STUDY THIRTEEN: CHRISTIAN MYSTICISM

© Rosemary Bardsley 2005, 2015


We see the jettisoning of absolute, objective truth in most of the ideologies discussed in this book. This rejection of the Bible as the final and authoritative Word of God has resulted in Christians seeking for truth, or for messages from God, in other places. Mysticism is the search for truth in subjective inner experiences, where the emotions and impressions, rather than rational thought and objective truth, dominate and dictate our perception of spiritual reality

A definition from MacArthur:

‘Mysticism is the idea that spiritual reality is found by looking inward. Mysticism is perfectly suited for religious existentialism; indeed, it is its inevitable consequence. The mystic disdains rational understanding and seeks truth instead through the feelings, the imagination, personal visions, inner voices, private illumination, or other purely subjective means. Objective truth becomes practically superfluous.

‘Mystical experiences are therefore self-authenticating; that is, they are not subject to any form of objective verification. They are unique to the person who experiences them since they do not arise from or depend upon any rational process, they are invulnerable to any refutation by rational means. [p27 – Reckless Faith]

Historically, the church has had to contend with mysticism from the very beginning.

Paul’s letter to the Colossians and John’s first letter called people away from gnostic mysticism.

Luther’s catch cry  of Scripture alone stood not only against the Roman Catholic claims concerning the authority of the Church, but also against the proliferation of dreams, visions, supernatural visitations, veneration of relics and holy places, and various superstitions which characterised the prevailing spirituality. Luther is reported to have said: ‘If I were to see a vision of Christ himself, I would say to it “Get behind me Satan!”’

Leaders of the Great Awakening, Jonathan Edwards and George Whitfield, both students and preachers of the Bible, found it necessary to call people back to the solid teaching of the objective Word of God, away from their preoccupation with, and pursuit of, mystical experiences.

In our current era reasoned understanding and diligent study of the Bible are disdained by many, and all manner of mystical experiences preferred above the rational study of the written Word. MacArthur warns that some segments of contemporary evangelicalism are even more subjective and mystical  than existentialist neo-orthodoxy ever was. He also states: ‘Mysticism renders biblical inerrancy irrelevant. After all, if the highest truth is subjective and comes from within us, then it doesn’t ultimately matter if the specifics of Scripture are true or not. If the content of faith is not the real issue, what does it really matter if the Bible has errors or not?’ [ibid p29]

Lest we should think that this is happening solely in churches of Charismatic and Word of Faith persuasions, we need to be aware that many of the expressions and impacts of mysticism listed below are found right within conservative evangelical churches.

 

A. SOME EXPRESSIONS OF MYSTICISM WITHIN THE CHURCH

Discussion points:
Discuss the ‘Christian’ practices described below. How do they relate to or express the ism noted in the brackets.

[1] Using the Bible to get a personal ‘word from the Lord’ irrespective of the real meaning of the text. [Subjectivism and relativism].

 

 

[2] Getting personal ‘words from the Lord’ by way of inner impressions, these impressions being interpreted as ‘the Lord told me’, ‘I feel this is what God wants me to do’, ‘the Spirit moved me’ and so on. [Subjectivism].

 

 


[3] Believing that inner impressions are authentic words of prophecy, and announcing them as though they have as much authority as, or even more than, the written Word. [Relativism, existentialism]

 

 


[4] Believing that additional revelations of God and his truth are communicated by such means, and also through dreams and visions. [New Age] (It is worth noting that almost every false ‘Christian’ cult, and some major religions, have originated from the inner impressions or mystical experiences of individuals being interpreted as revelations from God.)

 

 

[5] Communicating with real or imagined spiritual beings, or hearing inner voices, and classifying what these beings and voices say as messages from God. [New Age]

 

 

[6] Finding private messages from God in co-incidences and other unexpected or unusual circumstances. [Occult]

 

 


[7] Looking for signs and wonders – not only in miracles of healing but also in circumstances – and basing one’s understanding of truth on these signs and wonders. [Occult, subjectivism]

 

 

[8] Believing that our positive faith creates the realities for which we pray. [New Age]

 


Discussion points:
Is there any valid use of these practices for a Christian? If so, where and how does one draw the dividing line between Biblical spiritual and pagan or secular mysticism?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


MacArthur identifies the following movents as expressions of mysticism:

‘… the Third Wave (a neo-charismatic movement with excessive emphasis on signs, wonders, and personal prophecies); Renovare (an organization that blends teachings from monasticism, ancient Catholic mysticism, Eastern religion, and other mystical traditions); the spiritual warfare movement (which seeks to engage demonic powers in direct confrontation); and the modern prophecy movement (which encourages believers to seek private, extrabiblical revelation directly from God).’ He then adds: ‘The influx of mysticism has also opened evangelicalism to new-Age concepts like subliminal thought-control, inner healing, communication with angels, channelling, dream analysis, positive confession, and a host of other therapies and practices coming directly from occult and Eastern religions.’ [ibid p28]

 

B. HOW HAS MODERN MYSTICISM IMPACTED CHRISTIANS INDIVIDUALLY AND THE CHURCH CORPORATELY?

[1] Inner personal impressions, emotional devotionals and testimonies of personal experiences are preferred above the sound teaching and study of Biblical truth [note relation to liberal theology and existentialism].

[2] Those who attempt to call people back to a faith and understanding grounded on the true meaning of Scripture are labelled as ‘unspiritual’ or ‘legalistic’, and accused of ‘quenching the Spirit’. An anti-intellectual mentality takes over which scorns and even despises any concept of truth tied to or gained by the diligent study of the meaning of Scripture [note relation to relativism].

[3] The significance and importance of the Bible as the authoritative Word of God reduces dramatically in proportion to the significance given to mystical, inner impressions and experiences. It ceases to matter whether or not the Bible is God’s once-for-all given Word, because it is no longer seen as the most significant source of truth [note relation to relativism].

[4] Christians are encouraged to seek spiritual experiences based on inner impressions. This search involves them in an emotional bind as addictive as any drug, and as illusory and transient as any drug induced experience. There is always a need for more. Each successive experience must be more impactive than the former to sustain the desired level of spiritual ‘high’. This mentality in which personal faith and spirituality must be constantly infused with new impetus from new personal experiences almost inevitably leads to disappointment or failure of some kind.

[5] Faith ceases to be valuable because it is faith in the God of the Bible. It assumes its own significance. I believe becomes more important than I believe in God the Father ... and in his Son ... The experience of believing is seen to be the significant and spiritual thing. The content of belief, or the focus of faith, is seen to be unimportant. [Note the relationship to existentialism.]

[6] Lacking content defined and confined by the written word of Scripture, truth takes on a whole range of differing, and even conflicting, meanings. The ‘Jesus’ of mysticism, revealed and known through all manner of personal impressions is far removed from the Jesus of Scripture. How this imaginary Jesus is expected to fulfil the promises made by the real Jesus is a question with devastating implications. One can only fear that the real Jesus is not known at all, and that the salvation supposedly  possessed by  those who follow this ‘Jesus’ created by individual imaginations, is as imaginary and non-real as their ‘Jesus’ [note relation to relativism].

[7] Like existentialism, mysticism sees personal spiritual experiences as self-validating. People who have had an experience assume that the interpretation they give to that experience is valid, and are offended when anyone tries to point out that that is not necessarily so. They question the right of anyone who has not had the experience to stand in judgment over the validity of their interpretation of that experience, (for example, that it was ‘God speaking to me’), irrespective of whether or not the experience or the interpretation line up with Biblical truth. It is clear here that the personal experience, rather than the Scripture, is having the final say in the matter, and that the mystic defines ‘truth’ through experience rather than through Scripture.

[8] Some Christians who pursue truth through inner impressions tend to discard the commands of the Bible. They refuse to submit to clear Biblical commands and claim that if God wants to tell them something then he will make it known to them. They thus ignore the fact that God has already made his will known in the written Word, that Christ and the apostles governed their lives by that written Word, and that we are commanded by God to be subject to that Word. Christians who seek these personal words from the Lord through inner voices and the like, frequently make moral and ethical decisions which are contrary to the written Word, and justify their behaviour by saying ‘the Lord told me ....’ [note relation to relativism, and to anti-authoritarianism and anti-nomianism which we will study later].

[9] In extreme expressions of mysticism within the church, congregations are discouraged from studying the written Word and encouraged to empty their minds of fixed concepts of truth in order to let the ‘Spirit’ move within them, freeing themselves up to find ‘God’ in the realm of emotion and experience. Some ‘teachers’ of such experience-based perversions of Christianity even tell their victims to ‘stop praying’ and just let go of themselves, and open themselves up to the movement of the ‘Spirit.’ The phenomena that then follow are claimed to be manifestations of the Holy Spirit, regardless of whether or not they can be verified by Scripture. Indeed in many instances the Scriptures are twisted to fit the experiences and manifestations [note relation to existentialism, New Age and occult].


C. WHY IS IT IMPORTANT TO STAND AGAINST MYSTICISM?

C.1 Because mysticism’s emphasis, sometimes exclusive emphasis, on personal spiritual experiences as the source of truth overlooks the clear Biblical teaching about the sinfulness and ignorance of the human heart and mind.

Study these Scriptures.
What do they say about the condition and ability of the human heart and mind? On the basis of these Scriptures comment on the assumption of ‘Christian’ mysticism that we are able to discover truth through our subjective mystical experiences.

Jeremiah 17:9

 

 

Romans 1:18-31

 

 

Ephesians 4:17-24

 

 

Colossians 2:8

 

 

These verses clearly portray a gross and deceptive inability within the human heart, and warn us against any dependence on ourselves and against rejecting the solid Word of God for human ideas and concepts. They remind us of the historic tendency of man to discard the absolute revealed truth for relativistic and subjective human constructions of ‘truth’. Israel, abandoning God’s objective Word of truth, also abandoned the one, true God, and put in his place powerless gods of human creation:

‘But my people have exchanged their Glory for worthless idols.
Be appalled at this, O heavens, and shudder with great horror,’ says the LORD.

My people have committed two sins:
They have forsaken me, the spring of living water,
 and have dug their own cisterns, broken cisterns that cannot hold water.’ (Jeremiah 2:11b-13)

These verses speak of physical idolatry - the creation of gods conceived in the human mind and formed by human hands. In mysticism a philosophical idolatry takes place - the creation of gods conceived in the human mind and formed by human perceptions and emotions. We must never lose sight of this sinful desire of mankind to create its own gods. That is its historic, habitual inclination, and that is at the centre of mysticism.

Discussion point:

Consider the following contrasts:
[1] Mysticism assumes that what the human heart and mind perceives is good and valid [even though in a subjective, relativistic way]: The Bible assumes the opposite: ‘There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God. All have turned away ...’ (Romans 3:10-12a)


[2] Mysticism assumes that inner impressions are the voice of God: The Bible records that such a concept of God’s truth is wrong: Eliphaz, gaining his understanding of God from his experiences (Job 4:12-16; 15:17), was rebuked by God: ‘I am angry with you ... because you have not spoken of me what is right ...’ (Job 42:7,8). So much in error were Eliphaz’s statements about God that he (along with his friends) was required to offer a massive sacrifice and request Job to pray on his behalf, so that, in  God’s words, ‘I  will not deal with you according to your folly’ (Job 42:8).

Discuss the implications of this for contemporary Christian practice. Make notes of the discussion.

 

 

 

 

 

 

C.2 Because the mystical concept of truth undermines the finality, authority and authenticity of the written Word, and the completeness and finality of God’s self-revelation in his Son, Jesus Christ.

Mysticism assumes that there is more truth and reality to be discovered within. The Bible presents the truth as an objective and absolute whole.

Study these Biblical texts.
Contrast their presentation of truth as objective and absolute with the subjective and relative perception of ‘truth’ presented in mysticism.
[1] Luke 24:25-27, 44-47; John 6:39-47; Hebrews 1-10

 

 

 

[2] John 1:18; 10:30; 14:1-9; Colossians 1:25-2:9; Hebrews 1:1-3

 

 

 


In seeking additional truth beyond Scripture and beyond Jesus Christ mysticism within the church assumes and affirms that it is legitimate to add more truth to the truth revealed in and by Jesus Christ. Effectively, if not knowingly, denying that Jesus Christ is ‘the light of the world’  and ‘the truth’ (John 8:12 & 14:6, emphasis added), mysticism searches for additional light and truth, thus diluting, distorting and destroying the perfection of truth known by knowing Jesus Christ.

The future of Biblical Christianity hangs in the balance here.

Either the Bible is the final, authentic and authoritative Word of God, and therefore the sole source of true truth, or anything is truth.

Either Jesus Christ is the complete and final revelation of God, and therefore the only true God, or anything is god.  

If mysticism, the way of personal inner impressions, is the right road to truth and the right road to knowing God, then ‘truth’ and ‘God’ have no objective meaning and cannot be defined.

It is imperative that Christians reclaim the once-for-all given objective Truth revealed in Jesus Christ, the Light of the world.  This eternal Truth is, by God’s divine power, recorded for us in anticipation in the Old Testament and in reflection in the New Testament.

C.3 Because the subjective theology of mysticism, with its personalised understanding of truth and reality, effectively reduces, and even denies, the significance of the death of Jesus Christ.

The death of Jesus Christ is an objective, changeless fact. So also is the meaning given to it by the Word of God: He died so that all who believe that he is who he claimed to be are, by that death, reconciled to God, declared right with God, and live within the presence of God without condemnation and guilt (John 3:16-18; 8:24; Romans 3:21-31; 5:6-9; 8:1; 2 Corinthians 5:18-21; Hebrews 10:11-22).

Peace with God is an objective fact, grounded in the death of Jesus Christ, and not dependent on our subjective impressions (Romans 5:1; Colossians 1:20).

Union with God is an objective fact, grounded in the death of Jesus Christ, and not dependent on our subjective impressions (Colossians 1:19-22; 2:20; 3:3).

True joy is grounded on the objective facts of the good news about Jesus Christ (Luke 2:10; Philippians 3:1-9), and not dependent on our subjective impressions.

Irrespective of anything it might say about the death of Jesus Christ, mysticism cannot offer the glorious objective certainty contained in these and other verses. As long as truth and reality are perceived and determined by inner impressions of whatever kind, assurance of salvation is dependent on those impressions. Feelings rather than facts dictate one’s perception of salvation. The peace, the joy, the reconciliation with God, the forgiveness of sin, the removal of guilt, the freedom from condemnation - all are adrift at the mercy of the changing winds of our own inner feelings and fantasies. There is no stability. There is no real assurance.

Discussion point:
Discuss the accuracy and significance of this statement: ‘Mysticism destroys the work of Jesus Christ on the cross, rendering irrelevant and impotent all the suffering that he endured on our behalf.’  

 

 

 

C.4 Because Biblical faith and Biblical repentance are both rational decisions based on objective facts, not irrational emotional responses.

Biblical faith is always grounded in facts.  

Jesus said: ‘You will know the truth and the truth will set you free’ (John 8:32).

Paul said: ‘I know whom I have believed, and am convinced that he is able to guard what I have entrusted to him for that day’ (2 Timothy 1:12).

The Bereans, hearing the Gospel preached by Paul, ‘examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true’ (Acts 17:12).

Paul encouraged Timothy ‘continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, and how from infancy you have known the holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus’ (2 Timothy 3:14,15); and he also told Timothy to be correct and diligent in the way he handled ‘the word of truth’ (2 Timothy 2:15).

Luke, introducing his Gospel, wrote ‘since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good also to me to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught’ (Luke 1:3,4); and introducing Acts wrote: ‘In my former book ... I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach ...’ (Acts 1:1).

John makes it clear that his Gospel records facts about what Jesus did and taught, and that he recorded these facts so that we who read them could believe in Jesus Christ (John 20:30,31; 21:24,25).

To ‘repent’ is literally, to change one’s mind. It is a cognitive decision made in the mind not the emotions.

 (All emphases added).

Biblical faith always believes facts. It is never faith in fantasy, or fiction, or the figments of our imaginations. Nor is it open ended allowing the possibility of further revelation. The facts the Bible requires us to believe are the facts that it presents to us, centring in the person and work of Jesus Christ the Son of God.

This Biblical faith is an act of the mind and will: it is an act of obedience. It is the act in which I repent of (that is, change my mind about) my own concepts of who God is and believe what he has revealed in Jesus Christ his Son. Thus Biblical faith/repentance is the rejection of human ideas about God and spirituality; it is the deliberate rejection of the imaginations and impressions of the human mind. Biblical faith and repentance stand in direct contradiction of mystical spirituality.


D. A WORD ABOUT FEELINGS/EMOTIONS

This strong stand against mysticism might sound to some readers like a condemnation of feelings or emotions.

Not so. It is condemning, not feelings, but the role given to feelings and impressions by mysticism.

In mysticism feelings, impressions, the sensation of hearing inner voices, and the like, are given authority to teach spiritual truth, to direct thought and action, to dictate and validate decisions, to communicate the will of God, to reveal the future, to authorize questionable and even sinful behaviour.

The role that the Bible gives to feelings and emotions is always that of responding to the objective facts:

The fact of the greatness and majesty of God produces the emotions of awe and wonder (Psalm 8).

The fact of the holiness of God produces the sensations of unworthiness and despair (Isaiah 6:1-5).

The fact that God loves us produces the emotion of love (1 John 4:19).

The fact that he forgives us produces the feeling of reverence (Psalm 130:4).

Knowledge of Jesus Christ and his salvation produce ‘an inexpressible and glorious joy’ (1 Peter 1:8,9).

The fact that we are justified by faith brings us peace with God (Romans 5:1), peace with others (Ephesians 2:14a) and peace within ourselves (Philippians 4:7).

These are powerful, often overwhelming, emotions, grounded in the facts that God has written in his Word. They are not fickle, transient, unpredictable emotions. They are not sensations which have been engineered in us by the clever manipulation of our minds and emotions by preachers or worship leaders, nor have they been stirred up by the desires and imaginations of our own hearts and minds. Their permanence does not depend on more and greater stimulation as do the sensations of mysticism. They are not the product of a ‘leap of faith’ into the irrational’ but grounded in the rational objective facts revealed in the written Word.

The joy, the peace, the awe and wonder, the sheer amazement, the overwhelming sense of permanence, completeness and security that come from knowing and believing God through the objective facts of the Scripture far surpass the emotional highs and lows that characterize mysticism. Let us not be so ungrateful to our heavenly Father as to scorn his gift of objective Truth by substituting for it the subjective, inner impressions of our own minds and emotions.

 

E. POSTSCRIPT: A WORD ABOUT RATIONAL, OBJECTIVE FACTS

This chapter on mysticism has stressed the importance of the thoughtful, rational study of the objective facts of the written Word of God. About this objective truth the Bible teaches:

It comes from God; it is his Word; it is revelation. This means it is not the creation or the discovery of man (2 Peter 1:19-21; 2 Timothy 3:14-16; Hebrews 1:1,2).

Left to ourselves we would never understand the true meaning of this revealed, written Word, because of the blindness and sinfulness of our hearts and minds (2 Corinthians 4:4-6; Romans 1:18-31; 3:9-18).

The only way we can understand this revealed written Word is for God himself to open our understanding (2 Corinthians 4:6; Matthew 11:25-27; 16:17; John 1:18; 8:12).

This affirmation of the importance of believing the rational, objective facts of God’s self-revelation in Scripture is therefore far removed from rationalism which maintains that man left to himself and by his own intellectual efforts can understand ultimate truth and reality without any supernatural revelation.

For extra study:
Carefully study the Bible verses mentioned in C.1 to C.4. Make a list of the texts that refer to ‘truth’, ‘mind’, ‘know’, ‘understand’ or derivatives of these words. Add verses to this list whenever you find them in your Bible reading. Use these texts when talking with someone trapped in mysticism.