One of my first experiences as a new Christian was to stumble into the Christian mindset that made Christianity a "mysterious" experience that was unexplainable and unintelligible. Later in life I've met other Christian groups that saw Christianity in terms of a "secret" or as a "secret society" that could only be discerned by the more specially trained or discerning within their sectarian order. Each of these groups fell within major Christian denominations and movements that were (and still are) popular. But each of those sentiments had inappropriately subscribed to several of the many forms of popular Christian mysticism and Gnosticism. Sometimes portraying themselves as a sectarian group and sometimes verging on raw cultism itself (where God, Jesus, and the Bible have lost all appearance of revelatory understanding). These well-intentioned believers were not especially helpful in my Christian walk or to the growth of my spirit in my ravenous desire to comprehend God's holy Word. They more-or-less were figures that needed instruction themselves but would not have it, or hear it, misled as they were by their own self-delusions and imaginations.
Unfortunately, this was also one of my first encounters with the very early forms of Emergent Christianity being ill mis-presented (and mis-understood) by its more faithful adherents. They had made the mistake of visualizing God into esoteric categories that made the Christian faith more like a secret assemblage of "Masonic-like" templed believers adhering to its various versions of religious orders, majesteriums and specially-endowed high holy priests and priestesses. Again, I was witnessing a form of sectarian, if not cultic error, smacking of Gnostic infiltration and good intentions. But woefully misguided. Even more, some of the leadership at that time was preaching a form of Judahistic Christianity (rather than the more proper, "Messianic" Christian heritage of the NT Christian beleiver) which compounded their error thricefold while failing to discern the continuities and discontinuities fraught within the revelatory movement of the God's redemptive work among mankind. They were misled and misleading, and I sadly witnessed gullible Christians eagerly devouring the many false teachings of these men and women who had no business shepherding God's people. They did damage. And they did it convincingly. And ignorantly. And I had little pity upon them but a lot of pity upon their sad, lost flock of woefully-begotten followers.
Consequently, Roger Olson in his article below rightly debates how a Christian should approach his or her understanding of Christianity, with antennae up and with an air of alertness that would not be misled by well-intentioned, but ill-equipped, would-be shepherds and disciplers in our lives, in the pulpit, and behind the radio (or Internet) mike. We are responsible to study the Scriptures and not be easily misled by the rampant errors of our day. And that would include the very comforting positions of our traditional orthodoxies and dogmas. We must always be willing to criticize our beliefs and determine where they are leading us or misleading us, helping us to grow spiritually or holding us back. A large part of this blogsite here continues to confront and debate some of our more popularly held ideas of Christian doctrines and theologies. I accept the fact that we must begin with where we are at before then beginning the arduous task of moving from our familiar paradigms and comfortable lodgings to the more radical lessons and unfamiliar paradigms unlearned and unthought. The trick is to get it "near right." And mostly, it seems, that we must always learn to listen (or listen enough) to be able to follow the Lord's leading and guidance. Hopefully here on this website we are presenting enough sensible discussions and information to help in the formative growth and maturity of our readership. Men and women who can lead others intelligently, capably, and by the power of the Holy Spirit. There is always more to be said, but we've started here, and in this way, so that the responsibility is place upon us as the vanguard of the body of Christ to help each other as a community to better speak and act upon what we've started to envisage and comprehend. It is not for naught that Christ has given to us a fellowship to work and debate within for history and dialogue are great teachers when it comes to absorbing radically new directions and ideas such is being experienced by the Church today. And must be experienced if it is to move properly forward as a witness to this world and in response to the Spirit of God who is building-out the Kingdom of our Lord through the Church of Christ.
And less I miss the further point of this subject, I must reiterate again that while this blogsite is about making plain what seems lost in the verbiage of today's contemporary Christianity, that I am not above using the literary tools of mystical prose to get across the sometimes arcane and devolved misunderstandings of God and the Bible. Sometimes the human language is at pains to explain our Creator-Redeemer and I must from time to time utilize metaphors, prosaic symbolisms, and similies to force our modernistic mindsets beyond our very earthly concepts of our sometimes too-mundane lives and minded focus upon our own well being, meaning, and purpose in this life. Sometimes by using narrative and stories. Sometimes poetry and prose. And at other times by using parables. But in whatever manner God has gifted us with the beauty of language with which we should never be shy in utilizing and incorporating into our worship and portrayal of our faith. But with the heavy distinction of avoiding the distraction of a mystical Christianity that embraces sectarian Gnosticism, if not bald cultism, which this can lead to. That is not what is in view here. To this end may God continue to raise up within His Church effective leaders, theologians, practitioners, and disciples of Christ to which we one and all must exclaim, Amen!
June 1, 2012
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A Mysterious Topic: Part 1
by Roger Olson
May 31, 2012
A Mysterious Topic: “Mystery,” “Paradox,” and “Contradiction” in Theology (Part 1)
I was recently asked to preview the manuscript of a forthcoming book on theology and mystery. I promise to review it here when it is published. So far, however, the manuscript is open to possible changes by the book’s authors, so I don’t want to comment on it specifically. I have suggested some possible revisions and am trusting they may make them before the book is published.
My intention is not to tease you when I say that it is an excellent book and a badly needed one. For years I have thought about this subject and talked about it in my lectures and mentioned it in some of my books. My impression is that the average Christian has little to no understanding of what “mystery” means in theology. And, of course, it means somewhat different things in different types of Christian theology. In some of Catholic theology, for example, “mystery” has a technical meaning that is very close to and interconnected with “supernatural,” “grace” and “sacrament.”
The average Christian, I suspect, thinks “mystery” is something beyond all comprehension; it’s what you’re supposed to believe but cannot be explained or even expressed except in ways that require sacrifice of the intellect. The classical examples most people would give are the Trinity and the deity-and-humanity of Jesus Christ (what theologians call the “hypostatic union” of Christ). And, when first introduced to the orthodox versions of those doctrines, many, if not most, theological novices object that these formulas are attempts to explain what is essentially unexplainable—the mysterious.
Furthermore, most Christians, in my experience, blend together inappropriately concepts such as “mystery,” “paradox” and “contradiction.” Of course, these are not easy concepts to pin down, but I think a sound theology needs to distinguish them and relate them to each other very cautiously to avoid total confusion and even unintelligibility.
That word “unintelligibility” will probably spark some controversy. Should Christian theology be intelligible?
Here’s the problem I seem to be wrestling with. Many Christians, even some theologians, confuse "incomprehensibility" with “unintelligibility.” I believe an important task of Christian theology is to make Christian belief as intelligible as possible without pretending that God (and the “things of God”) can be made completely comprehensible.
Defining terms is in order now. As I use “intelligible” I mean “capable of being understood and communicated without contradiction.” In other words, not esoteric. I believe Christianity, as a belief system, ought not to be esoteric. “Esoteric” means “capable of being understood only by special people with higher spiritual abilities.” It also usually implies something that should be believed but cannot be grasped by the mind’s normal functioning.
An example of something esoteric is astrology. In classical astrology (as opposed to many of its New Age versions), only special people with special spiritual wisdom and insight can grasp its truths and use it successfully. That’s why other people pay them.
There is an “alternative tradition” of “esoteric Christianity” going back to the Gnosticism. Its modern manifestations are lumped together as “theosophy” (including Anthroposophy).
(I won’t get into a discussion of the details of esoteric Christianity here. I only mention it to illustrate what I am opposed to as a Christian theologian in the orthodox tradition. Suffice to say that I once spent a couple years studying Rudolf Steiner’s esoteric Christianity and wrote a scholarly article about it in a journal devoted to new religious movements.)
I admit to being allergic to anything esoteric. “Esoteric” implies “hidden truth” or, when that truth is revealed (becomes “exoteric”), it implies truth that is not able to be grasped or understood without initiation by an “adept”—someone with higher spiritual capacities—and practice of some special spiritual technology such as yoga or Eastern meditation or chanting, etc.
“Mystery” does not necessarily equate with “esoteric.” That is, one can believe something is ultimately mysterious without believing it is esoteric. For example, in optics (a branch of physics) light is believed to have both wave-like and particle-like properties even though nobody (so far) knows how that can be the case. So, even to the scientist who studies light for many years, it remains somewhat mysterious.
Scientists study and talk about subjects that are mysterious using models. The models don’t make that which they model less mysterious; they make them capable of being studied, discussed and worked with. These models are “analog” and not “depicting” models. Nobody should imagine that a model of a molecule is what a molecule “looks like.” (Picture the typical DNA molecule—it’s a model.)
Now, back to theology. A mystery is what has been revealed but is beyond complete comprehension. We can’t picture it. We can’t point to something or build something and say “This is exactly what it is like.” We (Christian theologians) develop models of mysteries that more or less do justice to it. And often the models are meant to protect the mystery, not “explain” it as if the model we develop reduces it to something exactly like something created.
(1) The orthodox doctrine of the Trinity, for example, as developed and expressed at Constantinople in 381 and as expressed by the Cappadocian Fathers (sometimes lamely and sometimes in a sophisticated manner) is a model—an analogue model, not a depicting model. The whole point of it, like (2) the hypostatic union doctrine of the person of Jesus Christ expressed at Chalcedon in 451, is to express that which cannot be pictured. Both models are meant to protect the revealed mysteries from alternative models that destroy them by reducing them to depicting models. In other words, these orthodox models are meant to protect mysteries without leaving them in the realm of the esoteric.
They are meant to make these truths intelligible (to anyone) without making them pictureable [because you can't picture them as much as you can relate them by analogy - res]. The realities they model remain mysterious, beyond creaturely comprehension. But they are not unintelligible - requiring sacrifice of the intellect or special spiritual capacities or spiritual techniques taught by an adept to understand.
Unfortunately, many Christians think the Trinity and the Person of Jesus Christ are esoteric mysteries—beyond intelligible thought. So just about any spiritual-sounding expression of them is okay. For example, “God is one and three,” left there without further explanation, is widely considered the spiritual expression of an unintelligible mystery. When I say “No, God is one being or nature, substance shared equally by three persons” they think I’m unnecessarily complicating the truth if not attempting to “explain” something that is ultimately mysterious.
When I ask them what they mean by “God is one and three” what I usually get is either a refusal to express it in any other words or modalism or tritheism.
In my opinion, what the fathers of Constantinople (including the Cappadocians) and Chalcedon where trying to do was not to “explain the mysteries” but express them and lay down rules for talking about them in intelligible ways that avoid sheer contradiction and reductions of the mysteries.
Much of what we believe as orthodox Christians is mysterious, but none of it is (or should be) unintelligible or esoteric.
III. Paradox and Contradiction
All this brings me to two other concepts (besides “mystery”): paradox and contradiction.
I freely admit that paradox, which I define as apparent contradiction is inevitable and functions as a sign of mystery and of our finitude when confronting mystery. That Jesus Christ is both truly human and truly divine is a paradox—just as is that light is both wave-like and particle-like.
But there is nothing unintelligible about either of those paradoxes. Their paradoxical nature lies in the fact that we do not know how these combinations are possible. However, neither of them is a sheer contradiction. A sheer, logical contradiction is always a sure sign of error. And it always makes that which is contradictory unintelligible.
So what would be a “sheer contradiction.” Here’s one I once, in my immaturity, put forth (and was immediately corrected for it): “Jesus Christ is exclusively divine and exclusively human.” That’s not a paradox; it’s a sheer contradiction. When I said (or wrote) it, I was confusing “truly” with “exclusively.” They are not the same. One thing cannot be “exclusively” one thing and, at the same time and in the same way, “exclusively” another thing. It has to do with the definition of [the word] “exclusively” [linguistically].
Here’s another sheer contradiction: “Light is exclusively wave-like and exclusively particle-like.” That’s not just another way of saying “Light is truly wave-like and truly particle-like.” The first is a sheer contradiction and no scientist would say it. The second is a paradox; no logical contradiction is involved.
I believe a major task of theology is to exclude logical contradictions from Christian belief, make Christian belief as intelligible as possible, and yet protect real mystery as it was revealed. Critiquing and constructing models is what theology does.
I do not see any real contradictions about God or “the things of God” in revelation or the Great Tradition of Christian teaching. I see paradoxes and I regard them as tasks for further thought. For example, I believe “kenotic Christology” is a valid way of relieving some of the paradoxical tension in classical Christology (Chalcedon’s hypostatic union) that makes it appear contradictory at times. However, kenosis* is not itself part of orthodoxy; it is simply a theologoumenon—a theological idea for consideration.
Next I want to apply these considerations to soteriology.
*Ke·no·sis spelling [ki-noh-sis]. A noun. Category: Theology.Definition: "The doctrine that Christ relinquished His divine attributes so as to experience human suffering."
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A Mysterious Topic (Part 2)
by Roger Olson
June 2, 2012
One way in which some well-meaning but misguided persons have attempted to resolve the seemingly intractable differences between divine determinism, including evil as part of God’s plan rendered certain by God, and creaturely free will as power of contrary choice, including evil as not part of God’s plan and not rendered certain by God but the result of creaturely decision and action, is appeal to mystery.
An old sermon illustration has it that absolute divine sovereignty, meticulous providence, and free will, power of contrary choice, are like two train tracks that seem incommensurable but somehow join in the distance beyond the horizon of human sight. Of course, any thinking person who hears that illustration immediately things to herself “But they don’t join in the distance!”
A perhaps more reasonable illustration, applied to salvation, that allegedly resolves the dilemma between monergism and human responsibility and decision, is the following: As one approaches the gate of heaven one sees a sign that says “Whosoever will may enter here freely,” but when the person enters and looks back at the other (inner) side of the gate one sees that it says “For you were chosen from before the foundation of the world.” Of course, any thinking person who hears that illustration in a sermon will immediately realize that it is meant only to illustrate (and therefore defend) monergism*.
*mon·er·gism [mon-er-jiz-uhm] noun category: Theology"the doctrine that the Holy Ghost acts independently of the human will in the work of regeneration."
Compare synergism (def. 3).
syn·er·gism [sin-er-jiz-uhm, si-nur-jiz-] noun 3. cat: Theology
"the doctrine that the human will cooperates with the Holy Ghost in the work of regeneration."
More sophisticated appeals to mystery to resolve the dilemma avoid illustrations such as those and simply say “It’s a mystery.” As I stated in Part 1, I have no quarrel with appeal to mystery in theology so long as it is not a resort to embrace of contradiction.
It seems to me, however, that appeal to mystery to handle the dilemma stated above necessarily involves one in contradiction. The dilemma is not between “God’s sovereignty” and “free will” as some state it. We who believe in libertarian free will (as power of contrary choice) also believe in God’s sovereignty. God is sovereign over his sovereignty and limits his determining power to make room for other determining powers.
The dilemma is between divine determinism (belief that God determines everything that is to happen even if only indirectly causes much of it) and limited providence—God’s governance of all that happens without determining it in every detail.
Those two cannot both be believed without falling into sheer contradiction. And sheer (logical) contradiction is always and in every context a sign of [theological] error. To embrace it in theology is a form of special pleading that removes theology from intelligible discourse and requires a sacrifice of the intellect. A person who embraces contradiction (which I’m not sure is even possible!) has no ground for objecting to others who embrace contradiction.
Several questions arise. First, does revelation communicate sheer, logical contradiction? I hope not. Some argue it does. For example, they point to passages that allegedly say that God is the author of sin and evil (or its designer and governor) and (others) that say sin and evil are creatures’ doing, not God’s. Both Calvinism and Arminianism attempt to resolve the apparent contradiction by privileging one set of passages over the other or finding a
hermeneutical [theological]* “tool” such as divine self-limitation, prevenient grace, secondary causation, compatibilism, etc. that will relieve the paradox.
[*textual emendations mine own per previous definitions as used here in this blog space - res]
Some theologians (and non-theologians) prefer to simply let the contradiction be. To them, to use a popular saying “It is what it is.” So leave it alone. Embrace it.
Now let’s play with that idea a little to see what happens.
The preacher gets up in the pulpit and says “God determines everything including evil. God planned and rendered certain the holocaust [cause: humans] and the torturous death of a little child from leukemia [cause: nature]. And these horrible evils and instances of innocent suffering are the result of human rebellion and its resultant curse on creation. God does not want them to be, but allows them.” Who could blame his listeners who shake their heads in bewilderment and think either the preacher is nuts or they dozed off for a moment and missed something?
Even more to the point, imagine the theologian who teaches theology in a university and is invited to be on a panel with a variety of scholars from across the curriculum to discuss the nature of evil and its source. They all posit their theories and then it’s his turn and he says “God plans it and does it and God doesn’t want it and doesn’t do it.”
Surely his colleagues will press for further explanation and insist on it. Insofar as he refuses and simply rests with the contradiction his colleagues will simply write him (and possibly his theology) off as anti-intellectual if not unintelligible.
Now, the moment you go further and attempt to “explain” using concepts such as John Piper’s “two wills of God” you have abandoned contradiction (or at least attempted to) and attempted to resolve the paradox. That’s not what I’m objecting to. I’m objecting to those who say we should simply rest with contradiction and not attempt to reconcile the apparent opposites found in Scripture.
Let’s look at a specific example: Philippians 2:12-13 “Work out your own salvation…for God is at work in you….” Some (e.g., D. M. Baillie) have labeled this the “paradox of grace.” I have used that term myself. I’m okay with that. As I explained in Part 1, I find certain paradoxes inevitable signs of mystery. But is it a sheer contradiction? I hope not. One of theology’s tasks is to show that, even though we cannot plumb the depths of God’s agency and ours in salvation, thus reducing mystery to something completely comprehensible to the finite intellect, there is no need to embrace sheer contradiction.
Philippians 2:12-13 is not a contradiction once we see and acknowledge that our “work” is not the same as God’s “work” in salvation (including sanctification). Two different Greek words are translated “work” in these two verses. There’s our first clue that no contradiction is involved. However, knowing their meanings doesn’t automatically resolve the apparent tension. Theology steps in, however, to say that God’s work surrounds and underlies, enables, our “work” which is simply to allow God to do his work in us.
I use a homely illustration. Every summer here in central Texas I struggle to keep bushes alive. I turn on the outdoor faucet to which a hose is attached and drag the hundred foot hose around the house to a thirsty bush. I aim the spray nozzle at the bush and press the trigger. Nothing comes out. I go back to make sure the faucet is actually turned on. It is. Pressurized water is there in the hose. Then I realize there’s got to be a kink somewhere in that long hose that’s keeping the water from flowing. I track the length of the hose, find the kink(s) and straighten them out.
The water represents God’s grace; the kink(s) represents a wrong attitude or habit or desire that blocks up the flow of God’s grace in my life. My task is to remove those with the Spirit’s help.
The analogy breaks down, of course, in that, in my spiritual life, removing the “kinks” is just as much God’s work as mine, but I have to want it and permit it. The “energy” (one of the Greek words translated “work”) is all God’s. All I contribute is heartfelt desire, prayer and submission. That’s also “work” insofar as it’s not easy; it’s not what comes naturally.
Philippians 2:12-13 may express a paradox, but it doesn’t express a sheer contradiction. It would only be a contradiction if it said that salvation is exclusively God’s work and exclusively mine. It doesn’t say that. It implies a cooperation—a synergy. At least that’s the best way to interpret it.
If we are going to embrace contradictions, then theology really has nothing to do. Every apparent contradiction in Scripture should just be embraced without any effort to show how they are not really contradictions. The results of the deliberations of the councils of Constantinople and Chalcedon were explanations of how what Scripture says about God and Jesus Christ are not contradictions. They are mysteries, but not contradictions.
On this I am in total agreement with R. C. Sproul who emphatically rejects efforts by fellow Calvinists (and others, of course) to affirm contradiction. I have detailed that in [my book] Against Calvinism and cited Sproul’s works.
Mystery—yes. Paradox—uncomfortably yes. Contradiction—no. Admittedly it is not always easy to tell what’s a paradox and what’s a real contradiction. But some things are obviously contradictions. To affirm divine determinism and creaturely non-compatibilist free will is a contradiction. There’s no way around it. And it’s absurd. It makes Christianity unintelligible nonsense. That doesn’t serve anyone well.