mysterious mystery

This is my second post on the superb new book by Steven Boyer and Christopher Hall, The Mystery of God. Steve sent me a link to their book’s website for those who want to learn more, and you really should.

I want to blog mostly through the specific issues that occupy the second half of the book, where Boyer and Hall apply the concept of mystery to the Trinity, two natures of Christ, divine sovereignty and human freedom, prayer and the perfections of God, and dialogue with other religions. But first, a few points that I found most helpful in the first part of the book, where they develop the concept of mystery.

1. Boyer and Hall remind us of the ever-present tension between God’s transcendence and immanence, hiddenness and revelation, and mystery and knowledge. We must hit both notes all the time, and with equal intensity. Conservatives tend to favor revelation and liberals tend to favor mystery, unless the subject is hell, when the roles are reversed. If we know what our tendency is, we may better compensate by making sure we do justice to the other. Boyer and Hall admit there are moments in this book where the mystery of God makes them more irenic than some readers may be comfortable with (xviii). But before we immediately reject the common ground that mystery provides—say between Calvinists and Arminians—we should see whether they have a point.

2. Boyer and Hall explain that God doesn’t merely transcend our “rational capacities” but “all of our other capacities as well” (13). Mystics rightly note that God transcends reason but they wrongly think they can access him some other way. But God transcends even our emotional and spiritual capacities. The mystery of God, rightly understood, shuts the door on any Neo-Platonic flights of mysticism.

3. The fact that God exists in an entirely other dimension means that we are in an awkward spot. Like a Flatlander trying to make sense of a three dimensional cylinder, we know that our reason applies to God but “we do not know how to apply it” (17). Even though the words we use to describe God come from his revelation, we must not think they apply to him in the same way they apply to the things in our world. Beliefs that would be contradictory if applied to anything down here (e.g., God is three persons who are a numerically identical divine essence) are not contradictory when applied to God. We just aren’t in a position to say how.

This mystery must not became an excuse to make up whatever we like about God, and Boyer and Hall give us three ways to tell that our appeal to mystery is right and not just a cop-out for laziness or agnosticism (the labels are mine):

a. Authority:  What is the authority of the mysterious claim? If the claim comes from    Scripture, then it is obviously true, whether or not we can comprehend it.

b. Fit:  How well does the claim cohere with other claims that we know are true?

c. Illumination:  Does the claim help us “to make sense of larger matters”? (17). Here they appeal to C. S. Lewis’ analogy of the sun, that he knows it is there not because he can see it directly but that by it he can see everything else.

Boyd and Hall close the first chapter with an important reminder:  “…since God is not less than rational but more, our intention is never simply to jettison reason but to see—rationally—how God is exalted beyond it. …If God is really God, then recognizing a limitation of reason at just this point is really the most rational thing we can do” (17).

3 Comments

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  1. Looking forward to this…

  2. I just read the chapter on salvation last night and I was pretty frustrated. I consider myself a Calvinist but (as you might guess) I think they derailed in this chapter. He does not think Calvinism is justified in evoking mystery in their articulation of salvation where divine sovereignty and human freedom intersect (the compatibilist approach). I just felt like he cheated on his definition of mystery (which I liked) and has some arbitrary rules for how and when it can be evoked based on whether or not he agrees with a given theological system.

    Have you read this chapter yet and if so what were your thoughts?

  3. I thought the same thing when I read that chapter, Craig–that the argument against the lopsided nature of Calvinism was rather arbitrary. The second time I felt better about it, as I think I saw better where they were coming from, but I need to go back through and carefully wade through it.

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