Was Paul A Mystic?
Transiency—“Once Upon a Time”
By nature, all religious experiences are transient. Circumstances and people vary from day to day. Because they’re rooted in life, and because from day to day situations do not remain the same, our feelings change. Feelings are fleeting, and do not last. Life is filled with various experiences! About emotions, Martin Luther (1483-1546) wisely wrote,
And feelings are deceiving;
My warrant is the Word of God.
Naught else is worth believing.
Mysticism seeks the mountain peaks of experience where the air is rare (See Matthew 17:1-8.), but it cannot survive in that altitude for long. Real life, even our spiritual life, must be lived below. Therefore, any mystical taste of timelessness does not last.
Did the spirituality of Paul possess qualities of transience? It should not surprise us that some aspects of his spirituality were transient, while others were not. For example, Paul stated that the filling of the Holy Spirit is transient in the lives of believers (Ephesians 5:18). So too were some spiritual gifts (1 Corinthians 13:8-11). Paul’s trip to Paradise did not last. It happened fourteen years before he related it to the Corinthians. While the ramifications of it were ongoing in his Christian life, the apostle’s Damascus Road experience did not last. But because this was true of some of Paul’s experiences, does not mean that it was true of all his experiences.
As opposed to the temporality of some spiritual gifts, love is unfailing (1 Corinthians 13:8). Too, the spiritual presence of Christ in the life of the believer, the state of being “in Christ,” is not temporary. He is always with and will never forsake believers (Matthew 28:19; Hebrews 13:5). Scripture does not portray Paul’s, or a believer’s, experience of being sealed with the Spirit as temporary. Far from being transient, the sealing of the Spirit is permanent in the life of the believer until the day of redemption; that is, until we arrive in the Lord’s presence for eternity (Ephesians 4:30; 1:13; 2 Corinthians 1:22). Furthermore, all believers have been baptized by the Spirit, and the baptism cannot be broken (1 Corinthians 12:13). Although aspects of Paul’s spirituality were transient, others were constant and continuing in the apostle’s life, and so also they are for all true believers.
Passivity—“I Can’t Control What Happens”
We should note that according to James, passivity is another characteristic of mystical experiences. Yet these experiences, as he points out, “may be facilitated by preliminary voluntary operations, as by fixing the attention, or going through certain bodily performances, or in other ways which manuals of mysticism prescribe.” Typically, Christian mystics engage in meditative techniques, or disciplines, in order to generate mystical ecstasy, experiences, and encounters. In other words, they are proactive.
Paul’s experience however, was passive-reactive. Two parallel phrases bear this out. First, Paul states that he was “caught up” (Greek, harpazo), that is, raptured to the third heaven” (2 Corinthians 12:2; Compare 1 Thessalonians 4:17.). Presumably speaking of himself, Paul again mentions “a man . . . was caught up” (Greek, harpazo), that is raptured into Paradise (2 Corinthians 12:4). The verbs in both references to the same event are passive indicating that Paul was acted upon. The apostle did nothing to initiate what for him was an exceptional experience. As one commentator affirms, “What has happened has been done to Paul; he did nothing to obtain the vision.” Paul’s experience was not the result of following the procedures and preparations of the mystic way. But like the coming translation of the church (1 Thessalonians 4:17), Paul was “caught up.” His transport to Paradise was sudden, unexpected, and abrupt, an event for which he made no preparations. By God’s sovereign grace it happened to him one time. In short, he did not experience Paradise by the proactive works of mystical methods, but as a gift of sovereign grace. Therefore, his experience cannot be categorized as mystical.
If the coming translation of those “in Christ” provides a parallel (The same Greek word for “caught up” is used in both 2 Corinthians 12:2, 4, and 1 Thessalonians 4:17.), Paul’s trip to the third heaven may well have come to him as “a thief in the night” (1 Thessalonians 5:2). Because of the interruptive nature of Paul’s experience, it departs from the mystical pattern of preparing for experiences.
Fusion—“I and the Absolute are One”
Though not noted by James to be among the four basic characteristics of mysticism, absorption into, or fusion with, the Absolute, or Love, is the climax and goal of mystical practices. Of such assimilation into God James stated,
[T]his overcoming of all the usual barriers between the individual and the Absolute is the great mystic achievement. In mystic states we both become one with the Absolute and we become aware of our oneness.
Evangelical E. Glenn Hinson stated that a fundamental conviction of contemplatives is that they “may see God or be united with God, though fleetingly, while [they] are still living in this present state of existence.” This state of absorption into God is also known as theosis.
For reason of Paul’s statement that “it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me,” William James viewed that Paul’s and Jesus’ personalities had become fused into mystical oneness. The two had become one. By engaging spiritual exercises, Paul was absorbed into union with the Christ-God. Some might even suggest that mystically he had become a god-man. However, there are reasons why such fusion could not have taken place.
First, God is holy. That God is holy marks Him out to be separate from His creation and from His creatures, including men and angels. God is “wholly other” from His creatures. To Israel Jehovah said, “For I am God and not man, the Holy One in your midst” (Hosea 11:9). The chasm between the being of God and the being of humans will never be completely bridged.
Yet Lucifer once vowed, “I will be like the most High.” (Isaiah 14:14). Satan tempted Eve by telling her, “you will be like God” (Genesis 3:5). The Babylonians deludingly boasted, “I am, and there is no one besides me,” and in doing so, insulted the holiness of the One who declared, “I am the Lord, and there is no other” (Compare the Lord—Isaiah 44:6; 45:5,6, 18, 22; 46:9; to the Babylonians—Isaiah 47:8, 10.). The aspiration of Lucifer to “be like” God, the temptation of Eve to “be like God,” and the “I am” claim of the Babylonians to be God, directly assaulted God’s holiness. Disregarding the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit which makes God immanent in the life of the believer (Romans 8:9b), the idea that any person could view that they were absorbed into God, and vice versa, challenges God’s apartness from humanity.
Second, Jesus is God (Philippians 2:6). Paul was not. The apostle’s personality did not become deity. By his own admission, Paul did not view himself to be divine. To Paul there was “one God and Father of all” (Ephesians 4:6). Paul understood that a coming “man of lawlessness” would claim to be God, that he would exalt “himself above every so-called god or object of worship,” and that he would take “his seat in the temple of God, displaying himself as being God” (2 Thessalonians 2:4). The spirit of anti-Christ in the world ever claims divinity for itself. Paul never claimed to be deity, or thought he had achieved theosis, a state of fusion with God.
Third, for reason of Jesus’ sinlessness and Paul’s sinfulness, the distinct persons of the Lord and the apostle could not have become mystically one. Regarding Jesus’ sinlessness, something He claimed and the apostles claimed for Him (John 8:46; 2 Corinthians 5:21; 1 Peter 2:22; 1 John 3:5), Paul would never have embraced the idea that Jesus’ perfection was fused into him so that he was without sin (See Romans 7:24.). Though after his conversion Paul sinned less, he never claimed to be sinless (1 Timothy 1:15). For reason of the Lord’s perfection and Paul’s imperfection, his personality was not, and could not have been, absorbed into Jesus’.
Fourth, in this verse Paul states, “The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” For reason of being in Christ, Paul did not lose his ego. He retained his unique personhood. Even though possessing a new nature, Paul’s personality was not mystically absorbed into Jesus.
Regarding this whole idea of Paul’s mystical absorption into Christ, Richard Longenecker commented,
[T]he mysticism of biblical religion is not some esoteric searching for a path to be followed that will result in union with the divine, but is always the nature of a response to God’s grace wherein people who have been mercifully touched by God enter into communion with him without ever losing their own identities.
Though Paul’s theology of spirituality was one of communion with the divine, it was not one of fusion, or union, with the divine. As Peter put it, according to God’s power and promise, Paul was a “partaker” of the divine nature, but he was not wholly possessed by it (2 Peter 1:2-5). As Rightmire stated, “The relation of Christians to Christ is one of faith, not mystical absorption.” If Christianity is to remain Christian, the biblical “I and Thou” relationship between man and God must be respected and advocated.
Someone has said that the Christian faith is not so much about pronouns as it is prepositions, and no prepositional phrase has more meaning than the little phrase “in Christ.” . . .
TO BE CONTINUED TOMORROW. . . . . .
1. James, Religious Experience, 381.
2. Ralph P. Martin, Word Biblical Commentary: 2 Corinthians (Waco: Word Books, Publishers, 1986) 398.
3. James, Religious Experience, 419.
4. E. Glenn Hinson, “The Contemplative View,” Christian Spirituality, Five Views of Sanctification, Donald L. Alexander, Editor (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1988) 176.
5. James, Religious Experience, 418.
6. Richard N. Longenecker, Word Biblical Commentary: Galatians (Dallas: Word Books, Publishers, 1990) 93.
7. Rightmire, “Union,” 791.
Pastor Larry DeBruyn is the author of Church on the Rise: Why I am not a Purpose-Driven Pastor. This series "Was Paul A Mystic?" is a revised version of Appendix Two appearing in his book. Used with permission.