7 Kinds of Theological Mystery
I often hear Christians talk about how the Trinity is mysterious. But it’s important for us to distinguish between several concepts as it relates to our knowledge of God. The problem with our knowing God and his being mysterious is that we too often find our reasoned beliefs about God to be more certain than they really are, and likewise too easily label what is difficult to understand as “mysterious.”
The beauty of Christian theology is that it is, unlike other theologies, not a human invention. Christian theology is, in one sense, the product of applying the scientific method to God’s revelation.
The scientific method is composed of two smaller methods--inductivism and deductivism. Inductivism is the exploratory aspect of science in which the scientist gathers data from the object of study; it is the observational aspect of science. Deductivism is the theoretical aspect of science in which the scientist interprets and makes conclusions based on the data. Christian theology is inductive in that it must gather data from the canon of Scripture, which is God’s revelation to the church, and it is deductive in that it must make sense of the truths communicated in the Scriptural data through clarification and explanation.
Naturally, as with any science, there will be gaps in knowledge and conceptual incoherence as the object becomes clearer. The better one understands a certain aspect of the object under study, the better questions one is able to ask, and the deeper the mysteriousness of the object becomes--the more one sees, the better one is able to distinguish between what is unknown because it is undiscovered and undeduced, and what is unknown because it is incomprehensible.
Christian theologians have developed concepts to explain these different kinds of gaps in Christian knowledge which are inevitable because of the nature of the object itself falls outside the realm of being we inhabit--namely, God himself.
Categories of Mystery
The Apostle Paul gives us a dense explanation of mystery, from which we will extrapolate here our seven part taxonomy, in 1 Corinthians 2:9-13. He writes:
But, as it is written,
“‘What no eye has seen, nor ear heard,
nor the heart of man imagined,
what God has prepared for those who love him’—
these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit. For the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. For who knows a person's thoughts except the spirit of that person, which is in him? So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God. And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual.”
Here, Paul plainly sets forth the epicenter of all mystery--revelation itself. Paul refuses to speak about theological mystery without first taking for granted the fact of divine revelation and a Christian interpretation of the history of the world which every human inhabits. The various ways in which God is experienced as mysterious by people can otherwise be called the various dimensions of revelatory contact. Each modality of God’s mysteriousness is a refraction of a certain way of relating to God’s unveiling of that which is uncreated to creatures. There are at least 7 versions of this phenomenon.
1. Revelatory Limitation
The first kind of theological mystery is baked into the fabric of progressive revelation. It is in this sense which Paul speaks about Christ, who for all of redemptive history had been God’s answer to the dilemmas of unfulfilled Hebrew Faith: “My purpose is that they may be encouraged in heart and united in love, so that they may have the full riches of complete understanding, in order that they may know the mystery of God, namely, Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Colossians 2:2–3).
In this sense, one’s proximity to revelation determines the clarity and substance of one’s knowledge of God. Mystery is a matter of distance, not data. Both Old Testament believers and unevangelized pagans experience this same limitation in different ways--what is mysterious about God is a matter of having not yet encountered God in word and deed due to redemptive or geographical distance.
This reflects what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 2:9: “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him.” Certain humans have constraints upon their inductive capacity which impede their proper conduction of a full and accurate theological science. The impediment to revelatory access produces theological mystery.
2. Illuminative Limitation
Some mystery remains a matter of spiritual vivification. One might encounter God in word and deed, and yet reject him. This is why Paul says: “these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit.” Encountering revelation is not a guarantee that one will overcome revelatory limitations--comprehension of revelation presupposes an ethical posture toward God which believes God’s self-witness, which is what revelation is. It is this distinction which many secular philosophers of religion will never understand--that is, the ethical preconditions for comprehending the data of revelation.
To the mind that is ethically closed toward God, every creaturely manifestation can be philosophically explained away as a physical or psychological aberrance. Without illumination by the Spirit, the secular mind will always interpret the things of God as natural phenomena. The unbeliever, no matter how “spiritual” they conceive themselves, will never be able to comprehend the spiritual truths which God has revealed, because the only spiritual realm that exists is the one in which God’s lordship is plain and unveiled. Without the illuminative activity of the Spirit--that is, without assuming the facticity of the Bible’s basic claims about God and the world--Christian theology will itself appear as a philosophical impossibility, and therefore a mystery.
3. Cognitive Limitation
There are certain truths which take time to comprehend. As a trained theologian, every year I see a transformation, overturn, and shift in my theology. Certain issues become more clear, and others become less clear. This is an insurmountable and ineradicable element of the human aspect of theology. When I became a Christian, I found Calvinism to be a heinous conception of God. Then, as I read more theology, I found it to be beautiful. And I’ve oscillated about Calvinism several times in my life, precisely because I have an enduring passion to know whether or not it is true.
One of the arguments originally used against Calvinism by my youth pastor was this: Whether God is sovereign and whether human beings have libertarian free will is mysterious, and therefore unknowable. I’ve now come to the position that this claim is false. This was a misuse of theological mystery. And this is the most common use of theological mystery.
Christians will survey their own theology, and find those doctrines and issues which seem difficult to them to understand. Then, they will take their difficulty to comprehend as license to label them incomprehensible. In other words, many Christians make the mistake of assuming that since they can’t conceive a solution to a theological question, there is no answer to the question. Christians need to regain a healthy humility about their own capacity and recognize the arrogance of conflating their own cognitive limits with the absolute limits of theological knowledge.
And that train runs both ways. I for a long time believed that the Calvinist solution to the problem of evil was the strongest and only solution. I now believe that it’s the most problematic part of the system. I’m not saying that Calvinism is untrue or that the Calvinist theodicy fails--but it is certainly the most problematic theodicy among Christian orthodoxy. This is my current understanding of the position of Calvinist theodicy in the modern theological landscape after 5 years of intense research on this subject--and in 5 years, I may hold a different position. But that is another question entirely.
4. Chronological Limitation
The chronological limitation upon Christian theology produces mystery as well. This is a version of the cognitive limitation. In fact, one might call the chronological limitation upon Christian theology the collective cognitive limitation of the church. This manifests itself in creeds and confessions. What truths and formulations seem basic to evangelicals--such as Nicaea, Chalcedon, and various confessions produced by the Reformation--were not basic when they were written. They were situationally dependent formulations of truths which, though true, were on the cutting edge of theological mystery for their time. The very fact that doctrines were articulated such as the incarnation, the divinity of Christ, and the five solas of the Reformation, is miraculous. There were not former confessions or creeds which obviously dictated the manner in which they ought to have articulated those creedal and confessional formulations--they simply had to use the Scriptures and orthodox theological tradition to guide their novel formulations.
Likewise, we must have a creative eye toward theological questions facing the church today in order to take it upon ourselves to solve what seems theologically mysterious. Some Christians find it blasphemous to explain theological mystery--as though it presumed spectral authority over the incomprehensibility of God, as though God were a creature.
But the fact remains that theology is a responsive project. While no eye has seen, or ear heard, nor heart imagined what God has revealed to us, God has revealed himself to us in Christ and the Scriptures. Therefore, making claims about that which seems mysterious to us on the basis of Scripture is not an affront to God, but a fulfillment of the duties that come with encountering God’s revelation.
The fact that it is God speaking in Scripture through the inspired authors makes the task unique and ought to prompt reverence, but it also ought to prompt the bold and creatively original formulations about currently unclear theological issues. If we prohibit the church from solving theological mystery, then we kill the very tradition of theological creativity which gave us the creeds and confessions which constitute the tradition on which we depend.
There is no such thing as real theological contradiction. In this sense, a contradiction can appear as a “mystery” when, in fact, it is a contradiction and ought to prompt reflection and change in one’s theology. If we refuse to reject the possibility of theological contradiction from the outset, we remove any power deductive reasoning might have in Christian theology.
Some Christians find it pious to flaunt contradictions in their theology, as if it were diagnostic of a stronger, or less convoluted faith. But every theological statement that is made on the basis of engagement with God’s revelation is a claim about, as the Apostle Paul says, a “God, who never lies” (Titus 1:2).
God does not lie. God does not contradict himself. If you have two aspects of your theology which conflict, faith looks like trusting that God is not a liar over your own capacity for understanding, not believing that God is big enough to contradict himself. That’s not how it works. The entire concept of theological mystery rests upon the notion that the truths God reveals do cohere. This leads us into two versions of mystery which, unlike previous versions, may never experience conceptual resolution.
A paradox is the Christian conception of theological contradiction. Paradox is the existence of two exegetically established truths which appear to contradict one another. The Christian ought to praise of paradox, but reject real contradiction. Paradox is a way of mapping what appears not to cohere in Christian theology. Two ways of resolving a paradox are to: (1) revisit the exegetical foundation of each idea which seems to contradict to find a more faithful formulation of the idea so that the appearance of contradiction disappears, or (2) continue nuancing the concepts until they resolve.
For many theological ideas, this task of nuancing in faith that the paradox will resolve is a lifelong task with no end. Many Christians will give up on the idea of resolution entirely and settle for the notion that real contradictions exist in Christian theology. This should be rejected, and one ought instead to opt for a more Christian theological methodology that is predicated on the truthfulness of God’s revelation. Sometimes, all we can see are the ways in which theological ideas correspond to biblical texts, but cannot perceive the ways in which they cohere with one another. That is the very tension which propels the task of Christian theology.
Finally, we come to the incomprehensibility of God. This is the doctrine at the foundation of mystery--the purest and most straightforward way of putting our finger on what precisely is mysterious about God. Put simply, God is metaphysically other than creatures. This is what makes revelation itself a miracle. We ought to be reasonable in our approach to theology, but because God exists outside of being itself--so that he is not irrational, but rather supra-rational--the Christian theologian ought to resist the temptation to become a rationalist about God. When the Christian becomes a rationalist about God, he has assumed that he and God must both play by the rules of reason so that whatever is true about God is able ultimately to be resolved and discovered through exegetical and logical inquiry. This is false. God retains for himself a metaphysical superiority which requires a qualitatively divine mind to know fully and truthfully. This is what the doctrine of revelation is predicated upon--that we must take or leave God’s word about himself. We have no other recourse.
Scripture clearly teaches the incomprehensibility of God. Paul says that God “alone has immortality, who dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see. To him be honor and eternal dominion” (1 Timothy 6:16). He likewise says: “How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!” (Romans 11:33). These two words--unsearchable and inscrutable--are an alliteration in the Greek: ἀνεξεραύνητα anexeraunta and ἀνεξιχνίαστοι anexichniastoi. ἀνεξεραύνητα is used only here in the New Testament, and ἀνεξιχνίαστοι is used only once--in Ephesians 3:8, to refer to the “unsearchable riches of Christ.” They are functionally identical--it is Paul’s way of saying that there is no way to deduce or predict what God will do. His character and motivations can only be known after the fact through the lens of Christ.
Paradoxes will never cease to emerge, precisely because God exists is outside of created being. He is a se, as theologians put it--he is the only rationale for himself. The only recourse for Christian theologians in speaking truthfully about God is to use created tools to construct the most excellent formulations of Scripture. But even revelation does not permit Christians to draw a full epistemic circle around God.
There will always remain a metaphysical and epistemological limitation upon the human mind even after the glorification of the saints. God’s incomprehensibility is an aspect of his divinity, and his mysteriousness to us is an aspect of our creatureliness. These aspects will never cease to exist, which ought not to prompt from us a reluctance to be theologically creative, but rather a rationale for creativity. Divine incomprehensibility is not a prohibition against making new claims about God, but is instead the promise that there are an infinite number of new claims about God left for believing theologians to discover.
Christian theologians ought to use this sevenfold taxonomy of mystery as a diagnostic tool in order to classify what sort of mysteries exist in their theology. Very often, this diagnosis can only occur in retrospect--what seemed certain may later become unclear, or what seemed mysterious may encounter a rational and biblical solution. Our only recourse is to continue returning to what theologians call the principium--the fount, or source--of theological knowledge, which is Scripture. Tradition is one of our best interpretative aids. Medieval theologians are a sorely neglected aid to theological deductivism. Biblical commentaries are a sorely neglected aid to theological inductivism. We must use every tool we can to identify mystery, articulate it as excellently as we can, appreciate it for what it represents, and then seek diligently to resolve it as we have the time and energy. That is our only option when we take up the privilege of speaking truthfully about God on the basis of his revelation to us about himself.