“Its a mystery.” How many times have you heard someone say that when confronted with a tricky theological problem? They shrug their shoulders and let the problem slide away like water off a ducks back.
To some extent, mystery is a natural consequence of being finite and trying to understanding the infinite God. You’ll never plumb the depths of his invisible qualities, his eternal power and divine nature. You’ll never not be amazed at his moral character. You’ll always stand in wonder at his beauty. But mystery is also a result of the Bible being a difficult book. It’s mostly a book of stories, and through those stories we’re supposed to discern the original lessons. It’s not a text that’s written to you living in 21st century western liberal democracy. It’s written to people who lived long ago in a completely different situation and culture. It’s doesn’t carefully lay out what it has to say topically like an encyclopaedia. Some subject’s in the bible are ambiguous, such as the reconciliation between divine knowledge and human freedom, how Jesus can be both God and man, or how there is only one God but Father, Son and Holy Spirit at the same time.
So when theological difficulties arise the temptation is to shrug and say “it’s a mystery.” When I hear this I often cringe. That’s often because “mystery” is being used as an excuse for intellectual laziness. It’s also because there have been a lot of people, very smart people, who have gone before us and worked on those problems. They hoped that someday their efforts would one be a benefit to others. What a disappointment it must be to look down from heaven and see the labour of your life, that you know can be of immense benefit to others, being ignored or rejected.
But sometimes I don’t cringe. That’s because “mystery” can be understood in two different ways, entailing two very different responses.
1. “Mystery” can mean that we should accept that a resolution to the problem is actually (metaphysically) impossible. That is to say, you assent to believe mutually exclusive propositions.
That is to say, two logically incoherent ideas are accepted, or you agree to believe a falsehood. Actually it’s worse, because not only would at least one of those mutually exclusive ideas be false, but it would be necessarily false – or not possibly true. For example, the spoken statement “I don’t speak a word of English,” is logically incoherent. The two mutually exclusive ideas here are (1) “I don’t speak English” and (2) “I speak English (by merit of me telling you this).” The statement “I don’t speak a word of English” is therefore necessarily false.
The retreat into this type of mystery is unacceptable for at least two reasons.
- We should believe things that are true.
- Believing the necessarily false is irrational.
2. “Mystery” can mean we should accept that a resolution to the problem is simply not known at present.
This second option is much to be preferred. It’s a sign of humility to admit something you don’t know. How many angles in heaven? How many days ’til the second coming? Why did God allow this bad event to happen? What were Jesus’s dreams like? There are some questions we simply don’t have the resources to be able to answer.
But that is not to say that we should default to this position at the first sign of difficulty. That would be intellectual laziness. There are many reasons to continue to probe deeply into theological problems.
- The discipline of study. Perseverance in thinking hard until a resolution is found is tremendously satisfying on a personal level, and yields colossal benefits for ministry. It is the glory of kings to seek out a matter (Prov 25:2). Such a project should be considered worship, for it is just one way to love the Lord with your mind (Matt 22:37-40).
- It glorifies God. Satisfying answers to profound and penetrating questions will always unveil the beauty and perfection of God and his revelation to us.
- It is one way to show respect and honour to our brothers who have gone before us. The Apostolic Fathers of the church shed endless hours of sweat – even blood – to enshrine in creeds resolutions to the difficult questions they were facing, and so give us a biblically faithful, philosophically robust and intellectually respectable faith.
How will things wind up after a prolonged period of study? It could be that you never discover the perfect answer but decide to keep looking. It could be that you despair of ever finding resolution, and decide to throw in the proverbial white towel. These are both acceptable options. It’s ok to hold two seemingly disparate themes in tension if text requires it. It may be we don’t have the perspective necessary to gain the relevant information. It’s also good to be humble. Alternatively, you could find the answer, and be more confident of your faith, more in love with your saviour, and more equipped and ready for service than you ever thought you could be.
So please, don’t use “It’s a mystery” as a mask to hide laziness, intellectual defeatism, anti-intellectualism and irrationality. Use it as a challenge to dive deeper into the unutterable depths of the truths hidden in God.