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Chapter 14. Trinitarian Mystery versus Biblical Mystery

– Chapter 14 –

Trinitarian Mystery versus Biblical Mystery

The stark reality is that trinitarians like Millard Erickson are trying to do the impossible task of explaining trinita­rianism, a doctrine that has never been explained coher­ently for two millennia. That is why trinitar­ianism is said to be a “mystery beyond the comprehen­sion of man” (James White, The Forgotten Trinity, p.173).

Roger Olsen and Christopher Hall say: “According to the church father Augustine, anyone who denies the Trinity is in danger of losing her salvation, but anyone who tries to understand the Trinity is in danger of losing her mind.” [1]

Trinita­rianism remains a mystery in the 21st century because trinitarians still cannot explain coherently how three persons, each of whom is “God whole and entire,” is one God together. This accounts for the retreat into “mystery” even by a brilliant mind as Augustine’s.

For sixteen centuries the church has been using the word mystery to account for the incomprehensibility of the trinitarian doctrine, nota­bly in regard to insolvable issues such as how one God can exist in three persons, or how Christ’s divine nature relates to his human nature. These ideas defy logic and under­standing, so the solution is to consign them to the realm of mystery, the unknowable, the unfathom­able.

Some have criticized the trinitarian appeal to mystery. A Google search will show that some regard the use of mystery as being a “cop-out” for evading difficult questions under the cover of mystery. I think “cop-out” is too harsh a word because it implies an unthinking and dismissive attitude. In reality, the appeal to mystery is often accompa­nied by deep theological reflection. As a trinita­rian for two decades, I sympathize with the trinitarian effort to understand “the deep and hidden things” of God (cf. Daniel 2:22), though I myself have never used mystery to explain trinitarian incomprehen­sibility.

Trinitarians consign the Trinity to the realm of mystery, to the sphere of the unknowable and the unfathomable. But this meaning of “mystery” is unbiblical. In the Bible, a my­stery is not some­thing illogical or beyond human comprehen­sion but some­thing that is unex­plained simply because we lack some key informa­tion or revelation. This meaning is often true in secular usage, e.g., the mystery of how the pyra­mids were built, or a my­stery being investi­gated by Sherlock Holmes, but once he solves it, it is no long­er incom­prehen­sible but is “Aha!” understand­able.

We must bear in mind that the “mystery of the kingdom” which is hidden in Jesus’ para­bles can be unlocked simply by explaining their meaning (Mk.4:11); then it becomes under­standable even to fishermen.

Likewise, Paul says that we understand a mystery as clear as light when God re­veals it to us: “to bring to light for every­one what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God” (Eph.3:9). Paul aspires to “declare the my­stery of Christ” not incomprehen­sibly but “that I may make it clear” (Col.4:3-4), a statement that simply cannot be true of the trinitarian mystery of Christ.

In trinitarianism, a mystery remains a mystery even after an explan­ation has been given for it! But not so in the Bible. The follow­ing Bible diction­ary gets it right when it says that a mystery is not something “for which no answer can be found” but some­thing that “once revealed is known and understood, a secret no longer”:

But whereas “mystery” may mean, and in contemporary usage often does mean, a secret for which no answer can be found, this is not the connotation of the term mystērion in classical and biblical Gk. In the NT mystērion signifies a secret which is being, or even has been, re­vealed, which is also divine in scope, and needs to be made known by God to men through his Spirit. In this way the term comes very close to the NT word apokalypsis, “revelation”. Mystēr­ion is a temp­orary secret, which once re­vealed is known and under­stood, a secret no longer. (New Bible Dictionary, 3rd ed., “Mystery”)

Trinitarian mystery versus mystery in Daniel

What is true of mystery in the New Testament — that it is understood once it has been explained — is also true in the Old Testament.

In Daniel chapter 2, King Nebuchadnezzar was troubled by a series of dreams collectively called “the dream,” so he summoned his priests, mediums and sorcerers to tell him the dream. They could not tell him the dream, so they said, “May the King tell the dream to his servants, then we will give the interpret­ation” (v.7).

Nebuchadnez­zar saw through their pretense, and decreed for them either death or reward, depending on whether they can tell him the dream and its interpretation. They replied that no one can make the dream known “except the gods whose dwelling is not with mortals” (v.11). The King fell into a rage and issued a decree to kill all the wise men in his kingdom, including Daniel and his friends.

Daniel and his companions prayed to God for help. Their prayer was answered when “the mystery was revealed to Daniel in a vision at night” (v.19). Daniel then praised God, saying that “He reveals the deep and hidden things” (v.22) and that “You have let us know the king’s mystery” (v.23).

Nebuchadnezzar then summoned Daniel and asked him, “Are you able to tell me the dream I had and its interpretation?” (v.26). Daniel said he is unable, “but there is a God in heaven who reveals mysteries, and He has let King Nebuchadnezzar know what will happen in the last days” (v.28). Daniel explained that God is “the revealer of mysteries” (v.29) and that “this mystery has been revealed to me” (v.30).

Daniel then described a great statue of gold, silver, bronze, iron, and clay — five elements to be shattered by a stone that will become a great mountain and fill the earth. “This was the dream; now we will tell the king its interpretation” (v.36).

Daniel then outlined the coming world kingdoms that will be destroyed by an everlasting kingdom. He ended his interpreta­tion with these words: “The great God has told the king what will happen in the future. The dream is true, and its interpreta­tion certain” (v.45).

The king fell to the ground, paid homage to Daniel, and confessed, “Your God is indeed God of gods, Lord of kings, and a revealer of mysteries, since you were able to reveal this mystery” (v.47).

Hence in the book of Daniel, a mystery is understand­able, unlike the trinitar­ian mystery. Note the prepon­de­rance of the words “reveal” and “tell” and “know” and “understand” in Daniel 2, as opposed to “unknown” and “beyond human comprehen­sion” in trinitarianism.

To this day trinitarians still cannot coherently explain the Trinity despite sixteen centuries of theological discourse. And it will never be explained in the years to come, for the trinitarian mystery is innately incomprehen­sible. The debate over the nature of the Trinity continues unresolved to this day, with modern theo­lo­gians disagreeing with one another (cf. Michael L. Chiavone’s work listed in the bibliography).

Biblical mystery is incompatible with trinitarian mystery. Clarity and obscurity, like day and night, are polar opposites.

[1] Roger E. Olsen and Christopher A. Hall, The Trinity, Wm B. Eerdmans, Grand Rapids and Cambridge, 2002, p.1. In the complete works of Augustine on my iPad, “mystery” is mentioned several times of the Trinity and the Incarnation.


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