“Regarding Christianity, ten thousand difficulties do not make one doubt.” ~ John Henry Cardinal Newman
How right Cardinal Newman was! Mystery is impossible to fully understand. If something is mysterious, we confess that we don’t or can’t fully comprehend the information or experience that we are faced with. Especially in the West, in our own day, we have difficulty accepting that we may never know completely the depth or complexity of those things which present themselves for our meditation or study. We often insist that we can come to entirely comprehend the origin of all diseases, or the vastness of the universe or the inner recesses of the human heart and soul! And how often we have been disappointed!
It is the same with our comprehension of the mystery of God. God reveals Himself to us within time and space. He communicates to us through His creation, through His hand in history and through those chosen ones who are inspired by the Holy Spirit to speak the words of God, to write them down and to produce the great testament of God’s loving plan of salvation: the Scriptures.
But despite our best eforts, the mystery of God remains. We know what we can comprehend in our human minds and through our senses and human knowledge. And here’s the problem: we cannot admit that there is a limit to our knowledge and understanding. Anyone with experience in life knows this to be true. We cannot always know the full depths of another person, for instance. Even a loved one very close to us remains, in a certain way, a mystery.
St Paul describes our ability to partially know the depths of God in his First Letter to the Corinthians:
“At present we see indistinctly, as in a mirror, but then face to face. At present I know partially; then I shall know fully, as I am fully known.” (1 Corinthians 13:12)
Here St. Paul refers to the knowledge of the mystery of God, of the depths of His love for us. By nurturing the theological virtues of faith, hope and love, we begin to see God more clearly. However, in this life we can see God only indistinctly: we cannot fully understand Him since we have not reached the maturity of blessed life with Him in Paradise. The verse that comes directly before sums up God’s own approach to the revelation of Himself both to humanity and to the individual:
“When I was a child, I used to talk as a child, think as a child, reason as a child; when I became a man, I put aside childish things.” (1 Corinthians 13:11)
A parent knows that a child must learn by stages and degrees. They know that they cannot expect the same behavior and level of knowledge from a child who is two as they can from a teenager who is sixteen. Gradual instruction, gradual experience, gradual expectations all undergirded with love are the best way to begin the instruction of a young person in the mysteries and practicalities of life. And the same is true of our knowledge of God and our understanding of His revelation.
Cardinal Newman once pointed out that the seed of our knowledge of God is planted by the Lord Jesus in the fertile ground of the belief of the Apostles. There the revelation given by Christ is watered by contemplation of the Scriptures, the Holy Spirit providing the grace to advance our knowledge and understanding of the mysteries we hold as such a beautiful treasure. Just as in the stages of a person’s life we accumulate knowledge, wisdom and understanding through experience and reflection on our experience, so, too, the Church is guided by the Holy Spirit in drawing out the full flower of who God is and what His revelation means for us. As the Church travels through the centuries, she is then able to increase the depth of her understanding of the mystery of God. As we are told in the Constitution on Divine Revelation, Dei Verbum, of the Second Vatican Council:
“…the task of authentically interpreting the word of God, whether written or h
anded on, has been entrusted exclusively to the living teaching office of the Church, whose authority
is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ. This teaching office is not
above the word of God, but serves it, teaching only what has been handed on, listening to it devoutly, guarding it scrupulously and explaining it faithfully in accord with a divine commission and with the help of the Holy Spirit, it draws from this one deposit of faith everything which it presents for belief as divinely revealed.” (Article 10, #8)
And this is exactly what happened when the Council of Nicaea was convened…