Mystery (in theology)

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A hidden reality or secret. More specifically, in the theology of revelation, a truth that human beings cannot discover except from revelation and that, even after revelation, exceeds their comprehension. In addition to this primary meaning, which will be discussed in the present article, the term has other connected meanings that should be kept in mind: (1) in soteriology, the great redemptive acts of God in history, especially in Jesus Christ; (2) in the theology of worship, the sacramental reenactment of the redemptive deeds of Christ (see sacramental theology).

History of the notion. While the complete history of the term has yet to be written, the following high points may be noted.

Greek Fathers. The term μυστήριον is used by the Greek Fathers in many senses. They include the following: 1. The salvific counsels of God, hidden from all eternity in the divine mind, but partly manifested through His Prophets and especially through Christ. 2. The great salutary interventions of God in history, whereby He executes His salvific designs, including especially the decisive events of the Incarnation, Passion, and Resurrection of Christ. 3. The hidden senses of Scripture, especially the typological sense of the Old Testament, which looks forward to Christ and the Church. 4. The Sacraments, as ritual continuations of God's salvific actions in Christ. This sacramental use of the term μυστήριον did not become established until the fourth century, when the mystery religions were no longer serious competitors of Christianity. 5. The pagan cults and rites, for example, those of Eleusis, Attis, Osiris, Cybele, and Mithra (see mystery religions, greco-oriental). 6. In some of the Alexandrian writers (notably Clement), certain esoteric doctrines that, for fear of profanation, should be restricted to an elite among the faithful. 7. In Gregory of Nyssa, objects of mystical knowledge, such as were revealed to Moses and Paul in their ecstasies. 8. Especially in the fourth-century Fathers (Gregory of Nazianzus, Gregory of Nyssa, Chrysostom, etc.), a revealed truth that even to faithful and educated Christians remains obscure by reason of its sublimity.

This last use of the term is particularly important in view of the later development of the notion. The theme of God's incomprehensibility, already set forth by Philo Judaeus in the first century, was strongly emphasized by the orthodox Fathers of the fourth century in opposition to the Eunomians, who maintained that God had so revealed Himself that the Christian believer could fully understand His essence. The anti-Eunomian Fathers developed a markedly negative (or "apophatic") theology, insisting on the total otherness and immeasurable majesty of God. As Rudolf Otto noted in his work, The Idea of the Holy [tr. J. W. Harvey (2d ed. New York 1958)], Chrysostom provides some of the finest expressions of the sense of the "numinous" in ancient Christian literature. With apt illustrations from the Bible, Chrysostom shows how the mysterious presence of the revealing God gives rise to sentiments of consternation, mental disarray, and trembling due to a combination of fear and delight.

In the sixth century, Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite made effective use of the vocabulary, of the mystery religions to inculcate a sense of holy awe. His mystical works, translated into Latin by John Scotus Erigena (c. 850), were to influence the great scholastics, including thomas aquinas.

Latin Fathers and Doctors. In the West the Greek term μυστήριον, especially where it referred to Christian sacred rites, was generally translated by sacramentum. But mysterium was also used, both to designate the pagan mystery cults and to signify hidden truths, including the hidden meanings of Scripture. St. augustine uses sacramentum and mysterium almost interchangeably, but with slightly different connotations. Sacramentum refers primarily to the outwardly visible rite or symbol; mysterium refers to the hidden meaning behind it.

The medieval tradition was, on the whole, quite faithful to Augustine in its handling of the terms. Often mysterium was used to denote the spiritual or allegorical significance of Scripture.

St. Thomas Aquinas, relying on the etymology of the word, takes note of hiddenness or secrecy as fundamental to mystery (In Isaiam, prol.). In his theology, the divina mysteria are truths hidden in God, knowable to man only under the veils of faith. Very frequently in Thomas's writings mysterium occurs as the object of the verb credere. Following the biblical practice, he normally applies the term "mystery" not to the inner being of God, but to His redemptive counsels, whether already executed or still to be accomplished in eschatological times. Only on rare occasions does he call the Trinity a mystery, and then principally in connection with the Incarnation, which he terms "the most excellent of all mysteries" (Summa Theologiae 1a, 57.5 obj. 1). For example, in Summa Theologiae 1a2ae, 1.8 he distinguishes between the "secret of the Godhead" (occultum divinitatis, i.e., the Trinity) and the "mystery of Christ's humanity." Except in passages referring to the Eucharist, Thomas practically never calls the Sacraments mysteries. The consecrated wine, he says, is rightly called "mystery of faith" (mysterium fidei ) because the blood of Christ is not apparent to the senses (ibid. 3a, 78.3 ad 5).

Nineteenth Century. During the controversies with various rationalistic movements, mystery gradually emerged as a technical term in the Catholic theology of revelation. The semirationalists maintained that human reason, at least when sufficiently schooled under the tutelage of revelation, was in principle capable of comprehending and demonstrating all the dogmas of faith. From this it would follow that faith, in the sense of an assent to testimony, would not be required on the part of those who had reached full intellectual maturity. The doctrines of the leading semirationalists were severally condemned (H. Denzinger, Enchiridion symbolorum [Freiburg 1963] 27382740, 28282831, 28502861). The Syllabus of Errors, reaffirming this stand, rejected the fundamental tenets of semirationalism (ibid. 29092914).

Vatican Council I, climaxing this development, solemnly defined that there are "true mysteries properly so called," that is, dogmas of faith that cannot be "understood and demonstrated by a properly cultivated mind from natural principles" (H. Denzinger, Enchiridion symbolorum [Freiburg 1963] 3041). In the chapter corresponding to this definition, the council explained that by strict mysteries it meant truths "hidden in God that cannot be known unless divinely revealed" (ibid. 3015) and that "by their nature so transcend a created mind that even when communicated by revelation and accepted in faith, they remain covered by the veil of faith itself and as it were shrouded in obscurity, so long as in this mortal life 'we are exiled from the Lord, for we walk by faith and not by sight"' (ibid. 3016; cf. 2 Cor 5.67).

The council, in the passage just quoted, seems to imply that there will be no more mysteries in heaven, when the light of glory replaces the dimmer light of faith. This classical position of Catholic theologywhich is also that of St. Thomas (In 1 epist. ad Cor. 2 lect. 1)is supported by various biblical texts in addition to the one cited by the council (e.g., 1 Cor 13.912; 1 Jn 3.2). Nevertheless, it is well to note, as K. Rahner has several times insisted, that no created intellect can be elevated to the point where it will have absolutely comprehensive knowledge of God (cf. H. Denzinger, Enchiridion symbolorum [Freiburg 1963] 3001). Not even in heaven will God be appropriated as an object by the dynamism of the human ratio.

While stressing the negative note of incomprehensibility, Vatican I took pains to point out that "reason, enlightened by faith, when it diligently, reverently, and modestly inquires, by the gift of God, attains some understanding of mysteries, and that a most profitable one" (ibid. 3016). Such understanding is achieved by comparison of mysteries with things naturally known, with one another, and with the final destiny of man. In this way one may perceive the harmony between the natural and super-natural orders, the mutual coherence among the truths of faith, and the meaningfulness of the mysteries for man in his earthly pilgrimage. Although the concepts by which one knows mysteries are only remotely similar to the realities for which they stand, they afford a knowledge that is fully valid so far as it goes. Indeed, the contemplation of mysteries in this life can provide a kind of faint anticipation of the eternal vision enjoyed by the blessed.

Further speculation. In the struggle against rationalistic tendencies in the nineteenth century, the notion of mystery was gradually modified. Whereas the Fathers and medieval Doctors, thinking of mystery as something hidden within a sacramental presence, were inclined to regard the Incarnation as the supreme mystery, the nineteenth-century theologians, concentrating on the features of transcendence and obscurity, more frequently held with M. Scheeben that the Blessed Trinity is the "mystery of mysteries." In line with this tendency, Leo XIII referred to the dogma of the Trinity as "the greatest of all mysteries, since it is the fountain and origin of all" [Divinum illud munus; Acta Sanctae Sedis 29 (1897) 645].

In current Catholic teaching, three classes of divine mystery are commonly recognized. These are discussed below in the order of ascending sublimity.

Natural Mysteries. Naturally knowable truths that remain obscure because we lack proper and positive concepts of the realities involved are natural mysteries. While such mysteries may be found in the created order (e.g., animal instinct, human free will), they are preeminently verified in God, by reason of the extreme deficiency of the created analogies by which we know Him. For example, the divine freedom is far more a mystery than human freedom, for our experience affords no clue as to how freedom can be present in an immutable subject.

Supernatural Mysteries in the Wide Sense. Truths concerning the created order that are not knowable without revelation but that, once revealed, are free from any special obscurity are supernatural mysteries in the wide sense; for example, the primacy of the Roman pontiff in the Church. Such a fact, being dependent on God's free disposition, could not be known without revelation, but after being revealed it has an intelligibility comparable to that of other juridical notions.

Supernatural Mysteries in the Strict Sense. Those truths that cannot be known without revelation and that, even after revelation, remain obscure to us by reason of the sublimity of their object are supernatural mysteries in the strict sense. Three principal mysteries are normally recognized as belonging to this class: (1) the Trinity (H. Denzinger, Enchiridion symbolorum [Freiburg 1963]3225), which is the mystery of the communication of divine life within the Godhead; (2) the Incarnation (ibid. 2851), which is the supreme supernatural communication of the divine life to a created nature; and (3) the elevation of finite persons to share, through grace or glory, in the divine life (ibid. 2854). All other supernatural mysteries (e.g., original sin, the Eucharist, the Church as a supernatural communion, predestination) are commonly held to be reducible to the three central mysteries just named.

Supernatural mysteries in the strict sense, since they concern realities of the divine order, are beyond the comprehension of any created intellect. Their special obscurity comes from the fact that they have to do with God, not merely under those aspects in which He is directly mirrored by creatures (as, for instance, His goodness is reflected in the goodness of creatures), but precisely under those aspects wherein, thanks to His immeasurable transcendence, created analogies break down (see analogy, theological use of). Because the generation of living creatures only remotely resembles generation within the Godhead, we cannot reason from the former to the latter. Even after revelation, we cannot see the inner grounds that account for the fact. Revelation tells us that there are three Persons in God, that one of them has become man, and that men are called to be sharers of God's inner life. But it does not explain how such things can be.

During the early part of the twentieth century, a controversy arose as to whether we could know without revelation that there are any strict mysteries in God. Many competent theologians (e.g., C. Pesch, I. Ottiger, H. Dieckmann) replied in the negative, but others (e.g., R. Garrigou-Lagrange, M. D. Roland-Gosselin) held that we can definitely establish that there must be in God perfections that lack any counterpart in the created order, so that we could not learn them without revelation or, even after revelation, understand their internal possibility.

Apologetical considerations. Apologetics must show that the Christian notion of strict mystery is meaningful and credible. This task is necessary, for modern rationalism and scientism have sometimes claimed that in view of the unlimited possibilities of rational and scientific progress, all truths of revelation can eventually be reduced to strictly demonstrative knowledge.

To this object one may reply, with K. Rahner, that the human mind is so structured that it necessarily grasps particular limited objects against the horizon of the unconditioned and indefinable, the Absolute. Since this Absolute is the ground of all intelligibility, the human mind, even before it is the faculty of comprehension, is the faculty of mystery. The revealed mysteries of Christianity enrich our knowledge of the Absolute by certifying that God can communicate His divine life and draw near in grace without compromising His utter transcendence. But because all these truths have reference to the inner being of the Absolute, which outstrips objective concepts, the Christian mysteries can never be rationally or scientifically demonstrated.

Religious phenomenology, by showing that the notion of mystery is a constant feature of human religion, has underscored the value of mystery. All vital religions, as R. Otto recognized, live off a numinous experience of the divine presence, which arouses sentiments of awe and fascination. Men have always suspected that if God communicates with us, He must do so in a mysterious way, imparting deep and inscrutable secrets. Scheeben was therefore able to argue that the mysteries of the Christian faith, far from making it incredible, support its claim to be God's supreme self-revelation. If Christianity were devoid of mystery, he added, it could not stir and hold men as it does.

Approaching the question from another point of view, modern personalistic philosophers (such as M. Scheler, G. Marcel, and J. Lacroix) have shown that an element of mystery is inseparable from genuinely personal knowledge. Spirit as such is never deductively proved or experimentally verified; it is normally discerned through the signs by which it freely manifests itself. When a man reveals himself to a friend, he opens up something of the mystery of his own being. If God wishes to reveal Himself and draw human beings into friendship, He must share with them His own inner mystery. The human relationship of personal intercommunion therefore provides a fruitful analogy by which to approach the revealed mystery of our supernatural communion with God. In this perspective, mystery appears less as a particular datum of revelation than as a dimension in which the entire relationship of revelation and faith unfolds.

See Also: revelation, theology of; symbol in revelation; apologetics; dogmatic theology; fideism; hermesianism; methodology (theology); semirationalism; theology; traditionalism.

Bibliography: General. a. michel, Dictionnaire de théologie catholique, 15 v. (Paris 190365) 10:22585; Eng. tr., c. j. moell, Mystery and Prophecy (West Baden Springs, Ind. 1954). k. rahner, "The Concept of Mystery in Catholic Theology," Theological Investigations 4 (Baltimore 1966) 3673. m. j. scheeben, The Mysteries of Christianity, tr. c. vollert (St. Louis 1946). Le Mystère: Semaine des intellectuals catholiques, Paris, Nov. 1825, 1959 (Paris 1960). j. macquarrie, Mystery and Truth (Milwuakee 1973). History of the notion. b. neunheuser, Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, 10 v. (Freiburg 195765) 7:729731, with literature. f. cavallera and j. danielou, Introduction to j. chrystostome, Sur l'incompréhensibilité de Dieu (Sources chrétiennes 28; Paris 1951). h. rahner, Greek Myths and Christian Mystery, tr. b. battershaw (New York 1963). p. visentin, "Mysterium-sacramentum dai padri alla scolastica," Studia Patavina 4 (1957) 394414, with literature. a. m. hoffmann, "Der Begriff des Mysteriums bei Thomas von Aquin," Divus Thomas 17 (Fribourg 1939) 3060. m. a. vacant, Études théologiques sur les constitutions du concile du Vatican, 2 v. (Paris 1895).

[a. dulles]