The Mystery of God and the “Unknown Unknowns”

When thinking about the mystery of God–whether contemplating His nature, His character, or the facets of His will–one quickly finds himself muttering Rumsfeldian quotes. Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, talking about military intelligence, (in)famously observed,

“As we know, there are known knowns; there are things that we know that we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns, the ones we don’t know we don’t know.”

God is not completely unknown to us. He has revealed Himself to us in nature, in the human conscience, in history, through the Scriptures, and ultimately in His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. Yet God remains a mystery–there are “unknown unknowns”. Part of the problem with saying that God is mysterious is the ambiguous meaning of the word “mystery” in the English language. In The Mystery of God: Theology for Knowing the Unknowable, Steven Boyer and Christopher Hall give a very helpful and nuanced discussion of the word.Boyer, Mystery Boyer, Mystery They distinguish between five different meanings of the word “mystery”:

1. An intriguing puzzle: this is the type of mystery that we attempt to solve. In fiction, detectives such as Miss Marple and Sherlock Holmes solve mysterious crimes. In the real world, scientists and other researchers attack these types of puzzling mysteries on a regular basis.

2. An unknown plan: this is the type of mystery that is revealed. The biblical authors typically had this meaning in mind when they spoke of mystery. In Matthew 13, Jesus uses parables to teach about the “mysteries of the Kingdom”. In 1 Corinthians 15 Paul declares, “Behold I show you a mystery” as he taught about the instantaneous translation of the saints at our Lord’s return. Both instances are examples of unknown truths–mysteries–now being unveiled by divine revelation.

3. An overwhelming reality: this is the type of mystery by which one is awed. Boyer and Hall call this “quantitative inexhaustibility.” In this situation we suffer not from a lack of information, but from an excess of information. For example, we affirm that God is infinite–that His power and wisdom are limitless. But we quickly must admit that we have said more than we understand.

4. A bewildering dilemma: this is the type of mystery that does not lend itself to rational thought, much less explanation. Consider the mystery of suffering, or the inexplicable, incomprehensible evil of the Holocaust. This type of mystery appears irrational or non-rational, and leaves us bewildered.

5. Boyer and Hall finally present a fifth type of mystery–“unclassifiable superabundance.” This type of mystery goes beyond an overwhelming reality (Definition 3). We can grasp an overwhelming mystery, but we cannot comprehend it. A superabundant mystery cannot even be grasped. We simply do not have the intellectual ability to begin. The cognitive capacity is not there. When we contemplate the mystery of God (in this sense), we are dealing with unknown unknowns.

This does not mean that the mysterious aspects of God (Definition 5) contradict or conflict with what has been revealed about His nature, character, and will. We do not have to abandon rational discourse about God nor do we have to settle for a vague mysticism that reduces to a non-rational spirituality. The mystery of God transcends rational discourse but does not invalidate it. We will have to acknowledge our limitations with humility.

Despite the mystery of God–His “unclassifiable superabundance”–we still have reason to hope. God is not silent. He has spoken with the intent that we would know Him, love Him, and have a relationship with Him. Boyer and Hall put it this way:

“[E]very faculty [reason, emotion, and will] may approach God. But every faculty must approach God as God–and this means that every faculty should expect to be overwhelmed and undone by a supremacy that cannot be mastered….Reason, too, comes before the mystery legitimately, but she comes as a petitioner seeking her Lord’s bounty, not as a judge demanding a satisfactory explanation.” (14)

God may have unknown unknowns, but He is not unknown to us.

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The Sinner’s Prayer–A “Get Out of Hell Free Card”?

[Editor’s Note: This post originally appeared on July 28, 2012.]

A great deal of ink has been spilled and Internet bandwidth expended over the controversy of whether or not it is appropriate to use “the sinner’s prayer” in evangelism (i.e., is it proper to tell someone to ask Jesus into his heart when leading him to Christ).  At the Southern Baptist Convention in New Orleans this last June, messengers overwhelmingly approved a resolution supporting its use.  I have to confess that I think the whole dispute is misguided.  In my opinion, what is driving the concern of many is the paltry results of much of our evangelistic efforts.  Whether it’s one-on-one soulwinning (through Evangelism Explosion, Continuing Witness Training, or FAITH) or mass evangelistic meetings (such as crusades, youth camps, or VBS) the outcome is too often the same.  Scores make “professions of faith” who afterward demonstrate little or no interest in Christ, the church, or the walk of faith.

The problem, however, is not with the use of any particular prayer.  Rather, I would contend, that the difficulty lies in the way we present salvation.  Most evangelistic methods present salvation as a commodity that Jesus purchased and now offers.  Christ is presented as having bought salvation by His death on the Cross, and if you ask Him then He will give it to you.  Salvation, redemption, and forgiveness are understood entirely as a purchase, a business deal, or a transaction.  Salvation is reduced to the offer of a “Get Out of Hell Free” card.

But one can do business with someone he really doesn’t care for.  In fact, one can receive a gift from someone he positively dislikes (just think of how much foreign aid has gone to countries that don’t like the USA).  Here’s the important point: salvation is not something Jesus gives; salvation is something He is.  One does not receive salvation from Jesus.  You and I receive Him–the Lord Jesus Christ–for Who He is, and in receiving Him we receive salvation, redemption, and eternal life.  We are not simply being offered a really great bargain; we are called to enter into a covenant relationship with Christ.

We affirm the penal substitution of Christ upon the Cross, and gladly use the language of “purchase,” “redemption,” and even “transaction.”  But to see salvation only in those terms runs the danger of viewing salvation merely as a commercial contract.  A saving relationship with Jesus Christ is more than just a contractual agreement–it’s a covenantal relationship.  Scripture describes a saving relationship with Christ in terms of marriage (Eph 5:23-27). Marriage is indeed a contract (as least, as far as the state is concerned), but it’s not merely that.  Who wants a relationship with his or her spouse that is entirely or only legal in nature? Marriage is a rich and effective metaphor for describing our salvation because it teaches us, that above all else, salvation is a proper relationship between the Lord Jesus Christ and us.

I suspect that we tend to emphasize only the transactional aspects of redemption because such an objective understanding seemingly provides certainty.  Relationships, in contrast, are subjective by their very nature, and therefore more complicated, maybe even messy.  Yet you and I are called to be in vital union with Christ, and it is in this relationship we are saved.  “He who has the Son, has life.” — 1 John 5:12

So yes, when we are leading people to Christ we should encourage them to pray the sinner’s prayer.  Let’s just make sure we are leading them to Christ, and not just selling them on a really great deal.

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Teleological Amnesia–What I’ve Been Reading (10)

In God’s Good World: Reclaiming the Doctrine of Creation, Jonathan Wilson argues that the Church has neglected the biblical doctrine of Creation–he calls it a case of “teleological amnesia”–and all of Western culture is the worse for it. Rather than responding to the onslaught of naturalism, materialism, and Darwinism, theologians of the last 250 years turned inward. Instead of developing a robust theology of Creation, they focused on salvation history. This abdication had consequences–nearly all of them bad. Theology as an intellectual discipline was banished from the academy, the Church embraced a nearly-Gnostic view of salvation (salvation came to be understood as deliverance from Creation rather than the redemption of Creation), and society came to view technology in messianic terms.gods-good-world

One of the worst effects of abandoning Creation as a worldview is that, in the modern mind, Creation has been transformed into Nature. This left the modern world with four miserable options:

  • We can conclude that there is no meaning, purpose, or teleology to the universe.
  • We can try to manufacture meaning for ourselves.
  • We can try to believe that the universe creates its own purpose or telos. However, if death is the final outcome for all then it is difficult to avoid fatalism.
  • Or we can attempt to construe meaning in the light of another god besides the Triune God of the Bible.

Wilson contends that the only proper telos is Jesus Christ (Col 1:15-21). Failure to recognize this leads to despair, and much of modern society’s frenetic activities are attempts to deny, manage, or ameliorate this despair. Only a recovered theology of Creation–a theology that always views Creation in the context of redemption–can heal the pathologies of society.

Wilson presents his case in three parts. First, he surveys the damage caused by ignoring the doctrine of creation. Second, he presents an approach for developing a robust theology of creation. Last, Wilson devotes the remainder of the book to applying the motifs developed in part two. This book identifies an important issue. It’s not the final word on the subject; Wilson doesn’t claim that it is. But he makes a good case for where the discussion should go from here.

This posted is also available at www.theologyforthechurch.commobi online games