Was Paul A Mystic?
The 2008 Emergent Theological Conversation, ReClaiming Paul: The Apostle in the Emerging World is now taking registrations. Co-Sponsored by Nazarene Theological Seminary and hosted at Jacob's Well Church in Kansas City, the conversation will take place October 22-24, 2008. The cost is $189, and the event is limited to 300 participants.
This promises to be an extraordinary event, mixing Pauline scholars and emergent pastors to wrestle with Paul's theology, and the application of his writings in the 21st centtury.[sic] Find out more and register HERE.
(-Emergent/C newsletter, 5/8/08)*
By Pastor Larry DeBruyn
The phrases “in Christ,” “in the Lord,” in Him,” “in the Spirit,” and a few similar ones, occur hundreds of times in the writings of Paul. The phrase does not occur in the Gospels. Though the disciples were “with” Christ, they were not “in” Christ until after Pentecost. What does it mean for Christian believers to be “in Christ”? How does someone become “in Christ”? And what are the implications of being “in Christ’ for our Christian experience?
The phrase describes what some call the Christian’s mystical union with Christ. To the Galatians, Paul explained this bonding when he wrote, “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me, and delivered Himself up for me” (Galatians 2:20). Professor David Rightmire states that “in Christ” describes “a spiritual reality that interpenetrates all of life and finds corporate expression in the body of Christ.” With the vine and branches metaphor, Jesus illustrated His union with the disciples. He said,
Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, unless it abides in the vine, so neither can you, unless you abide in Me. I am the vine, you are the branches; he who abides in Me, and I in him, he bears much fruit; for apart from Me you can do nothing (John 15:4-5).
But given the tenets of mystical practices and beliefs, referring to this union between Christ and the Christian as mystical, is a misnomer, and confusing.
Almost four-hundred years ago, Henry Scougal (1650-1678) wrote,
[T]rue religion is a union of the soul with God, a real participation in the divine nature, the very image of God drawn upon the soul. In the apostle’s words, it is “Christ formed in you.”
No phrase bespeaks the infusion of divine life into a human soul more than the little phrase “in Christ.” “If any man be in Christ he is a new creation . . .” (2 Corinthians 5:17). We note the words “if any.” Spiritual union “in Christ” is the universal experience of ordinary Christians who by faith belong to God. Divine union is the fait accompli of all those who come to God through faith in Jesus Christ, and not awareness obtained by a mystical few. According to His divine power and promises, Peter stated that God has made us to “become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world by lust” (2 Peter 1:4). To every believer, Paul says, “in Him you have been made complete” (Colossians 2:10). The believer’s state of being “in Christ” is not a mystical end in itself, but issues forth in real moral and ethical life changes.
We should note that not only did Paul’s extraordinary vision occur “in Christ” (2 Corinthians 12:2), but he also lived every day “in Christ.” Like Paul, and for reason of being “in Christ,” it can be further observed that, unlike mystical experiences, God’s presence is abiding, not spasmodic. Given the fact that all believers possess this bonding in Christ by faith, why should they seek exceptional experiences with, even absorption into God, by the works of intentional mystical and spiritual practices? After all, by grace Christians are already bonded to Him. Of Paul’s exceptional experiences, Stewart writes that,
[H]e would never dream of using them to disparage the more normal experiences of souls ‘hid with Christ in God.’ On the contrary, it was in the daily, ever-renewed communion, rather than in the transient rapture, that the inmost nature of Christianity lay.
Spiritual union is not the special province of those who, through the works of mysticism, cultivate the higher life, and their sense of a divine presence. There is a tendency to elevate some mystical Christians to a special status, and to revere them. But as Charles Spurgeon wrote,
Do not, then, look upon the ancient saints as being exempt either from infirmities or sins; and do not regard them with that mystic reverence which will almost make us idolaters. Their holiness is attainable even by us. We are “called to be saints” by that same voice which constrained them to their high vocation.
All of this raises the question, how does it come upon a person to be found “in Christ”?
The Baptism of the Spirit
The event which places a believer into spiritual union with Christ is the baptism in, with, or by the Holy Spirit. As Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free, and we were all made to drink of one Spirit” (1 Corinthians 12:13). About the Spirit baptism mentioned here by Paul, we need to answer the question, who does the baptizing? Is it the Holy Spirit, or Jesus? Most Bible versions translate the preposition with the English preposition “by” (KJV, NASB, NIV, and NKJV), in which case, the Holy Spirit is suggested to be the one who does the baptizing. In other words, we are spiritually united to the church and other Christians “by” the Spirit. However, given the theological context of Spirit baptism, this is not the preposition’s best meaning. The Spirit does not perform the baptizing. Here’s why.
After his self-deprecating remarks, John the Baptist pointed to Jesus and said, “I baptized you with water; but He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit” (Mark 1:8; See also Matthew 3:11; Luke 3:16; John 1:33; Acts 1:5.). In other words, just as John had physically baptized believers into the Jordan waters, so one day Jesus would spiritually baptize believers into union with the Spirit and Himself, thereby bonding true believers together in Christ’s body, the church. If this understanding is correct, then Jesus can be understood to be the unnamed agent who does the spiritual baptizing in 1 Corinthians 12:13. For reason of their being baptized “in” the Spirit by Christ, believers enter the state of being “in Christ.”
It must be understood that in every instance where Holy Spirit baptism is mentioned, the recipients of it are passive. “For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free, and we were all made to drink of one Spirit” (1 Corinthians 12:13). In other words, as a sovereign work of God, the event comes upon all believers, not just a mystical few. For this reason, there is no mystical meaning to being “in the Spirit” and “in Christ,” for the recipients of Spirit baptism are reacting, not acting. The passivity of Spirit baptism fits the paradigm of New Testament spirituality set forth by the apostle.
By virtue of his being united to the Lord, of being “in Christ,” Paul acknowledged the spiritual presence of Christ in his life. However, Paul did not derive understanding of his spiritual state via intuition and contemplation, but by revelation from God.
Was Paul a Mystic?
In order to make the determination whether Paul was a mystic, we evaluated Paul’s Paradise experience and his state of being “in Christ” according to the mystical characteristics of ineffability, noetic quality, transiency, passivity, and absorption. We found that Paul’s theology of spirituality is adverse to these qualities. Though he was intensely and passionately spiritual, Paul was not a religious mystic. He viewed that his spirituality originated from outside, not from inside, himself (Romans 10:6-10). He understood that Jesus Christ was the revelatory source of this knowledge (Galatians 1:12). And he asserted that the Holy Spirit teaches believers about spiritual things so “that we might know the things freely given to us by God” (1 Corinthians 2:12b; See 1 Corinthians 2:6-16.). In the Word and through the Spirit, New Covenant believers have access to all the knowledge they need to know about the spiritual life. In Christ we “have been made complete” (Colossians 2:10; See Ephesians 3:14-10.).
Yet Professor David F. Wells observes, “People who are attracted to mysticism usually assume that what is hidden in God is other than what is revealed, or that it is deeper or more interesting or spiritually nourishing.” But Paul did not view that there was something more to the spiritual life than what Jesus Christ had made known to him, and presumably through him to us. The mysteries of the faith were revealed to him, not concealed from him. As he wrote to the Colossians, “God willed to make known what is the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Colossians 1:27). The knowledge of a believer’s being “in Christ” was revealed to Paul. As with the rest of the saving and sanctifying Gospel, such knowledge was received “through a revelation [from] Jesus Christ” (Galatians 1:12; See Romans 16:25; Ephesians 3:3.). Paul did not discover his state of being “in Christ” by contemplating the hidden things of God. He did not unravel the mystery of his being in Christ, and of Christ being in him, through mystical meditation. Rather, it was revealed to him by Christ. Paul was not a mystic, and to refer to the apostle’s teaching as “Christian mysticism” is confusing and misleading.
32. Ibid. 790.
33. Henry Scougal, “The Life of God in the Soul of Man,” The Works of the Rev. Henry Scougal, Dr. Don Kistler, Editor (Morgan, Pennsylvania: Soil Deo Gloria Publications, 2002) 3.
34. Stewart, A Man in Christ, 162.
35. Charles H. Spurgeon, Morning and Evening, Morning July 5 (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 1991) 374.
36. If Jesus is the unnamed agent who does the Spirit baptizing, then this further indicates there to be one spiritual baptism, and not as Pentecostalism asserts, two. There is one baptizer who performs one baptism (See Ephesians 4:5.). In the Acts passages, chapters 2, 8, 10 and 19, what Luke narrates in every instance is an initial baptism by Jesus in the Spirit, not a second. Additionally, in the baptism, the recipients are passive, not active. They do not “get” the baptism in the Spirit. They receive it from Jesus Christ.
37. The question regarding the prepositional phrase, “through a revelation of Jesus Christ” (Italics mine, Galatians 1:12, NASB), is whether Jesus Christ was the object, or the agent, of what was revealed to Paul. If the genitive (i.e., “of”) is objective, then the revelation was about Jesus Christ. If we understand the genitive (i.e., “of”) to be subjective, then the revelation was from Jesus Christ. The latter interpretation makes the best sense. The revelation came to Paul through Jesus Christ, perhaps at the time he encountered Him on the road to Damascus. See Longenecker, Galatians, 23-24.
38. David F. Wells, God in the Wasteland, The Reality of Truth in a World of Fading Dreams (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1994) 132.
*This quote was added by the Discernment Research Group due to its timely relevance to this topic.
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.
"But though we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed." (Galatians 1:8)