Reviews of

Mystery and the Making of a Christian Historical Consciousness

In De Gruyter, Jonathon Lookadoo, Paul, Second century, T. J. LANG on January 12, 2017 at 11:37 am

2017.01.01 | T. J. Lang, Mystery and the Making of a Christian Historical Consciousness: From Paul to the Second Century. BZNW 219. Berlin: De Gruyter, 2015. pp. xii +293. ISBN: 9783110442670.

Review by Jonathon Lookadoo, University of Otago

Early Christian conceptions of history are a complicated matter to study. Many early Christian texts highlight continuity between God’s actions in and after Jesus and the way in which God acted prior to Jesus. However, other passages suggest a break, even a rupture, which occurred after Jesus.

Mystery and the Making of a Christian Historical Consciousness steps into this complicated issue by studying the role of “mystery” (μυστήριον) in Pauline literature and tracing the usage of the concept through the second century. Lang argues that the “once hidden/now revealed” scheme, which appears with some regularity in early Christian mystery language, provided the intellectual means by which to understand how God acted in Jesus and how this action should be related to the remainder of God’s activity in history. By utilizing mystery terminology, time could be divided into eras of concealment and revelation. Lang outlines the way in which this organization of history enabled some of the most original ecclesiological, hermeneutical, and christological claims in early Christian literature.

The study begins with an exploration of mystery language in the Pauline letters, and chapter 2 takes up the undisputed Pauline letters. Lang acknowledges that employing this category risks skewing the results of the study, since it was not recognized by the second-century figures with whom he engages later in the book. Still, he opts to study the Pauline letters in terms of undisputed and disputed because the use of mystery terminology can be broadly distinguished along these lines. Chapter 2 examines the Pauline data in Romans, 1 Corinthians, and 2 Thessalonians. For example, the mystery to which Paul refers in Rom 11:25 concerns the current hardening of Israel, the future inclusion of Gentiles, and the salvation of “all Israel” as a result. The recognition of the mystery allows Paul to understand more clearly God’s actions in history and consequently to interpret scripture in unique and surprising ways. For the purposes of reception history, the most significant instance of mystery terminology is found in 1 Cor 2:6–16. There is an interpersonal orientation to the mystery because it is hidden from the rulers of this age and is incomprehensible to those who have not been properly prepared by the Holy Spirit. Likewise, the mystery has a chronological orientation. In a previous era, something was hidden, but now the mystery has been revealed. The chronological element becomes particularly important for Ephesians, Colossians, and the Pastorals, which are dealt with in chapters 3 and 4.

Colossians displays much continuity with the undisputed letters in regard to how it employs mystery terminology, but the letter begins to develop and emphasize the language in new ways. Highlighting the multiple instances of the term in Col 1:24–2:5 and 4:3–4, Lang notes the exclusive use of the singular noun as a point of continuity with the majority of times that the term is found in the undisputed letters. However, Colossians makes more of the application of the mystery to Gentiles. This trend is extended in Ephesians to include not only the Gentiles but also the cosmos. Lang is probably right to take Eph 1:9–10 as the most comprehensive single instance of mystery language in early Christian literature. Chapter 4 concludes the study of the Pauline letters with a look at Rom 16:25–27, 1–2 Timothy, and Titus.

Chapters 5–8 continue to trace the development of Pauline mystery language in the second century. Ignatius utilizes the chronological orientation of mystery language to divide history into eras of concealment and disclosure, but he also maintains an interpersonal dynamic with respect to the ruler of this age. The Epistle to Diognetus employs the term in ways that are consonant with the Pauline letters but generalizes it to some degree by de-emphasizing the importance of the mystery for Gentiles (chapter 5). Justin makes use of mystery terminology in three ways in his Dialogue with Trypho. He speaks of Christ or an element of Christ as a mystery, he refers to particular objects or events as mysteries, and he discusses scriptural statements that have been spoken “in a mystery.” Lang’s discussion of the last usage adeptly illustrates the way in which early Christians drew on mystery terminology to orchestrate creative hermeneutical developments (chapter 6). In his Peri Pascha, Melito maintains a similar practice to Justin as he employs the interpretive technique of mystery exegesis (chapter 7). Finally, Tertullian’s Against Marcion illustrates how mystery provided him with a schema by which he could preserve the identity of the Creator and Christ (chapter 8).

Lang’s argument that the understanding of mystery found in the Pauline letters forms an important early Christian discourse which enables new understandings of history and hermeneutics in light of Christ is sweeping and engaging. Yet the book’s far-reaching thesis does not result in a study that is light on detail or intricate exegetical argument. The volume contains in-depth analysis of both small bits of text, such as 1 Tim 3:16 (p. 119–125) and Ign. Eph. 19.1 (p. 141–145), and of larger sections, such as Col 1:24–2:5 (p. 70–81) and Melito, Peri Pascha 1–10 (p. 200–205). Although the discussion of “the mystery of faith” in 1 Tim 3:9 is relatively brief (p. 118), the argument is clear, plausible, and specific as it defines the phrase in terms of the confession of Christ’s incarnation, time on earth, and ascension. Throughout the study, sensitivity is demonstrated both toward the similarity that mystery language shares in these early Christian authors and toward the variation that each author demonstrates in employing the language. The alertness that Lang exhibits toward the texts that he explores enables the subtlety of mystery language to come through.

For someone looking to press Lang’s study forward, two avenues can be suggested. First, Lang’s analysis of mystery from Paul to Tertullian leaves some sources unexplored. For example, the primary analysis of Did. 11.11 comes in a footnote (p. 134 n. 11) in which Lang adopts Kurt Niederwimmer’s position that the mystery is intentionally cryptic but understood by the original audience. No mention is made of Theophilus’s description of the sun and moon as a type of a mystery that stands for God and human beings (Autol. 2.15) or of male and female as a mystery that displays God’s sole reign (Autol. 2.28). Athenagoras also employs the word on multiple occasions (Leg. 1.1; 4.1; 28.8; 32.1), although he uses the term with respect to Greco-Roman festivals and thus in a markedly different way from the authors whom Lang explores.

A second suggestion could test the interpretation of particular passages. To start with, Lang notes the similar juxtaposition of “mysteries” and “knowledge” in 1 Cor 13:2 and “wisdom” and “knowledge” in 1 Cor 12:8. While there may be a link between mystery, knowledge, and wisdom in 1 Corinthians, it is not as clear that Lang’s observance of an association clarifies the contents of the mysteries in 1 Cor 13:2 (p. 36–37). Likewise, Lang, rightly notes that Ign. Trall. 2.3 should be read not only with 1 Cor 4:1 in mind but also in comparison with 1 Tim 3:9. Yet on this basis, it is difficult to see what the mysteries that Ignatius thinks should characterize the deacons have to do with essential Christian beliefs. With regard to Ign. Trall. 2.3, such an argument would be easier to make by looking at Ign. Trall. 9.1–2 rather than 1 Corinthians or 1 Timothy.

Neither of these suggestions will undo the argument that early Christian mystery language enabled the development of a new and totalizing historical consciousness. This use of mystery language allowed fundamental christological and hermeneutical arguments to be made within a coherent conceptual world. Lang’s grand perspective, attention to detail, and sensitivity to changes will serve as an insightful guide while giving readers plenty to consider as they reflect on the relationship between mystery and early Christian understandings of history.

Jonathon Lookadoo Covington
University of Otago
jonathon.lookadoo [ at ] otago.ac.nz

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