Mysticism – What I Really Believe About It

Tomorrow I will be continuing my critique of MacArthur’s new book Strange Fire, which is a warmed over version of his 1992 book, Charismatic Chaos.

If you missed the first installment of the series, click here to read it.

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Now let’s talk about mysticism.

Mysticism is an interesting word. You can honor a person with it or you can damn them with it. It really depends on what you mean by it.

Like T. Austin-Sparks and A.W. Tozer, I don’t like the term at all. One of the reasons is because it’s associated with the new age movement, Buddhism, and Hinduism, all of which run contrary to orthodox Christianity as embodied in the Scriptures, the creeds, and the historical Christian faith.

The word is also associated with what is known as “mystery cults” of the first century which were antithetical to the early Jesus followers.

Whenever I’ve shared on the book of Colossians, I’ve been quick to point out that Paul was dealing with a mysticism that was contrary to Jesus Christ.

Another reason I don’t like the word is because it’s associated with people and movements who deny the authority and reliability of the Scriptures . . . something which I fiercely believe in and defend.

Much of my critical mail comes from postmodern Christians who object to my belief that the Bible is completely true, trustworthy, authoritative, and divinely inspired. My critics find this belief to be naïve and foolish. Yet none of them have persuaded me to view the Scriptures as anything less.

All of my work is based on the fact that the Scriptures are wholly true and reveal God-in-Christ, His mind and His will. This is why I give abundant references to the Sacred Text in all of my written work. I won’t apologize for that, even if it makes some people upset.

In Revise Us Again, I say a good deal about mystical experiences. I critique what I call “the Charismatic conversational style” which takes a mystical view of the Christian life that sets aside the Scriptures and appeals to subjective feelings and impressions as being more authoritative than the teachings of Jesus and the apostles. (I also critique this viewpoint in Reimagining Church.)

In addition, I address the overemphasis by some to overstate mystical, ecstatic experiences. And I discuss the sectarianism that is often attached to such overstatements.

Some people use the term “mystical” to refer to a deep, intimate relationship with Jesus Christ and the belief God still speaks today by the Holy Spirit.

While I certainly believe that God still speaks by His Spirit today in and through God’s people and that a deep, intimate relationship with the Lord is available, I think that using the word “mystical” or “mysticism” is a poor way of describing such beliefs.

Like T. Austin-Sparks, I believe the New Testament word “spiritual” is much better to describe such things. The same is true for the miraculous gifts of the Spirit (known as “spiritual gifts” in the New Testament). As I’ve stated elsewhere, I believe all the gifts of the Spirit are in operation today.

In that connection, here are my five favorite quotes on mysticism. They, along with what I said about it in Revise Us Again, pretty well sum up my view.

“Mysticism begins in mist and ends in schism.”

~ John Henry Newman

“Some of my friends good-humoredly – and some a little bit severely – have called me a ‘mystic.’ Well I’d like to say this about any mysticism I may suppose to have. If an arch-angel from heaven were to come, and were to start giving me, telling me, teaching me, and giving me instruction, I’d ask him for the text. I’d say, ‘Where’s it say that in the Bible? I want to know.’

And I would insist that it was according to the scriptures, because I do not believe in any extra-scriptural teachings, nor any anti-scriptural teachings, or any sub-scriptural teachings.

I think we ought to put the emphasis where God puts it, and continue to put it there, and to expound the scriptures, and stay by the scriptures. I wouldn’t – no matter if I saw a light above the light of the sun, I’d keep my mouth shut about it ’til I’d checked with Daniel and Revelation and the rest of the scriptures to see if it had any basis in truth.

And if it didn’t, I’d think I’d just eaten something I shouldn’t, and I wouldn’t say anything about it. Because I don’t believe in anything that is unscriptural or that is anti-scripture.”

~ A. W. Tozer

“Perhaps the greatest failure to make the great discrimination with which we are concerned is in relation to the difference between mysticism and spirituality. It is here that not only the world is mistaken but Christendom is deceived.

Indeed, an overwhelmingly large proportion of those who would regard themselves as Christians are unable to distinguish between mysticism (pertaining to the sense of the beautiful) or asceticism (the practice of self-denial) on the one hand and spirituality on the other.

The fact is that these belong to two entirely different realms, and the Word of God cuts clean in between them, dividing them asunder.

Whether it be in such extreme form, or in much milder, mysticism is not practical in the sense of changing fundamental character, but puts people in a false realm, and deceives them into an idea as to themselves. It is an illusion, a false spirituality, and is – in its finest and also most evil forms – the devil’s delusion. Religion, as such, can be just mysticism, without life-changing power; whether it be ‘Christian’ (?), Hindu, Buddhist, or any other.

On the other hand, what the Bible (particularly the New Testament) means by the spiritual is immensely and unavoidably practical. Basically it means a change of nature, as, said Christ: ‘That which is born of the Spirit is spirit’, and thus ‘Ye must be born anew’ (John 3:5,7). That is a statement of fact.

The classic on the difference is by Paul in 1 Corinthians, chapter two. The contrast there is, in the first case, between the intensely religious, intellectual Ruler in Israel, Nicodemus, and a man born of the Spirit. In the second case, the contrasting of the ‘natural’ (Greek ‘soulical’) man, and ‘He that is spiritual’, and the focal point in both cases is understanding.

Spirituality, therefore, according to the Bible, is essentially practical both as to the origin and the progress of the true Christian life. It is nothing less than a difference of species. The New Testament is founded and built upon this differentiation and contrast.”

~ T. Austin-Sparks

(Despite these two quotes, both Tozer and Sparks were routinely accused of being “mystics” and of advocating the dangers of “mysticism” in their day.)

“A more positive definition was offered by Evelyn Underhill, for whom mysticism was ‘the name of that organic process which involves perfect consummation of the Love of God: the achievement her and now of the immortal heritage of men.’

This definition may cover Paul’s religious experience, if we bear in mind that for him the love of God was mediated and indeed embodied ‘in Christ Jesus our Lord’ (Romans 8:39). According to Albert Schweitzer, Paul’s mysticism is unique because, in spite of is high intellectual level, it does not take the form of direct union with God but rather of union with Christ.

‘In Paul,’ he says, ‘there is no God-mysticism; only a Christ-mysticism by means of which man comes into relation to God . . .’ This ‘being-in-Christ’ is the prime enigma of Pauline teaching: once grasped it gives the clue to the whole.”

~ F.F. Bruce

I have often stressed in my writings and spoken messages that the Holy Spirit is alive and well and that He still speaks and acts today. However, He will always lead us according to the Scriptures (as Tozer pointed out).

The Scriptures, understood by the interpretative community of the church (past and present), will either confirm or correct what a person believes to be the leading of the Spirit. So we need the Scriptures, we need the Spirit, and we need the tempering of other believers in order to properly follow the Lord.

That brings us to my fifth favorite quote on the subject, given by Jesus Himself.

“You commit error because you do not know the Scriptures nor the power of God.”

~ Matthew 22:29

Note these two elements: The Scriptures (the written Word) and the power of God (the living Spirit of Christ). The two should never be separated.

Ironically, the Lord said these words to the Bible experts and scholars of His day who seemingly “knew the Scriptures.”

According to Jesus, however, they knew no such thing.

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  • Valeria T

    I agree.

  • April K

    I have had what can be described as a mystical experience, and it came at a time when I really needed an encounter with God. However, I quickly realized that I couldn’t base my faith or my knowledge of God on this experience alone. I needed to study the scriptures so I could answer anyone (including myself) who asked me a reason for the faith I have (1 Peter 3:15). Hearing heavenly choirs or seeing flashes of light doesn’t reveal anything of Christ’s redemptive work on the cross, or of my need for the Holy Spirit and His fruits, or of the things God would have me do. Faith is more than feeling; it’s also about knowing and doing.

  • Gearoid

    Thanks for this excellent post that brings some much needed clarity. It could be said that there are varying degrees on a continuum ranging from: “not so mystical/spiritual” to “off the charts mystical/spiritual.” Here are some quotes I have found helpful on this matter:

    “If one must choose between a certain theological conclusion and a contrary statement from mystical experience, one will have to choose the first, because the theological principle from which the conclusion follows has its ultimate basis in divine revelation. To do otherwise would be to run the risk of all types of illusions.” – Jordan Aumann, Spiritual Theology, 122.

    “We are not to deny the supernatural life Christians are given by God and called on to live. But our own human spirit does not have the potency for direct access to God. We do not need to train as contemplative athletes to attain special mystical knowledge. Like every other human endeavor and achievement, mysticism should be viewed with awareness of its ambiguity and its questionable nature. Ironically, those most hostile about it [mysticism] may not think to question their own intellectual prowess! . . . . When we have had a special experience of God that we can only describe as mystical, the test of its validity is our personal response and its benefits to ourselves and to others.” – James Houston, Joyful Exiles, 64-65, 66

  • rvs

    Christian mysticism is wonderful. G.K. Chesterton writes one of the best defenses of Christian mysticism in Orthodoxy, a brilliant and orthodox explanation of Christian theology. What is the Bible, if not a mystical book?

  • Howard Pepper

    Mysticism is an important and, as you imply, a potentially confusing subject. I have found that one particular system of understanding human developmental “categories” and experiences, and relating them to religious and non-religious paradigms of reality is very helpful on mysticism. It also is on many topics of religion and spirituality. I refer to “Integral Theory” as per Ken Wilber primarily (and colleagues, a few of which have recently been flesing out “Integral Christianity” — much to my interest and approval).

    Wilber’s books, “Integral Spirituality” and “A Sociable God” (get the 2005 edition) particularly deal with the relation between spiritual experiences, including “peak experiences” and belief systems, insights on one’s own life and being “integrated”, etc. Wilber is not Christian himself (he studied heavily within Buddhism), but he understands Christianity and its issues better than a great many Christian leaders. I cannot recommend his system too highly for its interpretive power, guidance for personal growth, etc. It helps clarify a lot of things commonly misunderstood about mysticism and mystical experiences, etc.

  • Randi

    “Note these two elements: The Scriptures (the written Word) and the power of God (the living Spirit of Christ). The two should never be separated.”

    beautiful encouragement!!

    and I appreciated that you put in ‘self denial’ asceticism as well…. “mysticism” shows itself in many different forms dependent on personality…. it’s sometimes easy to spot in emotional, sanguine personalities… but showing itself through self denial, extreme self discipline is also very much a form of mysticism & not as easily recognizable!!!