Declaring the Mystery

Why fighting for Mystery of the Ages is so important to us
From the June 2001 Trumpet Print Edition

We used to pay the press, by purchasing ad space, to tell our story. In recent months, however, some media outlets have come knocking on our door. Now well into its fifth year, the court battle over Mystery of the Ages (moa) is finally attracting some attention.

Jess Bravin’s front-page article in the February 21 Wall Street Journal is most notable. In it, Bravin told the story of a church that disavowed the tenets of its founder after his death, even to the point of destroying his written works and preventing all others from printing them.

These events were what prompted us, the Philadelphia Church of God (pcg), to reprint and distribute Mystery of the Ages in early 1997. The Worldwide Church of God (wcg) sued immediately for copyright infringement, feeling it was their “Christian duty” to keep the book out of print.

In mid-1998, a federal district judge ruled in our favor, saying that distributing the entire book, free of charge, was a “fair use” of the work.

The wcg immediately appealed. And in September of last year, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the lower court’s judgment by a 2-1 ruling. The lower court then ordered the pcg to stop distributing the book in late January, bringing its four-year print run to a standstill—temporarily, we hope.

On April 2, the United States Supreme Court let the Ninth Circuit’s reversal stand, deciding not to hear pcg’s appeal—for now, anyway. There will be another opportunity for appeal once the damages trial in the lower court concludes this fall.

Additionally, the counterclaim we filed against wcg for 18 other works of Mr. Armstrong appears to be gaining some momentum. The district judge in California has allowed us to use the Religious Freedom Restoration Act as part of our claim, even though it had been rejected earlier in the Mystery of the Ages suit.

Both lawsuits—Mystery of the Ages and the other 18 works—are far from over. The Trumpet will keep you up to date with the legal developments as they unfold. For more background information, log on to our legal website at www.mysteryoftheages.org.

Harvard Law Review

Returning to the Ninth Circuit’s split decision that forced us to stop distributing Mystery, we draw your attention to an article in the April issue of the Harvard Law Review. (The article is reprinted in full on page 6.) In it, the journal criticized the Ninth Circuit for applying the copyright law “narrowly.” “By giving insufficient weight to the religious nature of the text,” the article stated, “the court interpreted fair use in a manner that contravenes the goals of a doctrine designed to encourage, not hinder, the free expression of ideas.”

Of course, this is what our lawyers have been arguing all along. Technically, yes, wcg holds the copyright to Mystery of the Ages. But they are using it unlawfully, in our opinion. They are using it to suppress the free expression of Mr. Armstrong’s ideas.

“The most serious error in the court’s analysis,” the Review continued, “was its failure to credit sufficiently moa’s centrality to pcg, which led it to misapply the first fair use factor. Moa is required reading for those who seek baptism in the church, and church policy mandates reading the book before services because it ‘provides the key to understanding the Bible.’ The dissent recognized this centrality. The majority, however, treated pcg’s copying and distribution of moa as a straightforward infringement case. It failed to recognize that to prohibit pcg’s use of the book would be to suppress both the unique expression of the ideas in the book and the ability of pcg’s members to live according to their religious faith.” (Later, we will examine the centrality of Mystery of the Ages to our religious doctrine.)

If the majority erred in not recognizing this centrality, it made matters worse by giving credibility to wcg’s plans for producing an annotated version of moa. “The court’s assumption that wcg was not seeking to keep moa from the public (or from pcg) rested on a tenuous belief in the sincerity of wcg’s annotation plans; it then privileged those speculative plans over pcg’s immediate, religious need for the book.”

Indeed, the Review correctly asserts that the wcg has no plans whatsoever to reproduce Mystery of the Ages—certainly not in the form Mr. Armstrong printed it. “Wcg withdrew moa from circulation because its leaders believed they had a ‘Christian duty’ to avoid propagating the book’s doctrinal errors; the church’s reasons for not wanting pcg to copy moa were clearly not limited to market concerns.”

The Harvard Law Review highlights some of the arguments that we believe will help us before this legal struggle is finally over. From the beginning, we have contended that redistributing Mystery of the Ages was allowed by the Constitution. We feel this will eventually hold up in court.

Aside from what the Constitution allows, there are spiritual reasons we decided to print Mystery of the Ages in 1997 and offer it free of charge to all who requested it. Most notable among these reasons is the importance of Mystery of the Ages to our religious beliefs.

The Bible Is a Mystery

In Colossians 1:23, Paul exhorted God’s people to be “grounded and settled” in the “hope of the gospel.” He was in jail at the time, and yet, providing encouragement for the saints. Even prison could not slow down Paul’s ministry. “Whereof I am made a minister, according to the dispensation of God which is given to me for you, to fulfil the word of God; Even the mystery which hath been hid from ages and from generations, but now is made manifest to his saints” (vv. 25-26). We believe passages like this inspired Mr. Armstrong with the title Mystery of the Ages for his most significant book.

The word mystery in Colossians 1:26 comes from the Greek word musterion. Thayer’s Lexicon defines it as a “hidden or secret thing, not obvious to the understanding…generally mysteries, religious secrets, confided only to the initiated and not to ordinary mortals.” Another definition is “the secret counsels which govern God in dealing with the righteous, which are hidden from ungodly and wicked men but plain to the godly.”

Like Paul, Mr. Armstrong believed the most critical truths of the Bible had been shrouded in mystery from the masses of mankind. He quoted Bruce Barton in the preface of Mystery of the Ages, saying the Bible is “the book that nobody knows.” In Mystery of the Ages, Mr. Armstrong set out to explain the biblical truth about seven great mysteries man has been unable to solve: the mystery of God, the truth about angels and evil spirits, the mystery of man, of civilization, Israel, the true Church and, finally, the mystery of the Kingdom of God.

“These are the seven great mysteries that concern the very lives of every human being on Earth,” Mr. Armstrong wrote. “The plain truth of all these mysteries is revealed in the Bible, but none of the churches or theologians seem to have comprehended them.”

“Why?” he asked. Because “the Bible is the basic mystery of all.”

In writing Mystery of the Ages, Mr. Armstrong hoped to unveil the truth about that basic mystery—the Holy Bible. When he presented Mystery of the Ages as a textbook to his sophomore class at Ambassador College in 1985, he told them it was a synopsis of the entire Bible. “You could say it’s the gist of the Bible. It doesn’t cover all of it. But it covers the main thread of the Bible so you can understand the Bible.”

You can see why he was so excited about distributing the work.

Paul was equally thrilled about his opportunity to teach the mystery. “Even the mystery which hath been hid from ages and from generations, but now is made manifest to his saints: To whom God would make known what is the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles; which is Christ in you, the hope of glory: Whom we preach, warning every man, and teaching every man in all wisdom; that we may present every man perfect in Christ Jesus” (vv. 26-28). God made the mystery known to Paul first, then to the saints, through Paul—and from there, to the Gentiles. Ultimately, Paul said in verse 28, the goal is every man!

On September 23, 1985, shortly before Mr. Armstrong finished Mystery of the Ages, he wrote to all the members of the Worldwide Church of God. In his letter, he told his supporters that Mystery of the Ages was the most important book of his life. He even considered it to be the most important book since the Bible. “We want to reach the largest audience possible with this book. I know you will feel the same way when you read it.”

Like Paul, Mr. Armstrong knew that the astonishing truths God had revealed to him were of little value unless he made them known—“every man” being the ultimate goal. As it turns out, Mr. Armstrong barely lived long enough to start that goal. The book was released in the fall of 1985. Mr. Armstrong died in January 1986. And in 1988, his successor stopped the presses and destroyed remaining inventories of the book.

The Spirit Searches All Things

The Apostle Paul also wrote about the “mystery” in i Corinthians. He told the saints at Corinth that his teaching “was not with enticing words of man’s wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power” (i Cor. 2:4). Some of the members in Corinth were undoubtedly criticizing Paul for not being more scholarly. Many present-day leaders of the wcg have also criticized Mr. Armstrong for his “informal” education. This is one of the reasons they so quickly disavowed his teachings soon after his death—even discontinuing the one book that summed up his life’s work.

When he was alive, Mr. Armstrong was never intimidated by worldly scholarship. Neither was Paul. “Howbeit we speak wisdom among them that are perfect [meaning spiritually mature]: yet not the wisdom of this world, nor of the princes of this world, that come to nought: But we speak the wisdom of God in a mystery, even the hidden wisdom, which God ordained before the world unto our glory” (vv. 6-7). In verse 7, we see the same Greek word—musterion. God ordained it before the world began, but it has remained hidden from mankind. Even the scholars of this world cannot grasp this mystery (v. 8).

That is because God must reveal it! “But God hath revealed them unto us by his Spirit: for the Spirit searcheth all things, yea, the deep things of God” (v. 10). The natural mind of man, without God’s Holy Spirit, can only understand material things (v. 11). It cannot grasp spiritual truth.

It is our opinion that Mystery of the Ages contains spiritual truth. We do not expect everyone to agree with us on that point. There are probably many others, in addition to those still in the Worldwide Church of God, who place no great value on Mystery of the Ages.

But the same could be said for any book! The point is, to us, Mystery of the Ages is the most important book on this Earth—next to the Bible. And it’s even more important for us to make that truth known to the largest audience possible. We believe the U.S. Constitution allows for that. We know Mr. Armstrong would have wanted it that way. And looking into the Scriptures, we believe God is behind our effort to make this truth known to every man.

The Deep Things of God

Turning to Ephesians 3, we again see how Paul would not allow incarceration to impede his efforts in proclaiming the mystery (v. 1). “Assuming that you have heard of the stewardship of God’s grace that was given to me for you, how the mystery was made known to me by revelation, as I have written briefly” (vv. 2-3; Revised Standard Version). God had revealed the mystery to Paul. And for the brethren to understand it, they needed God’s Spirit, as we have seen from i Corinthians 2.

But that’s not all. “Whereby, when ye read, ye may understand my knowledge in the mystery of Christ” (v. 4). They needed God’s Spirit—and a written explanation of that mystery to read!

“Which in other ages was not made known unto the sons of men, as it is now revealed unto his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit” (v. 5). In other ages, mankind could not understand. But now, by God’s Spirit and through Paul’s writings, they could understand. Let us not forget how important writings are to this equation. God provides the Spirit direct from Him. He then provides His teachings through His servants—many times in the form of written works, like Paul’s epistles or Mr. Armstrong’s Mystery of the Ages.

Paul took his ministry seriously. God had commissioned him to deliver these “unsearchable riches of Christ” to all men (vv. 8-9). He fulfilled that commission mostly in the form of written works.

“For this cause I bow my knees unto the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, of whom the whole family in heaven and earth is named” (vv. 14-15). This, in sum, is what the mystery is all about—the family of God. Ever since the world began, mankind in general has not understood that God is a family—and that He is reproducing Himself (Gen. 1:26).

Mystery of the Ages proves that truth to all those who have a childlike attitude—to those who will be led by God’s Spirit and prove the truth God has preserved in writing.

Some have wondered why we just don’t explain these truths all over again in our own words—in a different book. The way Paul concludes Ephesians 3 is part of the reason why this has not been an option. “That Christ may dwell in your hearts by faith; that ye, being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with all saints what is the breadth, and length, and depth, and height” (vv. 17-18).

There is so much depth to this mystery. God is reproducing Himself—fine. But what does that really mean? Why is He reproducing Himself? What led up to that plan? Does the rebellion of Lucifer and his angels have anything to do with it?

What about Adam’s rebellion in the Garden of Eden and the fact that God cut him off from the tree of life? Did Adam’s sin have anything to do with the present state of man’s civilization?

And what about ancient Israel? Why would God raise up one nation to be His chosen people and yet deny them spiritual salvation—except for their prophets? Is God a respecter of persons? What about all the other nations?

And what was the purpose for Jesus Christ coming in the flesh? Why did He come 4,000 years after man’s civilization began? What was the purpose for His ministry? Why were there only a handful of disciples? Why the Church? How come it didn’t begin until after Christ died? And why have there been so many variations of Christian denominations ever since? Didn’t Christ mean for there to be only one true Church? If there is only one, where is it? And if Christ is trying to save the world now, why have so many been lost—presumably billions having lived and died without ever knowing Christ?

And what about the future? Assuming God is a family to be born as spirit when Christ returns, why? What will God’s family do on this Earth? What about the universe?

The answers to all these questions, believe it or not, are explained in Mystery of the Ages. To answer those questions in another book would be like trying to rewrite War and Peace. Sure, we could try to tell the same story in our own words, but in the end it would never be War and Peace.

Suppressing “Heresy”

Much of the wcg’s success at the Ninth Circuit rests on their potential plans for an annotated version of Mystery of the Ages that would reveal all the “errors” in Mr. Armstrong’s teachings. While we feel these plans are nothing but talk, the fact is that even if they produced an annotated version, it is that book which should carry a different title. Mr. Armstrong wrote Mystery of the Ages—not some annotated version that attacks his own life-long religious beliefs. The wcg is the church that ought to consider writing another, altogether different book—not us.

As this case plays out in appeal, we feel that judges and juries will come to see the insincerity behind the wcg’s arguments in court. They have absolutely no interest in using the copyright law the way it was intended—to protect the free expression of ideas. Their only ambition in this case is to suppress—in fact, destroy—religious views they consider to be heresy. Indeed, they consider this suppression their “Christian duty.”

But religious “heresy” does not give a church the right to ban books—not in America, anyway. The Harvard Law Review article made mention of this fact: “The court’s failure to see the case for what it was—a church’s attempt to suppress heresy by using copyright law—led it to overlook the purposes of the fair use doctrine and facilitate the monopolization of a religious idea.”