from above and the philosophy from below.
The question is whether it is possible for mere men to grasp and adopt the philosophy from above. And this question is answered for us by Paul in 1 Corinthians 2:
However, as it is written: “No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him” – but God has revealed it to us by his Spirit. The Spirit searches all things, even the deep things of God.
For who among men knows the thoughts of a man except the man’s spirit within him? In the same way no one knows the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. We have not received the spirit of the world but the Spirit who is from God, that we may understand what God has freely given us. This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, expressing spiritual truths in spiritual words.
The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned. The spiritual man makes judgments about all things, but he himself is not subject to any man’s judgment: “For who has known the mind of the Lord that he may instruct him?” But we have the mind of Christ. (1 Corinthians 2:9-16)
Verse 9 says that man has not conceived of the heavenly philosophy, but then verse 10 says that God has revealed it to us. Verse 11 says that only the Spirit knows the thoughts of God, but then verse 12 says that God has given us his Spirit so that we may know these thoughts. And verse 13 says that the revelation of these thoughts touches even the very words used to communicate them to us. These are not just words spoken to us that we may or may not understand. Paul says that the Spirit taught him the words, and then he used those words to teach others. The passage is a guarantee that a Christian can grasp and even teach the heavenly philosophy.
What kind of person would find God’s words apparently contradictory? “The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned.” How can this be, if God is so lofty and incomprehensible, and we are so finite in our own minds and thoughts? But who told you to hold on to your own mind and your own thoughts? Paul answers, “We have the mind of Christ.”
Thus Lloyd-Jones makes an illegitimate appeal to the statement, “My thoughts are not your thoughts.” Using this statement to excuse perplexity about the ways of God or even the goodness of God is misleading and irresponsible. God’s thoughts are higher than our thoughts, but who says that we are stuck with our thoughts? He has revealed his thoughts in the Scripture. He says that perplexity about God is not sinful. But if we are perplexed about the ways of God because we have failed to read the Scripture, then of course this is sinful. And if we have read the Scripture, but remain perplexed about the prosperity of the wicked, how is it not sinful? His statement amounts to saying, “It is not sinful to have never read the Scripture, and it is not sinful to have read the Scripture and act as if you have never read it.” What an insult this is to God and the Scripture.
He says that we must begin with perplexity about the ways and thoughts of God: “Half our trouble arises from the fact that we do not realize that that is the basic position from which we must always start.” Such a statement excuses sin and encourages rebellion in God’s people. Our trouble is in the exact opposite. It is in insisting that this is the position from which we must always start. Because of unbelief and rebellion, we insist that we must begin from man’s assumptions, and since God’s ways differ from our expectations, it follows that we must begin from perplexity about the wisdom and goodness of God. Listen! Are we Christians or not? If we are, then we can begin from God’s thoughts, and begin from a position of confidence, understanding, and obedience. Anything less is sin. Indeed, some of us may be weak at times, and God will forgive us when we stumble, but let us not mock God by saying that we must begin from sin.
All of this is relevant because it illustrates a broad theme in the Gospel of John. Jesus was from above, and spoke as one from above. The men who heard him were from below, and spoke as those from below. When Jesus came and bore witness to the things of heaven, he clashed with those who affirmed a philosophy from below. Those who did not convert their way of thinking became hostile, and persecuted him. But those who believed on him were changed and enlightened, so that Jesus said that although they were still in the world, they were no longer of the world. This is what he called being born again, or born from above. And he said that unless a man is born again or born from above, he cannot even see the kingdom of God. By this he did not mean physical sight, but a spiritual perception or an intellectual grasp of the things of God.
By depicting select episodes from the life and teaching of Jesus Christ, the Gospel of John presents a heavenly philosophy – that is, the view from above. There exists a constant tension between this heavenly philosophy and the earthly philosophy. And throughout this Gospel you will see how the men from below misunderstood, misrepresented, and clashed with this philosophy from above. Since the two philosophies were affirmed by persons, they are naturally personified in Christ and his disciples, and in the Jews, the Pharisees, the Greeks, the Romans, and so on. And the conflict between these two different and opposing ways of thinking were acted out by those involved in the history of Jesus Christ.
The Christian faith is a word, a revelation, a philosophy from another world, even from above. As we study the Gospel of John, I pray the doctrine from above will not only invade your mind, so as to disturb it, but that it will subdue your mind and convert it, so that in believing the Lord Jesus, you may also have life through him.