On Intellectual Defeatism and the Retreat into Mystery

For myself I’m ok with “mystery” in theology. I think that is a natural consequence of being a finite being trying to understand an infinite God. It is also a result of the purpose of the Bible not being philosophical theology. Now when theological difficulties arise because Biblical revelation is ambiguous on a certain subject,[1] the temptation is to retreat into mystery. You hear phrases like “It’s a mystery.” Though I’m not against “mystery” I do often cringe when that is said. That’s because “mystery” here can be used and understood in two very different manners and entail two very different responses.

First, it can mean that we should accept that resolution to the problem is actually (metaphysically) impossible. That is to say, one must assent to believe mutually exclusive propositions.

This would be acceptable if it were not for the fact that any theology that is logically incoherent is also false. Not only is it false, but its necessarily false. For example, the spoken statement “I don’t speak a word of English,” is logically incoherent and therefore necessarily false. This first option is unacceptable for at least two reasons. One, we have an epistemic duty to believe that which is true. Two, assenting to believe that which can be shown to be necessarily false is irrational.

Second, it can mean we should accept that the resolution to the problem is simply unknown at present. This second option is to be preferred over the first, but that is not to say that we should default to this position at the first sign of difficulty. That would be intellectual laziness.

There are many reasons to continue to probe deep theological conundrums. For one, the discipline of study; of perseverance in thinking hard until a resolution is found is tremendously satisfying on a personal level, and yields colossal benefits for ministry. It is the glory of kings to seek out a matter (Prov 25:2) Such a project should be considered worship, for it is just one way to love the Lord with your mind. (Matt 22:37-40) Second, it glorifies God. Satisfying answers to profound and penetrating questions will always unveil the beauty and perfection of God and his revelation to us. Third, (as If those reasons were not enough,) it is one way to show respect and honour to our brothers who have gone before us. The Apostolic Fathers of the church shed endless hours of sweat – even blood – to enshrine in creeds resolutions to the difficult questions they were facing, and so give us a biblically faithful, philosophically robust and intellectually respectable faith.

Now it may be that we will never discover the perfect answer. It may be that after a prolonged period of study we despair of ever finding resolution, and so throw in the proverbial white towel. This, I think, is an acceptable option. (Indeed, humility may require it.) In the absence of a suitable solution and if the text so demands, we shall always have the option of holding seemingly disparate themes in tension. But that is not to say that there is no resolution available already – or yet to be formulated, and certainly not to say there can be no possible resolution at all.

For clarification, I am not against mystery in theology. I am against “mystery” being used as a mask to hide laziness, intellectual defeatism, anti-intellectualism and irrationality.

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[1] Such as how Jesus can be both God and Man, or how God can be both one and three at the same time, the issue of Divine sovereignty and human responsibility that is the flashpoint in the Calvinist/Arminian debate, the problem of evil, etc.

3 replies
  1. Bnonn
    Bnonn says:

    It's worth noting that the word "mystery" in the Bible does not refer to concepts which we can't understand. Rather, it refers to concepts which we could not know unless they are revealed to us. So to say something is a "mystery" in theology is actually to say that something is a revealed truth.

  2. Stuart001
    Stuart001 says:

    Thanks for that. There are also mysteries that are currently hidden and yet to be (if ever) revealed. And its giving up on discovering those things which the thrust of my ramblings were directed at.

  3. Matt_flannagan
    Matt_flannagan says:

    Whats interesting is that one often here scientists say things like "we don't know the answer to X, or theory Y has some analomies or difficulties but I have faith that the theory is true and we will resolve these in the future" so the retreat to "mystery" as you say is actually a fairly normal part of science.

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