the mystery of God

In 2005 I read a paper at ETS with the title, “Divine Mystery as Theological Method.” My thesis was that when trying to resolve difficult theological questions—such as how the Trinity could be one and three or how to integrate divine sovereignty and human freedom—we should choose the option with the most mystery, the one that we can least comprehend.

I feared that my fellow professors would revoke my union card and say I was too dumb to teach theology, but the session went surprisingly well. One professor, I believe it was Steven Boyer, introduced himself afterward and said he was researching a book with Christopher Hall on this topic. Well, the book recently came out and it’s splendid.

The Mystery of God is one of the best things I’ve read in awhile. It has stretched me, and even when I initially disagree with it I usually come around and see their side. Boyer and Hall nimbly hold the double line of mystery and revelation. We can’t comprehend God, just as Flatlanders will never comprehend a third dimension (and so they think that a cube is just a circle), but we do have real knowledge of God through his revelation.

Boyer and Hall do a fine analysis on what we mean when we say God is a mystery. God is not an investigative mystery, where if we learn a little more we’ll answer all our questions. God is a revelational mystery. His revelation tells us that we will never comprehend him, and why. Our problem isn’t merely that God is more than us (quantitative mystery) or different than us (qualitative mystery) but rather that he dwells in a wholly other dimension (see Flatlanders and the cube). God transcends all of our categories, including the category of transcendence! But he isn’t limited by this transcendence, for his transcendence of transcendence is what enables him to be immanent.

This is rich theology, and artfully written. There are many nuggets in this book that you will chew on and want to include in your teaching or preaching. Boyer and Hall show us how the mystery of God applies to the Trinity, incarnation, divine sovereignty and human freedom, petitionary prayer, and dialogue with other religions. There is much that is controversial here, and much to learn from. I plan on blogging through some of their key insights, as they have much to teach us, even when we might disagree.

As I look back at this post I sense that I haven’t conveyed my excitement over this book. Let me just say that if you are responsible for teaching God and his ways of God to others then you really need to read this. You will be much better for it. I know I am.

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24 thoughts on “the mystery of God

  1. Is this book “layman” friendly? As in, can someone with 2 years at a third rate bible college “get it”?

  2. John: I don’t know the difference between a cube and a cone. So I’m sure you can get it. One of the best parts is how well it is written. Deep stuff delivered on the bottom shelf. Okay, middle shelf. You don’t want to know what they’re serving down there.

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  4. Hi, Mike. You’re right: it was me at your ETS paper in 2005! I remember your paper very well, because (as you recall) Chris and I had just started work on this book, and I was thrilled to hear someone else saying what seemed to me so obvious to me, namely, that we OUGHT to find ourselves not understanding at key points in our genuine knowledge of God.

    Thanks for your kind words about our book. We are just in the process of getting a website set up for it, in case anyone is interested (). I look forward to seeing how you interact with some of our material in future posts.

    Peace,
    Steve

  5. Thanks, Steve. Let me know when your website is up and I’ll direct people to it. I think every evangelical Christian needs to read this.

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  7. all right, you did repent. As I think of it, a sphere would, in general project as an ellipse (circle is just a special case of ellipse), depending upon the angle of the projection wrt (with respect to) the plane of the Flatlanders. As a sidelight, the early Catholic Church insisted that the earth was in a circular orbit around the Sun (after they were finally convinced that the universe wasn’t earth centric), because a circle is “perfect”, & that is the way God would have done it. Kepler had already shown empirically that the other planets, comets,etc were in elliptical orbits around the sun. Newton finally proved mathematically that planets orbit the sun in elliptical orbits, in general, and the circle is just a special case of an ellipse, that has equal semi-major & semi-minor axes. God in His wisdom allowed the forces (gravity acting upon mass) to interact in such a way that quite a range of orbital configurations are possible, including parabolic & hyperbolic in which only single passes occur & the orbiting objects fly off to infinity (some comets). As it turns out the earth’s orbit deviates from a circle by about 3%. We’re actually closer to the sun during the northern hemisphere’s winter. Another case, I guess, of we humans making judgement on what God should consider perfect, & He had a better idea.

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  9. Thanks for this info, Greg. What I think you’re saying, from my layman’s perspective, is that God’s creation is within 3% of perfection. “We’ll take it!,” said Cleveland fans, everywhere.

  10. Actually what I was trying to say, Mike, is that as humans we should not apply our “standard” of what is perfect to God. The earth is in a near-circular elliptical orbit about the Sun. The fact that it is near circular does not mean that it is imperfect. There are advantages to elliptical orbits that we as humans may not be aware of, but God was, when He established it. As an example the earth’s axis of rotation is not perpendicular to it’s orbital plane about the sun (inclined 23 degrees or so). We may be tempted to say that it is imperfectly inclined – God goofed slightly- but in fact the inclination provides seasons to large parts of both southern & northern hemispheres so that man is able to live over most of the earth’s surface. Otherwise most of mankind would be found within 20-30 degrees north & south of the equator. All of this doesn’t mean, though, that Cleveland fans should accept losing seasons from their teams, year after year.

  11. Greg: I was purposely trying to misrepresent what you wrote–and I’m sorry about that but I learned a lot from your response, so it was worth it! I like your statement that we shouldn’t foist our ideas of perfection upon God, which, if I’m following correctly, means that Cleveland may actually be winning in God’s eyes. I’m doing it again. Sorry!

    If climate change continues, will God need to compensate by tilting the earth a bit more so we can still enjoy the seasons? Or will we all simply become Tennessee?

  12. Hey Mike, it’s all too easy for me to misrepresent myself, without any help :>), You mention climate change – I studied control theory for my masters degree at Purdue. Control theory involves measuring the output of some system, & mixing some form of that output from the input to maintain a measure of stability of the output. A simple example would be the furnace & thermostat system working together to supply heat to your house. The thermostat measures the current temperature & when it gets below the setting you (more likely your wife) prefers, it tells the furnace to start supplying heat. When the temperature gets back to the right value it tells the furnace to shut down. It’s a little more complicated that that, because in order to avoid over-shooting the desired temperature by several degrees, the thermostat anticipates reaching the right temp & tells the furnace to shut off the burner, but keep the fan on, because the furnace will still have residual heat & there’s no sense wasting it. The old mechanical thermostats used have an additional adjustment inside (if you took the cover off), actually called the anticipator.
    I say all this, because you had to ask about global warming! God seems to have a profound understanding of feedback control systems – the human body is undoubtedly the most complicated feedback control system we know of. Sometime back I read an article on the process the body uses to control bleeding (coagulation) when we are cut. We take it for granted, but it actually involves hundreds of processes – the most important of which is to guarantee that our entire blood system doesn’t coagulate (not good). Our environment also has feedback mechanisms built-in by our Creator, to control & prevent runaway situations. Global warming likely falls into that category – other things adjust and global temperatures come under control. That doesn’t mean man can be irresponsible with respect to the environment, but nor should we over-react to a situation, especially when it’s a politician making the most noise (& likely to make the most money from some regulatory scheme). The best example of this going awry was the Carbon 12 airconditioning scare regarding the ozone layer hole. Worldwide it was estmated that over a trillion $ was spent converting to another coolant. In the meantime the ozone hole seemed to stabilize by itself.
    All right, I’ve ranted enough, but you brought it up!!!

  13. Transcending transcendence. Is this sort of what Barth is saying when he talks about God’s freedom? That God can do things which we logically restrict, because He is free of our categories?

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