…according to the riches of his grace, which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight, making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forward in Christ… (Ephesians 1:7-9).
God wants to be known and loved by the people he has created. Yet God is far beyond human understanding; he is essentially unknowable. The mind of even the most saintly Christian falls short of comprehending the full identity of the Lord. The best a Christian can do in this lifetime is to accept the things God says about himself and to love the God revealed in his messages, even when God’s own descriptions seem to defy the best thinking his people can achieve.
In his letters, the apostle Paul sometimes mentioned the “mysteries” that had been entrusted to him. In modern thought, a mystery is a novel or movie about a crime that has been committed. In a modern mystery, a detective examines clues and eventually determines the truth about the crime and the person who committed that crime. Such mysteries are solved through the use of reason and logic. The detective succeeds because of his or her ability to comprehend what is seen and what he or she has been told. When Paul used the word “mystery,” he was not talking about puzzles that can be solved. The apostle used the word “mystery” in its earlier sense, meaning something that cannot be known until it is revealed.
You do not know my name until I tell you my name. You might, with careful and deliberate research, be able to find my name. Or, if you were with me, you might over time be able to guess my name. The easiest way for you to know my name, though, is for me to tell you my name, or for me to have it printed on the cover of a book. My name is a mystery that can be revealed, but the nature of the true God is an even greater mystery, something that can be known only when God chooses to reveal it to people.
Ancient Greek scientists and mathematicians were among the first people in the world to try to understand the world through reason and logic rather than through revealed messages of religion. These wise Greeks were determined to know how the world works, and they expected the world to make sense. One of their assumptions was that all numbers are related, and that every number that exists can be expressed as a ratio, or fraction, made of two other numbers. Any number that could not be expressed in that way was, in their opinion, “irrational.” As they studied the world around them, though, they found numbers that are irrational. If you divide the distance around a circle (the circumference) by the distance across the circle (the diameter), the result is irrational, a number that cannot be described as a ratio of two other numbers. If you divide the diagonal distance across a square by the length of any of the square’s sides, the result is another irrational number. Greek geometers had to accept the existence of numbers that their reason and logic labeled irrational.
Modern science has detected many things about the world around us that seem illogical and unreasonable. Light is a paradox: it acts like a stream of particles, but also like waves of energy. Most of the particles of which matter is made defy logical understanding. An electrical engineer can create a device powered by a circuit of moving electrons, but a nuclear physicist cannot identify just one electron or tell you where that electron is and how fast it is moving. The rules that govern objects large enough for us to see and hold do not apply to the tiny pieces of which those objects consist. Euclid’s laws of geometry and Newton’s laws of physics only match the world we observe; underneath the observed world lies a world that is very different, a world of paradox and mystery.
If the created world is full of paradox and mystery, then it comes as no surprise that the Creator is also a Being of paradox and mystery. The god who fits into human comprehension and understanding would be a poor and weak god, hardly deserving of human worship and praise. The nature of God is not beneath human reason and logic; the nature of God is far above human reason and logic. When his mysteries have been revealed, people can begin to use reason and logic to describe and discuss those mysteries. If God had not told us about himself, no philosopher or scientist could ever have invented him.
This is not to say that a Christian must abandon reason and logic to talk about God or to believe in him. Reason and logic are part of God’s creation just as the senses of sight and hearing and touch are created by God. Christians are not called to believe the mysteries because they are absurd. Christians are called to believe the mysteries because they are true. In Through the Looking Glass, Lewis Carroll reports this conversation between Alice and the White Queen:
“Now I’ll give you something to believe. I’m just one hundred and one, five months, and a day.”
“I can’t believe that!” said Alice.
“Can’t you?” the Queen said in a pitying tone. “Try again; draw a long breath, and shut your eyes.”
Alice laughed. “There’s no use trying,” she said; one can’t believe impossible things.”
“I dare say you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was your age I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”
Christians do not practice believing impossible things as the White Queen did. Christians accept the mysteries of the faith because they trust God. Their trusting relationship with God causes them and enables them to believe the paradoxes that the world calls irrational and unreasonable, because Christians know that God is bigger than our minds and bigger than the world which he created.
How do Christians know which mysteries to believe? God authorized certain messengers to tell his people what to believe. He sent Moses and the prophets to speak his messages and to put them into writing; then Jesus authorized the apostles to speak and to write about him. The authority of the prophets and the apostles comes from Jesus himself, so in the end Jesus has revealed the mysteries of the faith and has told his people what to believe.
In the early years of the Church, meetings were called to discuss these mysteries and to find ways to describe and discuss them in reasonable and logical ways. The creeds and confessions of the Christian Church are not meant to add anything to the Bible or to replace the Bible. Their purpose is to summarize the Bible so Christians can discuss the mysteries contained in the Bible. Creeds and confessions are used by Christians to teach others the Christian faith. They are used by Christians to speak to one another about what they believe. They are used by Christians to speak to God, saying aloud to him that we believe what God has told us about himself.
Creeds and confessions are used to describe the truth, and they also were written to identify errors. Some of the creeds even say that whoever does not believe the statements they contain is not truly a follower of Jesus Christ. As recently as one hundred years ago, a group of Christian preachers in the United States made a list of “fundamental” truths that they said are believed by every Christian. They went on to say that anyone who did not believe one of those fundamental teachings was not really a Christian. The author of this book has no authority to declare what is truth and what is error. The author of this book has no authority to judge any person and his or her relationship with Jesus Christ. This book is written to describe the mysteries that Christians have believed and taught over the centuries. Therefore, if any reader feels that the words in this book are judging or condemning his or her faith, rest assured that this book has not been written for that purpose. Christians can disagree with one another without rejecting or condemning each other.
This book is written to describe the mysteries about God as they are revealed in the writings of the prophets and apostles chosen by God and as they have historically been understood and restated by Christians. It is written with the hope that God’s people will rediscover the awesome wonder that comes from realizing that God is far more grand and glorious than our minds can comprehend. Christian faith is no intellectual exercise to define God with words and sentences. Christian faith is a relationship with God which touches every part of the Christian life: mind, heart, and spirit. That which we do not understand we still rejoice to believe, accepting the mysteries of the Christian faith as part of the beauty of the relationship we have with the Lord.