On mysteries and unknowables…

I recently had a very engaging discussion with a Mormon. The topic of mysteries of the gospel came up, and we mutually wondered just exactly what a mystery of the gospel might be.

Is it a technical term for something more concrete or does it represent something abstract?

My graduate education (M.A.) was Protestant. In discussing difficult theological topics, I often heard my mainline Christian brothers indicate that such-and-such a concept or doctrine is a mystery because it cannot be explained by the rational mind in a concise way. Generally, trinitarianism is the quintessential mystery. How does one understand God’s character given the advent of Jesus? How does one explain Jesus’ relationship to mankind? And, by extension, how does one understand mankind’s relationship to God in light of Jesus? Where does the Holy Spirit fit into all of this, and how are they all one, as the scripture indicates? All these questions might seem easy to a Mormon because Mormons dismiss (corporeal) trinitarianism. But we’re not immune to “mysteries” or “unknowables” either.

Frequently, I hear people of the church indicating that the atonement, for example, is a big mystery. And perhaps it is. On the other side of the coin, I also frequently hear that the atonement is the single most important event in salvation history: the zenith of all events. Now that I think about it, I think I’ve heard each of these statements from GAs.

I’ve read in the ‘nacle where individuals have argued which allegory best represents the reality of the atonement.

So my questions are:

1. Is the allegory really the best vehicle by which to understand the atonement? Don’t alleogires logically “break down” by their very nature? And why don’t the scriptures offer atonement allegories? Or do they?

2. Why does the atonement have to be so difficult to understand? The authors of scripture seem to get their hands around it, yet many of us do not. Anybody know why this might be?

3. If it’s so important that we understand the atonement, why is it frequently set up as one of the most mysterious aspects of the gospel? Is there salvation to be found apart from understanding the atonement? Why the paradox? What are the implications?

Your thoughts?

17 Replies to “On mysteries and unknowables…”

  1. The Atonement is difficult to understand because in encompasses the whole scope of the plan of salvation – to understand it properly one must have a deep understanding of every field of traditional inquiry – logic, metaphysics, meta-ethics, natural law, material and spiritual reality, cognitive science, liberty, psychology, physiology, sociology, ecclesiology, government, and covenant.

    That is hard to capture in a simple allegory – the best allegory for the Atonement is life itself, in particular the implementation of the plan of salvation.

  2. I think it is because there is no systematic evalutation of atonement theory in the church. We are councilled to simply accept the miracle of it. Then, when faced with conflicting scripture or precept, we throw our arms up in the air.

    Now, I don’t particularly agree with his theory, but Jacob Morgan asserts an interesting critical revision of Potter’s recent work in las springs Dialogue: The Divine-Infusion Theory: Rethinking the Atonement pg. 57.

    Seems like the penal-substitution theory is currently the most widely reiterated in contemporary discourse. The problem is that it has some serious inconsistencies. Hence the mystery.

  3. The authors of scripture seem to get their hands around it, yet many of us do not. Anybody know why this might be?

    Hehe. I’m not so sure they had their hands around it any better than we do… If they did they sure left out a lot of crucial details that would allow us to make sense of it all. As a result, penal substitution theory has the lead right now in the church, though we seem to take a smorgasborg approach to atonement theories, drawing from different and even conflicting theories all at once. But I don’t think completely understanding the atonement is at all required to have faith in Christ and repent so we are alright anyway.

  4. I think “mysteries” comes from initiation rites where “further light and knowledge” was given. Mystery in the ancient near east was basically these rites. In LDS terms it thus becomes what hasn’t yet been revealed to the Church as a whole in a clear fashion.

  5. My favorite atonement analogy is the court case one, a~la Stephen Robinson (though, admitedly, his in person explanation is much better than the one in print). Once I’d heard it and got my head around as much of it as I could, I figured the mystery of the atonement was what in the world could have caused all that pain.

  6. Very nice post.


    As long as the reading is disciplined, that is, it respects the limits of form and genre, I don’t see a problem with allegory.

    That said, I can’t think of one.

    Hard to understand

    I guess I don’t think it’s all that mysterious. I think that if I found it too confusing, it would be a deterent to faith.

    I do agree with Geoff J that we know enough to be getting on with. To the extent that it’s mysterious, my sense is that it’s probably a matter of what is not yet revealed.

    However, I’d have to disagree with Geoff J on the matter of scripture adequecy, although he wasn’t specific about what he considered the shortcomings. Perhaps we’re thinking of different things.

    I’m very interested in the specifics that folks find hard to understand.

    I’ll take a look at what “mystery” means in the NT tomorrow. At least in Revelation, it’s close to Clark’s understanding; it’s the parts of the plan of salvation not yet revealed. IIRC, Paul is bit different.

  7. Mystery in the ancient near east was basically these rites.

    Clark, you’re pushing a giant, red, pulsating button, much like the one on “Deal or No Deal.” So I must ask: what are your sources for this? Which ANE civs had mystery rites (aside from Egypt)?

  8. I do not want to preempt Clark, but it is readily apparent that the sacrament of Communion is a first class mystery rite and Christianity a mystery religion in that sense. The similar aspects of marriage rites with regard to the cake, and so on are also worth recognizing.

    What about the Extreme Unction (for healing of the sick), coronation rites, or anointing with oil in general, something that has a long precedent in Judaism?

    Also: Baptism, Laying on of hands, priestly robes and mantles, the proper interpretation of scripture, and so on.

    As far as other religions are concerned, what about the Eleusinian mysteries and the cult of the Pythagoreans, to name two? What about ancient Hebrew mysticisms not discussed in the temple but closely guarded (and inevitably corrupted) nonetheless? Every source I have read indicates the ANE was littered with this kind of stuff, often syncretized and synthesized with abandon, by modern standards at any rate.

  9. I think mysteries simply mean something that we are currently unable to wrap our mortal, finite minds around and therefore God tries to simplify through the use of allegory. He also backs up understanding with a spiritual witness.
    The ordinance mystery, rite in regard to the atonement was the sacrifice of the firstlings of the flock, and continues today with the law of sacrifice as explained in modern terms. The story of Abraham and Isaac I think are a clear example of trying to get across the idea that a great, in fact, “infinite” sacrifice is necessary to enable the salvation of mankind. Actually, I believe the actual crucifixion itself served mostly as an allegory to help us understand just what it is the Savior gave us, and that through this event, he conquered death, became glorified, and perfect. I think the exact reasoning must be some kind of natural law which we simply don’t have the capability of understanding as yet. This does not mean that we will not. I believe a central teaching of the church in this regard is how much learning and growth will continue after this life.

  10. I persinally believe that mysteries are mysteries because of our own inability to be diligent in showing obedience to God’s laws. Once we begin showing true charity and obedience to God’s laws, he reveals the mysteries of the gospel and unfolds them to our own understanding. Through this process we become perfect because we are all knowing of truth as it is ingrained within us. Alma chapter 12 talks quite plainly about why mysteries are mysteries. Alma explains that to those who recive Gods word are revealed the mysteries while to those who harden their hearts towards God have those mysteries and knowledge taken from them until they know nothing concerning his mysteries. When that happens, Satan chains them down and has all power over them.

    Concerning the atonement. The greatest secret to understanding that mystery is that by proxy he saves each individual separately and not alltogether. Because he suffered everything he did solely for me through this proxy, I cannot but have to show love and kindness back to Christ knowing that everything he did he did it for me. So basically to deny the atonement is basically to deny that Christ loves you- and hence the reason why it is unforgivable for man to reap salvation after full knowledge of Christs infinite love for each and everyone of us.

  11. Well, I had a look at the NT. The word “mystery” occurs just once in the Gospels (Mk 4:11), twice each in Romans and 1 Cor, but thirteen times in the deutero-Paulines.

    First, there definitely isn’t a mystery religion connotation to the NT’s use of the word “mystery.”

    Second, the NT authors pretty uniformly think the “mystery” is revealed, if not perfectly comprehensible in every detail.

    Finally, Paul’s use seems to differ even from that of his Jewish background in perhaps three respects:

    1) it is revealed not to “the wise” but to the unwise.

    2)it is not an apocalyptic plan for the last days, but what God has done through Christ

    3)humans gain access to “the deep things of God” through faith in Christ.

    So I remain pretty much in the not-mystery camp.

  12. Mogget: I guess I don’t think [the atonement] is all that mysterious. I think that if I found it too confusing, it would be a deterent to faith.

    Sweet! Would you mind explaining it to me then? Here is a post that outlines the the traditional theories. And here is a post on Blake Ostler’s “Compassion Theory of Atonement”. Have you concluded that one of these theories is the best explanation? If so please share because I have yet to find a theory that seems adequate to me…

    BTW – Here is my best crack at a working atonement analogy/parable.

  13. My Dear Head Thang,

    You sound a little intense, perhaps even a touch sarcastic. If you need some nice, chaste, Mogget-kisses, I am always happy to accommodate you.

    sweet…explain it to me…here are the usual constructions

    Well, yes, you can get a synopsis of those theories of atonement on the web or, even better, in any introductory theology textbook. And they normally come with a nice summary of the strengths and weaknesses of each.

    In fact, let’s have a look at one basic introduction, in this case Alister E. McGrath’s Christian Theology: an Introduction, 2nd edition:

    The term “theory of the atonement” has become commonplace in English-language theology as a term for “a way of understanding the work of Christ.” The term was used especially extensively in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. However, there is increasing evidence that this term is seen as cumbersome and unhelpful by many modern Christian writers, across the entire spectrum of theological viewpoints. In view of this trend, it has been avoided in the present work. The term “soteriology” (from the Greek soteria, “salvation”) is increasingly used to refer to what were traditionally designated “theories of the atonement” or “the work of Christ.” Soteriology embraces two broad areas of theology: the question of how salvation is possible and in particular how it related to the history of Jesus Christ; and the question of how salvation itself is to be understood (McGrath, 390-391).

    At least from McGrath’s point of view, it would seem that I spend a great deal of time and effort explaining my “theory of the atonement,” or more precisely my understanding of the NT’s “theories of the atonement.” In fact, only rarely do I write on much other than “theories of the atonement,” although I don’t, for reasons I explained several months ago, use the term “atonement” very frequently.

    Now let me broaden my intended audience to include all the Gentle Readers of this post and if, after reading this you think I have been mean or unfair, I will gladly give myself a really serious Mogget-nipping.

    Sometimes folks are most familiar with an expression of Pauline theology that looks like a tidy package of justification, sanctification, and salvation divided up like this:

    1) Justification, which is a past event that has certain implications in the present such as sanctification.

    2) Sanctification, which is a present event following on a past event (justification) and looking forward to a future salvation.

    3) Salvation, which is a future event.

    Since my fellow saints are normally dismayed when I express displeasure with this formulation, let’s turn again to McGrath:

    …this [formulation] is clearly inadequate. Justification has a future, as well as a past, reference (Romans 2:13; 8:33; Galatians 5:4-5), and it appears to relate to both the beginning of Christian life and its final consummation. Similarly, sanctification can also refer to a past event (1 Corinthians 6:11) or a future event (1 Thessalonians 5:23). And salvation is an exceptionally complex idea, embracing not simply a future event, but something which has happened in the past (Romans 8:24; 1 Corinthians 15:2) or which is taking place now (1 Corinthians 1:18)…the Christian understanding of salvation presupposes that something hashappened, that something is now happening, and that something further will still happen to believers. (McGrath, 390)

    Now there are probably two major things that contribute to my sense that I reasonably understand “the atonement.” First, I’m comfortable with the primary texts that you see McGrath citing above, as well as those that express the many other effects of the Christ-event left unmentioned by this older Protestant approach. There is no sense in which I am, or ever will be, the master of these texts, but neither are they the strangers that my mother warned me against talking to. Instead, they are valuable, trusted, companions in an on-going dialogue.

    Second, I’m very interested in those aspects that have happened or that are happening. Because I know just a bit about what they are and are supposed to produce, I sometimes think I recognize them. In the end, I guess I’m saying that for me, the NT has been a very reliable foundation for working with this stuff. I doubt that secondary literature and systematic theologies will ever be more than a sideshow.

    And that is why I feel comfortable about my progressively expanding understanding of the atonement. I don’t know if it can be transferred to anyone else. Perhaps not, and almost certainly not in occasional blog posts. But I think I’ll keep writing and in the future I’ll be more careful to lay out the things that are past or present, just in case anybody else wants in on the experience.

    Whew. Sorry this is so long. Maybe I should give myself a Mogget-nipping for not being able to shut up after an appropriate length of time.

  14. Hehe. That is a good explanation Mogget.

    I was mostly referring to the mechanics of it all in my comment. If you come up with any good explanations for exactly why Christ had to suffer as he did in the Garden and on the Cross (that is not penal-substition or a satisfaction theory) I would love to hear it too. All of the theories I’ve heard so far have seemed inadequate to me.

  15. At risk of belaboring the obvious, Jesus had to suffer on the cross, Christ had to suffer on the crosses.

  16. penal-substition or a satisfaction theory

    #@#!&*# theories!

    Jesus had to suffer on the cross

    Hm, well. It wasn’t so obvious to some of the writers of the NT, nor was it part of the OT concept of messiah.

    I’ll do a little thing, which will be of historical interest to folks interested in modern stuff. But in a couple of days. All this time spent here is killing me!

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