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What is antinomy?

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Antinomy is a compound Greek word made of anti, which means “against or in opposition to,” and nomos, which means “law.” In philosophy, the word antinomy is used to designate the conflict of two laws that are mutually exclusive or that oppose one another. When two carefully drawn, logical conclusions contradict each other, the result is antinomy.

A simple example of antinomy is the statement: “This sentence is false.” The basic statement (that the sentence is false) is canceled out by the speaker’s assertion (that it is true that the sentence is false). This may seem trivial, but, when applied to other issues, antinomy takes on more meaning. For example, the statement “There is no absolute truth” contains antinomy. The statement is self-contradictory. To say that a truth can never be absolute is opposed by the fact that the speaker is claiming to speak the truth. Does the assertion that there is no absolute truth apply to the assertion itself? Thus, the antinomy.

Antinomy was used famously by philosopher Immanuel Kant. Kant described the conflict between rational thought and sensory perception. He believed that empirical thought could not be used to prove rational truth. Kant established four antinomies where a thesis and an antithesis cancel each other out. In the first of his antinomies, Kant points out that time must have had a beginning. Infinity is timelessness, and timelessness cannot exist upon a timeline, and yet here we are—moving through time; therefore, infinity does not exist. But then Kant “proves” the exact opposite by pointing out that, if time had a beginning, there must have been some kind of “pretemporal void” that existed before time began. A pretemporal void would by necessity be a timeless place, a place that never changes. And how could time come to be created if nothing ever changes? This apparent paradox, along with a few others, shows that pure reason does not always lead us to truth.

The mind of man is limited; our intellect is fallible. This is not something we like to hear or accept, but it is the truth of the matter. As Kant pointed out, you can take two equally and obviously true rational statements, compare them to one another, and disprove them both. This should tell us something. The very existence of antinomy says that there are things in the universe that we do not have the equipment to fathom.

The Bible presents humility as an important virtue (see James 4:6). When God allowed Satan to attack Job, Job was confused. There was not any reason, that he could see, for God to allow this. Job did not see the big picture—that God was showing Satan that nothing could shake Job’s faith, because God had created that faith. But Job didn’t know that, and he came to some wrong conclusions trying to figure out what God was up to. His three friends were even farther off base. When God responded, not with an answer to Job’s confusion, but with a general display of His power and glory, Job said, “Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know” (Job 42:3).

The existence of antinomy reminds us that we must “trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding” (Proverbs 3:5). Is this command because God does not want to tell us the truth? Is He hiding something from us? No, it’s only that our understanding is limited—and affected by the fall. In fact, it’s quite possible that God is giving us all the information our fallen mortal minds can handle. As created beings, we simply do not have the capacity to grasp the inner workings of the universe and the mind of the God who created it.

Antinomy is the result of a finite being trying to grasp the infinite, and failing. Paul points out that, since the world does not know God through wisdom, it pleased God to give us a “foolish” message, the message of the cross of Christ (1 Corinthians 1:18–25). The gospel was “folly to Greeks” who relied on the rational mind to acquire truth. The philosophers of Mars Hill scoffed at Paul when he mentioned the resurrection (Acts 17:32). Without a knowledge of Jesus Christ, who is the truth (John 14:6) and the wisdom of God (1 Corinthians 1:24), mankind can never truly know truth.

Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3–4). Children do not need to know everything their parents know to feel (and be) protected and loved. They don’t need to understand the ins and outs of tax law to know that Daddy will take care of them and put food on the table. This is the kind of humility and trust that believers have toward our Heavenly Father.

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This page last updated: January 11, 2022