From Paradox to Contradiction in the Theology of John Murray

Followers of the theology of Cornelius Van Til have long argued that while there are “apparent paradoxes” in Scripture these are not contradictions in the ultimate sense. For example, in The Trinity and the Vindication of Christian Paradox, B. A. Bosserman explains,

“When it comes to evaluating apparent contradictions, the believer has every right to expect that these can be resolved in some fashion, if all of the relevant information were available to him, since God’s revelation cannot contradict itself (Deut 13:1–5; 1 Cor 14:29–33).”

But when we come to Van Til’s colleague John Murray we find quite a different view in his book Calvin on Scripture and Divine Sovereignty (London: Evangelical Press, 1960, 1979). While the book up until the last few pages is quite excellent (well defending the thesis that Calvin held to inerrancy, and defending with Calvin the position that God is the supreme and first cause of all things), the train running so smoothly till that point then comes off its rails. In the last pages Murray argues for a “disparity” within God between His decretive will and His preceptive will. (p. 68) There is, Murray contends, a “discrepancy between God’s will to salvation of all and the election of God by which he predestinates only a fixed number to salvation.” (p. 69)
Though he first downplays this as an “apparent contradiction” (p. 69) of which “it is not the mark of intelligence to allege or a claim a ready resolution” he soon goes on to refer to it again as “a discrepancy” and then simply as a “contradiction” without anything about it being only “apparent.” Murray writes,

“There is, after all, the contradiction that we by sin offer to God’s sovereignty. It is the contradiction of the claim which his sovereignty demands of us and the contradiction of what is God’s good pleasure.” (p. 70)


“We must boldly maintain and profess the only alternative which Calvin so insistently asserted. In the realm of sin we have the contradiction of God’s revealed will and prescriptive good pleasure. But that very contradiction is embraced in the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God.” (p. 70)

It is important to explain that the supposed contradiction Murray sees in God’s will is in fact easily resolved (without even extreme intelligence) by understanding that God’s “preceptive will” is more accurately called His commands, and that these commands are made not because God wills that man will (or can) follow them, but, as Romans 3:20 says, so that man might have knowledge of his sin.
We can (and should) embrace both the Scriptural teaching that God commands men not to sin (not that He desires the salvation of all men, as Arminians and John Murray hold) and the teaching that all things work out according to God’s will. But we embrace these not as a contradiction—for contradictions simply cannot be embraced—but as fully consistent Scriptural teachings.