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13 July 2007 

The Word and Spirit

For many years in my life I've felt plagued by the pull between the freedom of worship and expression that I saw in the charismatic churches and organizations I've been a part of and the soundness of doctrine, depth of knowledge of God and the Word, and personal faith I've witnessed in more reformed churches. I myself have alternated between the two, never quite comfortable in either, but longing for both, and always feeling that I had to choose between either greater communion with God or greater knowledge of God. I spent a lot of time skeptical of both sides, but recognizing the inherent naturalness of both at the same time.

It wasn't until this past weekend that I feel like my personal history with the church has had any significance, but I believe not only are both aspects to be embraced and celebrated parts of our worship and discipleship of Christ, but also that they are fundamentally crucial to knowing both God and self in truth, and being able to share and speak that truth to those around us. What follows is an article by John Armstrong, reposted here from his blog on www.theresurgence.com, a site of theological teaching and musings affiliated with the Acts 29 church planting network and Mars Hill Seattle. If you have the inclination, I invite you to read it. God has called me to this marriage of evangelicalism and mysticism, and I have found this article profoundly useful at illustrating the differences between the two and the fundamental flaw in thinking them opposing forces. So please, read, digest and share your thoughts back in the comments section.

There is a widespread and growing interest in mysticism in our time. This is especially evident among younger Christians who hunger for something beyond rational categories of faith. But the word mysticism is notoriously difficult to explain since definitions vary from one writer to the next, both in the ancient world and the modern. The most fruitful line of approach is to examine mystical experiences for common patterns.

By mysticism I am referring to a deep experience (or a compelling sense) of union with, and knowledge of, the divine reality granted graciously by God. Mystical experience, at least in Christian thought, is usually preceded by the practice of contemplation and asceticism and results in a sense of disclosure, not mere subjectivity. Furthermore a deep, and deepening, sense of joy and exultation, joined with an overwhelming sense of presence (the nearness of the transcendent) commonly mark true mysticism. And true mysticism has a highly personal quality and, in serious Christian thought, (ideally) results in a deeper love for others.

Evangelicals have generally responded negatively toward mysticism and mystical experience. Whereas mysticism placed the emphasis in spirituality upon the immanence (nearness) of God, the evangelical tradition placed its emphasis in spirituality upon the transcendence (otherness) of God. The first emphasis stressed God's activity in the creation and human history while the second stressed God's holiness and separateness from the creation. The danger for the mystic is the same in every age-monism, all is one and one is all. The danger for the evangelical is also the same in every age-dualism. The Christian mystic will admit that God is other than man for two reasons: (1) God is the Creator and, (2) Man is finite. But the mystic will often miss the proper emphasis upon the primary reason why God and man are separate-God is holy and man is sinful. This is what the evangelical has rightly wanted to protect. The Christian philosopher Kierkegaard understood this correctly when he affirmed that biblical theology never taught "the unity of the divine and the human" or "the identity of subject and object" (Concluding Unscientific Postscript, Princeton University Press, 1944, 290). For this reason the mystic will stress the continuity between God and man while the evangelical will stress the discontinuity. Both are true and often the problem is in the emphasis, or the lack of proper balance.

Evangelical theologian, Donald G. Bloesch, correctly notes: "Only God himself can bridge the infinite gulf which separates man from his Maker, and God has done this in the incarnation of Jesus Christ" (The Crisis of Piety: Essays Toward a Theology of the Christian Life, Colorado Springs: Helmers & Howard, 1988, 91). This truth must be kept central in dealing with the various types of mysticism that are being recovered by the modern church.

Theologian Emil Brunner correctly argued that in evangelical piety faith is a divine-human encounter. It is not being touched by the mystery, or hearing the rush of angel wings. It is not sensory experience or inner contemplation by itself. Nor is it assent to a knowledge that is devoid of all rational content. God reveals himself to us by means of his Word. Christian experience does not transcend all reason. For the evangelical, true faith does not deny reason but rather goes beyond it by converting and transforming reason. We come to know God, not by looking into our inner being, or by contemplating a light that lives inside of us, but by trusting the ever living One who is revealed to us in Holy Scripture. The truth is revealed, not concealed. Brunner again understood this when he rightly said, "Faith . . . declares truth is in God's own Word alone; and what is in me is not truth" (The Word and the World, London: SCM, 1931, 76-77). Calvin properly stressed that there are two parts to true knowledge, the knowledge of God and the knowledge of self. And Donald Bloesch gets the correct approach when he concludes: "Self-knowledge does not lead to God-knowledge, but rather God-knowledge makes self-knowledge possible" (The Crisis of Piety, 91).

While mysticism has not produced great Christ-centered preaching and disciplemaking, especially since mysticism has often focused upon a personal knowing that is inherently esoteric, modern evangelicals have made a huge mistake by denying that Christian faith and life have a mystical element in them. There has always been, in the best evangelical Christianity, an emphasis on Christ within us, the hope of glory (Colossians 1:27).

In my own journey I have encountered this modern rise of interest in mysticism, with the inherent problems noted above. This rise can be especially seen in an area where I have done a good bit of graduate level teaching, and an area which forms one of the three core commitments of ACT 3-spiritual formation. But I am attracted to this emphasis. Why? I have often lived the very opposite of mysticism, a kind of rationalistic orthodoxy that sought to remove subjective feelings and to stifle enthusiasm. The very emphasis of much of the evangelism that I have practiced and taught has been on facts and faith, not feelings. Faith, I once argued, consisted in having personal confidence in the promises of God in Christ alone. There was little or no emphasis upon faith as relationship with a person. But faith is surely more than accepting propositions in the Bible. It clearly involves a mystical sharing in Christ in John 17. There is a real and experienced communion between the vine and the branches in John's thought in John 15 as well. And what do you do with John 6:52-58 when Jesus says that his disciples will eat his flesh and drink his blood? Many evangelicals have so fallen into rationalism that they insist these texts can only mean something that is totally "symbolic." This is why they treat the Lord's Supper as they do and thus end up concluding that eating Christ's flesh and drinking his blood must have all the various qualifiers so they can avoid the obvious (mystical) reality insisted upon in the biblical context.

The text that most convinces me of these essential truths is 2 Peter 1:4 which plainly says that we who believe "become participants of the divine nature," the very text the Eastern Orthodox Church uses to properly stress the mystery of our personal sharing in God's nature.

Paul's favorite word for this reality is the oft-used metaphor "in Christ." He even refers to the Lord's Supper as a "participation" (literally a koinonia) in the body and blood of Christ (1 Corinthians 10:16). Perhaps the supreme Pauline text regarding this emphasis is the oft-quoted, and almost always misunderstood, text of Galatians 2:20: "It is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now life in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me."

Radical mysticism seeks to dissolve the subject-object relationship between me and God, rationalism and intellectualism stresses our radical apartness without the biblical note of personalism. Bloesch is thus right to conclude that "there is no dissolution of personality, but rather losing oneself and finding oneself again in God" and "biblical faith speaks also of the intimate communion, even union, between the I and the Thou" (Crisis of Piety, 98). The great theologian, Karl Barth, also pointed to this mystery in faith when he correctly concluded that "it is not God who stands before us if He does not stand before us in such a way that He is and remains a mystery to us. Mystery means that He remains the One whom we know only because He gives Himself to be known" (Church Dogmatics, Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1957, II:1:41).

We are not called to place our trust in either experience or rational insights. We are called to have faith in Christ as he is revealed to us, by the Holy Spirit, in Scripture. Luther said that here was the major difference between the natural and the spiritual person. The natural sees and evaluates everything on the basis of what is seen and felt. The spiritual person is not guided by what is seen or felt but rather by listening to God's Word and following "Him into the darkness" (Luther's Works, 22:306).

But the better emphases of Christian mysticism have certain elements that are needed by modern evangelicals. For example, a proper mystical emphasis teaches us not to trust reason or sense. Faith is not a leap in the dark, as is sometimes said, but a leaning into Christ and his promises that provides, by the Spirit, its own evidence. This evidence is neither in "device nor creed" but in the assurance of our forgiveness in Christ and the evidence of new life by and in the Holy Spirit.

Another vital element of biblical Christianity that is very often missing among modern evangelicals is truth that conversion is only the beginning of a process. A proper stress upon the doctrine of "deification" would stress not our submersion into God (mystically) so much as our transformation into God's likeness, or Christ's divine nature.

My own efforts at stressing the obedience of faith, which inevitably raises controversy in certain places, are rooted in this very truth, namely that justification brings the sinner into a community where real transformation then takes place between real people. Grace is rightly understood as underserved favor, not an internal power that merits something from God. But grace that does not transform is not grace. Proper mystical categories would help us to restore this biblical emphasis.

Finally, Christian mysticism can also help us recover the truth of love. In mysticism the goal of the Christian life is the beatific vision of God. In a proper evangelicalism the goal is to love God and neighbor, especially those who are our brothers and sisters in the Christian community. The truth stressed by the mystic, that real fellowship has its basis in the union between the Christian believer and the love of God, is thus correct. John Wesley rightly understood this in concluding we are called not only to personal sanctity, which is and always will be first in priority, but to social holiness. This note is absent in many mystics. But evangelicals who put all their stress upon the atonement being understood as penal substitution often miss the mystical and moral influence of the atonement that can be clearly seen in the Bible itself.

The Reformers rightly stressed religious experience. They saw and preached a paradoxical unity between Word and Spirit, or between historical revelation and the inward experience of faith. In our day we have stressed one or the other, and thus we have missed the holy paradox and the needed balance. Apart from an inner illuminating work of the Spirit we are left with cold rationalism. But apart from the Word of God we are left with an undefined, or ill-defined, experience and thus without true assurance.

Yes. Yes. Yes.

I can't wait to dig further into this line of thought. (That was a mystic sentiment, wasn't it?) I was hanging out with my BGC peeps this weekend, and you both have me all riled up with evangelical fervor. Watching "Luther" did a lot for that too. Thanks for your post. -d.s.s.

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