More on divine inscrutibility

In G K Chesterton’s enigmatic tale, The Man Who Was Thursday, a central theme is the sinister spymaster who turns out, in the end, to be not only a metaphor for Christ, but within the mythos of the book Christ himself. But before this denouement there is a piece of dialogue, in which characters discuss the spymaster, which Chesterton clearly intends to carry great weight:

When I see the horrible back, I am sure the noble face is but a mask. When I see the face but for an instant, I know the back is only a jest. Bad is so bad, that we cannot but think good an accident; good is so good, that we feel certain that evil could be explained.

As far as appearances go, both the back and the face belong to the same man: but it is the face gives the underlying truth. I rememberered this in my ongoing preparation of the course I’m leading on the Book of Revelation, which I’ve mentioned before. There I noted the reverent discreetness with which God is described in chapter 4, contrasted with the fuller picture of the human (but glorified) Jesus in ch5. What I didn’t mention in that piece was the the sealed scroll that forms the bridge between both the two chapters and the two divine figures, and whose unsealing is, by implication, what constitutes most of the rest of the book.

This scroll is another aspect of God’s inscrutibility, for it clearly represents the history of the future kingdom that God has planned, and which only the work of Christ can deliver – he alone is worthy to unseal it. The seals themselves, presumably placed by God himself on the scroll he himself has composed, must be viewed as things that have to be gone through for the future to be revealed. As a quick glance at your Bible will show, they constitute all the evil events in our world – the very things that cause new readers of Revelation to remark how scary it is. In some way, it seems, these are an inevitable part of God’s hidden plan – the “horrible back” of Chesterton’s metaphor. Or else it’s the “frowning providence” behind which God hides his smiling face in the words of William Cowper, that sufferer from severe and chronic depressive illness:

Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,
But trust Him for His grace;
Behind a frowning providence
He hides a smiling face.

His purposes will ripen fast,
Unfolding every hour;
The bud may have a bitter taste,
But sweet will be the flow’r.

Blind unbelief is sure to err
And scan His work in vain;
God is His own interpreter,
And He will make it plain.

The “inscrutible will” aspect in Revelation echoes the Lord’s own teaching in the Olivet discourse, in which he says that the “wars and rumours of wars” and so on are things that “must” happen before the end. It’s true that both Revelation and the gospels nuance this mystery: in my understanding, the seven trumpets which follow show the same history in the character of warning (remember Jesus’s comments on the tower that fell at Siloam, and Pilate’s slaughter of worshippers), and the following section in turn views the same events as a conflict with evil powers and principalities (also a major part of Jesus’s teaching).

Yet these are dependant truths: the foundational doctrine is that there is no ultimate dualism, and that God’s mysterious will, rather than the rebellion of Satan or the power of wicked men, is the resting place of the believer, as it was for Job in the Old Testament. God’s hidden purpose is behind Satan’s, or Antichrist’s, permission to harm: the opposite, that behind God’s ultimate plans lies his struggle against evil, would be unthinkable dualism.

Early Christians seem to have been very aware of this, particularly in relation to persecution as it came their way. The Didache, maybe as early as the first century, advises:

Accept whatever happens to you as good, knowing that apart from God nothing comes to pass. (Roberts-Donaldson translation)

Likewise the popular Epistle of Barnabas from the second century incorporates the same teaching:

Receive as blessings the troubles that come unto thee, knowing that without God nothing happens. (Charles Hoole translation)

Now, my excuse for including this matter on a blog primarily concerned with the doctrine of creation is that what we can say about the unfolding of eschatological history, with all the complexities of human freedom, evil angels and so on, can surely be affirmed even more confidently in our approach to God’s creation. Even when it seems malevolent or inexplicable we ought to accept is as good, both because God says it is good, and because it comes from the God whom we know to be good because we know Jesus.

In fact, a second excuse for bringing it to mind is that, in the gospel and Revelation passages, the strange and terrible upheavals in God’s scroll are, in fact, nothing else than the birth-pangs of the new creation, and we’re as concerned on The Hump with the new as with the old, for they are inextricably linked.

To close these thoughts, I recently came across an 2013 interview with N T Wright by Andrew Wilson, an English pastor-theologian, whose first question was intended to deal with what Wilson calls the “Marcionite” tendency of some American evangelical scholars to distance the “cruel and primitive” God of the Old Testament from the supposedly corrective New Testament portrait of Jesus as kind and non-judgemental. Wright rejects such a dichotomy by reference to Jesus’s own teaching, as well as to Jesus’s total endorsement of the Old Testament picture of God. Then:

Andrew Wilson: So when faced with the everyday, street-level challenge – that God seems to do these big bad things – you wouldn’t deny that God does those things? You’d say that that’s all part of a plan that God is moving forward?

N T Wright: There are many many things that God does, has done or will do which are not waiting for my approval or sanction before he does them. You know that line, “Many people want to serve God, but usually only in an advisory capacity.” Bonhoeffer said that putting the knowledge of good and evil before the knowledge of God is the primary sin in Genesis 3. They go for the knowledge of good and evil rather than what God says. Now that could just be an escape; it could just be throwing up our hands and saying we don’t know anything about God (when the whole point of the gospel is that we do know who God is, because of Jesus). However, if it’s the crucified Jesus, and if the cross means what it means in the light of the whole history of Israel, which is focused onto that, then … these narratives are the way in which all of those horrible, puzzling ambiguities, and all the awful things that happen – like Jesus saying, “what about those eighteen on whom the tower of Siloam fell?” – there’s a sense that the cross gathers up all those puzzling, tragic horrible fragments of life, and says swoosh this is where it’s all going. The one thing you can’t do about all that is theorise about it. To theorise about it is to say, “We’re standing back as good enlightenment people, and we’re going to say whether it was appropriate or not.” The only thing when faced with a narrative like that is get down on your knees.

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About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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