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“Mystery” in the Book of Daniel Versus Trinitarian “Mystery”

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“Mystery” in the Book of Daniel Versus Trinitarian “Mystery”

Bentley C.F. Chan

The trinitarian appeal to “mystery”

For sixteen centuries the church has been using the word mystery to explain the incomprehensibility of the trinitarian doctrine, notably in connection with difficult questions such as how God can exist in three persons, or how Christ’s divine nature relates to his human nature. These defy logic or 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 a “cop-out” for avoiding 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 real life, the appeal to mystery is often accompanied by deep theological reflection. As a former trinita­rian, I sympath­ize with the trinitarian effort to understand “the deep and hidden things” of God (cf. Daniel 2:22). And to be fair, not all trin­itarians appeal to mystery to explain trinitarian incomprehensibility.

In my two and a half decades as a trinitarian, I had never once used mystery to justify trinitarian incomprehen­sibility because I felt that mystery (like homoousios) is an obfuscat­ing term that conceals the true problem of trinita­rian­ism: its similarity to tritheism, the doctrine of three Gods.

In trinitarian doctrine, God exists in three persons, each of whom is “fully God”[1] or “fully and completely God”[2] (note the word “fully”). The histor­ically important Fourth Ecumenical Lateran Council (1215, Rome) [3] makes it even clearer: “each person is God, whole and entire”.

In other words, the Father is God whole and entire; the Son is God whole and entire; and the Spirit is God whole and entire. Yet the three are one God whole and entire.

But if Christ is God whole and entire, and if God is a trinity, would it mean that Christ is the whole Trinity: Father, Son, and Spirit?

That is why in trinitarianism, God is not a person but a substance, not a who but a what.

The incomprehensibility of trinitarian doctrine is brought out in The Trinity, a work by Roger Olsen and Christopher Hall which opens with this observation:

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. [4]

In the complete works of Augustine on my iPad, mystery is used several times of the Trinity and the Incarnation. Augustine of Hippo lived 354 to 430 CE, but mystery continues to be used today of trinitarian incompre­hensi­bility.

For example, an evangelical writer concedes that the Trinity is “a mystery beyond the comprehension of man.” [5] Another writer, a Catholic scholar, says that “the trinity of persons within the unity of nature is a mystery which ultimately escapes understand­ing.” [6]

But there is more to mystery than enigma. It does a double duty of justifying the doctrine’s incomprehensi­bility but also of obscuring its unbiblical­ness. Trinita­rians such as Karl Barth (in Church Dogmatics) have admitted the unbiblicalness of trin­itarian doctrine. Another is Charles C. Ryrie, a fervent trinitarian who wrote the Ryrie Study Bible and taught systematic theo­logy at Dallas Theological Sem­inary. Ryrie admits that the Bible does not teach God in three persons:

But many doctrines are accepted by evangelicals as being clearly taught in the Scripture for which there are no proof texts. The doc­trine of the Trinity furnishes the best exam­ple of this. It is fair to say that the Bible does not clearly teach the doctrine of the Trinity. In fact, there is not even one proof text, if by proof text we mean a verse or passage that ‘clearly’ states that there is one God who exists in three persons … The above illustrations prove the fallacy of con­clu­ding that if something is not proof texted in the Bible we cannot clearly teach the results … If that were so, I could never teach the doctrine of the Trinity or the deity of Christ or the deity of the Holy Spirit. (Basic Theology, pp. 89-90)

Is obscurity the meaning of “mystery” in the New Testament?

I am not giving a detailed study on mystery (Gk. mystērion), so I will give only two examples to show that mystery in the New Testament is different from trinitarian mystery.

Firstly, the “mystery of the kingdom” which is hidden in Jesus’ parables can be unlocked simply by explaining their meaning to his listeners (Mark 4:11).

Secondly, 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 is there­fore inspired to “declare the mystery of Christ” not incomprehensibly but “that I may make it clear” (Col.4:3-4), a statement that cannot be true of the trinitarian mystery.

In the New Testament, a mystery is understood after it has been explained. By contrast, a trinitarian mystery remains incomprehensi­ble even after an explana­tion has been given for it! Not so in the Bible. New Bible Diction­ary gets it right when it says that a mystery is not something illogical or incomprehensible but a tempo­rary secret that is understood once it has been revealed:

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., article “Mystery”)

“Mystery” in Daniel chapter two

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.

I am not doing a detailed study on mystery, so I will give only one example to demonstrate this point, from the well-known story of Daniel interpreting Nebuchadnezzar’s dream (Daniel chapter 2).

King Nebuchadnezzar had been 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, and 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 friends 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, proclaiming that “He reveals the deep and hidden things” (v.22) and that “You have let us know the king’s mystery” (v.23).

A short while later, Nebuchadnezzar 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 then told him that God is “the revealer of mysteries” (v.29) and that “this mystery has been revealed to me … that you may under­stand the thoughts of your mind” (v.30).

Daniel went on to describe a great statue of gold, silver, bronze, iron, and clay — elements that were then shattered by a stone that became a great mountain and filled the earth. “This was the dream; now we will tell the king its interpretation” (v.36).

Daniel then outlined the coming world kingdoms and their destruct­ion 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).

We skipped over many details in the story, yet the point is now clear that a mystery is understood once it has been explained, unlike the trinitarian mystery. Note the prepon­de­rance of the words “reveal” and “tell” and “know” and “understand” in Daniel 2, in contrast to “unknown” and “beyond human comprehen­sion” in trinitarianism.

To this day trinitarians still cannot coherently explain the Trinity (which is “beyond human comprehension”), not even after sixteen centuries of scholarly discourse and decades of violence within trinita­rianism over Christ’s two natures. The debate over the nature of the Trinity continues unresolved to this day, with theo­lo­gians disagreeing with one another. [7] Mystery in the Bible has nothing in common with trinitarian mystery. Clarity and obscurity are polar opposites.

Photo (c) taken in 2016 by Bentley C.F. Chan

[1] James R. White, Wayne Grudem, Robert M. Bowman, and many others

[2] ESV Study Bible, p.2513

[3] Also known as the Great Lateran Council, it ranks close to the Council of Trent in importance (The Westminster Dictionary of Theologians, ed. Justo L. González, WJK Press, Louisville, 2006, p.213).

[4] Roger E. Olsen and Christopher A. Hall, The Trinity, Wm B. Eerdmans, Grand Rapids and Cambridge, 2002, p.1.

[5] James R. White, The Forgotten Trinity: Recovering the Heart of Christian Belief, Baker, Grand Rapids, 1998, p.173.

[6] John L. McKenzie, Dictionary of the Bible, Macmillan, New York, 1965, p.900.

[7] See for example Michael L. Chiavone’s The One God: A Critically Developed Evangelical Doctrine of Trinitarian Unity (Wipf and Stock, 2009, Oregon).


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