Knowledge Increases Mystery

From time to time I meet the objection that efforts to understand complex and mysterious doctrines in the Bible are unhelpful because they reduce mystery and therefore diminish wonder and worship.

There are at least two answers to this objection. The first is mine and the other is from Jonathan Edwards.

1. God is more honored by worship that rises from what we know about him than by worship that rises from what we don’t know about him.

There is something fishy about saying our wonder and worship are greater, the less we understand about God. One gets the impression that such “wonder” and “worship” are vague aesthetic feelings on the brink of a void, rather than what we meet in the Psalms: “How precious to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them!” (Psalms 139:17).

2. Increased knowledge does not equal decreased mystery. It’s the other way around.

Edwards responded to this objection at the end of his Essay on the Trinity (PDF). His point is, true learning increases both knowledge and mystery. The more knowledge we have of God from the Bible, the more mysteries we apprehend.

The benefit of increasing mystery this way (rather than by means of preserving ignorance) is that what we do know gives direction to what we don’t know. We do not wonder if the mystery contains a sinister God, because what we do know directs us away from that speculation.

Here are Edwards’ own words and his three helpful analogies:

[B]y what has been said [concerning the Trinity] some difficulties are lessened, others that are new appear, and the number of those things that appear mysterious, wonderful, and in comprehensible, is increased by it.... I think the word of God teaches us more things concerning it to be believed by us than have been generally believed.

Analogy #1. When we tell a child a little concerning God he has not an hundredth part so many mysteries in view on the nature and attributes of God... as one that is told much concerning God in the Divinity school; and yet [the Divinity school student] knows much more about God and has a much clearer understanding of things of divinity.

Analogy #2. Under the Old Testament the Church of God were not told near so much about the Trinity as they are now. But what the New Testament has revealed, though it has more opened to our view the nature of God, yet it has increased the number of visible mysteries and they thus appear to us exceeding wonderful and in comprehensible.

Analogy #3. ’Tis so not only in divine things but natural things. He that looks on a plant, or the parts of the bodies of animals, or any other works of nature, at a great distance where he has but an obscure sight of it, may see something in it wonderful and beyond his comprehension, but he that is nearer to it and views them narrowly indeed understands more about them, has a clearer and distinct sight of them, and yet the number of things that are wonderful and mysterious in them that appear to him are much more than before, and, if he views them with a microscope, the number of the wonders that he sees will be much increased still, but yet the microscope gives him more of a true knowledge concerning them.

John Piper (@JohnPiper) is founder and teacher of desiringGod.org and chancellor of Bethlehem College & Seminary. For 33 years, he served as pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church, Minneapolis, Minnesota. He is author of more than 50 books.