The Majesty of Mystery: A Book Review
This is a book review of Dr. Scott Oliphint’s latest book, The Majesty of Mystery. It is my hope that this review will help the reader consider the strengths and weaknesses of the work discussed here. Another book added to one’s library as the result of a good review could be a priceless addition to any person’s collection. Some books have changed my life, perhaps this one will do the same for you. Above all, may we discern the godly from the ungodly, and continue in our labor to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.
Throughout the Church’s history, there has been an implicit struggle to find the right volume of mystery and the exact amount of knowable facts. The Church has bounced between what we would call Fideism (irrationalism) and rationalism.
On one hand, Christians have sought to provide a defense of their faith by admitting a defense doesn’t really exist at all. Fideists are those who trade theologically intellectual leg-work for experience and blind faith. However, in light of Deuteronomy 6:5 and Matthew 22:37 –– our commission to a comprehensive and intellectual way of loving God –– Fideism couldn’t be considered a Christian concept.
They run for the caverns of some misconstrued understanding of faith, or mystery.
On the other hand, some professing Christians have tried to find ways to drag the Bible down, so to speak, in order to make it fit more easily within the human mind. We could think of John Locke and Thomas Jefferson, both of whom precluded the more difficult teachings of Scripture in order to come to “rational” terms with the text.
This struggle continues to plague the Church today.
Some churches have opted to adopt a form of mysticism. They are able to give up the hard work of intellectual rigor by retreating into the hills of experience. Their faith, it is thought, is totally experiential and there is no philosophical or scientific defense for it.
There are other churches who try to explain every aspect of Scripture, and those aspects which can’t be explained are either ignored, or they are outrightly excluded from the text.
A MYSTERIOUS FOUNDATION
“At the same time, pray also for us, that God may open to us a door for the word, to declare the mystery of Christ, on account of which I am in prison.”
— Colossians 4:3 (ESV)
The extreme views mentioned above need to be corrected; but how are we to go about this?
In the Majesty of Mystery: Celebrating the Glory of an Incomprehensible God, Dr. Scott Oliphint provides a biblical way according to which Christians ought to think about mystery.
The way he does this is interesting, particularly for two different reasons: 1) Oliphint posits that God’s mystery ought to be seen as a foundational starting point for the Christian faith; 2) he argues that God’s mystery is precisely the reason Christians can have an intellectually rigorous understanding of their own faith.
In other words, Oliphint is making the claim that God’s mystery actually accounts for the intellectualism cultivated by the Christian religion. In fact, it’s almost as if he’s saying that, if it weren’t for God’s mystery, we would not be moved to know Him, the world, or ourselves in the first place.
This definitely puts a new spin on the term “mystery.” Is it really possible that Christians have misunderstood the word “mystery” for this long? Have we just sort of used that word in order to conveniently escape any intelligent dialogue? Oliphint writes:
Nothing should motivate true Christian worship more than the majestic mystery of God. Things that we understand, that we can wrap our minds around, are rarely objects of worship (4).
He later points out that Herman Bavinck, the 20th century Kampen Seminary divine, believed that “mystery is the lifeblood of theology.” The same mind who wrote one of the best dogmatic works ever gifted to the Church thought mystery was a requirement of theology. In other words, Bavinck thought that theology couldn’t live without mystery.
This is certainly a new way for the Church to see mystery. No longer is there an excuse to make mystery a place holder in the absence of deep theological thought. Rather, mystery is the propellant which launches us toward a more intimate theological understanding of our great God.
This correction upon the mainstream usage of the word “mystery” is certainly needed within the Church today, and it appears as if it has been done with the classic Oliphint punch, while remaining totally accessible to the layperson. It maintains a polemical edge while also providing much pastoral insight.
In the second chapter, the author follows the apostle Paul through Romans 11:33-36 and points out that Paul’s proclamation of God’s mystery is actually, and arguably necessarily, accompanied with some of the richest doctrinal statements in the New Testament. He writes:
Notice that the construction of this passage demands that we see it as praise. Paul’s “oh!” is an exclamation, a cry of worship and delight in God. Nowhere else in the New Testament does a passage begin with this use of the particular term “oh!”
There is a reason the Holy Spirit inspired the apostle Paul to write in this particular way. What would we think, for example, if Paul had said, “The riches of God’s wisdom and knowledge are deep”? That would have been perfectly true, of course. Indeed, that is exactly what Paul is saying in 11:33. But simply to state it in that way lacks something; it omits a central and crucial aspect in Paul’s communication of God’s depth (19).
Already the reader can start to see something of the author’s recognition of Scripture’s intentional combination of mystery and theological truth. Mystery and theology are inextricably linked. When both are properly put into place, we get real pastoral theology; theology which is not practically lopsided toward only intellectual ascent on one hand, or toward wondrous meditation on the other.
Both are made distinct, yet are never separated. They are brought intimately together, yet not identified with one another.
The author nears the end of the book with a chapter on eternal joy. A biblical understanding of joy isn’t discussed from American pulpits too much today. What is the nature of joy? Is joy to be understood in terms of happiness as defined in our society?
Christians who have carefully studied Scripture, read the early Church Fathers, or are familiar with Puritan literature know joy to be much more than superficial happiness. Joy is eternal in Christ and is not contingent upon situational awareness, feelings, or anything else subject to change. Oliphint does an excellent job bringing out this infinitely valuable truth. He writes:
This is the glorious truth of our eternal destiny. Our entrance into eternity, in the new heaven and the new earth, is what everyone in Christ is destined for. But that entrance into the fulness and completion of eternity-future will not diminish –– but rather will enhance –– the majestic mysteries of the Christian faith (199).
Joy, for the Christian, is eternal and never-failing in Christ Jesus. This is because our destination is sure, and totally secure in the Lord of our salvation. The author brilliantly points out the increase, rather than the decrease, of godly mystery when we are taken into eternity to be with the Lord.
Commenting on 1 Corinthians 13:12, Oliphint points out that to know “fully”, when we come to be with the Lord in eternity, is not to say we will know exhaustively so as to eliminate the mystery of God. Rather, we will know “fully” in virtue of seeing God’s plan of redemption come to its own at the consummation of the Kingdom (196). The way in which we see now, Oliphint states, is enigmatic and in glory we will see fully. But this “seeing fully” results, not in the elimination of mystery, but in a perfected way of exploring that mystery further (200).
A WORD ON THE AUTHOR’S WRITING
As I mentioned above, Oliphint typically writes using more academic language. Even his lower level books, like Covenantal Apologetics (which I wholeheartedly recommend), use language not common within more casual circles. However, the author has done a great job relating to the layperson as well as the scholar in The Majesty of Mystery; and I believe he used appropriate language for a broader audience.
If you’re like me though, it wouldn’t hurt to keep a dictionary nearby!
A COMPREHENSIVE SCOPE
Another interesting aspect of this book is its systematic layout. It reads somewhat like a concise systematic theology, which I found to be helpful since Oliphint seems to be demonstrating, throughout the book as a whole, what he claimed in the first chapter to be the case: that mystery truly drives theology.
Not only is this book helpful in distinctly pastoral areas, but it also advances a systematic theology predicated upon divine mystery. It’s not exhaustive by any means, nor does it need to be, but Oliphint brings to light many of the main themes within Christian theology while demonstrating the mystery of each doctrine discussed, as well as the practical use of God’s incomprehensibility related to each theme.
Not only does this equip the layperson theologically, but it also humbles the intellect in coming to terms with the very good and assuring fact we serve an incomprehensible God.
I talk with many who have questions concerning central Christian doctrines like the Trinity, the incarnation, providence, and prayer life. The next time I am confronted with a discipleship opportunity, in supplement with our one-on-one meetings and their involvement in the local church body, I will certainly recommend The Majesty of Mystery.
The importance of making known the intellectual quality of the Christian faith, as well as the incomprehensible nature of the God of glory has not been emphasized enough. Too many, throughout history, have run from intellectual discussion under the cloak of mystery, and too many have also boiled God down to a creaturely level, trying to make Him easy to understand. So too, in today’s context, things haven’t improved much within mainstream evangelicalism.
Both these extremes must be corrected from a biblical perspective, and Dr. Scott Oliphint, I believe, has accomplished this in his latest book, The Majesty of Mystery.
I strongly recommend this book for any new Christian, old Christian, and seasoned theological veteran.