What Ever Happened to Inscrutability?
This past summer my son was on the beach, with bucket in hand, and proudly announced that he was going to start shoveling and wasn’t going to stop until all the sand on the whole beach was in his bucket—a cute naïve goal for a 4 year old imagination, an utterly delusional goal for a mature mind. But as a pastor in our modern world, that is exactly what people often ask me to do. Fill their bucket with the all the sand of the beach. I can’t. Nobody can. It is definitively impossible.
For the mind of a creature to comprehend the ways of a Creator is more unlikely than a bucket holding every grain of sand, and yet this is our expectation.
Why did God let this happen? I don’t know.
Why does God allow evil in the first place? I don’t know.
How is God completely sovereign and man completely responsible? I don’t know.
What is heaven going to be like? I don’t know.
Explain the Trinity. I can’t.
Explain election. I can’t.
Explain the incarnation. I can’t.
Granted, as a trained theologian and amateur philosopher, I can do my best to answer these questions from what Scripture has revealed and what the Church has historically stated, but at the end of the day, all Scripture and theology end with inscrutability.
Inscrutability is the forgotten attribute of God. The etymology of the word is pretty straightforward—unable to scrutinize. In other words, God and His ways are unfathomable. We only know what He has chosen to reveal to us within the capacities He has chosen to endow to us, and His revelation is but a scoop of sand and our capacity is but a tiny bucket.
But this is a huge problem for modern man. On this side of the enlightenment, nothing is allowed to be inscrutable and all mysteries must be solved. The reason of man is the new sovereign, therefore nothing is allowed to be unknowable to human reason. And so people in coffee houses and philosophy classes throughout the secularized west use these inscrutabilities, such as the problem of evil, as their ammunition against transcendent claims.
But the bigger problem is how the Church has responded. Either we naively ignore the obvious inscrutabilities of our faith (the shallow subculture of broadly evangelicalism that doesn’t engage difficult questions) or we vainly try to answer the inscrutabilities of our faith (the arrogant subculture of intellectualism that has a neat and tidy answer to difficult questions). But both of these responses are a form of concession to our secular world because they agree with the modern narrative that says inscrutability is no longer an option.
Says who? Certainly not the Bible. “I don’t know, and I’m okay not knowing” is a very Biblical answer. Whether it’s Job’s conclusion to the mystery of suffering (Job 42:1-3) or Paul’s conclusion to the mystery of divine election (Romans 11:33-36), it is always appropriate to humbly confess the limits of our understanding, shut our mouths, and let God be God.
“Well isn’t that convenient,” I can hear the enlightened skeptic respond. People of faith can’t explain all these mysteries, so they invoke the ultimate trump card of inscrutability.
The philosophical answer is that inscrutability is the inevitable end to any worldview—yes even the secular religion of science and reason. But the theological answer that it’s not convenient; it’s necessary. If there is a God, He must be inscrutable. If a god is not inscrutable to the mind of man, then the mind of man has created god. If god makes sense, the senses of man have fashioned god. Or to put it another way, it only makes sense that God doesn’t make sense.
That is why I love the mysteries of the Bible. The infinite complexities of the Trinity, the incarnate Jesus as fully God and fully man, God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibilities, heck even this crazy free grace gospel we proclaim; none of it could be invented by the reason of man, which makes it the revelation of an inscrutable God.