The word mystery has become increasingly popular in the church today. This is primarily due to the postmodern rejection of modernity’s arrogant claim to be able to discern truth objectively through scientific progress and advancement. Postmodernity is far more honest and humble. We can’t really know truth, at least not one all encompassing absolute truth. It is relative and determined by the community. Within the church (which may be a somewhat generous concession for some within the movement), a movement known as the emergent church has embraced, at the very least, a certain degree of this perspective, and asserts that God is mysterious and beyond comprehension. It is arrogant to claim to really know God and all that He is with complete certainty because God is too big to understand that way. To think that within the narrowness of our own perspective we can capture all that God is, is simply arrogant.
This idea has taken well among many in churches (undoubtedly because it is culturally appealing). But it, like any idea, must be examined thoughtfully by the Scriptures. I fear it is an idea that can lead to a number of dangerous beliefs if not understood properly. The important questions related to it are: what exactly does it really mean? and what is the point, what is the value of it? I’d like to try and unpack what the so called “mystery” men really mean when they speak of mystery in relation to God.
The first step is clarifying the doctrine that is being discussed. This may seem rather trivial, but it is actually of the utmost importance. The quick and easy answer here is that what is being dealt with is the doctrine of God. When speaking of how God relates to Himself as Trinity, who He is in terms of His infinitude, His eternality, His omniscience, His omnipresence, His omnipotence, and His inexhaustible perfections, He must be seen as mysterious. Certainly finite human beings would not claim to be able to grasp the fullness of these things. It is simply impossible.
Any Christian would not question this. We are obviously not God. We clearly are finite beings incapable of understanding the fullness of such a being. Surely this is not all that these particular teachers mean when they are claiming that God is mysterious. Indeed it is not.
The doctrine they are really seeking to address is not the doctrine of God, but the doctrine of revelation. This is a critical point to recognize. What they are really asserting is that there is a degree of mystery to His revelation of Himself to us in the Bible. There is not only one clear way to read and interpret the Bible. We discover new ways to see it and understand it as we continue to approach it from different angles: cultural perspectives, periods of time, etc…. In this sense God and how He works can never fully be figured out or nailed down. The community determines how to understand these things together in their particular context. For them, this makes God’s work diverse and rich and new. However, unlike with the doctrine of God, this belief is not accepted by all Christians. Understanding which doctrine we are really dealing with is crucial to understanding their assertion rightly and being able to evaluate it.
I would contend that such a view of revelation is inconsistent with what the Bible teaches. There is nothing about God’s revelation that is mysterious. Can any given man plumb all the depths of what God says to us in the Bible? No, but that revelation is clear and understandable, not mysterious. On a fairly basic level, to assume that God cannot communicate clearly to us implies incompetence or inability. This we would surely not affirm. To assume that He did not intend to be understood betrays the very essence of communication. No one communicates for any other reason than to be understood. Mysterious revelation is incompatible with these basic assumptions.
First, the idea of mystery, as it is used in the New Testament, always speaks of mystery revealed. In Ephesians 2 Paul speaks of mystery, but proceeds to clarify what this mystery indeed is. Paul is very clear in Eph. 2:6. He says: “This mystery is…., and then proceeds to tell his audience very clearly what the mystery which had not been made known to previous generations actually is. In Colossians 1:26-27 Paul again speaks of the mystery that is now revealed. Colossians is a particularly significant place to speak of mystery revealed for Paul. Paul is responding, in his letter to the Colossians, to a particular heresy referred to as the Colossian heresy (creative huh?). Some believe this heresy was Gnostic in nature. Others believe it was more of a Jewish mystical syncretism. Regardless, both of these religious worldviews were grounded in the revelation of secret mysteries to only a select few who went through the appropriate rights of passages to partake of this special and secret knowledge. Paul is distinguishing Christian revelation in Christ from this kind of mystical, secret knowledge. Christianity is mystery revealed, and revealed to all. Mystery is always mystery revealed in the New Testament. The explicit references to mystery in the New Testament texts never speak of anything that has yet to be made known.
Second are the New Testament’s statements on the nature of revelation itself. The New Testament authors speak of revelation in two ways: as having come in the person of Jesus Christ and having come in the words of the Holy Scriptures. In regards to revelation as having come in the person of Jesus Christ, Hebrews 1:1-4 is of great significance. It states that while God has spoken in the past through prophets at various times and in various ways, He has spoken in these last days through His Son. This is a powerful statement. Revelation that previously required various times and ways, has now been finally and fully displayed in one full and sufficient way through the revelation of Jesus Christ Himself. God has said all that he wants to say fully and completely in Jesus. Hebrews 1:3 goes on to say that the Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of His being (I get chills when I read this verse! So incredible.). Exact representation literally speaks of a stamp. Jesus is the perfect stamp of God. This is not a God that is looking to hide. He is showing Himself as fully as he possibly can in Jesus.
The Bible also testifies to its own clarity. Jesus expected His countrymen and hearers to understand what the Old Testament Scriptures said. Over and over he said to them, “Have you not read?” “Have you not heard?” There was an expectation of understanding and comprehension. 2 Timothy states that the Word of God is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training and righteousness. How can the Scriptures be useful for rebuking and correction if they aren’t clear enough to distinguish one way from another? Right from wrong? The only rebuking the proponents of mysterious revelation do is toward those who argue for the clarity and objectivity of the text of Scripture.
There is simply no biblical justification for believing that God’s revelation to His people is to be approached as mysterious and vague (and subject to experience first and foremost). It may be present in the ideologies of our day, but not in the words of the Bible itself.
The final question to be posed is this: what is the true value of “embracing the mystery?” Its proponents would probably say that it makes God bigger and richer and more glorious. It doesn’t narrow Him down to one way. Who God is and how He works finds expression in a variety of ways, displaying the depth and breadth of who God is. To be honest, this sounds like a pretty good answer. The problem is where an answer like this could lead. Many may take this kind of idea and apply it to worship styles and corporate worship environments, for example. God can be worshipped in many ways in this regard. This seems rather harmless. And it may be to a certain degree. However, it is a short jump into things such as relativism and pluralism. What starts as something about worship styles and life experiences ultimately leads these same people to rationalize God speaking to people in other religions and approaching God speaking only one way in the Bible as narrow-minded and arrogant. Experiential spirituality may not start here, but it will always end here.
What an idea like this truly offers people is the justification they need for developing a faith of their own making. Clarity, by its very nature, narrows the possibilities. Ambiguity, by its very nature, widens the possibilities. We really don’t have to affirm homosexuality to be sinful anymore. We really don’t have to believe there is only one way to God.
Mystery doesn’t make God bigger and greater and more glorious. Ignorance never produces more passionate and reverent worship and surrender. Only as we come to see God for He truly is, revealed clearly in the fullness of glory, will deeper worship, greater love, and more radical devotion be inspired.
Carl Henry, one of the great theologians of the 20th century said this, “Revelation is a divinely initiated activity, God’s free communication by which He alone turns His personal privacy into a deliberate disclosure of His reality.” Christians are stewards of divine mysteries, but not ones that continue to be hidden. These mysteries are revealed and known. Praise God that we can indeed know Him and His ways truly.