Paul the Mystic

Some over do it and some under do it, but the fact is that the apostle Paul — here speaking of himself indirectly — was nothing short of a mystic:

2Cor. 12:2 I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven. Whether it was in the body or out of the body I do not know—God knows. 3 And I know that this man—whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, but God knows— 4 was caught up to paradise and heard inexpressible things, things that no one is permitted to tell.

Sure mysticism can cloak a variety of nonsenses, but just as sure is the denial of the biblical pattern that sometimes people encounter God directly.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than forty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • Daniel Mann

    Scot, Mysticism is not about having an experience or encounter with God. We’ve all had such. Instead, Mysticism is an unbiblical attempt to experience God through an array of techniques unsanctioned by Scripture.

    Sadly, your statements open the door for others to seek such an experience through such techniques.

  • scotmcknight

    Daniel, definitions matter here… not sure where you get your definition but I’ve never seen it as such. Mysticism is direct encounter with God in which one discovers some kind of revelatory wisdom. If you open up your definition with “unbiblical” the game is rigged. “Techniques unsanctioned…” same point: you’ve defined the biblical experiences right out of the term. Mysticism has several dimensions: religious experience, direct experience of God, perception of communicative truth from God, and often in context of methods like prayer, solitude, fasting, and contemplation — not to omit such things as adoration. It begs the question to say it is unbiblical…

  • Michael Gorman

    Thanks, Scot. I agree and have used the word “mystical” of Paul and even called him a mystical theologian. But we need to be careful to stress that Paul’s mystical experiences always confirmed for him the connection between the glory/power of God and the cross/weakness of Christ, as we see in the context of 2 Cor 12.

    I sometimes refer to mystical experiences as moments of (spiriutual) intensity. The witness of the New Testament and of the Christian tradition is that (some) Christians have occasional unusual encounters with God, in which God’s presence, holiness, power, and/or love are felt in an overpowering and even transformative way. Others have therefore also described these kinds of experiences as “breakthrough experiences.” They cannot be fully articulated in normal human language, as Paul himself says in 2 Corinthians. That does not mean they are completely irrational, much less that they are unChristian.

    The very word “mysticism” scares certain Christians, but recent thinking about and study of the mystical tradition should alleviate some of their fears. Such studies stress God’s love as the origin and goal of mystical experiences, and they stress as well the translation of those experiences into daily life lived for others. That surely describes Paul’s experience.

  • Kandace

    I am so thankful for the “mystical” experiences God has given me over the years. I do not cling to them for assurance or look to them for motivation to love God. I do, however, see them as gifts of His kindness to remind me there’s something bigger going on than what my mind can comprehend. Paul says God’s love surpasses our understanding and these experiences always lead me to a love I cannot fully comprehend in my intellect alone.

  • scotmcknight

    And communion and union with God, Michael, are important NT ideas.


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