Every theologian, wanna-be theologian, a-theologian, and otherwise thinking person has one.

Discuss a point of theology long enough, and you’ll inevitably see it played.  Call it Anderson’s Law:  as a theological conversation grows longer, the probability of seeing the mystery card approaches one.

You’ll learn to see it coming.  The shoulders shrug just a little, a sympathetic smile starts slowly forms, slow-motion starts as the words hit you:  “Well, some things are a mystery…”

This is a dangerous card for the theologian to play, as it functions as a bit of a trump card.  Play it too early, and you short-circuit the difficult process of coming to a more robust understanding of the subject of inquiry.  Don’t ever play it, and end up like Chesterton’s lunatic who tries to get the heavens into his head, only to have his head split.

With that said, here are a few of theological and a-theological frameworks  and the distinct places where the mystery card gets played:

  • Calvinists:  the existence of human responsibility
  • Arminians: the existence of divine sovereignty over salvation
  • Roman Catholics: the simultaneous presence of Christ’ body in the Eucharist and in Heaven
  • Anglo-Catholics: their relationship to the Reformation
  • Naturalists: consciousness and the existence of free will
  • Eastern Orthodox: I’m pretty sure this is the only card they play with.
  • Lutherans: how (and that!) sanctification happens
  • Weslyans: why sanctification doesn’t happen
  • Baptists: the working of the Holy Spirit
  • Pentacostals: the working of anything else
  • Dispensationalists: the Old Testament

Yes, the list is a bit of a joke.  But it’s a joke to tease out the difficulty of knowing where to place our mysteries, and how many we should admit.

But seriousness aside, this is a game we can all play.  Add mystery cards in the comments and I’ll update the post accordingly.  Bonus points for picking on your own tradition(s).

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Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.


  1. Christopher Benson February 2, 2010 at 8:31 pm

    Matt: As you know, I belong to the Reformed tradition. You nailed it! The mystery card for Reformed folks is the existence of human responsibility or, more accurately, the role of human freedom. In my review of ATHEIST DELUSIONS, I addressed the mystery that surrounds the relationship between divine sovereignty and human freedom:

    Church historian Charles Partee succinctly articulates the Reformed view on freedom: “Two perils must be avoided. If divine sovereignty is overemphasized, the result is complete resignation. If human freedom is overemphasized, the result is brazen confidence or abject fear. Calvin’s astounding conclusion is that we should accept our freedom but not boast of it.” The only “live option,” to use William James’ terminology, is between libertarian freedom and Christian freedom that dares not speak its name; in the end, this is a “dead option” because the former is an illusion despite its appeal to our consumerist sensibilities.

    You’ve told me that you’re not situated in a single ecclesial tradition. So here’s my question for you: what is the mystery for an ecclesial crossbreed like yourself, on the conservative side, and like Brian McLaren, on the progressive side?


  2. […] the Theological Mystery Card In Theology on 02/03/2010 at 11:10 AM Matt Anderson over at Mere Orthodoxy has a funny post about the mystery card in theology.  He is poking fun of course. Every […]


  3. Eastern Orthodox made me laugh. My submission:

    Episcopalians: Decalogue.

    Easy target, but true.


  4. Milliner,

    Glad to hear you found it amusing. That was my goal with that–nothing more.

    And you’re right about the Episcopalians. That amuses me, too.


    I’m still avoiding your question. I wanted to put an answer in on those categories, but I’m still trying to figure out where the mystery cards would go for conservatives/liberals….



  5. Conservative evangelicals: that all reasonable people aren’t Christians

    Liberal evangelicals: that the Gospel has to be preached


  6. Tex,

    I like them. I think those are right.



  7. Messianic Jews: defending their right to wear the yarmulke


  8. […] Up: Matthew Anderson has an interesting post over at Mere Orthodoxy called “Playing the (a)Theological Mystery […]


  9. […] a little more combative, a touch more polemical than the mystery card. But it’s still effective when you’re in a tough theological conversation and you’re not sure […]


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