The Gospel as the Mystery Revealed Versus Calvin’s “Incomprehensible” Anti-Gospel

That which was once hidden (“hidden since the foundation of the world”) but which has been revealed is not an esoteric secret on the order of Scientology (how to “go clear” of the body) or Mormonism (induction into the secrets of the Mormon Temple), or a secret on the order of the Gnostic mystery cults (a secret knowledge or experience), but it is a secret like Poe’s purloined letter – hidden in plain sight. It is a secret hidden in plain sight in the Old Testament, in the parables of Jesus, and in human experience. This mystery is one we inhabit in the way we organize ourselves into nations and religions, it is a mystery of interpretation (of the Old Testament but of reality in general), it is a mystery concerning the relationship between creation and Creator. Paul depicts the opening of this secret or the passage from “once hidden” to “now revealed” as marking a new historical consciousness as to the purposes of creation.

According to Ephesians, it pertains to “things in heaven” and “things on earth” and to God’s predetermined purposes for all things. Paul will refer to the broad sweep of history in Romans 9-11 as the unfolding of this mystery and he will refer to the breaking down of the “dividing wall” between Jews and Gentiles as pertaining to a fulfilled cosmic order previously hidden (Eph 2:14). This reference to the breaking of a literal wall in the Temple taken as a cosmic representation, such that divided people will be made one but also that the divide between heaven and earth will be broken down, is itself a deployment of the revealed hermeneutic apart from which the mystery remained. Paul’s allegorizing or spiritualizing interpretation of the most sacred precincts (the literal inner core) of Judaism (a mode he will apply to Hebrew Scriptures) pertains cosmically and personally. People are reconstituted as a singular family in which their personhood involves a new consciousness – holistic and personal. This new family fulfills the temple purposes of the cosmos in which heaven comes to earth: “in whom the whole building, being fitted together, is growing into a holy temple in the Lord, in whom you also are being built together into a dwelling of God in the Spirit” (Eph 2:21–22). Gentiles and Jews are no longer divided, the individual is no longer divided and heaven and earth are no longer divided in this fulfilled cosmic arrangement. As Paul describes it in Galatians, the binaries (Jew/Gentile, slave/free, male/female), which are not simply a convention of language but a mode of identity and understanding, no longer pertain in this new mode of identity and thought.  

The scheme of “once hidden” and “now revealed,” in taking in the full scope of history, may encompass “the age of the cosmos” in which people were “dead in their trespasses” (Eph 2:1-2), but is the mystery of that former age constituted by “the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience” (2:2). Is the mystery simply a result of sin’s deceit or darkness? If the mystery is equated with the darkness of sin, then the mystery revealed would be reduced to the overcoming of sin (the reduction of some theological systems). But Paul connects the mystery to two epochs of history inclusive of creation and its fulfillment, such that the mystery or the concealment disclosed by the revelation of the Gospel is part of the divine plan.

 In Ephesians 5 Paul connects the mystery to a primal goodness which precedes sin; which is not to say that Paul equates the mystery with the one-flesh relationship of marriage (described in Gen 2:24 and which he quotes) but the unity or oneness of the marriage relationship partakes of the mystery unfolded or fulfilled in Christ (5:31-32). Like the valence between creation and fulfillment, the once hidden significance of marital oneness is disclosed in the relation between Christ and the Church – an order inclusive of all humanity. It is not that the union between Christ and the Church, like the unity of marriage, is incomprehensible. What is revealed in this union, is the cosmic breadth of the marriage like unity brought about in Christ. Creations purpose remained an undisclosed and unfulfilled mystery which is now disclosed (made known, preached, realized, in a new unity) and realized in the Spirit.

This “Spiritual” understanding penetrates or unveils the mystery at two key junctures: the mystery of the Anointed “has now been revealed to His holy apostles and prophets in the Spirit” (Eph 3:5); and this revealing works on the inward person “who is strengthened with power through His Spirit in the inner man” (3:16) so as to plumb new depths of comprehension (3:18-19). Spirit is interwoven with the realization of the revealed mystery in each of its appearances in Ephesians (1:11; 3:16; 5:26 speaks of a spiritual washing; and 6:19 evokes the power of the Spirit to work in Paul in making the mystery known) so that it is clear that the Spirit is the means to unity – inward and outward, cosmic and local.  The unity of Christ and the Church, the unity of Jews and Gentiles, the unity realized in “the inward man,” is a reconciliation in Christ sealed by the Spirit summed up as peace. This peace is not simply an interlude between wars but is a state of unity and participation in God.  Being “in Christ” means participation in the cosmic plan unfolding in a unified humanity founded in peace.

All of this seems to refer back to the fact that, “He made known to us the mystery of His will” (Eph 1:9). The Gospel is nothing less than an opening up of the will of God to human understanding. We now understand what God has foreordained or predestined for the world through his Son. Strange then that there is another gospel which claims that God’s plan or his reasons for predestination are wholly internal to his being and are opaque to humanity – completely incomprehensible.  

Calvin maintains that God’s predestination is mysterious and “utterly incomprehensible.” He believed this impenetrable mystery will inspire wonder and reverence in that confounding people, God’s mysterious decrees will be revered in their “wonderful depth.” Calvin warns in the opening of his chapter on predestination that we must restrain curiosity and not ask after the secret things of God, as these are forbidden. “Let us not be ashamed to be ignorant in a matter in which ignorance is learning. Rather let us willingly abstain from the search after knowledge, to which it is both foolish as well as perilous, and even fatal to aspire.”[1] In this alternative gospel, Calvin determined (from Ephesians 1:4) that there is no passage from hidden mystery to mystery disclosed; rather God’s mysterious predestination is to elect some (and to damn others) and this election is equated with holiness. There is no room for living out this inward and outward unity, lest these achievements be confused with meritorious works. For Calvin then, the gospel is not so much a mystery revealed as a mystery compounded. The question is if a gospel that misses Christ’s disclosure and fulfillment of cosmic purposes, preordained before the foundation of the world, qualifies as Gospel, or is it in fact a counter-gospel or anti-gospel?

In Paul’s depiction the Gospel is a revealing of God’s purposes for all of creation. In Romans, Paul equates “the Gospel of God” with that “which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy Scriptures” (Ro 1:1-2) – the Hebrew scriptures. In the scriptures the Gospel was present but concealed until Christ retroactively brings out or delineates their prophetic element. As T.J. Lang puts it, “This does not diminish the revelatory function of the scriptures; it simply means that the Christ event is hermeneutically determinative, restructuring the perception of reality on either side of its occurrence.”[2]  In Paul’s depiction, what Christ does for the Hebrew scriptures, is what he does for all of  creation and for the Temple (a microcosm) and its religion. Just as the secret of the Old Testament is disclosed in Christ, so to Christ becomes the hermeneutic key for understanding human and cosmic purposes. It is not only the scriptures but God’s will for time, for all reality that are summed up or opened up in Christ: “He made known to us the mystery of His will, according to His kind intention which He purposed in Him with a view to an administration suitable to the fullness of the times, that is, the summing up of all things in Christ, things in the heavens and things on the earth” (Eph 1:9-10). The mystery disclosed pertains to all things and this is the Gospel.


[1] Calvin, Institutes Book 3 chapter 21.

[2] T. J. Lang, Mystery and the Making of a Christian Historical Consciousness: From Paul to the Second Century, https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/37749844.pdf

The Power of Resurrection Knowing Demonstrated in its Defeat of Death Dealing Knowledge

From Genesis there unfolds the picture of two modes of knowing and two objects of knowledge. God was at the center of human understanding prior to the Fall, and with the Fall human language, in the knowledge of good and evil, simply referred to itself, serving to displace the role of God (as life-giver and as the center to the determination of ethics). The lie of the Fall is that knowledge of a certain kind holds out life and defeats death. Note the necessity of dialectic, difference, and the real-world alienation and murder this produces. The reality is that this sort of knowing is death dealing in its immediate experience and in the experience of those who take it up. The feeling of exposure and shame experienced by the first couple (the picture of what it feels like to die), the murder of the second son by the first, and the rise of a generation of psychopathic killers, can all be traced to a trade in knowledge. Here is the experience of entrusting oneself to human power and human language.

The question of how and what we know is not set aside in Scripture but is thematic and it is a theme taken up in the New Testament.  The Gnostic tendency, which the Gospel of John and several of the New Testament epistles address both directly and indirectly (in its proto or incipient form) seems to be a particular manifestation of how a certain form of human knowledge is interwoven with evil. Gnosis or knowledge as the direct experience of the absolute might seem harmless but it is associated in John with the anti-Christ. Knowing as an end in itself apparently cuts one off from the love and knowledge of Christ in a very similar manner to the way in which knowledge of God was traded for the knowledge of good and evil.

The modern psychological and philosophical experience of this failed knowing reduplicates the problem and might be described in the same manner. G. E. Lessing’s divide between the eternal truths of reason and the contingent truths of history seem to reduplicate the Platonic divide between the absolutely transcendent forms and the world of time and matter. But it also might describe the psychological divide between the law of the mind (static, unchanging, impossible) and the law of the body (subject to the contingencies of embodiment). The philosophical divide reduplicates the psychological predicament and this can be traced throughout human experience and philosophy. The tendency of failed human knowledge is to work one side of this divide against the other: the subjective or the objective, the immanent or the transcendent, the historical or the eternal, the social or the universal, the inductive or the deductive, ad infinitum. In the theological realm the historical Jesus is pitted against the eternal Christ, natural theology is detached from revelation, and personal piety is pitted against realism (as in Niebuhr’s political realism). This has resulted in a split Christianity, which in one form is focused primarily on going to heaven and in the other on the Social Gospel. In each instance, there is a discord between thought and practice or ultimately between God and the world.

Deism may simply describe the experiential reality of living in a secular world in which belief in God is not integrated into the realities of the everyday world. It is not simply cosmology and science that are free of the necessity of God but psychology, sociology, human sexuality, economics, and politics are presumed to be self-ordering arrangements. Christian belief often fails to engage the realities of the secular world as it is presumed the secular is an adequate ground in itself.  The cutting loose of the world from the constraints of God is not reversed by an intensity of belief or piety. That is, the evangelical, the theological liberal, the agnostic, or the atheist, seem to breathe the same air and experience this “freedom” as a sort of trauma. The angst, mental illness, violence, and sexual perversion of the age are of epidemic proportions inside and outside of churches. This form of freedom seems to generate new forms of enslavement and it is not clear yet that this same angst will not bind itself to the worst sort of political tyranny (in the name of freedom).

This divide, if we understand that it is of the same order as the problem addressed in Scripture, is simultaneously identified with evil (sin and death, violence and hostility) and is what Christ rescues us from. Paul pictures it as the “dividing wall of hostility” in which humanity is pitted against itself in an enslavement to the law of sin and death. The history of murder (Matthew 23:34-36), hostility among people, self-directed violence (Romans 7), and the ultimate evil of crucifying the son of God are all pictured as flowing from this same divided knowing. But the enmity which resulted in the death of Christ is also transfigured – “abolishing in His flesh the enmity . . . that in Himself He might make the two into one new man, thus establishing peace,  and might reconcile them both in one body to God through the cross, by it having put to death the enmity” (Ephesians 2:14-16, NASB).  The great mistake of a Christianity captured by modernity is to picture this abolished enmity, this new humanity, this defeat of death, as if it is occurring in a world that is still divided. That is Christian thought is often not cosmic or Christian enough in its proportion. Ephesians depicts the closure of the gap as occurring between heaven and earth and resulting in a restored cosmic order and a new form of humanity through which this restoration work is channeled.

At the same time, evil as arising from a divided humanity, a divided knowledge, a divided social order is exposed in the manner of Christ’s restoration work through an alternative community, a Temple community. The Jewish Temple was representative of the coming together of heaven and earth, and Christ as the true Temple accomplishes what the earthly tabernacle represented. The hope of Israel was that God, who had abandoned the Temple at the time of the Babylonian exile would come back. The post-exilic prophet Malachi said, ‘the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his Temple’ (Mal 3:1). The story of creation culminates in Christ coming to the Temple (John 1, Ephesians) as the Temple always pictured this cosmic reconciliation, accomplished in the incarnation. The living God and the living human – Christ, and a new form of humanity constituting the body of Christ – the Church, bring together what was separate and give rise to a new form of knowing and a new way of being human (re-creation). Christ appearance in the Temple inaugurates the accomplishment of this final reconciliation and New Testament theology is predicated on the belief that this primary promise has come true in Christ.

Christ’s death and resurrection can be seen as achieving this reconciled knowing and being if it is understood that dividedness and death work hand in hand. Resurrection is where Christ takes control of the principalities and powers (1:21-22), as cultural and political powers are founded on hostility (antagonism, dividedness, and death). “Through the Church the manifold wisdom of God might be made known to the principalities and powers” as they are now disempowered – denied the power of death and dividedness. True wisdom is not dependent on division as it is from and “in the heavenly places” (3:10). As in Romans 8 so in Ephesians, the inheritance is heaven and earth come together. Both depict something like the fulfillment of Isaiah 11:9: “The earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea.” Now there is the hope that “the eyes of your heart may be enlightened” (1:18) as in Him is “the message of truth” which has been made manifest (1:13). This was realized when “He raised Him from the dead and seated Him at His right hand in the heavenly places” (1:13). The resurrection power of Christ is now being shared, as one age is breaking into another as in the Temple community are those “raised up with Him and seated . . . with Him in the heavenly places” (2:6). Heaven and earth are bridged in the resurrection power of the body of Christ. Where resurrection power is put into place the power of death, the orientation to death, is undone and this constitutes a new order of knowing and a new sort of community.

Ephesians depicts this community as foundational and perhaps, counter-foundational, as this foundation takes precedence over world-historical foundationalism: it is “before the foundation of the world” (1:4). The mystery hidden since the foundation of the world has exposed the inadequacy of the immanent foundations constituting a world divided. The clash of foundations may be most evident in the common sense treatment of Christ’s resurrection. For conservatives the resurrection is a miracle disconnected from cosmic recreation and for liberals it is not to be taken literally and is inconsequential to the faith. But in the New Testament resurrection is the inauguration of cosmic redemption as it is a reversal of cosmic failure. God affirms the goodness of the created order, making it over, starting with the physical body of Jesus Himself.

Step one in appreciating the all-inclusive ramifications of both evil and its resolution in resurrection, is to recognize the peculiar social and cognitive working of evil, countered in resurrection community. Evil is corporate, social, cognitional, and thus we cannot think ourselves free of the world, the history, the culture, or the knowing that binds us where death reigns. As Bernard Lonergan has noted, common sense is not up to the task of thinking on the level of history as it is itself a product of a particular history. The surd nature of “common sense” is made evident in the continual irruption of war and violence in human history and in the story of decline of Western civilization and every civilization. Death reigns in multiple senses in this sort of knowing. God is not going to show up on the wings of human progress. Though it has brought an abundance of blessing, it has also given rise to holocausts, global destruction, and the possibility of omnicide (the obliteration of the human race). It is inherently dependent on violence and death. In gnostic thought, or maybe just human thought, this is no cause for abandoning the course upon which we are set, as escape through the possibility of total destruction, or death and dividedness, are the sole means to life. Christ, in addressing this culture and knowledge of death, sums up (in the depiction of Ephesians) all things.

There are many approaches to summing up the failure of human knowledge (psychology, religion, sociology, philosophy) but the summing up that frees from any particular historical moment is found in Christ: “the summing up of all things in Christ, things in the heavens and things on the earth” as all things in a world divided are brought together (Eph. 1:10). The incapacity for any other mode of summing up (any alternative epistemology), gets at Paul’s holistic depiction of the new Temple community found in Christ. Knowledge of him is revelation and the foundation of an alternative wisdom and knowledge (1:17).  A new power has been unleashed as “you were dead in your trespasses and sins, in which you formerly walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience” (2:1). The new Temple community, the Church, is a direct challenge to the Temple of Diana of the Ephesians, the temple culture and wisdom at the Areopagus, and the modern temple of secular knowledge. It is a challenge to every order, sacred and secular, derived from the immanent frame of dividedness.

The Matrix: Revisited

The following is a guest blog by Ray Jewell.

Morpheus: “This is your last chance. After this, there is no turning back. You take the blue pill – the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill – you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit-hole goes. Remember: all I’m offering is the truth. Nothing more.”

I remember when the first of the Matrix trilogy, The Matrix, came out in 1999. Crowds flocked to see the latest thing in movie magic technology. The Matrix took the cosmic struggle of good vs. evil to a much higher plane. And many Christians bought into this movie, hook, line, and
sinker. Continue reading “The Matrix: Revisited”