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.

The Resurrection Effect

“The message of the Resurrection is that this present world matters; that the problems and pains of this present world matter; that the living God has made a decisive bridgehead into this present world with his healing and all-conquering love; and that, in the name of this strong love, all the evils, all the injustices, and all the pains of the present world must now be addressed with the news that healing, justice, and love have won the day. That’s why we pray: “Thy kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven.” Make no bones about it: Easter Day was the first great answer to that prayer.

If Easter faith is simply about believing that God has a nice comfortable afterlife for some or all of us, then Christianity becomes a mere pie-in-the-sky religion instead of a kingdom-on-earth-as-it-is-in-heaven religion. If Easter faith is simply about believing that Jesus is risen in some “spiritual” sense, leaving his body in the tomb, then Christianity turns into a let-the-world-stew-in-its-own-juice religion, instead of a kingdom-on-earth-as-it-is-in-heaven religion. If Easter faith is only about me, and perhaps you, finding a new dimension to our own personal spiritual lives in the here and now, then Christianity becomes simply a warmth-in-the-heart religion instead of a kingdom-on-earth-as-it-is-in-heaven religion. It becomes focused on me and my survival, my sense of God, my spirituality, rather than outwards on God and on God’s world that still needs the kingdom message so badly.

But if Jesus Christ is truly risen from the dead, Christianity becomes what the New Testament insists that it is: good news for the whole world, news that warms our hearts precisely because it isn’t just about warming hearts. The living God has in principle dealt with evil once and for all, and is now at work, by his own Spirit, to do for us and the whole world what he did for Jesus on that first Easter Day.”

NT Wright, Grave Matters, Christianity Today 4/06/1998.

Evil and the Evidence for God

“No argument from evil I am aware of makes it likely or even reasonable to believe there is no God. Evil cannot carry that evidential load. But suppose I’m wrong. Suppose evil is evidence to think God does not exist. Does it follow that it’s reasonable to believe there is no God?

Let’s approach this question by way of analogy. Suppose you learn in your European Culture class today that 95 percent of the French population can’t swim. That statistic is some evidence to think that Pierre, your friend from Paris, can’t swim. Does it follow that you should believe Pierre can’t swim? Of course not. What if you and Pierre spent last Saturday afternoon together swimming and chatting about the fine-tuning argument and Albert Camus’ The Plague? Surely, in that case, it isn’t reasonable for you to believe Pierre can’t swim. Your experience with him is much better evidence to think he can swim even though the statistical evidence by itself makes it very likely that he cannot.

The same goes with evil and God. Even if evil is some evidence that there is no God, you might have much better evidence to think that God exists; in that case, it wouldn’t be reasonable for you to believe there is no God.

This line of thought naturally leads to some weighty questions not the least of which are these: Is the evidence for God significantly better than the evidence that evil provides against God? What sources of evidence are there? How should we balance the evidence for and against theism?”

Daniel Howard-Snyder, “God, Evil, and Suffering” in Reason for the Hope Within edited by Michael J. Murray (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company) page 114.

Friday Night Miscellany

Here are some headlines from around the web, to take you into the weekend.


Probablity, presuppositionalism, and evidentialism.

Evangelism and epistemology.

New audio from Douglas Groothuis’ lectures for The Next Level Church: A Brief History of Buddhism and Hinduism and A Brief History of Islam

A brief primer on the Problem of Evil.


Panel discussion with Vern Poythress on his new book, In the Beginning was the Word: Language: A God-Centered Approach to Language

Did Paul invent Christianity?

New book on the darker side of Christmas.

The doctrine of the Trinity and the source of the Christian Mission.

Christianity and Politics

The continuing conversation over the Manhattan Declaration: R. C. Sproul, Ligon Duncan, and Paul Edwards add their voices. Hunter Baker addresses John Stackhouse’s objection that the Declaration is “philosophically and politically incoherent”.

Was the Church responsible for modern welfare?

How cohabitation is a sin against social justice.

Disentangling the politics from the science: What to think about Global Warming.

Rick Warren clarifes his stance on the anti-gay bill being considered by the Ugandan Parliament.

Recent crackdown on Christians in China is described by some church leaders as “the harshest in years”.

Christianity and Culture

Is eating chocolate cake sinful?

The Time Magazine’s top religious stories of the year.

New study reveals the costly effects of pornography. (Also check out JT’s post with a great list of additional resources on the subject)

Other stuff

How pictures overwhelm words. Even when those pictures are stupid.

Robert Wright on how the New Atheism crusade is encountering powerful and possibly pivotal resistance: “Maybe this is the New Atheists’ biggest problem: As living proof that religion isn’t a prerequisite for divisive fundamentalism, they are walking rebuttals to their own ideology.”

The perfect way to cut pizza.

This one is for Glenn: Scar Wars – a Star Wars/Scarface mash-up  (content warning, not for delicate flowers)