Mystery without Mysticism: The Place of Mystery in Reformed Theology

Gregory E. Reynolds

Is the idea of mystery in theology simply liberal mush, the pietistic evasion of doctrinal precision, or the symptom of irrational mysticism? No, mystery, rightly—that is biblically—understood, is itself an article of orthodoxy. The wonderful clarity of Reformed doctrine, expressed in its confessional, academic, and popular theology, leaves us open to the temptation to desire comprehensive rational clarity in every area of doctrine and life. Of course, as we shall see, one of the wonderfully clear doctrines of Reformed orthodoxy is that God is incomprehensible as well as knowable. In an era in which theological imprecision is often touted as a virtue, the temptation to theological rationalism is especially attractive to those who take our revealed religion seriously. This tendency, however, is as dangerous as that to which it reacts. Theological rationalism will tend toward intellectual idolatry and arrogance, by subverting the Creator-creature distinction and undermining the goal of theology—that we should bow in reverence and awe before the majesty and grandeur of our triune God. Herman Bavinck begins his exposition of the doctrine of God with this idea succinctly stated: "Mystery is the lifeblood of dogmatics."[1]

The biblical doctrine of mystery is meant to protect the Creator-creature distinction. It is one aspect of declaring the aseity (aseitas, the absolute independence or self-existence of God) of God. Thus, in our Confession the doctrine of the covenants is introduced with the bold statement:

The distance between God and the creature is so great, that although reasonable creatures do owe obedience unto him as their Creator, yet they could never have any fruition of him as their blessedness and reward, but by some voluntary condescension on God's part, which he hath been pleased to express by way of covenant. (WCF 7.1)

Thus the Bible, as the final and full revelation of God to his people, teaches us that God is incomprehensible. It is precisely because the Bible is our final authority that we submit, for example, to the mysterious doctrine of the Trinity. The true, saving knowledge of God is entirely dependent upon God's special self-revelation. The very need for such a revelation accents his inexhaustible greatness as the quote above confesses. The very nature of God—which is the heart and soul of the dogmatic enterprise—is incomprehensible. That is to say, we cannot wrap our minds around him or his ways. The boundlessness (infinity) of God in all of his attributes necessitates his incomprehensibility.

But the limitedness of our creaturehood does not imply that we cannot know God—ending in an irrational mysticism, or a hopeless agnosticism. Knowledge may be true and reliable without being exhaustive. This is true of all human knowing. For example, one need not have an exhaustive, or even extensive, knowledge of plant growth to be a successful farmer. In fact, exhaustive knowledge of anything in the created order is impossible for any creature. But this is especially true of our knowing God. To appreciate the limits of our knowledge of God is not to extinguish the profound and essential reality of knowing God and therefore trusting and worshiping him. Ours is not a blind faith, but one that knows the triune being whom we are trusting. True knowledge of God, according to the Bible, has always been an essential aspect of biblical faith—first of the definitional trio notitia, assensus, and fiducia.

We will always face the accusation that doctrines such as the attributes of God and the Trinity are purely speculative, perhaps the fruit of philosophy rather than biblical exegesis. Mystics and rationalists alike have been known to level this charge, the former claiming that doctrinal precision is contrary to the nature of Scripture and our relationship with God, the latter precisely because unanswered questions and mystery leave them uncomfortable. Both the rationalist and the mystic, in their extreme manifestations, appear to be evading God's lordship over his people.

Those uncomfortable with theological precision, and systematic theology, often pit post-Reformation theologians against Calvin as if he were a pure exegete, while his followers lapsed into neo-scholasticism. It should be remembered that the authors of our Confession—the Puritans—sought to be rigorously biblical in their theologizing. They did not see organizing such theology into biblical categories as contrary to being biblical. Nor did being biblical prevent them from interacting with a wide range of other minds, including those with whom they would staunchly disagree in the end. Such intellectual inquisitiveness and humility was understood to be a biblical requirement. Richard Muller has been making this case for many decades in what is proving to be a monumental contribution, not only to historical theology, but to theological methodology. In the end post-Reformation theologians were intensely interested in expounding special revelation as clearly, and as systematically, as possible, in order to form the worship and life of the church.

As we think about the biblical doctrine of mystery as an important theological category we must recognize that mystery has several definitions. There are two kinds of mystery taught in the Bible and in our theological tradition. One kind of mystery is something unknowable to humans because it is by nature incomprehensible, such as God, the Trinity, or the two natures of Christ. The second kind of mystery is something known only when God chooses to reveal it. We are not capable of perfectly and completely understanding even that kind of mystery.

Bavinck sums it up nicely:

He [God] can be apprehended; he cannot be comprehended. There is some knowledge (γνωσις [gnōsis]) but no thorough grasp (καταληψις [katalēpsis]) of God. This is how the case is put throughout Scripture and all of theology. And when a shallow rationalism considered a fully adequate knowledge of God a possibility, Christian theology always opposed the idea in the strongest terms.[2]

I do not intend to deal here with the knowledge of God in creation, which is a true but not a saving knowledge. Such knowledge is only true in the sense that it leaves the knower inexcusable, and the knower's suppressing activity distorts that knowledge (Rom. 1:18-22).

Unknown and Unknowable, Cannot Be Revealed

As Bavinck in his summary of the history of the doctrine of the incomprehensibility of God points out, there has been substantial unanimity on the impossibility of knowing the essence of God.[3] Luther's categories of the hidden and revealed God nicely sum up the polarities between which the history of this doctrine has oscillated. What Scripture reveals about the hidden aspect of God is that God will always be mysterious because he alone is God. So, our Confession actually refers to God as "incomprehensible" (WCF 2.1), citing Psalm 145:3 as a proof: "Great is the LORD, and greatly to be praised, and his greatness is unsearchable."

Scripture brings us face to face with the doctrine of the incomprehensibility of God, confessed and expounded by the greatest of the post-Reformation theologians, the Puritans.

Then the LORD answered Job out of the whirlwind and said: "Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Dress for action like a man; I will question you, and you make it known to me. Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding." (Job 38:1-4)

Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! "For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?" "Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?" For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen. (Rom. 11:33-36)

Not only the nature of God, but his works of creation and providence are incomprehensible. Here the Westminster divines use the word "mystery."

The doctrine of this high mystery of predestination is to be handled with special prudence and care, that men, attending the will of God revealed in his Word, and yielding obedience thereunto, may, from the certainty of their effectual vocation, be assured of their eternal election. So shall this doctrine afford matter of praise, reverence, and admiration of God; and of humility, diligence, and abundant consolation to all that sincerely obey the gospel. (WCF 3.8)

The biblical claim that there is much that is unknowable, especially about God, should not be confused with the Kantian construction that virtually eliminates the possibility of metaphysics and theology, and thus the knowledge of God. All a priori categories of understanding for Kant are limited to those related to experience. Thus, the idea that God would speak truth to his people by special revelation, or through natural revelation, has no place in this or subsequent epistemologies. Kant's distinction between theoretical and practical reason could not save the objective knowledge of God and his moral law. The very relativism which Kant sought to avoid seems inherent in his philosophical construct; the inability to posit any real knowledge of God leaves us with an ungrounded ethics. And this leads inexorably to the death of God and moral absolutes in the thinking of our world. Thus, the second sense in which mystery is used in the Bible stands foursquare against this most common (post)modern[4] assumption about the knowledge of God. The biblical position of historic Christianity, as Lane Tipton has so helpfully pointed out,[5] gives priority to the Bible's divinity, which in turn fully qualifies its humanity.

Unknown, but Knowable When Revealed

Where the word "mystery" is used in the Bible, especially the New Testament, it invariably refers to the unveiling of something previously known only to God, but which he has chosen to reveal to his people. This is clear in the two following texts.

Then the mystery (רזה, razah) was revealed to Daniel in a vision of the night. Then Daniel blessed the God of heaven. (Dan. 2:19)

Now to him who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery (μυστήριον, mystērion) that was kept secret for long ages. (Rom. 16:25)

But, even in the case of this commonly understood use of mystery in the Bible, we must be careful not to think that we have God's perspective on the things he has revealed to us. The divine epistemology involves an exhaustive knowledge impossible to the creature, whose knowledge is limited by the nature of creaturehood, albeit at times extensive knowledge.

Knowable, but Not Exhaustively, Even When Revealed

Even when something like the relationship between Christ and his church is revealed in terms of the analogy of marriage, an overriding element of mystery is present. "This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church" (Eph. 5:32). The word translated "profound," (μέγα, mega), simply means "great." We may say many intelligible things about this relationship between Christ and his church in terms of the metaphor of marriage, as well as give important practical applications—Paul does so in verses 22–31 and 33—but the reality of which we speak is a mega-mystery.

Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of godliness: He was manifested in the flesh, vindicated by the Spirit, seen by angels, proclaimed among the nations, believed on in the world, taken up in glory. (1 Tim. 3:16)

It is humbling to affirm the Creator-creature distinction. For that very reason the unbeliever has a vested interest in denying it. The distinction undermines the sinner's vaunted autonomy. Our theologizing ought, therefore, to humble us under the mighty hand and mercy of God. Most important of all, our ministries, especially our proclamation of God's Word, should communicate confidence in the true knowledge of God in Christ, while humbling God's people before his august majesty. We should proclaim with thanksgiving that God has spoken to his people, and invited a lost world to know him through the reconciling message of his Son.

In true post-Kantian fashion, the modern world labors under the conceit that, given the time and talent, it can figure anything out. We must beware of this horizontal penchant of the technological society. We have a vertical connection with the heavenly realm through our union with Christ. This should humble us in adoration of the one who has gifted us with a true knowledge of himself, at the heart of which is the revelation of his sovereign and mysterious majesty.

But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel. (Heb. 12:22-24)


[1] Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 2, God and Creation, ed. John Bolt, trans. John Vriend (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2004), 29. Van Til drank deeply at the well of Bavinck's theology, which has only recently (2003-2008) been translated into English. See John R. Muether's excellent new biography of the life and work of Van Til, Cornelius Van Til: Reformed Apologist and Churchman (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2008).

[2] Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 2, 47-8.

[3] Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 2, 27-52.

[4] I owe this way of referring to the modern age to David Wells. It nicely combines the two commonly used words into one, thus accenting the common element of human autonomy that makes postmodernism simply the latest expression of modernism. It is a mistake to accentuate the difference, as is so often done by both secular and Christian writers.

[5] Lane Tipton, "Incarnation, Inspiration, and Pneumatology: A Reformed Incarnational Analogy," Ordained Servant (June-July 2008), http://www.opc.org/os9.html?article_id=109.

Ordained Servant, August-September 2008.

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Developing a Trinitarian Mind

The Puritan Theological Method

With Heart and Mouth: An Exposition of the Belgic Confession

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