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The term, Mystery, as used in the New Testament.
Preliminary Dissertations to the Four Gospels, &c. Dissertation the Ninth, Part First. By George Campbell, D. D. F. R. S. Edinburgh, Principal of Marischal College, Aberdeen.
If some other scriptural terms have been abused to worse effect in regard to immediate consequences, yet there is none which has served, on quite so large a scale, to protect error and to screen absurdities, as the word mystery. The expressions, hell, damnation, everlasting fire, &c. have indeed been managed to produce impressions much more horrible and more directly injurious; but these perversions extend only to particular subjects, while the word, mystery, has been made to cover the entire length and breadth of Christianity, and to give to the whole such a character in the popular apprehension, as is utterly unreasonable. By this means Christianity has come to be regarded as a system throughout of inexplicable mysteries, discordant with nature and appalling to reason. Faith has been turned into a mystery; conversion, piety, the love of God, spiritual enjoyment- everything belonging to religion, whether of theory, practice or experience, has suffered the same transformation. And to sanction this perverted scheme, those texts are adduced which speak of the Gospel under the term in question. We are reminded, for instance, that the apostle exhorts us to be grave, holding the mystery of the faith in a pure conscience,' that he denominates the ministers of Christ by that significant appellation, the 'stewards of the mysteries of God,' and that he declares, 'great is the mystery of godliness: God was manifest in the flesh,' &c.
On the authority of these and similar passages, it is contended that the gospel is indeed strongly marked with a mysterious character, in the modern sense of the epithet; and all those more rational systems of doctrine which lack this distinguishing feature, are condemned on account of their very simplicity and intelligibleness. They cannot be that evangelical truth, it is supposed, which was preached to the world as 'the mystery of godliness,' - a mystery so humbling to human pride and carnal reason. When this broad foundation has once been laid, there is, of course, no position too absurd to be sup
ported. Only call it a mystery, and reason must neither approach to examine its consistency, nor dare to question the absurdities which it cannot but perceive at the first glance. How can the doctrine of endless unmerciful torture be reconciled with the acknowledged goodness of God? is an inquiry which has been repelled by the magic of this word. It is one of the mysteries which abound in the gospel. The doctrines of transubstantiation, of the trinity, of partial election and reprobation, when assailed, have been withdrawn under this shelter, and secured from all further molestation. They became objects of humble submissive wonder, not of profane speculation. And since the New Testament expressly recognizes the doctrine of Christ as a mystery, who shall presume to allege the inexplicable character of these dogmas, as objections? It ought rather to be regarded as a commendation!
But if we turn to the New Testament itself, and carefully examine those passages in which the term in question occurs, we shall see at once that it has no such meaning there as is now commonly ascribed to it. Our Saviour speaks of the 'mysteries of the kingdom of heaven:' did he mean a series of unintelligible propositions? St. Paul represents that the great topic of the Christian ministry was a mystery: did he mean that it was the business of the preacher to proclaim truths which the people could not understand? Certainly not. This subject has been placed in so clear a light by that distinguished orthodox critic, Dr. Campbell, that we give his masterly illustration at considerable length, believing it will be more satisfactory than anything which we could offer. We shall insert all that relates immediately to the New Testament usage of the term, making no other alteration, than to substitute, where convenient, the corresponding English words for the Greek which he has introduced.
1. The Greek word pushgiov,' says he,' occurs frequently in the New Testament, and is uniformly rendered, in the English translation, mystery. We all know that by the most current use of the English word mystery (as well as of the Latin ecclesiastic word mysterium, and the corresponding terms in modern lauguages,) is denoted some doctrine to human reason incomprehensible; in other words, such a doctrine as exhibits difficulties, and even apparent contradictions, which we cannot solve or explain. Another use of the word, which though not so universal at present, is often to be met with in ecclesiastic writers of former ages,
and in foreign writers of the present age, is to signify some religious ceremony or rite, especially those now denominated sacraments. In the communion office of the church of England, the elements, after consecration, are sometimes termed holy mysteries. But this use seems not now to be common among Protestants, less perhaps in this country than in any other. Johnson has not so much as mentioned it in his Dictionary. Indeed in the fourth, and some succeeding centuries, the word pushgiov was so much in vogue with the Greek fathers, and mysterium or sacramentum, as it was often rendered, with the Latin, that it would be impossible to say in what meaning they used the words; nay, whether or not they affixed any meaning to them at all. In every thing that related to religion, there were found mysteries and sacraments, in doctrines and precepts, in ordinances and petitions; they could even discover numbers of them in the Lord's Prayer. Nay, so late as Father Possevini, this unmeaning application of these terms has prevailed in some places. That Jes
uit is cited with approbation by Walton in the prolegomena to his Polyglot, for saying, "Tot esse in Hebraica Scriptura sacramenta, quot literæ; tot mysteria, quot puncta; tot arcana, quot apices," a sentence, I acknowledge, as unintelligible to me as Father Simon owns it was to him. But passing this indefinite use, of which we know not what to make, the two significations I have mentioned, are sufficiently known to theologians, and continue, though not equally, still in use with modern writers.
2. When we come to examine the Scriptures critically, and make them serve for their own interpreters, which is the surest way of attaining the true knowledge of them, we shall find, if I mistake not, that both these senses are unsupported by the usage of the inspired penmen. After the most careful examination of all the passages in the New Testament, in which the Greek word occurs, and after consulting the use made of the term, by the ancient Greek interpreters of the Old, and borrowing aid from the practice of the Hellenist Jews, in the writings called Apocrypha, I can only find two senses nearly related to each other, which can strictly be called scriptural. The first, and what I may call the leading sense of the word, is arcanum, a secret, anything not disclosed, not published to the world, though perhaps communicated to a select number.
'3. Now, let it be observed, that this is totally different from the current sense of the English word mystery, something incomprehensible. In the former acceptation, a thing was no longer a mystery than whilst it remained unrevealed; in the latter, a
'[That is, 'In the Hebrew Scriptures there are as many sacraments as letters, as many mysteries as points, as many secrets as marks.']
thing is equally a mystery, after the revelation, as before. To the former we apply, properly, the epithet unknown, to the latter we may in a great measure apply the term unknowable. Thus, that God would call the Gentiles, and receive them into his church, was as intelligible, or, if ye like the term better, comprehensible, as that he once had called the descendants of the patriarchs, or as any plain proposition, or historical fact. Yet, whilst undiscovered, or at least, veiled under figures and types, it remained, in the scriptural idiom, a mystery, having been hidden from ages and generations. But, after it had pleased God to reveal this his gracious purpose to the Apostles by his Spirit, it was a mystery no longer.
The Greek words, revelation and mystery, stand in the same relation to each other, that the English words discovery and secret do. A mystery revealed, is a secret discovered, and consequently a secret no longer. The discovery is the extinction of the secret as such. These words, accordingly, or words equivalent, as a mystery made known, manifested, are often brought together by the Apostles, to show that what were once the secret purposes and counsels of God, had been imparted to them, to be by them promulgated to all the world. Thus they invited the grateful attention of all to what was so distinguished a favor on the part of heaven, and must be of such unspeakable importance to the apostate race of Adam. The terms, communication, revelation, manifestation, plainly show the import of the term mystery, to which they are applied. As this, indeed, seems now to be a point universally acknowledged by the learned, I shall only refer the judicious reader, for further proof of it from the New Testament, to the passages quoted in the margin; in all which, he will plainly perceive, that the Apostle treats of something which had been concealed for ages, (and for that reason called mystery,) but was then openly revealed; and not of anything, in its own nature, dark and inconceivable.
'4. If, in addition to the evidence arising from so many direct and clear passages in the writings of Paul, it should be thought necessary to recur to the usage of the Seventy, we find that, in the Prophet Daniel, the word mystery occurs not fewer than nine times, answering always to the Chaldaic raza, res arcana, [a secret] and used in relation to Nebuchadnezzar's dream, which was become a secret even to the dreamer himself, as he had forgot it. The word there is uniformly rendered in the common version secret; and it deserves to be remarked that, in those verses, it is found connected with the verbs to make known, to
2 Rom. xvi. 25, 26; 1 Cor. ii. 7-10; Eph. i. 9; iii. 3, 5, 6, 9; i. 26, 27. 3 Dan. ii. 18, 19, 27, 28, 29, 30, 47; iv. 9.
vi. 19; Col.
manifest, to reveal; in a way exactly similar to the usage of the New Testament above observed. It occurs in no other place of that version, but one in Isaiah, of very doubtful import. In the apocryphal writings (which, in matters of criticism on the Hellenistic idiom, are of good authority,) the word mystery frequently occurs in the same sense, and is used in reference to human secrets, as well as to divine. Nay, the word is not, even in the New Testament, confined to divine secrets. It expresses sometimes those of a different, and even contrary, nature. Thus, the Apostle, speaking of the antichristian spirit, says, The mystery of iniquity doth already work: The spirit of antichrist hath begun to operate; but the operation is latent and unperceived. The Gospel of Christ is a blessing, the spirit of antichrist a curse. Both are equally denominated mystery, or secret whilst they remain concealed.
5. I shall be much misunderstood, if any one infer, from what has been now advanced, that I mean to signify, that there is nothing in the doctrines of religion which is not, on all sides, perfectly comprehensible to us, or nothing from which difficulties may be raised, that we are not able to give a satisfactory solution of. On the contrary, I am fully convinced, that in all sciences, particularly natural theology, as well as in revelation, there are many truths of this kind, whose evidence such objections are not regarded by a judicious person, as of force sufficient to invalidate. For example, the divine omniscience is a tenet of natural religion. This manifestly implies God's foreknowledge of all future events. Yet, to reoncile the divine prescience with the freedom, and even the contingency, and consequently, with the good or ill desert of human actions, is what I have never yet seen achieved by any, and indeed despair of seeing. That there are such difficulties also in the doctrines of revelation, it would, in my opinion, be very absurd to deny. But the present inquiry does not affect that matter in the least. This inquiry is critical, and concerns solely the scriptural acceptation of the word mystery, which I have shown to relate merely to the secrecy, for some time observed with regard to any doctrine, whether mysterious, in the modern acceptation of the word, or not.
'6. The foregoing observation will throw some light on what Paul says of the nature of the office with which he was vested: "Let a man so account of us, as of the ministers of Christ, and stewards of the mysteries of God," dispensers to mankind of the gracious purposes of heaven, heretofore concealed, and therefore denominated secrets. Nor can anything be more conformable than this interpretation, both to the instructions given to 51 Cor. iv. 1.
42 Thes. ii. 7.