Transcendence vs. Mystery

I’m listening to recordings of a series of philosophy lectures by R. C. Sproul. Today’s portion brought up the subject of the transcendence of God, a topic of special interest to me since I believe many in the emerging church are confusing “transcendence” with “mystery.”

Some might think the two words are interchangeable, but they aren’t, as Sproul made clear.

What does it mean to say God is transcendent? The idea this word conveys is that God is beyond, above, and different from his creatures. His ways are not our ways. His thoughts, not our thoughts.

Consequently, the only way Man can know God is if He stoops to be know. We cannot reach up to Him because He is beyond our reach, and that, I think, would be true even if sin did prohibit a relationship with Him.

In contrast, the idea of mystery, with it’s roots in Gnosticism, ultimately leads to skepticism. By implication it suggests God can’t be known, at least not with certainty. Thus, the door opens for doubt. Some emerging church advocates embrace doubt; most laud “seeking.”

Since God is mystery, so the emerging advocates say, Man must be content as a seeker. There are no concrete answers because God is Other.

The critical issue here is that the means to knowing God shifts from God’s initiative to Man and his endeavors—his meditation or contemplation or spiritual journey.

The thing “Mystery” does not account for is God’s transcendence. Ironic, isn’t it? Because God is Above and Beyond and Different, yet invested in the creatures He made in His own image, He stooped.

It’s not the way we would do things if we were in charge. We’d likely want to sit on a cushy throne and have the lesser folk clamoring for a bit of our attention.

Not God. He sent messengers, breathed His words through their minds and lives to reveal Himself, then came in person, and finally sent His Spirit to live in the life of each believer.

Belief in the “mystery of God” is an extreme idea that opens the door to skepticism and ultimately an attack on the deity of Christ. Of course, it is a reaction to those who dismiss the transcendence of God—those who consider God to be nothing more than an improved version of Man, and bigger. He’s a good ol’ boy. Or maybe a black mama waiting in a shack.

Amazing that some in the emerging movement seem to believe both extremes.

Published in: on October 15, 2009 at 5:13 pm  Comments (5)  
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  1. Rebecca, great article! Insightful, but not pedantic. Your argument is terse, but complete. A worthy criticism. 🙂


  2. I don’t know how Humpty Dumpty uses the word “mystery” in your neck of the woods. In the sciences mystery is contrasted with puzzle. A puzzle is something to which we can know the solution. A sudoku is a puzzle. It may be unknown as we encounter it, but by diligent application of known methods we can get an answer. A mystery is something to which we don’t know the solution. The origins of language, for instance.

    Mystery in that sense is a good corrective to human arrogance. I guess in theological terms it is aimed at those who want to trivialise God into something they can know completely. There are unfortunately too many of those people around. It is the transcendence of God which makes the mystery. Revelation only makes sense if it comes out of a mystery.

    When I was at university one of my fellow students said that he’d read the Bible right through 3 times, so didn’t need to read it ever again. He said it wasn’t going to change. But we change. Our understanding develops, if we let it. I suspect some of those who are promoting God as mystery in your milieu want to encourage that development in people. To say God is Other can let of off trying to understand.

    I suspect your argument is missing out on the complexities of the situation.


  3. […] they hold to any set of prescribed tenets.) Interestingly, last October I wrote an article entitled “Transcendence vs. Mystery” to examine some of the emerging ideas about the mystery of God. As I look at it now, I realize I […]


  4. […] other posts on this subject see “Transcendence vs. Mystery,” and “Draw Near To God … For What […]


  5. […] already addressed, in several posts (here, here, and here), one of the issues that lead to agnostic thought — that God is mystery (as […]


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