Mysticism is notoriously difficult to pin down. It may briefly be characterised as seeking ‘an immediate link with the Absolute’ (Winfried Corduan). This would apply both to Christian mystics and to some types of Eastern religion.
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.’ (D.D. Martin, Evangelical Dictionary of Theology)
Notable Christian mystics have included ‘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).’
More recent advocates have included Thomas Merton, Henri Nouwen, Brennan Manning, and we might also include evangelicals such as Richard Foster and A. W. Tozer.
The mystical way
Developed by the sixteenth-century writers Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross, the mystical way described a three-step path to union with the divine:-
- awakening – an experience akin to ‘conversion’ in which the individual feels she has come alive, sensing the reality and attractiveness of God as if for the first time.
- purgation – purging, through self-discipline and mortification, one’s earthly and material desires (cf. Col 3:2b; Rom 8:13b) that work against one’s desire for the Divine
- illumination – the divine reality is seen in a new light, and this may be associated with visions, experiences of ecstasy, and ineffable delight)
Most would stop there. But for some mystics there are further steps to be taken:-
- the dark night of the soul – during which the individual dies not only to sinful desires (step 2, above), but to self altogether.
- union with the divine – an inexpressible encounter and participation with the absolute, in which the self is absorbed into the Divine.
‘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.’ This can come only through the mediatorial work of the incarnate, crucified, risen, and reigning Son, who declared himself to be the ‘the way, and the truth, and the life’ (Jn 14:6). The Holy Spirit bears witness to Christ (Jn 15:26) and confirms all the Jesus taught during his life on earth (John 14:26)
The goal of biblical spirituality is that of the Christian life: to glorify God ‘by enjoying fellowship with and knowledge of God through godly conformity to his image and character.’ We are to do everything for his glory, 1 Cor 10:31 because of the surpassing worth of knowing our Lord and Saviour, Phil 3:8,10. The purpose of Christ’s cross-work was to bring us to God, 1 Pet 3:18. God wills our sanctification, 1 Thess 4:3, and for this we must train ourselves for godliness, 1 Tim 4:7. The ultimate goal is to be confirmed to the image of God’s Son, Rom 8:29. The means of biblical spirituality are the means of grace, such as prayer and the sacraments.
We are commanded to test everything and to hold fast what is good, 1 Thess 5:21. God’s word is the ultimate touchstone, Jn 17:7; Mt 4:4; Heb 4:13.
We should not suppose that the practice of spirituality can be divorced from the Christian life itself, regenerated in Christ and indwelt by the Holy Spirit. The new birth is essential, Jn 3:3ff; the ‘natural person’ cannot receive the things of God’s Spirit, whereas the ‘spiritual person’ had the mind of Christ, 1 Cor 2:14-16. We all begin at the same place, having no righteousness of our own, Rom 3:23, and all therefore need divine grace. Christ has done for us what we could not do for ourselves, 2 Cor 5:21. We receive this new life by grace through faith, Rom 5:1; Eph 2:8f. In union with Christ we are being transformed into what we have been declared to be – justified and holy, sin having become an alien principle Rom 6:1-23. This sanctifying work culminates in our glorification, so that on the last day we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is, 1 Jn 3:2.
- Christian mysticism is committed to Trinitarianism.
- Christian mysticism understands that God is both transcendent and immanent. As transcendent he is Lord of all. As immanent, he is knowable.
- Christian mysticism regards the sight of God as the highest good. We know that the day is coming when we shall see God as he is, 1 Jn 3:2; 1 Cor 13:12. The Christian mystic rightly desires a fuller knowledge of God now, Psa 16:11; Eph 3:19; 2 Pet 1:4.
- Christian mysticism recognises the importance of personal and private communion with God, Mt 6:6.
- Christian mysticism places great emphasis on the heart; on seeking to love him with every aspect of our being.
- Christian mysticism understands that our experience of God has elements that defy rational analysis and explanation. See Eph 3:8, 19; Rom 11:33f.
- Christian mysticism appreciates that an encounter with God is not self-generated. It requires divine grace and human effort.
- Christian mysticism tends to have an optimistic view of human nature. Many would agree with George Fox that we are all born with a ‘divine spark’. They will often under-emphasise, or even deny that we are by nature ‘children of wrath’ (Eph 2:1-7).
- Christian mysticism often does not fully recognise the holistic way in which God has constituted human nature, and accordingly may make too great a separation between doctrine and devotion, head and heart. Too often the mystical way involves an emptying of the mind of thought, rather than pondering the great promises of God (2 Pet 1:4), meditating on his word (Josh 1:8), and feeding daily upon that word (Mt 4:4).
- Christian mysticism, while not denying the reality and power of God’s grace, often promotes some kind of formula or set of rules as means of spiritual growth, and this can lead us to rely too little on his grace and too much on our own efforts and methods. See Gal 3:3; Rom 10:6-10.
- Christian mysticism often downplays the legal and forensic aspects of salvation. They tend to view Christ as our example, but not as our substitute. And yet the salvation he has wrought, and the acceptance by God which this brings, is essential for us to be able to walk with him in love and freedom.
- Christian mysticism frequently confuses the biblical order of union with Christ and communion with God. All who are regenerate have fellowship with the triune God. To be sure, that fellowship has its ups and downs, times of lesser and greater closeness to God. Because the mystic has such a slight view of the forensic or positional aspects of salvation she tends to think that communion with God is something to be worked for, rather than something that has already been received as a gift.
- Christian mysticism suffers from an over-realised eschatology. Although the believer’s communion with God in Christ here and now is real and precious, it is only when Christ returns that we will ‘appear with him in glory’ (Col 3:3f).
- Christian mysticism is mistaken when it seeks a direct and unmediated experience of God. But Scripture insists that we should seek God through the means that he has ordained. First and foremost, we know God though and in Christ, the one Mediator. But our access to God is through his word, which witnesses to the Son. We must not separate Christ from his work, nor God from his word.
- Christian mysticism tends towards spiritual isolationism. To be sure, Christians should frequently be in private prayer. But mystics too often seek a personal and individualised experience of God. Even mystics who live in community often do so in a way that is isolated from society as a whole. The quest for intimacy with God can lead to a neglect of Christian fellowship, and the renunciation of the pleasures of this world can mean social detachment (neither ‘of’ the world nor ‘in’ it).
- Christian mysticism has an incipient Gnosticism at its heart. We are certainly taught to ‘set our minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth’ (Col 3:2), but to go further than what is written by promoting a physical/spiritual dualism is dangerous (cf. 1 Tim 4:1, 4).
- Christian mysticism often fails to give the biblical revelation its essential, normative role. God’s 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.’ See 2 Tim 3:16.
Based on this post by Justin Taylor