The Dynamics of Biblical Mystery

G.K. Beale and Benjamin Gladd. Hidden But Now Revealed: A Biblical Theology of Mystery. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 2014. 392 pp. $27.00.

The current interest in Christ-centered preaching owes many of its finer products to the redemptive historical method and this method's constitutive focus on Christ as the pinnacle of special revelation and the telos to which the entire biblical text is pointed and driven. I might add that the redemptive historical approach would not be so rich, so compelling, so generative, if not for the rich and nourishing soil of Reformed theology out of which it sprouts. Reformed theologian Herman Bavinck writes, "The incarnation of God is the central fact in special revelation, the fact that sheds light upon its whole domain."[1] Leaving the current intramural conflicts between biblical and systematic theology aside, we can rest assured that the redemptive historical interpretation is at home with the common places.

In order to know how the story of redemption progresses one must also consider how Scripture is interpreted inner-biblically. If the divine voice can be heard behind the human voices of the authors, giving legitimacy to the endeavor of systematic theology, the question arises: are the many human voices speaking in concert with the one divine? To put it another way, how did later true prophets receive and understand the teaching of earlier true prophets about the character of the Lord and his plans for the future? 

An obvious flashpoint of this discussion arises between the prophets of the Old and New Testaments. In recent decades the inquiry has been renewed: how do New Testament apostles receive, internalize, interpret, and apply the received scriptural tradition of the Law, the Prophets, and the Psalms (to use one New Testament canonical order [Luke 24:44]). 

Throughout history, the church has enjoyed a basic agreement that Scriptures present the divine voice speaking through human voices. The disagreement, however, lies in whether the human voices, particularly but not limited to those of the New Testament, give expression to an interpretive method that is itself inspired and normative, and if not, what are we to make of the interpretive conclusions that the method produces. Did Daniel rightly understand Jeremiah's "seventy years" when he prayed his prayer of repentance in order to expedite the restoration from exile (Daniel 9)? If so, faithful students of the Scriptures ought to investigate how he came to this conclusion and what implications it has for his situation.

In evangelical circles, the discussion has revolved primarily around the value of the interpretive method used by the New Testament writers. On one hand, there are those who contend that the methodology of the New Testament authors is context-bound, typical of their Second Temple Jewish environment, and neglectful of basic notions of historical-grammatical interpretation.[2] On the other hand, an admittedly decreasing number of evangelical scholars contends that the interpretive methodology of New Testament authors provides a model of inner-biblical exegesis that is not only scrutable to a modern interpreter but normative for Christian interpretation.  We should note that proponents of the latter view do believe that modern advances such as philology and literary criticism give new insight into how the text can be understood in its context. The operative term is "organic" as in: the meaning of the Old Testament text is organically connected to the reception and use of that text by the New Testament author.[3]

In this context, the recent publication Hidden But Now Revealed: A Biblical Theology of Mystery by Drs. Beale and Gladd presents a substantial contribution to the discussion about how the New Testament authors use the Old Testament to shape their understanding of the key events in the life and ministry of Jesus as well as the role of the church as the historical people of God.

Mystery and Disclosure

Beale and Gladd present a new paradigm for understanding the relationship between the meaning of Old Testament texts and the way in which New Testament authors use them. They rely heavily on two Aramaic courtly accounts in the book of Daniel (chapters 2 and 4), both of which deal with a mystery in Nebuchadnezzar's dream and Daniel's inspired disclosure of that mystery. The concept of "mystery" in Daniel is of particular importance for Beale and Gladd as it has long been understood to play a significant role in early Christian and Judean notions of mystery in later texts. In the passages from Daniel, the shared elements of the preceding dream/vision and the following interpretation highlight the continuity between the mystery and the revelation, and therefore point to shared meaning. Beale and Gladd are clear about their intention: "We will argue that the revelation of mystery is not totally new revelation but the full disclosure of something that was to a significant extent hidden" (p.30). The process of disclosing mystery moves from partial to full revelation in a manner that can easily be described as organic, and this is important to the current discussion in evangelical circles. 

Beale and Gladd contend that the relationship between the dream-mysteries and the full revelation in Daniel is operative in New Testament authors' use of the Old Testament in certain passages. In this larger sense, the Old Testament text is the mystery which Jesus and the apostles reveal fully in their proclamation of the gospel. The connection is not arbitrary or forced, but rather a movement from lesser to fuller disclosure.

Having established the basic dynamic of mystery and disclosure, the authors commence on a guided tour of various uses of the word "mystery," beginning with Second Temple material (both Semitic and Greek sources), then moving on to the relevant books of the New Testament where the term "mystery" occurs: Matthew, Romans, 1 Corinthians, Ephesians, Colossians, 2 Thessalonians, 1 Timothy, and Revelation. This series of exegetical vignettes comprises the body of the book. In each case they encounter, Beale and Gladd thoroughly trace the shared elements between the Old Testament text or motif and the New Testament appropriation of them. These central chapters contain a series of formidable exegetical investigations that tackle some of the more difficult passages of the New Testament, and the authors take them on boldly. Because these are inherently difficult passages (indeed mysterious), we should not be surprised to find points with which to quibble here or there, but one risks losing view of the forest for the trees.  Suffice to say, the authors' thesis is well-corroborated by the wide range of witnesses they bring before the reader.

Beale and Gladd conclude with two chapters that deal with a remainder of texts which are not covered in the previous analysis. In Chapter 11, they look at important New Testament passages which interact with the concept of "mystery" even if the word does not occur (they find precedence in Daniel 5 and Daniel 7-12, where the concept is also present without the actual word). The reader should not miss the very clear and brief explanation of Christological reading of the Old Testament tucked away in this chapter. I would recommend this section to anyone looking for a starting place on the topic. They also discuss here several themes which fit the paradigm of revealed mystery including Christ as true Temple and Old Testament anticipation of the resurrection.

In Chapter 12, the authors extricate biblical notions of mystery from the pagan mystery religions still present during the Second Temple period. While both pagan and biblical concepts of mystery have strong personal elements. For instance, the former is marked by the individual admission of initiates and the later by personal illumination of the Spirit. Beale and Gladd show, however, how biblical mystery was intended to be revealed and proclaimed publicly not veiled in the rituals of secret assemblies.

The authors end with an appendix exploring what Beale calls the "cognitive peripheral vision" of the biblical authors. In biblical interpretation, this category would refer to the cognitive phenomenon in which an interpreter appropriates implicit or associated (peripheral) aspect of a text in order to draw out a theological claim. In doing so, the interpreter may seem at first blush to ignore the explicit meaning or trajectory of the text in order to follow a secondary meaning or a meaning of the text later in the same passage. The authors evoke E.D. Hirsh's notion of a "willed type" and Michael Polanyi's "tacit knowledge" to support their understanding of this innovative concept. This appendix raises quite a few interesting issues related to the subject of the book, and it could easily be promoted from appendix to a more central role as a chapter.

Building the Mystery

The word for "mystery" in Daniel (2:18; 19, 27, 28, 30, 47; 4:6) itself presents several interesting philological problems. It is an Old Persian loanword used in Daniel to refer to the problem posed by the king's dreams about future events. We should note, however, that in the Danielic account the Lord reveals the mystery of the king's dream through Daniel's "vision of the night" (2:19), perhaps indicating that dreams were a less than appropriate means of revelation for a true prophet of the Lord. 

In any case, complications arise due to the unique nature of Daniel's dream interpretation. While pagan deities are often reported using dreams in the religious imagination of ancient pagan religions, the prophets of the Old Testament rarely receive revelation in this way. Joseph, of course, is one exception. Like Daniel he is operating in a foreign court, which perhaps shows the Lord's merciful willingness to reveal himself in a manner appropriate to his hearer but also highlights the relative "foreignness" of dream interpretation to biblical religion. These complicating factors do not necessarily diminish the authors' thesis, but they do warrant consideration, since dream-mysteries form the central paradigm of their interpretation.

The paradigm of disclosed mystery provides the biblical scholar with a valuable picture of how inner-biblical exegesis works, particularly the use of the Old Testament in the New. I was glad to see that the texture of that paradigm is further explored by Beale and Gladd in their discussion of cognitive periphery and the work of Hirsch and Polanyi, but that texture could be developed further as there are multiple ways in which the meaning of the Old Testament text might relate to its use in the passages dealt with by the authors. In particular, I would welcome more discussion of (1) how typological patterning is adapted to themes in the New Testament, (2) the role of intervening historical contingencies in adjusting the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies of blessing and curses,[4] (3) the practices and images that adumbrate the coming of the kingdom though may not provide clear typologies, and (4) the use of an Old Testament allusion as a homiletic device in the New Testament which may or may not imply an organic link between the two (e.g. sermon illustrations). Such an exploration would go beyond the scope of the work currently under review, but all of these categories could fit into the paradigm of revealed mystery (homiletic device may be the exception). 

The hermeneutical strategy of New Testament authors is a multi-layered subject, made more complicated by the diverse voices and audiences involved in the apostolic proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ. As such, the topic resists reductionistic descriptions, but that does not mean that a broad description is out of reach. In such a multilayered field of inquiry, Beale and Gladd have provided an honorable service of articulating a guiding paradigm that is both faithful to the continuity of Scripture and descriptive of the discontinuity that becomes apparent. Biblical scholars would do well to engage with their thinking. 

Scott Redd is President and Associate Professor of Old Testament at RTS, Washington, D.C.


[1] Reformed Dogmatics, Volume 1: Prolegomena (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003), p. 344

[2] For an example that is both representative of and seminal to evangelical thought on these matters, see Richard Longnecker, Biblical Exegesis in the Apostolic Period (2nd ed.; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999)

[3] For a representative sample of articles, see G.K. Beale, The Right Doctrine from the Wrong Texts?: Essays on the Use of the Old Testament in the New (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1994)

[4] Historical contingencies seem to be at play in Daniel 9 as Daniel attempts to reconcile the mystery of Jeremiah's prophecy and the revelation of the "seventy-sevens" proclaimed by the angel (cf. Lev 26:28). For more on intervening historical contingencies and the New Testament interpretation, see Richard L. Pratt, Jr, "Historical Contingencies and Biblical Predictions," in The Way of Wisdom: Essays in Honor of Bruce K. Waltke, ads. J.I. Packer and Sven K. Soderlund (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000), pp. 180-203