, , ,

(c) Tebe Interesno

All theology ends in mystery.

The God who has revealed himself in history and in the person of Jesus as recorded in the Bible, and who continues to reveal himself through that Bible, is a God who is both eternal and infinite. The Bible also tells us a whole lot about ourselves, and one of the things it tells is that we are both temporal and finite. In case we didn’t already know. There is no “natural” human immortality. Hence the Tree of Life in the Garden which our first parents ate from and were ultimately, in an act of gracious judgment, removed from eating.

(Can you imagine a world of immortal and sinful people? What a horrible place!)

And so with God being infinite and humans being finite a key theological lynchpin is that of mystery. We don’t know all there is to know about God and his ways in the world. In fact my contention is that we don’t know all there is to know about any aspect of God and his ways in the world.

All theology ends in mystery.

Now when we talk about mystery we should probably be clear that we’re not talking about a puzzle or a riddle, or a problem or even a secret.

A puzzle is when all the pieces are laid out, all the clues are given, and if you’re clever enough you can piece them together and work out the identity of the murderer or finally see the jigsaw picture of the Opera House. Those mysteries are more precisely puzzles.

A riddle is a question or reality normally expressed in words that more often than not requires some lateral thinking and knowledge to figure out. Like: The man who makes it doesn’t need it. The man who buys it doesn’t use it. The man who uses it doesn’t know it. What is it? That’s a riddle, but that’s not what I mean by mystery.

A problem is something where not all the pieces are necessarily known and where some logic is usually required in order to solve it.

And I’m not talking mystery in the New Testament sense of a secret that is waiting to be revealed, like in Ephesians 3 where Paul says that now it has been revealed that Jews and Gentiles are now co-heirs of the promises of God through the Messiah, Jesus. No one worked it out, either by piecing it together or through logic or lateral thinking. It was a secret that only God knew but that now stands open and revealed.

By mystery I follow Graham Cole’s definition: an epistemological claim about an ontological reality. It is an expression of epistemic humility.

God has made himself known. He has done this truly but he has not done it completely. The more you know about God and his ways the more you know how much you don’t know.

JI Packer puts it like this:

“Theology states [the greatness of God] by describing him as incomprehensible – not in the sense that logic is somehow different from what it is for us, so that we cannot follow the workings of his mind at all, but in the sense that we can never understand him fully, just because he is infinite and we are finite.”  Concise Theology, 51.

And that makes sense. We don’t even know what light actually is. It acts like a wave and like a particle, but waves shouldn’t be acting like particles and particles shouldn’t be acting like waves. If we could totally grasp and understand God, while not even understanding what light is, there’d be good reason to think that either a) God isn’t actually that impressive; or b) maybe the Bible’s God isn’t actually the real God after all.

And of course this talk of mystery isn’t simply a logical, philosophical inference from the categories of infinite versus finite. The Bible talks like this quite explicitly.

Passages like Deuteronomy 29:29:

 29 The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may follow all the words of this law.

And Isaiah 55:8-9:

8 “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the LORD. 9 “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.

All theology ends in mystery. We can walk along the road of revelation only so far, until it is consumed by blackness into which we simply cannot penetrate. Think of the Trinity. We can know so much but then it ends in mystery. Think of the Cross and what is happening there. We can know so much but then it ends in mystery. Think of creation. We can know so much but then it ends in mystery. Think of the work of the Spirit. We can know so much but then it ends in mystery. Think of the Incarnation of the Word made flesh. We can know so much but then it ends in mystery.

The road only takes us so far until it plunges into mystery. And it is our job and responsibility to take the road as far as we can, that would be part of what it means to love the Lord with all our minds. But it is also our responsibility to acknowledge the limits of our knowledge and to not overstep our place and speak of the secret things which haven’t yet been given to us, and perhaps never will be.

All theology ends in mystery.

PS, the answer to the riddle is: a coffin.