The Advantages of and Limitations to Mystery

When in seminary I took a class on the Gospel of John from Craig Blomberg. My assigned topic for the term paper was Election and Salvation in John’s Gospel. One of the remarks on the paper made by Blomberg was “So….are you a Calvinist or an Arminian?” Not only was the grade of “A” an indication that I had written sufficiently on the topic, but the remark suggested that I achieved the goal I had set before me, which was to show the enigmatic character of God’s sovereignty and human agency in the area of salvation.

As previously mentioned, Boyer and Hall utilize mystery as a means of helping us navigate through the maze of Calvinism and Arminianism as both systems relate to salvation. In their book The Mystery of God they offer a proposal that utilizes mystery as a heuristic for resolving some of the tension between these two opposing frameworks. While they insist mystery “cannot reconcile the revealed truths of full divine sovereignty and responsible human freedom,” their proposal is modestly offered and especially intriguing. They argue that

Appeal should be made very intentionally and rationally to mystery, and at precisely the point at which sovereign divine agency and free human agency meet. This move retains the unassailably Christian intuitions that ground both the logic of sovereignty and the logic of freedom. Further, it enables us to be reasonable without being imprisoned by our reasoning….The real novelty in our proposal is the contention that [the use of mystery] ought to be taken very consciously and consistently, with the point at which mystery is invoked fixed at the relationship between divine and human choosing, and with the result that full, meticulous sovereignty can be sustained right alongside full, libertarian freedom. It is this juxtaposition, we think, that divine incomprehensibility helps us to comprehend: the strengths of each side are retained, while the weaknesses of each side and the conflict between the two turn out to result very plausibly from the overstepping of creaturely boundaries.

(pp. 171-172)

Toward the conclusion of this chapter they warn about three dangers of using mystery as a simplistic way out of the conflict between divine and human agency. All three are especially prudent and, I would argue, necessary to keep before us as we think harder and deeper about this tense topic. They are:

In the first place, let it be clear that we are proposing mystery, not compromise. We are not advocating what some people vaguely refer to as “balance,” which usually involves accepting a little bit (but not too much) of one position and a little but (but not too much) of another and trying to occupy this middle ground.

Similarly, we are proposing mystery, not relativism or subjectivism. We are not suggesting that there is no real “right answer” in the sovereignty-freedom debate. On the contrary, there is a very “right answer,” because there is a very definite, self-consistent reality called God, who is Creator, Sustainer, and Lord of the definite, self-consistent reality called the world. Since God is God, it is not surprise that finite creatures cannot grasp the full coherence of this comprehensive picture, but this is not at all the same as saying that “coherence is irrelevant” or that God is “different for every person” or some such drivel.

Finally, and perhaps somewhat surprisingly, we are proposing mystery, not ignorance. When the topic of predestination comes up in our theology classes and we review the two sides and then present our approach, it is usually just a matter of time before some intrepid student decides to cut to the chase. A hand goes up, and a voice says, “You mean, after all this investigation of every side and every argument, the final answer is just that we don’t know?” This is a very important question.

Here is our response. From one rather insignificant angle, this terse summary is correct—we don’t know. That is, we do not know how divine sovereignty and human freedom fit together. But we want to insist that, from a vastly more significant angle, this summary is exactly wrong. Is the final answer, “we don’t know”? No. On the contrary, the final answer, guaranteed by God himself is his revelation to humanity in Christ and in Scripture and in the church, is that we do know. We do know that God is sovereign; we do know that God loves us unreservedly; we do know that we are helpless apart from him; we do know that we are responsible before him; we do know that salvation, if it comes, comes exclusively and graciously from the hand of God; we do know that damnation, if it comes, is completely our own doing. All of these things, all of the rock-bottom truths of the Christian gospel, we do know, and we can rely on them absolutely, even when we cannot see how they all fit together.

(pp. 172-173)

I wish I had these insights when I wrote my term paper because I believe that mystery is a helpful means of understanding this enigmatic, and often heated, problem of election and salvation.

2 thoughts on “The Advantages of and Limitations to Mystery”

  1. Glad you’re enjoying our book, Paul. I appreciate your positive comments. FYI, I really did find the three “dangers of using mystery the wrong way” (the ones you cite in the longer quotation in this post) to be very significant. Language of mystery ends up leading people astray in all sorts of ways in our postmodern context, and so I’m glad to see you picking up on this.

    In case you and your readers are interested, Chris and I now have a website up and running for the book: . We’d love to have you stop in!

    Peace to you and yours,
    Steve

  2. Thanks so very much for commenting, Steve! This book has been VERY significant to me. My thesis (1995) was titled “The Mystery of God Incarnate” as a critique of John Hick’s pluralism and specifically his Christology, arguing for a Chalcedonian affirmation. I do so wish I had your book before writing it, as I believe that it would’ve added considerable depth.

    Indeed, mystery is readily deployed but hardly used responsibly by many and the warnings you give are essential to bear in mind. THANK YOU very much for writing this and I will certainly point to the book site.

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