“Who can fathom the Spirit of the LORD, or instruct the LORD as his counselor? Whom did the LORD consult to enlighten him, and who taught him the right way? Who was it that taught him knowledge, or showed him the path of understanding?” (Isaiah 40:13-14, NIV 1984)
Is there mystery involved in encountering the exalted God of the Bible? If so, does that mean God is ultimately unknowable? Does mystery involve actual logical contradiction?
Mystery and Comprehension
According to historic Christianity, a theological mystery is something that is believed to be true based on biblical revelation but can’t be fully comprehended by the limited human mind. A mystery is a meaningful idea that carries a rational basis, so it is genuinely understandable to some degree. However, it remains ultimately incomprehensible or unfathomable.
St. Augustine once said, “Si comprehendis, non est Deus” (Latin), which translates, “If you understand, it is not God.”1
To place his quote in proper context, God is infinite, eternal, and totally independent; human beings are finite, temporal, and dependent creatures. So if a person is reflecting on the mysteries of the Trinity or the incarnation or God’s attributes and they think they fully comprehend these truths, then Augustine says it’s not the God of historic Christianity. The reason is patently clear: If you or I can fully understand God, then he is not much of a God.
For Augustine, people can truly know God, understand real truths about him, and by his grace even have a relationship with the redeeming Lord, but we cannot comprehend God as the persons in the Godhead comprehend one another. Since God’s nature is so beyond that of the creature, this difference calls for human beings to exercise humility and deference. God’s glorious being should lead us to worship, thank, and trust him.
As Christian apologists who seek to explain and defend Christianity, we can overstate our ability to comprehend truths that are deeply mysterious. But that doesn’t mean God is logically contradictory, for such truths as the Trinity and the incarnation can be articulated in ways that avoid logical contradiction.2 It also doesn’t mean that Christian thinkers can’t vigorously press the logical categories in offering potential rational ways of understanding these divine truths. But even with the rational enterprise of Christian apologetics, mystery remains and it should be recognized and acknowledged.
Mystery Is Part of Life
The discovery that truth and reality involve robust mystery is present in other academic disciplines as well. For example, in science mystery is found in Werner Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle and in Richard Feynman’s approach to quantum mechanics. Heisenberg and Feynman offered rigorous reasons for accepting these truths but also recognized the human mind’s limited capacity for full comprehension. These two brilliant and intuitive scientists acknowledged that humility is warranted in light of mystery. There are, therefore, mysteries in both science and theology.3 They remind us of our limitations and the need to keep seeking understanding.
Consider the apostle Paul’s statement about the true but mysterious God in Acts 17:24–28:
“The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else. From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.'”
Reflections: Your Turn
How does the triune God’s infinite nature and being impact your life as a believer?
• For an explanation and defense of historic Christian truth claims, see my book Without a Doubt: Answering the 20 Toughest Faith Questions.
• For a study of God’s being and attributes, see my book A World of Difference.
- St. Augustine, Sermo 117.3.5 (PL 38.663).
- For a discussion of mystery and reason relating to the Trinity and the incarnation, see my book Christianity Cross-Examined (Covina, CA: RTB Press, 2021), chap. 5.
- For a discussion of the mystery of life from a scientific and theological perspective, see Alister McGrath’s book The Great Mystery: Science, God and the Human Quest for Meaning (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 2018).