Oswald Bayer and the Personal Shaping of Mystery

A guest post by Timothy Butler

Last week, as part of its festivities leading up to the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, Concordia Seminary, St. Louis hosted a lecture by Oswald Bayer on “a Public Mystery,” concerning the mystery surrounding the Gospel. In the lecture, Bayer, who is Professor Emeritus of Systematic Theology within the Evangelical Faculty of the University of Tübingen, spoke of three mysteries: the mystery of faith, the mystery of God’s love and the mystery of evil.

Of these three, the mystery of faith is the central matter to what Bayer terms a “Public Mystery.” Christian faith is public, since the Gospel is intertwined with proclamation, but it is a mystery, Bayer suggests, because that proclamation is often misunderstood and left unheeded by many who hear.

Building a framework that echoes Barth, Bayer argues that the mysterious nature of faith relates to the referent of that faith. Pilate’s encounter with Jesus fails to lead to understanding on Pilate’s part because of the Roman prefect’s inability to even comprehend the precise mystery he was trying to unravel. His questions focused on what is the mystery when he needed to ask who is the mystery. By misunderstanding the nature of God’s mystery and thinking it was a mere thing, the mystery was obscured from his sight.

This “personal shaping of the mystery,” as Bayer termed it, presents the greatest difficulty in the communication of the Gospel. In our marketing driven culture, we are prone to think along the lines of Charles Finney and expect that the Christian message can be package and “sold” like any other commodity that appears in the ubiquitous advertising we face each day. Bayer rejects this approach as inevitably prone to failure. One can market a thing or an idea as a “commodity,” but one cannot market a relationship with a person in that way.

Christ is the sum of the revealed mystery that the Christian is called to confess. As Karl Barth put it, “Revelation in fact does not differ from the Person of Jesus Christ, and again does not differ from the reconciliation that took place in Him” (CD 1.1, 134). Hence it is that the Christian kerygma is public: it concerns a very public person’s life and death, but that life and death only make sense in the context of the Holy Spirit’s illumination.

Though he did not cite John Calvin, he very well could have at this juncture. As Calvin noted in the Institutes, when speaking of argumentation in support of Scripture, “These [reasons to accept the authority of Scripture], however, cannot of themselves produce a firm faith in Scripture until our heavenly Father manifest his presence in it, and thereby secure implicit reverence for it. Then only, therefore, does Scripture suffice to give a saving knowledge of God when its certainty is founded on the inward persuasion of the Holy Spirit” (1.8.13).

Bayer asserts that the eschaton will usher in a time when the scandal of the Gospel’s message of a savior who suffered and died for the salvation of humans will no longer be obscured by humanity’s tendency towards hardness of heart. Just as Barth notes that God’s mystery is his veiling of himself that he might unveil himself to us (CD 1.1 188), the eschaton marks the time when the veil of unbelief will finally be torn aside in toto.

As Concordia’s Dr. Leopoldo Sanchez observed in response to Bayer’s presentation, “Bayer’s discourse on the Word is placed in the context of the critique of modern European thought, which has no room for the Holy Spirit and is partial towards the secularization of spiritual realities.” This again shows Bayer’s parallels to Barth: in emphasizing the inability to escape the mystery of the Gospel and insisting that therefore the Gospel cannot be commoditized, Bayer provides a sharp critique to more anthropocentric views of God’s Word, much as Barth famously did as he reacted against the early 20th century German theologians.

While the critique is helpful, it by no means yields as clean and complete of answer as we might desire. Bayer openly acknowledged the great problem with his presentation of the mystery of faith in the present age: the ever-present question of why God chooses to illuminate some with his Spirit and chooses not to illuminate others. Bayer is realistic enough to realize that he cannot resolve the issue, ultimately conceding “we cannot understand this on this side of the grave.”

Herein lies the greater mystery for Bayer, the mystery that provides the foundation for the mystery of faith and which triumphs over the mystery of evil and unbelief: the mystery of God’s love. Eventually, God’s desire to redeem will no longer be obscured by unbelief and evil, but we ought not confuse God’s eschatological dissolution of the mystery of faith as being equivalent to vanquishing all the mystery surrounding God.

Bayer’s eschatological expectations for knowledge are realistic and, importantly, appropriately humble: God’s love will remain a mystery even in the eschaton. After all, how could one hope to explain the “mystery of the rich and inexhaustible God”?

[Ed. note: I met Tim butler years ago through his blog, As I Said. It turns out that he is an alumnus of my institution, as well as a doctoral student at Concordia Seminary here in St. Louis, and he has been doing some adjuncting for us this past year as well. It has been fun getting to know Tim better this past year, and I am glad for the opportunity to post some of his thoughts here at DET. Thanks also to Tim for taking me down to Bayer’s lecture!]



Thanks for this, Tim! It was a really interesting lecture. I think the point he ended with, that the only mystery about God that really remains is why God would love us so much, is quite profound and spot on.

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