K. Scott Oliphint. The Majesty of Mystery: Celebrating the Glory of an Incomprehensible God. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016. See here to purchase the book.
K. Scott Oliphint teaches apologetics and systematic theology at
Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia and is an Orthodox
This book concerns tensions about God, and how they attest to God’s
mystery. To give you an idea about what tensions the book discusses,
allow me to quote from page 4:
“Have you ever wondered how God can be Three-in-One? Have you been
uneasy trying to explain that the One in whom you’ve put your trust has
two completely different natures? Have you thought about your
affirmation that God is eternal in light of His activity in time and in
history? Are you tempted to think that if God is in complete control we
cannot be responsible for what we do? Does your confession of God’s
sovereignty conflict with your understanding of prayer? Does it make
more sense to you to deny that God is sovereign?”
This paragraph actually provides a good idea of what this book is
like. The book is written for Christians who are literate enough about
their faith to ask these questions. Oliphint obviously writes from a
standpoint of empathy towards those who ask such questions, he is not
afraid to ask them himself, and he takes those questions seriously. And
you can probably infer that Oliphint is in the Reformed Calvinist camp,
since he mentions the tension between God’s “complete control” and
human responsibility, as well as the tension between God’s sovereignty
Here are some thoughts:
A. Chapter 5, “The Majesty and Mystery of God’s Relationship,” is
the strongest in this book in some areas, while being the weakest in
other areas. Oliphint appears to accept the Westminster Confession’s
affirmation that God is “most pure spirit, invisible, without body,
parts, or passions; immutable, immense, eternal, incomprehensible”
(Westminster Confession, chapter 2). The challenge is reconciling this
conception of God with features of God that are described in Scripture.
How can God be eternal, or outside of time, and yet interact with human
beings within time? How can God lack passions yet be loving, angry, or
jealous, as the Scriptures depict?
Chapter 5’s strength is that Oliphint wrestles with attempts by
Augustine and Reformed thinkers to resolve such questions and, quite
frankly, finds their solutions to be wanting. Oliphint then proposes an
alternative solution. These strengths are in contrast to the rest of
the book. Often in this book, Oliphint quotes Reformed thinkers for
support rather than disagreeing with them, and Oliphint usually leaves
tensions standing and calls them a mystery rather than seeking any
resolution to them.
The weakness of this chapter, in my opinion, is that Oliphint does
not rigorously or adequately support the Westminster Confession’s
affirmation with Scripture. He argues that God’s “I am that I am”
statement in Exodus 3:14 supports God’s aseity, but that verse by itself
does not support the Greek philosophical conception of God that the
Westminster Confession, on some level, embraces (knowingly or not).
While Oliphint quotes Scriptures, he does not successfully connect them
with the Confession’s affirmation. By contrast, Oliphint offers more
Scriptural support for his positions in other chapters of the book, such
as his Calvinistic view that God decreed who will be saved.
B. This book is not exactly a work of apologetics, if you want to
define apologetics as providing arguments for the Christian faith being
true. A few times, however, Oliphint does seem to advance such
arguments (or that is my impression). On page 122, for example, he
states: “Surely no other religion or man-made system has ever come close
to thinking in this way. No cult has a God who is complete in Himself,
yet who decides, while remaining who He is, to become ‘one of us.’ We
would not have thought of such a thing—-unless God Himself has spoken to us these magnificent truths (1 Cor 2:9-10).”
I am ambivalent about this argument. On the one hand, people can
come up with all sorts of ideas, and other religions probably have their
share of mystery, too. On the other hand, the argument does deserve
consideration. A possible way to improve the argument is to ask: How
did Christian conceptions of God compare with other religious and
philosophical systems of the ancient world? If the dissimilarities are
great, then attributing Christian conceptions to divine revelation is
understandable—-not iron-clad, but understandable.
C. I found a statement on page 87 to be noteworthy: “After Adam and
Eve sinned, the punishment of death was set in place. But God
graciously intervened to change the corrupt nature of those born after
Adam so that fellowship with God might be restored.”
This is different from what I might expect in a Protestant book.
Many Protestant books would focus on Jesus paying the penalty for
people’s sins to restore human fellowship with God. Oliphint, however,
highlights God changing people’s nature as part of God’s work to restore
the broken divine-human fellowship. Oliphint probably believes that
Christ paid the penalty for people’s sins, and Protestants do stress
God’s personal and spiritual transformation of people. Still, what
Oliphint said on page 87 stood out to me, since it stressed nature
rather than judicial standing in discussing the divine-human
D. On page 200, Oliphint states that we can know God “truly” (I
Corinthians 2:10-11), but never “exhaustively”. Oliphint does not
provide much support for this assertion, but it is a helpful way to
conceptualize knowledge of God.
E. The book discusses the economic and immanent Trinity and the
relationship between Christ’s divine and human natures. Those who have
already read about these issues will probably find nothing new in these
sections. Those looking for a lucid introduction to these topics,
however, will find these sections of the book helpful.
I am giving this book four stars because it is thoughtful, has a
friendly tone, provides interesting quotes of John Owen and B.B.
Warfield, and engages historic Christian thinkers, such as mystics. The
book’s discussion of I Corinthians 13 was also helpful, as it placed
the chapter within the context of previous discussions in I
Corinthians. I would have preferred for the book to have attempted to
resolve more tensions, however, as opposed to chalking them up to
mystery and expecting people to be in awe at the apparent
contradictions. I am more in awe of attempts at solutions that generate
I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher. My review is honest!