The Mystery Of The Incarnation: “Great Is The Mystery Of Godliness” -- By: Paul Helm

Journal: Southern Baptist Journal of Theology
Volume: SBJT 19:1 (Spring 2015)
Article: The Mystery Of The Incarnation: “Great Is The Mystery Of Godliness”
Author: Paul Helm

The Mystery Of The Incarnation: “Great Is The Mystery Of Godliness”

Paul Helm

Paul Helm was Professor of the History and Philosophy of Religion, King’s College in London, England. Previously he served for many years in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Liverpool. He is the author of a number of books, including Faith, Form, and Fashion: Classical Reformed Theology and its Postmodern Critics (Cascade, 2014); John Calvin’s Ideas (Oxford, 2004); Belief Policies (Cambridge, 1994); and Eternal God (Oxford, 1988; 2nd ed., 2010).


The term “incomprehensible” has changed in emphasis over the years. It has strengthened in meaning and become rougher. It now means gibberish or nonsense, and usually refers to bits of verbal communication that are impossible for various reasons to make sense of. It’s a black or white term, a term of rebuke, a put down. But in Christian theology generally the term is not used of locutions, but of states of affairs, of realities. A state of affairs that can be incomprehensible to a degree, a matter of more or less so. We can grow in understanding, and what was totally incomprehensible can become less so, through being taught, or by our own reflection, or by gaining more information. Such thinking, the presence of incomprehensibilities and their toleration, is shunned by the rationalist temper, for whom what is not readily understood through the senses and by the reason cannot be real, or warrant serious attention. And there is something of that rationalist temper in all of us. We want to know, and suspect the claim that some matter cannot be fully understood as being evidence of some failure—or conspiracy. Ours is

a culture that tells itself that it is only satisfied with “transparency.”

“Mystery” is a positive New Testament word, almost exclusively Pauline but anticipated by Jesus’ references to the “mysteries of the kingdom” which were being made known to his disciples even as Jesus taught them. There is about such mysteries both disclosure and reserve. Paul uses the word to refer to happenings, events, and so to states of affairs, or combinations of these features. Sometimes what is or was mysterious has a dispensational ring to it. What is now revealed was previously a “mystery,” something that previously the angels “longed to look” and couldn’t because they were too early. What, after the “making known” still remains mysterious, held back, may and will be made known in the future.

At other times states of affairs that Paul calls a “mystery” are so because of their inherent strangeness. So it is with the Incarnat...

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