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Definition

Mysticism proposes that one may achieve direct and immediate apprehension of the knowledge of God but only though the pathway of mystical contemplation that eschews temporal and finite categories of rational understanding.

Rationalism proposes, to the contrary, that much can be known about God by the use, rather than the denial, of unaided human reason and rational, discursive thinking.

Divine Revelation places the emphasis on the necessity for God to make himself known, apart from which mystical contemplation or human reason is useless to know God.

Summary

Three avenues of the knowledge of God are explored: Mysticism, Rationalism, and Divine Revelation. Mysticism proposes that one may achieve direct and immediate apprehension of the knowledge of God but only though the pathway of mystical contemplation that eschews temporal and finite categories of rational understanding. Normally the mystic must devote himself to the rigorous pathway marked by purgation and illumination only then to experience union with God. Rationalism proposes, to the contrary, that much can be known about God by the use, rather than the denial, of unaided human reason and rational, discursive thinking. Anselm proposed an a priori approach to the use of human reason whereby, apart from consideration of human experience or sense experience, the rational agent may simply think particular thoughts that direct him to deduce certain conclusions about God. Thomas Aquinas proposed an a posteriori approach to the use of human reason whereby the rational agent considers certain aspects of the created universe open to his senses and comes to conclusions about God. Divine Revelation places the emphasis on the necessity for God to make himself known, apart from which mystical contemplation or human reason is useless to know God. In both general and special revelation, God unveils aspects of his own character and Being such that we are dependent entirely on this revelation for what we know about God.

Mysticism

Mysticism is associated with a wide spectrum of traditions and religious experiences, ranging from pre-Christian Hellenistic mystery religions with their secret rites and rituals, to some expressions of Neoplatonic philosophy stressing knowledge that arises from contemplation and intuition, to the Jewish religious thinker, Philo of Alexandria (20 B.C. – A.D. 50) along with early Alexandrian Christians and early Greek Church Fathers (e.g., Origin – 185-254) who advocated knowledge through a method of allegorical interpretation of the Scriptures. But mysticism became more centrally located in the Christian church through the writings of Pseudo-Dionysius in the 6th century. While he did not disparage the formal study of Scripture, he emphasized in his Mystica Theologia the knowledge of God through the pathway of darkness, the way of unknowing. In an admonition to his pupil Timothy, he writes, “in the diligent exercise of mystical contemplation, leave behind the senses and the operations of the intellect, and all things sensible and intellectual, and all things in the world of being and non-being, that thou may arise by unknowing towards the union, as far as is attainable, with Him who transcends all being and all knowledge” (Dionysius the Areopagite, Mystical Theology and the Celestial Hierarchies, trans., Editors of the Shrine of Wisdom [Surrey, England: The Shrine of Wisdom, 1965] 9).

As the mystical tradition developed through the medieval period, a central defining idea became the heart and soul of the mystical approach, viz., direct and immediate apprehension of the knowledge of God could come only though the pathway of mystical contemplation that eschews temporal and finite categories of rational understanding. Since God is ultimately incomprehensible, and since our finite minds cannot truly grasp the Infinite (i.e., the best we can do is follow the via negativa, the negative way, denying of God things we know cannot be true of him), we cannot trust our human reason and intellectual knowledge but must rather seek to achieve direct and immediate knowledge of God apart from discursive reason. To achieve immediate apprehension of God, three distinct stages of the life of contemplation were advanced.

  1. The Purgative life requires that the mystic become detached from the hold of physical and sensory aspects of life, resulting in a renunciation of those things that one previously held dear. Before one could ever hope to experience union with God, one must first undergo a mortification of self and a detachment from the world of the senses that tied one to this world.
  2. The Illuminative life faces the mystic with the need to accept the implications of his previous detachments and renunciations of the sensory enjoyments and experience of this world. One enters into darkness as a prerequisite for subsequently seeing the divine light. But this darkness, this ignorance, this renunciation, can be protracted and present the seeker with a period of despair, sometimes referred to as the dark night of the soul. Here, the absence of the familiar and the sensory along with seeking God through ignorance, darkness, and mystical contemplation must be embraced, with hope that one day true illumination will come.
  3. The Unitive life provides the mystic with what he has been seeking, viz., a union with God totally apart from rational knowledge that is immediate and hence requires no rational or physical intermediaries. In this union with God, the direct apprehension of God that is achieved powerfully displaces the mystic’s own sense of self and leads him to participate fully in, and feel absorbed fully by, the very being of God, a reality sometimes referred to as deification. While the distinctive identity of the mystic and the distinctive otherness of God are maintained in this experience, there is nonetheless a transformation of personal identity that marks the mystic for the rest of his life. One re-enters, as it were, the normal life of the sensory world a different person having come to know and experience the transcendent fulness of God directly, intuitively, and immediately and never to be the same again.

Rationalism

In Christian theology, Rationalism is associated with a range of theological positions and systems of theology that understand the human intellect as capable of arriving at theological knowledge by its own native reasoning processes. In stark contrast with the mystical tradition, reason becomes the primary tool, rather than obstacle, in acquiring knowledge of God. Broadly, there are two forms of Rationalism developed within Christian theology.

  1. A priori Rationalism proposes that we can achieve knowledge of God by the use of human reason that is unassisted by sensory experiences or any kind of inductively based reasoning from what is observed or encountered in the world. One of the most influential advocates of this form of Rationalism is Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109). In his Proslogian (1078), Anselm argues that one can come to knowledge of the true God simply by the exercise of human reason apart from any sensory experience. In fact, even the fool who claims there is no God can think the thought of a being than which none greater can be conceived. And this reasoning follows two stages. First, if one considers the greatest possible being, one realizes that this being must exist in reality as opposed to existing merely as a concept in one’s mind. Since it is the greatest possible being, and since existence in reality is greater than mere conceptual existence, then the greatest possible being must exist in reality. And secondly, as one considers the concept of existence in reality, one realizes that there are two ways something can exist in reality—either contingently, in which its existence is dependent on something external and it can fail to exist, or necessarily, in which its existence is from itself, not depending on anything else such that it must necessarily exist and cannot fail to exist. Therefore, when one thinks the thought of the being than which none greater can be conceived, one deduces that this being not only exists in reality but that its existence in reality is necessary. As Anselm continues his argument, he then proceeds to show that all perfections (commonly referred to as the attributes of God) are entailed by the mere thought of the being than which none greater can be conceived. So indeed, God exists, he exists necessarily, he possesses all perfections, and all this can be known by the use of human reason rightly employed.
  2. A posteriori Rationalism proposes that we can acquire knowledge of God by the use of human reason that considers features of the world in which we live. Whereas a priori Rationalism worked deductively, simply inferring what was entailed from thoughts of the human mind, a posteriori Rationalism works inductively, basing its discursive reasoning on what the mind knows from its sensory experiences and observations of the external world. A prominent advocate of this approach is Thomas Aquinas (1225-1275), who proposed that we can know the existence of God and some limited features of God by appeal to what can be inferred from the created order. His “Five Ways,” discussed in Summa Theologica 1.2.3, propose interconnected lines of argument all showing that given what we see in the world, the only way to account for them, without invoking an infinite regress, is by appeal to something that Grounds this creation, and this everyone understands to be God. The first three of his Five Ways are similar in argument. Since everything in creation has been moved from potentiality to actuality, the must be a First Mover who himself is the Unmoved Mover of all else (First Way). And since nothing can be the cause of its own existence, and to avoid an infinite regress of causes, there must be a First Cause who himself is the Uncaused Cause of all else (Second Way). And since everything in creation is contingent and thereby could fail to exist, there must be a Necessary Being to ground the whole of creation’s contingent existence (Third Way). The Fourth Way observed that since aspects of creation may be judged to be good or possess moral qualities of goodness, it must be the case that there is a morally perfect Being who provides the standard of goodness and contributes all of the goodness that exists in creation. And the Fifth Way takes note of the fact that since non-rational aspects of creation are ordered to some specific end (or telos, or purpose), while they have no capability in themselves to have designed this end for themselves, there must be a Rational Being who moves non-rational entities toward their respective ends, and all agree that this Being is God. Aquinas did not believe that all of theology could be derived through rational reflections on creation. For example, we only know that God is Triune because of the special revelation God has given us. Still, much can be known about God through “natural theology” as we inductively account for aspects of creation by inferences of reason showing God alone grounds what we observe and experience.

Divine Revelation

The concept of divine revelation comes from abundant biblical teaching that God has made known or revealed himself to us. The Old Testament word gala, and the New Testament word apokalypto, are the Hebrew and Greek words respectively for revelation. Both have the same fundamental meaning: to reveal is to unveil, to uncover, to lay bare, to disclose, to make known. Revelation assumes that truth already exists as known by God, but this truth is hidden until the moment that it is unveiled or made known by God to those to whom He chooses to make that truth known. A good example of revelation by God is seen in Matthew 16 where Jesus asked his disciples, “But who do you say that I am?” (16:15). And Peter replies, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (16:16). Notice that Jesus does not commend Peter for his insight or brilliance in making this declaration. Rather, Jesus said, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven” (16:17). So, the truth that Peter declared was not something he figured out, nor was it taught to him by his fellow disciples or others. Rather, God the Father made this truth known to Peter’s own mind and heart, such that apart from this revelation from God, Peter would have been ignorant of what he now knows and declares. Notice also that Peter’s declaration in response to Jesus’ question does not establish or bring to pass the truth itself. No, it has already been the case that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God. Peter’s declaration in no way activates this truth or makes something true now that was not already true. So, revelation does not bring about truth; rather revelation unveils, uncovers, lays bare, makes known, truth that now can be seen and known for what it is.

Scripture indicates that there are two fundamental forms of God’s revelation to us, often referred to as General and Special Revelation. General revelation is the revelation of God generally available to all people everywhere, of general truths about God, made known through what he has disclosed of himself through the created order (see Rom. 1:18-20) and the human conscience (see Rom. 2:14-15). God’s revelation of himself in creation is at one and the same time both astonishing as well as limited. Paul refers to God’s revelation in creation as showing us “his invisible attributes,” “his eternal power and divine nature” (1:20) such that all who witness the creation see truths about God that are “plain to them” (1:19) and that are “clearly perceived” (1:20). This language speaks of the power and clarity of God’s self-revelation in creation, such that all who see this revelation “are without excuse” for rejecting God and pursuing their own lives of sinful indulgence (1:21-31). So yes, this revelation is astonishing, but it also is very limited. Creation does not reveal to us the Trinity, or the incarnation of Christ, or the substitutionary atonement, or the gospel of justification by faith in Christ who died for our sin and rose again victor over death. No, to know these other truths, we desperately need special revelation.

General revelation also comes through the avenue of the human conscience which is informed by God of the very moral law to which all human creatures are held accountable. Paul says in Romans 2 that even Gentiles who lack the law of Moses (i.e., they were not formally given the Ten Commandments as the Jews were) are aware of that very law written on their hearts. He writes, “They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus” (2:15). So, the Jews have the Law of Moses that instructs them not to steal, or to murder, or to bear false witness, or to covet. But this text indicates that God has also written this very same law on the hearts of all people, including all Gentiles who do not possess the Law of Moses, so that they know in their own conscience that it is wrong to steal, and to murder, and to bear false witness, and to covet. Human beings, then, are given by God a moral sense of right and wrong (e.g., it is right to keep a promise; it is wrong to cheat on one’s taxes), which is more than merely a pragmatic sense of right and wrong (e.g., turning left here is the right way to go home; eating too much sugar is bad for one’s health). But beyond that, they know specific moral laws that are common to all people in all times. Again here, while this expression of God’s revelation to all people is astonishing, it also is limited. We know by conscience that it is wrong to lie or murder, but we don’t know by conscience what to do to remove our guilt when we do lie or murder. For this, we need special revelation.

Special revelation is the revelation of God granted to specific people, at specific times, a revelation that is progressively given through the history of Israel and culminating in the final revelation of Jesus, the incarnate Son of God (see Heb. 1:1-2). Special revelation includes far more specific truths than is conveyed in general revelation, about God’s character, his Triune being, his purposes, his promises, his providential workings in the world, and most importantly, the revelation of Jesus Christ and the gospel based on his atoning death and victorious resurrection. Since this revelation has come to us progressively over time, we see that sometimes God reveals more of himself in the works that he does. Beginning with creation itself, we see the mighty hand of God often displayed telling us more of his character and purposes. God also reveals more to us over time through propositional revelation, i.e., the revelation of God in human language, by which we are able to hear (e.g., Abraham, Moses, Jonah, etc) or read (e.g., the Scriptures) what God has declared that we should know. So, through the works of God, and the words of God, this special revelation enlarges from the time of Adam in the Garden of Eden and finds its culmination in the final revelation of God in Christ, a revelation given authoritative interpretation and explanation in the teaching of the Apostles of Christ, just as Christ told them would occur (see John 14:26; 16:12-15). The Scriptures, then, as inspired by God (2Tim. 3:16-17; 2Pet. 1:20-21), provide us with the fulness of God’s special revelation for his people since the time of Christ and the Apostles, a revelation which we gladly and gratefully accept as divinely authoritative and fully inerrant, the sufficient guide to us of what we are to believe and how we are to live as the people of God, under the Lordship of Christ.

Further Reading

  • Dionysius the Areopagite, Mystical Theology and the Celestial Hierarchies. Translation, Editors of the Shrine of Wisdom. Surrey, England: The Shrine of Wisdom, 1965.
  • McGinn, Bernard, ed. The Essential Writings of Christian Mysticism. Modern Library Classics. New York: Modern Library, 2006.
  • Anselm, Anselm’s Proslogian. Trans. and intro. By M. J. Charlesworth. Notre Dame, IN: Univ. of Notre Dame, 1979.
  • Thomas Aquinas. Summa Theologica. Unabridged Edition. Claremont, CA: Coyote Canyon Press, 2018.
  • Carl F. H. Henry. God, Revelation, and Authority. 6 vols. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1999.
  • Bruce A. Demarest. General Revelation: Historical Views and Contemporary Issues. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1982.

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