Monday, May 05, 2008

Was Paul A Mystic?

Part 1
By Pastor Larry DeBruyn

“See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception,
according to the tradition of men,
according to the elementary principles of the world,
rather than according to Christ.”

- The Apostle Paul, Colossians 2:8

“Then there were the outright mystics who fell into trances. The droplets of their personality were poured out into the ocean of God’s being. Like air when it is so impregnated with light that it is more light than air, and like iron, which in the fire looks more like fire than iron, so the mystic soul becomes ineffably divine. No conceptual information is thus received, but it is a deeply satisfying experience.”
- Gordon H. Clark [1]

Although defying exact definition because the practices and experiences of mystics are so various and mysterious, one dictionary defines mysticism as, “the doctrine of an immediate spiritual intuition of truths believed to transcend ordinary understanding, or of a direct, intimate union of the soul with God through contemplation and love.”[2] Note that in contrast to God revealing Himself in Scripture, mystical truth is individually, intimately, and immediately intuited through spiritual experiences.

In his book The Varieties of Religious Experience, William James identified four main characteristics of mystical experience: first, ineffability; second, noetic quality; third, transiency; and fourth, passivity.[3] James also notes that absorption, fusion, or union of the individual into the Absolute, or deity, is “the great mystic achievement.” He adds, “In mystic states we both become one with the Absolute and we become aware of our oneness.”[4] On this point, James apparently suggested a fifth characteristic of mysticism—absorption.

There are those who speak of “Christian mysticism” and assert that the apostle Paul was a mystic.[5] From his epistles, they cite his experience, that of going to Paradise, and his condition, that of being “in Christ,” as evidences of his mysticism. For this reason, it is incumbent upon Bible believers to understand what Paul was saying about his experiences.

To determine if Paul was a mystic, analysis shall be offered regarding the incident of his being carried to “the third heaven,” and his state of being “in Christ.” The apostle’s experience and spiritual state shall be evaluated according to William James’ five characteristics of mystical experiences to determine whether or not Paul was a mystic. We note first the two primary New Testament references causing some to deduce that the apostle was a mystic.

Paul’s Journey to “Paradise”
In the twelfth chapter of 2 Corinthians Paul provided this autobiographical account of what some consider to have been a mystical experience. He wrote,

I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago—whether in the body I do not know, or out of the body I do not know, God knows—such a man was caught up to the third heaven. And I know how such a man—whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, God knows—was caught up into Paradise, and heard inexpressible words, which a man is not permitted to speak (2 Corinthians 12:2-4).[6]

Paul’s Life “In Christ”
William James and others consider Paul’s statement of being “in Christ” to be descriptive of the mystical state of absorption. This state is indicated by these well-known words written to the Galatians.

For through the Law I died to the Law, that I might live to God. 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 (Emphasis mine, Galatians 2:19-20).

Because of his teaching on the believer’s union with Christ, some label Paul’s teaching, “Christian ‘mysticism’.”[7]

But before looking at Paul’s transport to “the third heaven,” and his state of being “in Christ,” Paul’s spirituality needs to be distinguished from mysticism.

Reactive Spirituality versus Proactive Mysticism
In a chapter “Mysticism and Morality,” contained in his book A Man in Christ, Scottish preacher and Professor James S. Stewart (1896-1990) pointed out that Adolf Deissmann categorized mysticism to be of two types: acting, and reacting. For our purposes, the two different models might be called proactive mysticism, and reactive spirituality. Reactive spirituality is of grace, an “experience in which the action of God . . . produces a reaction towards God.”[8] In other words, God initiates and man responds. On the other hand, proactive mysticism is of works, a mystic communion resulting from the mystic’s “own action, from which a reaction follows on the part of Deity.” In other words, by engaging intentional mystical practices, man initiates, then God responds. Though disagreeing with labeling the apostle’s theology of the spiritual life “Christian mysticism,” Stewart’s distinction helps differentiate between Paul’s reactive spirituality, and proactive mysticism. Of this distinction Professor Stewart wrote:

Much religion has been made of the latter kind [i.e., proactive mysticism]. Man’s action has been regarded as the primary thing. The soul has endeavoured to ascend towards God. Spiritual exercises [e.g., spiritual disciplines] have been made the ladder for the ascent. But all this savors of the religion of works as contrasted with the religion of grace. Paul’s attitude was different. His mysticism was essentially of the reacting kind. Christ, not Paul, held the initiative. Union with the eternal was not a human achievement: it was the gift of God. It came, not by any spiritual exercises [e.g., spiritual disciplines], but by God’s self-revelation, God’s self-impartation. The words “It pleased God to reveal His Son in me,” which remind us that the Damascus experience itself was the foundation of the apostle’s mysticism, are Paul’s emphatic way of saying that God’s action always holds priority: His servant simply reacts to the action of God. [9]

Stewart then concludes by stating that Paul’s spirituality was “all of grace; and it is well to be reminded by the apostle that union with Christ is not something we have to achieve by effort, but something we have to accept by faith.”[10]

In separating Christianity from the mystery religions, David Rightmire also observes that the apostle, “viewed communion with God as an act of divine grace, coming not by any spiritual exercises, but by God’s self-revelation (Gal. 1:16).”[11] In other words, spirituality based upon reaction to revelation is of a different sort than spirituality conjured up through the practices and disciplines of the mystical way. The former is initiated by God, and based upon “faith,” while the latter is initiated by man, and based upon “works.”

The contemplative spirituality promoted by and amongst evangelicals today belongs to the acting, or proactive, category of mysticism. Spiritual directors advise using various spiritual disciplines or techniques—solitude and silence, fasting, walking prayer labyrinths, Taizé worship, spiritual retreats, lectio divina (reading sacred things), journaling, religious pilgrimages, and so on—to initiate intimacy and revelatory encounters with God. But as Professors Stewart and Rightmire pointed out, Paul did not embrace such a works model of spirituality. If practices (i.e., means of grace) are engaged in to promote spiritual growth, then they ought to find precedent in the revealed Word of God (i.e., prayer, Scripture reading and study, singing spiritual songs, witnessing, fellowshipping with the saints, and observing the ordinances of baptism and the Lord’s Table). If methods of spiritual growth are not sourced in the Bible, but are of human invention, then Paul’s question to the Galatians seems appropriate. He asked them, “Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?” (Galatians 3:3). Paul’s paradigm of spirituality focused upon grace. He gave no advice for experiencing spirituality via works of the mystic way.[12]

Before determining whether Paul was a mystic by evaluating his spirituality according to William James’ five characteristics of mystical experiences, Paul’s Paradise experience and his state of being “in Christ” need to be understood.

Imposter Apostles
As to Paul’s reference to his being transported to “the third heaven,” we must know that the Christians at Corinth were beguiled by imposter apostles who projected themselves as strong, self-assured, and successful, and who made claims to have had extraordinary religious experiences. As compared to Paul, whose personal presence was “unimpressive” and whose speech “contemptible,” the false teachers appeared to be slick, self-confident, and smooth (See 2 Corinthians 10:10.). To counteract the super apostles who boasted of their strength, Paul boasted in his weaknesses (2 Corinthians 11:12-15, 30).

Revelations in Paradise
In the face of the false apostles’ claim to have had superior spiritual experiences, Paul reluctantly countered them by referring to his “visions and revelations of the Lord” (2 Corinthians 12:1). Because Paul’s trip to Paradise came fourteen years before he wrote 2 Corinthians around A.D. 55-56, the experience can be placed as having happened sometime before his first missionary journey around A.D. 42-44. Efforts by scholars to reconstruct the historical context of this event in Paul’s life are futile. All that can be known about his experience is contained in the apostle’s second letter to the Corinthians. In comparison to his overall ministry, Paul’s transport to Paradise was an obscure, if not minor, event. Paul did not set up his experience as an example for others to try to emulate. Unlike many contemplative spiritualists, he offered no advice to others on how they could achieve a similar experience.

Paul states that his “visions and revelations” were “of the Lord.” Jesus was either the subject or the origin of the “visions and revelations” he received. Possibly both ideas play out in Paul’s statement. The visions originated from the Lord, and were about Him. They were revelatory. From a general statement regarding “visions and revelation” he had received, Paul proceeded to relate one particular experience.

Beginning with ineffability, we now turn to analyze Paul’s spirituality in accord with the five characteristics of mysticism as stated by William James.


1. Gordon H. Clark, “Revealed Religion,” Fundamentals of the Faith, Carl F.H. Henry, Editor (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1969) 16.
2. The Random House Collegiate Dictionary, Jess Stein, Editor in Chief (New York: Random House, Inc., 1988) 882.
3. William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience (New York: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1919) 380-382.
4. Ibid. 419.
5. Seemingly, in 1931, Albert Schweitzer wrote a seminal work defining the mysticism of Paul. See The Mysticism of Paul the Apostle, Translated by William Montgomery (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998).
6. In a footnote Arthur L. Johnson wrote he could find few, if any, events or experiences in the Bible that were unqualifiedly mystical. In his opinion, one that might qualify was Paul’s being caught up into the third heaven, into Paradise (2 Corinthians 12:1-5). See Faith Misguided, Exposing the Dangers of Mysticism (Chicago: Moody Press, 1988) 22.
7. R. David Rightmire, “Union with Christ,” Baker Theological Dictionary of the Bible, Walter A. Elwell, Editor (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1996) 792.
8. James S. Stewart, A Man In Christ (New York: Harper and Row Publishers, n.d.) 163.
9. Ibid. 164.
10. Ibid.
11. Ibid.
12. Rightmire, “Union.”