The Role of Mystery in Theological Construction

How is it that dogmatics and exegesis should relate? In recent years, scholars have again applied themselves to thinking carefully about this question. Crucial to its answer is the concept of theological mystery. Inevitably, no matter how well-refined the method, theological construction will eventually hit a stopping point, and it is at this point that mystery must remain. Usually, this point occurs when two theological loci have been refined as much as possible and yet still remain in tension. In this paper, I will attempt to explain when this moment occurs, arguing that mystery is only permissible if it can be shown that the source of the tension between the two theological loci is a synthetic statement, a statement that is not logically necessary. To argue this thesis, I will first briefly define and illustrate the classic Kantian categories of predication and knowledge. According to Kant, a statement could either be analytic or synthetic, and knowledge could either be a priori or a posteriori. In my view, this language gives us categories that keep us from positing mystery where it does not belong or calling a contradiction what is merely a mystery. I will then use two typical theological mysteries as test cases to assess when mystery is appropriate and when it is not. The first mystery concerns the relationship between divine providence and creaturely freedom. The second mystery concerns the relationship between divine freedom and simplicity. I will attempt to show that the traditional Calvinistic model of providence is consistent with creaturely responsibility because the axiom “ought implies can” that creates the tension between the two is a synthetic statement that does not necessitate that the two loci contradict one another, allowing the mystery to remain. On the other hand, I will also attempt to show that Thomistic simplicity conflicts with divine freedom precisely because the former makes all of God’s attributes necessary (e.g., his identity as creator). If so, an analytic statement stands between the two, thus requiring that one or more of the loci be further refined and making mystery untenable. The purpose of these test cases is not so much to comment on the rightness or wrongness of these loci, but rather to refine how mystery is used in theological synthesis. This paper also would help to account for why some mysteries are thought of as contradictions and some contradictions as mysteries. The Calvinistic model of providence is often thought to conflict with creaturely freedom seemingly because a synthetic statement is taken as a necessary truth because it stems from a strong a priori judgment. However, that this axiom is strongly intuitive does not entail that it is a necessary truth. By making these observations, this paper will help to refine the growing interest in theological method by providing precise rules for where theologians might posit mystery where needed and might need to refine their theological constructions where needed.

3 thoughts on “The Role of Mystery in Theological Construction”

  1. Interesting
    A survey of divine freedom in major figures could be interesting if he shows the hermeneutical payoff. Not sure if this has enough “hermeneutics” for the session.

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