Is God a mystery? I think my answer is “No”, “No” and “Yes”.
No, God is not a mystery in the sense of being a mysterious force, an overpowering Other whom we encounter primarily in the realm of feeling through mystical techniques and experience. We do not merge with the mystery of God by exiting our consciousness or by being absorbed like a drop into his ocean. We can get to know him as a person because that is how he graciously relates to us—person to person, through speaking to us and listening to us.
And no, God is not a mystery in the sense that he is really unknowable and unfathomable—an impenetrable cloud, a puzzle wrapped in an enigma, a being of whom we can only speak about only in the most tentative fashion, perhaps just by declaring what he is not. God can be known truly by his creatures, because he has created us with the capacity to know him, and he revealed himself to us finally and chiefly in his Son. The God we meet in the gospel is the real God, not a mask or a temporary facade. And so we can speak truly and clearly about God in the language that he has given us.
But yes, God is a mystery, because although we know him truly through his revelation, we do not know him exhaustively. As the heavens are above the earth, so his ways and thoughts are above ours (Isa 55:9). We do now see him, but as in a mirror darkly; we do now know him, but only in part (1 Cor 13:12).
Graham Cole got me thinking along these lines with the opening chapter of his new book on the Holy Spirit: He Who Gives Life: The doctrine of the Holy Spirit. He starts by talking about the ‘elusiveness of the Spirit’ who is like the wind—invisible, unpredictable and dynamic. We can think and talk about the Spirit and his work because God has told us certain things (in the Spirit-inspired Scriptures), but we should do so with humility, not expecting to be able answer every question. Cole writes:
God is God and we are not. The primeval temptation—“you will be like God”—may remain in us in subtle ways, however. We can write of the Spirit of God as though we were in glory beholding God’s face rather than living as we do outside of Eden in the groaning creation and as those “on whom the end of the ages has come”. To forget that we are to live in the light of the cross in a particular eschatological frame of reference is to risk indulging in what Luther called a theology of glory as opposed to a theology of the cross. We can forget all too readily who we are, where we are, and when we are.
I found this to be a valuable reminder—not only with respect to the Spirit (about whom I’ve been doing some reading and thinking recently), but about theology more generally. A good theologian knows when to speak clearly and boldly, when to speak tentatively and humbly, and when to speak not at all.
This is a lesson I keep struggling to learn. I detect a certain rationalist streak that keeps bubbling to the surface, leading me to think I will be able to solve any theological conundrum if I just think long and hard enough, and study the Scriptures carefully enough. It also leads me to be too confident sometimes about speculative theological conclusions I’ve come to on fairly light, biblical evidence.
Anyone else feel this way about themselves, or others?