A Mysterious Topic: Part 1

A Mysterious Topic: Part 1 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”). 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 wrestle 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 make 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.

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 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. 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.

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 “exclusively.”

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.


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  • You might not have written this blog with Calvinism in mind but since you’re the theologian that has contributed most to helping me combat Calvinism, I tend to think first about how Calvinism fits into what you write. Here are two things that came to mind.

    First, I think Calvinism is esoteric at its core. Calvinism’s teaching that regeneration precedes faith, mixed with the doctrine of Irresistible Grace, seems to me to have inherent message that only the spiritual elite (albeit still not by works) can benefit from this doctrine. Even when it comes to someone like me, someone who is saved, Calvinists have often told me I need to know the greek and hebrew to understand God’s Word.

    Second, Calvinists often times are guilty of not making a distinction between mystery and contradiction. This explains why a Calvinist pulls out the “this is a mystery” card whenever I point out a sheer contradiction in Calvinism. For example, how can every single thing be foreordained by God and yet man is responsible for his sins? I know that question really beats a dead horse; I’m almost tired of mention it in conversations. However, I continue to mention it because I am genuinely frustrated that the Calvinists I interact with don’t even attempt to grapple with that sheer contradiction.

  • Dr. Olson,

    How does one discuss mystery and paradox with the ever-present fundamentalist gate keeper apologetic ministries that are present, and how do cooler heads prevail? Personally, I don’t give such people or ministries weight, but I know others do. How do you and others deal with the personal attacks?

    • rogereolson

      I don’t know how others deal with them. For my part, I just ignore them. I’m in a better position to do that than younger, more vulnerable scholars and pastors. I try to keep focused on what I’m doing and forge on ahead. To be honest, the attacks or criticisms that bother me the most are those that come from those who should be my allies–moderates who disdain me for even attempting to remain evangelical in this conflictual context. We probably agree about most things, but they give me grief just because I won’t give up and join them in abandoning evangelicalism to the fundamentalists. Being involved in this theological and political struggle for the soul of evangelical Christianity is not for sissies. You have to have thick skin and a support network. I have such a support network and am thankful for them.

  • Chuck Conti

    “A mystery is what has been revealed but is beyond complete comprehension.”
    I learned in Ladd’s theology that in the New Testament a mystery was something that could not be discovered on our own but had to be revealed. I am wondering where the extra qualifier, that it is beyond comprehension, comes from. Sorry, I left the catholic church 20 years ago and I have an aversion to any use of the word mystery to describe aspects of God that are beyond comprehension.
    God bless you!

    • rogereolson

      Once something is revealed it is no longer a mystery UNLESS it is beyond complete comprehension.

  • John Inglis

    A helpful delineation of the concepts. I’m looking forward to the book. It’s a treat to be able to read a blog that from time to time gives little revelations of things to come, tastes that tantalize the tongue.

    • rogereolson

      I’ll be sure to review it here when it appears in print.