Why is mysticism so hard to define?
Mysticism is a notoriously vague and complex word. One can make it so specific so as to exclude those throughout history who would self-identify as mystics. On the other hand, one can define it so vaguely that virtually nothing is excluded. Scholars have long recognized the challenge of providing provide one umbrella explanation that sufficiently covers at least two millennia of practice. As Evan B. Howard notes, there is no one single definition that covers all of the sufficient and necessary conditions of mysticisms, and no terminological consensus exists among scholars. This does not mean, however, that nothing useful may be said.
Is there a good working definition?
Philosopher Winfried Corduan provides a very general definition that encompasses a wide variety of mystical understandings. Mysticism, he writes, seeks:
an immediate link with the Absolute.
Corduan notes that presupposed in such an understanding is that
- such an Absolute exists,
- the Absolute is distinct from the phenomenal word,
- a connection with the Absolute is possible, and
- the connection between the seeker and the Absolute can be direct and unmediated.
This definition would apply to Christian mystics as well as to Eastern religions (such as Hinduism) that have a strong mystical strain.
What is Christian mysticism?
D. D. Martin offers a good working definition of the key elements involved in such practice:
Christian mysticism seeks to describe an experienced, direct, nonabstract, unmediated, loving knowledge of God, a knowing or seeing so direct as to be called union with God.
Each aspect of this definition is crucial, which can be shown by pointing out what Christian Mysticism is refuting or reacting against.
First, the encounter with the divine Absolute is experiential, not merely notional. The goal is participation with God, not merely acquiring additional knowledge about him.
Second, the encounter is direct, not indirect. The goal is not to merely to know more about God, but to know God himself.
Third, the knowledge sought is nonabstract: to learn or see something that is not vague or symbolic but something particular, concrete, and real.
Fourth, the encounter or knowledge is to be unmediated. Yes, Scripture and Christ may play a role, but the point is to be united to God himself with no intermediaries—no distance and no distractions.
Finally, the goal of all of this knowledge is love. When the Apostle Paul wrote about knowing fully, even as he has been fully known, it was in the context of the enduring eternality and priority of love (1 Cor 13:12).
What are some historical examples of Christian mysticism?
Because of the terminological vagueness associated with Christian Mysticism, a wide variety of historical precedents may be seen throughout church history.
Origen introduced the notion of “mystical interpretation” by seeking to uncover the hermeneutical principles of spiritual interpretation. Paul had written that “the mystery” (Gk. mysterion) was made known to him by “revelation,” and Origen wanted to recover these deeper or hidden meanings, which were distinct from the literal or plain meanings.
Maximus the Confessor later developed a “mystical theology,” with a stress upon the process whereby a Christian comes to participate or join in the fellowship of the life of the Triune God.
So depending upon how they define their terms, figures like Augustine and Aquinas, Wesley and Edwards, have all been categorized as holding to some form of mystical theology and practicing some form of mystical experience. But including these figures likely expands the term so far that very few would be excluded. On the best definitions of mysticism (see D. D. Martin above), key mystics—or advocates of mystical theology and experience—would include figures from the fourth to eighteenth centuries such as Gregory of Nyssa, Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, John Ruysboreck, the anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing, Julian of Norwich, Therese of Lisieux, Thomas a Kempis, Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross, Francois de Sales, Madame Guyon, Francois Felenon, George Fox (founder of the Quakers, or Friends), John Woolman, and the Schwenkfelders (a radical Puritan sect founded in the 1730s).
Some key advocates in the twentieth century would include Thomas Merton, Henri Nouwen, Brennan Manning, and Richard Foster—the latter of which has done more than perhaps any other contemporary author to introduce and commend the attractiveness of mysticism to evangelicals. There are other examples, like A. W. Tozer, who practiced a form of Protestant mysticism, though in more restrained manner than his Catholic and Quaker counterparts.
What is the mystical way?
This was developed by the most radical of the Mystics: the sixteenth-century writers Teresa of Avila (The Interior Castle) and St. John of the Cross (The Dark Night of the Soul).
A lot of times you’ll read that their “mystical way” is a three-fold path to uniting with the divine:
- purgation, and
But this is incomplete. That’s only the first part of the mystical way—the path that many achieve, but which is ultimately insufficient if one is seeking true union with God. To arrive at this rarefied destination, one must go through the further state of the dark night of the soul.
What are all the various stages or states the mystic can go through?
First, the mystic experiences an awakening. Psychologically, this is akin to a conversion. He or she comes alive, sensing and seeing (as if for the first time) the attractiveness and reality of Divine Reality. This is not an action per se but an increased awareness, which often arrives suddenly with overwhelming joy and anticipation.
Second, the mystic is met with the contradiction in his life between this awakened or heightened spiritual consciousness combined with his own attachment to material things (earthly things, the things that are below; cf. Col. 3:2b) and his own desires that work against the desires for Divine Reality. These elements of attachment must be purged through self-discipline and mortification (the misdeeds of the flesh must be put to death; cf. Rom. 8:13b).
Third, this leads to the transcendent state of joy whereby the mystic’s soul is illuminated. He or she has been awakened and their sinful desires have been purged, so now they are able to see divine reality in a new light. This is the step of the mystical ladder most often associated with visions, reports of ecstasy, and ineffable delight. But this is where most mystics stop.
Fourth, those who have mastered the previous steps come to realize that even the joys of illumination are bound up with self, and a further purging or emptying must take place. Whereas many popular-level interpreters associate the dark night of the soul with a period of seeming absence from God or a struggle with spiritual depression, in reality John was identifying here a deep and dark experience where even the joy of being in the presence of God must be mortified and purged as being bound up the ego. In his conception, the person must die not only to the sinful self (step 2), but also to self altogether.
Then, and only then, fifth, will the mystic experience a true and indescribable transformative encounter and participation with the absolute, as the self is absorbed into the Divine through the final process of union where the two become one.
The five steps of this ascent of the soul could be schematized as follows, where the awakening is a perquisite for the purgation and illumination, and where the dark night of the soul and the union are further corresponding elements of removal and renunciation followed by the ineffable presence of God:
Biblical spirituality can be defined as the grace-motivated, fruit-bearing pursuit of the triune God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—in accordance with his own self-revelation. Eternal life is life with this God, and this life only comes through the mediatorial work of the incarnate, crucified, risen, and reigning Son, who said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). Likewise, his “Helper,” the “Spirit of truth,” bears witness to the Christ (John 15:26) and teaches and reminds us all that the Son taught on earth (John 14:26)How would you define the biblical vision of spirituality?
What are the goals of biblical spirituality?
The goal of biblical spirituality is the goal of the Christian life: to glorify this triune God by enjoying fellowship with and knowledge of God through godly conformity to his image and character. Each aspect of this goal is elucidated for us in God’s Word. We are to do everything—even the routine and mundane things like eating and drinking—“for the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31). We do this because there is “surpassing worth” in knowing our Lord and our Savior (Phil. 3:8, 10). The whole point of Christ’s work on the cross was so that “that he might bring us to God” (1 Pet 3:18). God’s will for us is our “sanctification” (1 Thess. 4:3), and that means that we must “train [ourselves] for godliness” (1 Tim 4:7). As we do, we are working in according with God’s predestined plan that we will ultimately be “conformed to the image of his Son” (Rom. 8:29).
What are the means of biblical spirituality?
Toward this end, we are to engage in spiritual practices, means of grace, which are divine gifts that we are to be actively engaged in as we pursue fellowship with God for the glory of God in conformity with the image and character of God. These means are both personal (like prayer in our prayer closets) and corporate (like prayer in our congregations), and involve activities that are done only once (like baptism), that are done regularly (like the Lord’s Supper), and that are to be in some ways practiced continually (like prayerful meditation; cf. 1 Thess. 5:17; Josh. 1:8).
How do we know if a spirituality is truly “biblical”?
Essential to the practice of biblical spirituality is that the practices and theology behind them must be genuinely biblical. This observation creates an immediate conundrum, however, for all theologies and practices that claim the name of Christ also claim the mantel of biblical sanction. But there is a difference between practices that arise from the very text of Scripture and those that are not ostensibly permitted by it. The Apostle Paul commands us to “test everything; hold fast what is good” (1 Thess. 5:21), and the ultimate test is the clear, authoritative, sufficiency, and necessary word of God. Jesus prayed to his Father that we might be sanctified in the truth, adding in his prayer to the Father that “your word is truth” (John 17:7). Jesus indicated the indispensability of the Word when he quoted Deuteronomy to the effect that “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matt. 4:4). The author of the book of Hebrews highlights the active essential role of Scripture in forming our spiritual lives and combating sin: “the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged word, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Heb. 4:13).
What is required of a person to practice biblical spirituality?
What I’ve said so far could leave a false impression if the practice of spiritual disciplines and the training for godliness are divorced from the very shape or structure of the Christian life, for according to the Bible, the very act of “spiritual” activity can only be done by those who have the Spirit. In the New Covenant there is a profound demarcation between those who have been “born again” and those who have not (cf. John 3:3ff). “The natural person,” according to Paul, does not accept the things of the Spirit of God” whereas the “spiritual person” has “the mind of Christ” (1 Cor. 2:14-16). But in the New Covenant, all begin in the same position, having fallen short of the glory of God (Rom. 3:23), such that there is not even one that is righteous (Rom. 3:10ff). Because of the sin and death that came through the one man Adam (Rom. 5:12ff), we are all in need of divine grace, and all in need of the covenant righteousness achieved by a new and perfect high priest and covenant representative. In the great exchange Christ takes upon himself our unrighteousness and graciously gives to us his own righteousness (2 Cor. 5:21). We receive this note by works or physical inheritance or national identity but by grace through faith (Rom. 5:1; Eph. 2:8-9). Then, having been fully accepted and adopted as God’s own and filled with his presence, we are to walk in the works he has eternally ordained for us (Eph. 2:10). In union with the crucified and risen Christ, we become what we are, being actually transformed into the legal reality we have as justified saints (Rom. 6:1-11), such that sin becomes an unthinkable and contradictory reality in our lives (Rom. 6:12-23). This sanctifying work continues and culminates in our glorification, such that when he appears on that final day, “we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2).
What are some similarities between Christian mysticism and biblical spirituality?
For those who find Christian Mysticism deficient, it would be tempting to identify only the ways in which it falls short. But we must reckon with the fact that very few distortions of truth are complete distortions. If they were, no genuine Christian would find attractive elements to them. There are several positive elements of overlap between Christian Mysticism and the biblical witness.
First, Christian Mystics are committed theologically to Trinitarianism. In an age where Christian sects (such as the Mormons or the Jehovah’s Witnesses) seek to revive forms of Arianism and polytheism, it is important for us to recognize the salutary commitment of those in the Catholic, Quaker, and Orthodox traditions who maintain a belief in the Triune God, with a ruling and sending Father, a redemption-accomplishing Son, and a redemption-applying Spirit.
Second, Christian Mystics understand that God is both transcendent and immanent. Though we may critique the balance in their theology, they believe that God has authority over all things as the transcendent Lord and that he is covenantally present with his people. Both poles of the divine life must be present in their theology for the presupposition to make sense that they can seek an intimate encounter with and union with a loving and ineffable God.
Third, the Christian Mystic recognizes that seeing God is the summa bonum, the highest good. All of us long for the day when we shall see God as he is (1 John 3:2), when we shall see him face to face rather than in a mirror dimly, to know him fully rather to partly, to know him even as we are known (1 Cor. 13:12). The Christian Mystic is not content to wait for this in the future but commendably desires to experience the fullness of God (Eph. 3:19) and the eternal depth and duration joy of his presence now (Ps. 16:11). The Christian Mystic rightly desires to experience union with God and to become a “partake of the divine nature” (2 Pet. 1:4). No one can fault him for relentlessly pursuing the great good in all the earth.
Fourth, the Christian Mystic understands the necessity of personal and private encounters with God as an essential aspect of the Christian life. Even though their understanding and practice of this is subject to criticism (see below) we can charitably recognize that they take Jesus’s command seriously to “go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret,” and they believe the resulting promise: “your Father who is in secret will reward you” (Matt. 6:6).
Fifth, the Christian Mystic understands the great emphasis upon the heart. It is possible for us to have notitia (knowledge) and assensus (assent) without fiducia (trust). We may have great thoughts of God and believe great things about him, but if we still we be spiritually deficient unless and until we move toward him in whole-souled trust—seeking to love him with every aspect of our being, with all of our mind, soul, strength, and heart.
Sixth, related to the above, the Christian Mystic understands that an encounter with God has mysterious elements to it that defy rational analysis or categorization. He delights in that which cannot be fully comprehended, marveling at God’s “unsearchable riches” (Eph. 3:8) and God’s love that “surpasses knowledge” (Eph. 3:19) and God’s ways that are “inscrutable” (Rom. 11:33). The Christian Mystic rejoices that no one can fully know the mind of the Lord (Rom. 11:34).
Finally, the Christian Mystic understands that an encounter with God cannot be self-generated. There is nothing automatic about a link, union, or participation with God. There is effort and labor involved. The Christian Mystic, even if he or she is deficient in his application, rightly sees that they must first be awakened to divine reality. They see that they must put to death or mortify all that is contrary to God and his will. They seek the joy of illumination, all for the end that they might know and be with God—even at great sacrifice to their own time, talent, and treasure.
Considered in this light, there are many commendable aspects of Christian Mysticism, especially at the aspirational level. Unfortunately, there are also serious deficiencies in practice and theology that mean Christian Mystics fall short of the biblical picture of spirituality.
What are some differences between Christian mysticism and biblical spirituality?
First, Christian Mystics tend to have an optimistic understanding of human nature. As noted above, they do not believe that mystical experiences can be self-generated, and hence it would be incorrect to label them Pelagian. But it would not be inappropriate to suggest that many of them were semi-Pelagian, or at least practiced spirituality in such a way that would lead one to this conclusion. For some, this is more explicit than for others (note George Fox’s notion that all of us are born with a divine “spark”). If all of us have a principle of grace or a ray of divine light residing within us, no matter our eternal spiritual condition, it follows that the ultimate difference between those who progress toward illumination and on to union are those with whom the human will has made a self-determination. The biblical view, to the contrary, is that all of us were “dead in the trespasses and sin in which you once walked . . . we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and of the mind and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.” Paul proceeds immediately to reveal the difference between those who remain in this state and those who change: “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his kindness toward us in Christ Jesus” (Eph. 2:1-7).
Second, there is another deficient element to the Christian Mystic’s anthropology: he does not fully recognize the healthy and holistic way in which God has created us. The Christian mystic tends to rend asunder what God has joined: doctrine and devotion, head and heart. Because the mystical experience is not open to falsification, external examination, or even rational analysis, the role of the “heart” must be elevated above the “mind.” In fact, part of the purgation process is to rid oneself of one’s thoughts that could supplying distracting data that would prevent a divine encounter. Whereas the biblical model is to fill our hearts and mind with the great and precious promises of God (2 Pet. 1:4)—meditating on his Word day and night (Josh. 1:8), such that it is compared to our daily, sustaining bread (Matt. 4:4)—the Christian Mystic seeks to not only purge himself of all that is sinful and encumbering (stage 2) but ultimately wants to purge himself of even his delights in the character and presence of God (stage 4). This is deeply and manifestly unbiblical.
Third, despite what they might profess, the Christian Mystic’s actions tend to undermine the necessity of grace. Biblically, there is grace to forgive and there is grace to empower. We are saved by grace (Eph. 2:8-9), and yet Paul also regularly imparts a benediction of “grace and peace” to his readers. Paul is livid with the false teaching in Galatia that suggests that we start with grace and then move on to works as the means of spiritual sustenance, incredulously asking, “Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?” (Gal. 3:3). The Christian Mystic often gives the impression that God might begin the process but it is up to us to find the right formula or set of rules to experience a deep and mystical encounter with him. Whereas the Christian Mystic is content to speak about the ascent and descent of the human soul in its question for a divine encounter, God tells us in his word that we are not to say in our hearts, “‘Who will ascend into heaven?’ (that is, to bring Christ down) or ‘Who will descend into the abyss?’ (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). Rather, it says: “The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Rom. 10:6-10).
Fourth, the previous point flow is bound up with the Christian Mystics’ downplaying of the legal and forensic aspects of divine salvation. The work of Christ on the cross not only wipes our slates clean, but it also provides us with full, legal righteousness in the sight of God. We are not merely put back into the pre-probationary garden, where Adam was sinless but with the potential to fall; rather, we are united to Christ and adopted as his young brothers and as sons of the Most High. Everything he has, we have. Our salvation is secure not because of our works but because of his work. The Christian Mystic seems to view Christ mainly as our example, with the danger of Christ as our savior at times downplayed—and usually with Christ as substitute almost completely obscured. Only in so far as we realize that we are possessed by Christ and fully accepted by our Father can we be freed to walk with him in love, without servile fear. In so doing, our relationship to God is more like living with a loving Father whom we aim to please than it is like working for a boss whom it is difficult to visit with and where one’s job is always on the line.
Fifth, the Christian Mystic confuses the biblical order of union with Christ and communion with God. All who are spiritual—that is, all who are born again and made alive with God—are united with him. There are not some Christians who are united and some who are not. It is part of a package deal. With the legal and relational reality of union with Christ, we have communion—fellowship, participation—with the triune God. Whereas our union with Christ is immovable and secure, our communion with God can have ups and downs. There can be moments of greater and lesser closeness and relationship as we repent and return to the Lord again and again. The Christian Mystic conflates these two aspects of the divine-human relationship because he has such a small category for the forensic reality, and thus he is—in a sense—seeking that which he could already obtain from a childlike trust in his substitute and savior, and runs the serious risk of perpetuating self-righteousness in seeking to work for that which could be his as a gift. Another way of describing this is that the Christian Mystic has an under-realized soteriology.
Sixth, combined with the Christian Mystic’s under-realized soteriology, there is an over-realized eschatology. As mentioned above, we are united to Christ and seated in the heavenly places (Eph. 2:7). Those in Christ have already died and our life is “hidden with Christ in God.” What the Christian Mystic seems to fail to recognize is that when Christ returns, the—and only then—will we “appear with him in glory” (Col. 3:3-4). The Christian Mystic is seeking for something good—to be in the full and final presence of God without sin or stain and to be ultimately absorbed into the life of the Trinity—but he is seeking it at the wrong time. Our focus should be on communing with God through the means of grace, through individual discipline and corporate worship, seeking to know him more and more as we love God with all that we are and seek to love our neighbors as ourselves.
Seventh, the Christian Mystic makes a fundamental misstep in seeking to have a direct and immediate experience of God that is unmediated. At first glance, this desire can be seen as commendable. Should we not want to experience the presence of the Lord apart from any barriers or intermediaries or encumbrances? The biblical answer is that we should want to experience God in the way that he has ordained. First, we return once again to the issue of the work of Christ, who was sent by the Father to have a mediatorial role. He did not come as only a teacher or as a great example, but as our substitute savior, the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world (John 1:29), the “one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all” (1 Tim. 2:5-6). The only way to the Father is through him (John 14:6), and the Spirit and the Son combine to intercede for us before the Father and interpret our inarticulate prayers (cf. Rom. 8:27). Secondly, returning to the idea of an over-realized eschatology, we must recognized that on this side of the new heavens and the new earth, God “has spoken to us by his Son” (Heb. 1:2), and we have access to his Son through his written Word. So the Word of God must be an irreducibly central role in both our communication to, and our communication from, the living God. To seek to separate God from his word, and Christ from his work, are unthinkable unrealities. And to bypass both of these mediatorial aspects of divine communication is a grave mistake that opens the door to that which contradicts the word of God.
Eighth, though not all Christian Mystics have the exact same presuppositions regarding the corporate nature of fellowship, there is a troubling tendency in the tradition to practice spiritual isolationism. We noted earlier in this essay that the Christian Mystic rightly obeys Jesus’s command that there are times when we must get alone in our prayer closets to pray in secret to our Father who is in secret. But the Christian Mystic sees the height of spiritual achievement as involved the mystical process of purging all distractions and individually seeking a communion with God. Even many Mystics who have sought to live in community have done so in a way that is isolated from society at large. What seems to be a noble quest for God, involving a renunciation of earthly pleasures (from marital love to clothing that does not scratch) is not held forth in the Bible as the ideal of godliness. We are to be eager to gather with the saints in order to stir one another up to love and good works, to encourage and meet with one another instead of neglecting each other. The idea of full-time Christians withdrawing from society and banding together may seem more spiritual, but it is not biblical. Spiritual growth takes place not only in the prayer closet, but in corporate worship as the people of God gather together to hear the Word of God read, and the Word of God proclaimed, and the Word of God sung.
Ninth, the Christian Mystic may be critiqued for having an incipient Gnosticism in his theology and practice. While biblical spirituality would certainly encourage every professing believer to purge himself of sinful thoughts and behavior, the Christian Mystic tends to go beyond this. The body, and the things of this world, are frequently regarded as competitors with God rather than gifts from God to be utilized and enjoyed. When Paul tells us to “set our minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth” (Col. 3:2), he does not have in mind a fundamental spiritual-material duality. This is seen by his explanation of those earthly things we must shun just a few verses later: “Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. . . .anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth” (vv. 5, 8). These are contrasted with “compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience” (v. 12). The Christian Mystic must seriously reckon with Paul’s association of deceitful spirits and demonic teaching with the forbidding of things like marriage and foods under the guise of godliness (1 Tim. 4:1). Instead, Paul says, “everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer” (1 Tim. 4:4). If the Christian Mystic insists that some of God’s created goods must be purged, and that even his enjoyment of God’s very presence must be put away in the dark night of the soul in order to achieve union with God, then he is walking in contradiction to the very way and will of God.
Finally, although this has been touched on before in various ways, we may note again the crucial place that Scripture should play in our understanding of and practice of biblical spirituality. A bedrock principle of spirituality that is biblical is that Scripture itself plays an essential, norming role. God has spoken, and he is not silent (to use Francis Schaeffer’s memorable terminology). His word is clear, not obscure. His word is authoritative, not just advisory. His word is necessary, not optional. And his word is sufficient, not just helpful. The Apostle Paul proclaimed that “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16-17). At the end of the day, this is one of the clearest contrasts between Christian Mysticism and biblical spirituality. In the former, spiritual quests are made that are not informed and constrained by God’s self-revelation in holy Scripture. If we want our spirituality to be biblical, Scripture must be our norming norm.
For some further definitions of and interactions with Christian Mysticism that have informed my perspective, see:
- D.D. Martin, “Mysticism,” in Walter A. Elwell, ed., Evangelical Dictionary of Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1984), 744.
- Winfried Corduan, Mysticism: An Evangelical Option? (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1991; reprint: Wipf & Stock).
- Arthur L. Johnson, Faith Misguided: Exposing the Dangers of Mysticism (Chicago: Moody, 1988).
- Donald S. Whitney, “Doctrine and Devotion: A Reunion Devoutly to Be Desired“