What Happened to Mystery?

The limit of human knowledge in theology is an interesting concept with a long history. In the first centuries of Christianity, the church resisted attempts to oversimplify doctrine. The first significant theological controversy the orthodox faced focused on the doctrine of the Trinity. Growing out of the strict monotheism of Judaism, the early church wrestled with how to affirm the deity of the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit while maintaining Jewish monotheism. Various theologians gave their answers to this question. For example, Justin Martyr said that Jesus is the divine logos but that he is united to the Father in the divine monarchy. Tertullian claimed that Jesus has the same substance as the Father but is a unique person. Tertullian’s trinitarian formula would later be codified in Nicene Creed.

The orthodox didn’t have a monopoly on this discussion, however. Heretical groups weighed in and gave their opinion regarding the doctrine of the Trinity. For example, the Gnostics said that Jesus was an aeon who descended from the ineffable God to give secret, saving knowledge to humanity. The Marcionites argued that the question of how Jesus relates to the Father is null. The Modalists developed an overly simplistic formula that denied any real difference between the Father and the Son.

The orthodox party rejected these attempts to reduce Christian theology to something comprehended by human reason. In the way they phrased their trinitarian and Christological theologies, the orthodox preserved a sense of mystery. For example, in the Chalcedonian definition of 451, theologians drew the lines within which orthodoxy could exist. They did not reduce Christianity to a simple formula, however. The faith once delivered to the saints transcends human reason.

Likewise, theologians from various periods have refused to answer some theological questions. In Augustine’s time, one of the prevailing criticisms of the Christian doctrine of creation was the question of what God was doing prior to creation. In The City of God, Augustine says that before creation, God was making hell for people who ask such stupid questions. Similarly, Tertullian encourages believers not to ask too many questions after coming to faith. This trend continues past the 4th century, however. In his Institutes, John Calvin encourages readers not to pursue theological inquiry that goes beyond what God has revealed. It seems that these premodern theologians would have us be content to explore what God has revealed instead of trying to answer our theological questions.

I suspect that this sounds like theological irrationalism to modern ears. In the 21st century, those who read such statements are likely to think that premodern theologians are telling us to check our brains at the door. We ought not ask questions that are too difficult, for that may destroy our faith.

After the Enlightenment, the way human beings viewed themselves changed significantly. With the rise of modernism, people assumed that human reasoning was sufficient to tame all of creation. Anselm described his method by saying that his philosophy was “faith seeking understanding;” René Descartes demurred and said, “I think; therefore, I am.” The key difference is the source and the assumptions. Anselm begins from overtly theological presuppositions and seeks certainty. Descartes begins with human reasoning as certain and proceeds to explore the world.

Maybe the premodern thinkers weren’t as off base as we may initially think, however. After all, the intellectual giants of the premodern era did not shy away from the hard questions. Though he thought it improper, Augustine used divine atemporality to explain what God was doing before creation. In his Cur Deus Homo, Anselm faces the intellectual viability of the Christian doctrine of the incarnation. These men were not attempting to insulate a fragile faith. Instead, they developed vigorous theological systems that have influenced Western thought for over a thousand years. Call them anti-intellectual if you will, but their thought is strong stuff.

Instead, maybe premodern theologians were right. Maybe God does transcend our human reasoning. I’m not saying that we should succumb to irrationalism; I’m saying maybe we should consider sober rationalism in which we both value human reasoning while recognizing our limits. Maybe a little mystery is okay.

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