Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Was Paul A Mystic?

Part 2

By Pastor Larry DeBruyn

Ineffable adj. 1. too overwhelming to be expressed or described in words; inexpressible 2. too awesome or sacred to be spoken*

Ineffability—“I Can’t Explain It”

Paul experienced unexplainable ecstasy in Paradise. In their seeking after similar divine encounters, Christian mystics identify with Paul and find precedent for their experience—or so they think—from the apostle. In addition to his experience in Paradise being passive and transient, Paul’s Paradise experience was primarily ineffable. First, Paul was unable to tell whether his experience was “in the body,” or “out of the body.” He also was unable to define his experience of going to, and being in, Paradise. His experience was inexpressible. That Paul’s experience was inexpressible marks it out to have been ineffable; and because it was ineffable, it is therefore categorized to have been mystical. Based upon his writings, and within the context of ancient Judaism, some persons claim that Paul was a merkabah mystic.[14]

Winfried Corduan agrees that ineffability (i.e., the incapability of being expressed or described), is perhaps the most common characteristic of mystical religious experiences.[15] Though noting that all human communication is deficient in one way or another, Corduan asks in one chapter, “Can Language Describe Mystical Experience?” After discussing the issues, he answers, “Upon analysis, mysticism and a meaningful use of language seem to be mutually exclusive.”[16] As Gordon Clark described ineffability,

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.[17]

Mystics often use paradoxical language to express the inexpressible, sayings like “mute language . . . shouting silence . . . shoreless lake,” and so forth. In contrast to a mystic whose experience defies explanation, Paul’s experience was inexpressible because God forbade him to describe the details of what he saw. Paul “heard inexpressible words, which a man is not permitted to speak” (1 Corinthians 12:4). It’s not that Paul could not describe his experience, but rather that for reason of God’s prohibition, he would not describe it. For good reasons, he was under a gag order from God not to talk about the details of being in Paradise. By forbidding Paul to speak of his experience, “God ensured,” writes Scott Hafemann, “that the basis of apostolic authority did not become ecstatic, mystical experience.”[18] Unlike the imposter apostles, there was and is nothing to be gained by self-promotion based upon claims of hearing mystical voices or seeing mystical visions.

As they boasted in the details of their spiritual experiences to one-up Paul’s authority amongst the Corinthians, the imposter apostles had apparently taken their stand on visions they had seen (Colossians 2:18). But Paul was under strict orders not to create a competition of experiences, a “can-you-top-this-one” contest. Unlike his opponents, Paul made no claim that his experience enhanced his spiritual résumé, or added to his apostolic authority. Paul waited fourteen years to relate this incident to anyone, indicating that he considered his private experiences unessential for asserting his apostolic credibility, maintaining his spirituality, and pursuing his ministry. Though his letters are full of directions for practicing the faith, Paul provides no directions to the Corinthians for pursuing experiences like the one he had in Paradise. By Paul’s example we can assume that, contrary to the advice of many contemplative spiritualists, neither are extra-biblical visionary and auditory experiences essential for our spirituality either. On the point of ineffability, Paul’s experience departs from mysticism. It’s not that he couldn’t describe being in Paradise, but rather that he wouldn’t describe it, because God forbade him to do so.

Noetic Quality—“The Mind Game of Timelessness”
Noetic means “of or pertaining to the mind.” James wrote that though similar “to states of feeling, mystical states seem to those who experience them to be also states of knowledge.”[19] To mystics, the mystical states of timelessness in inner space (i.e., in their minds), may be compared to an astronaut’s experience of weightlessness in outer space. The goal of mysticism is to shed the gravity of history to experience the weightlessness of eternity, and it’s all intuited in the mind. Among other descriptions, this mystic state is called a “dateless ecstasy,” or the “beginningless beginning.” Through contemplation and other spiritual exercises, mystics desire to attain a state of suspended animation in which they can taste eternity in their souls. For them, heaven can’t wait.

When mystics have transcendently tasted of eternity, time becomes illusory. Two characteristics of mystical experiences are non-spatiality, and non-temporality.[20] Mystics who have experienced “dateless ecstasy” live in what they believe is the eternal present. One result of this view of time is that many mystics believe in reincarnation. For mystics, the experience of timelessness carries with it “a curious sense of authority for after-time.”[21]

But such a view of spirituality directly contradicts the Christian faith which presents history as “His story.” First, to Abraham, Moses, and the prophets, and then through John the Baptist, Jesus, and the apostles, God revealed Himself to man in and through sequential historical events. “The Hebrew-Christian faith” as George E. Ladd once put it, “did not grow out of lofty philosophical speculation or profound mystical experiences.”[22] The Christian faith is spatial, material, temporal, and therefore historical, logical, and rational. Jesus was born into history. God sent forth his Son in “the fullness of time” (Galatians 4:4). Jesus died in history. Jesus rose from the dead in history. And Jesus is coming again in history. Christianity was not intuited by man from below, but revealed to man by God from above, and as such, possesses a propositional content and objectivity that distinguishes it from other religions. About a century ago, Benjamin B. Warfield (1851-1921) stated the difference between Christianity and mysticism to be as follows:

Christ is history, and Christ’s cross is history, and mysticism which lives solely on what is within can have nothing to do with history; mysticism which seeks solely eternal verities can have nothing to do with time and that which has occurred in time.[23]

About such a supra-historical view, when time is viewed as illusory, Arthur Johnson notes that,

[O]ne result is that the way is opened to say that truth is whatever one happens to believe. It has no real relation to the objective world of actual events and things. Truth may then be said to be totally subjective and relative. [24]

Mystical religion, and contemplative spirituality, will go down easy with and amongst post moderns who reject the notion that there is such a strange critter as objective truth, or true truth, as Francis Schaeffer put it.

For reason of his view of history, the apostle Paul cannot be considered a mystic. As his writings attest, he often refers to and quotes from the revelatory events and words of the Old Testament. Paul firmly believed in history, history that had a beginning, and will end. Paul also did not allow his view of eternity to consume his understanding of time, and the importance of events that happen in time. Paul’s faith was more than a state of mind.


14. The Hebrew word “merkabah,” meaning chariot, was associated with Ezekiel’s chariot vision contained in chapter one, verses 15-20 of his prophecy.
15. James, Religious Experience. James states that the number one characteristic of mystical experiences is ineffability, “that no adequate report of its contents can be given in words.”(380).
16. Winfried Corduan, Mysticism, An Evangelical Option? (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1991) 92.
17. Clark, “Revealed Religion,” 16.
18. Scott J. Hafemann, The NIV Application Commentary: 2 Corinthians (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 2000) 460.
19. James, Religious Experience, 380.
20. R.A. Gilbert, The Elements of Mysticism (Boston: Element Books, Inc., 1991) 84.
21. James, Religious Experience, 381.
22. George E. Ladd, “The Knowledge of God: The Saving Acts of God,” Basic Christian Doctrines, Carl F.H Henry, Editor (Grand Rapids, New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston 1962) 7.
23. Benjamin B. Warfield, “Mysticism and Christianity,” The Works of Benjamin B. Warfield, Volume 9 (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 2003) 424.
24. Johnson, Faith Misguided, 37.

*This definition was added. From Webster's New World Dictionary, 2nd College Edition, 1976.

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.

The Truth:

"And her prophets have daubed them with untempered mortar, seeing vanity, and divining lies unto them, saying, Thus saith the Lord God, when the LORD hath not spoken." (Ezekiel 21: 28)