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Enjoying God Blog


Starting later this week I will be devoting my twice-weekly podcast to the subject of mysticism. Four episodes are forthcoming. There is a lot of confusion and misrepresentation when it comes to mysticism, and I will do my best to dig down deeply into precisely what it means and how it has been expressed in the life of the church.

So perhaps we should begin with a definition.

Mysticism cannot in any way be conceived as a movement for the simple fact that it is, by definition, inconsistent with those organizational structures that are characteristic of all movements. That is to say, mysticism lacks definable theological boundaries (i.e., it has no enduring doctrinal statement, so to speak), it has no designated leaders, and it has always been resistant to the rules and regulations that religious institutions inevitably embrace in the course of their development. In other words, mysticism is much too fluid and diverse to qualify as an identifiable movement. Mysticism is more a unique religious emphasis or element within Christian experience as a whole.

Here is a working definition of mysticism:

Mysticism is an approach to Christianity that focuses on preparation for, consciousness of, and reaction to what can be described as the immediate or direct presence of God. Emphasis is placed on the subjective or “felt” experience of being in an intimate relationship with God, what some mystics refer to as “spiritual ecstasy”. The earthly goal of this relationship is personal ethical and spiritual transformation, the heavenly culmination of which is the beatific vision.

One persistent misconception about mysticism is that it is a “Catholic” thing, rarely found among Protestants. It is true, of course, that the majority of mystics in the late medieval period were part of the Roman Catholic Church. But we must remember that at this time in history there were no other churches (there were isolated sects that had broken off from Catholicism). In those days, to be a Christian was to be a Catholic (with notable exceptions, of course).

The important thing to remember is that one can find mysticism in varying degrees in virtually all streams of Christendom. John Calvin, for example, champion of the Protestant Reformation, makes statements that most Catholic mystics would heartily embrace:

“Therefore, that joining together of Head and members, that indwelling of Christ in our hearts – in short, that mystical union – are accorded by us the highest degree of importance, so that Christ, having been made ours, makes us sharers with him in the gifts with which he has been endowed. We do not, therefore, contemplate him outside ourselves from afar in order that his righteousness may be imputed to us but because we put on Christ and are engrafted into his body – in short, because he deigns to make us one with him. For this reason, we glory that we have fellowship of righteousness with him” (Institutes, 3.11.10).

Again, he writes,

“Christ is not outside us but dwells within us. Not only does he cleave to us by an indivisible bond of fellowship, but with a wonderful communion, day by day, he grows more and more into one body with us, until he becomes completely one with us” (3.2.24).

In his Commentary on Ephesians, Calvin says this:

“Such is the union between us and Christ, that in a sense He pours himself into us. For we are not bone of His bone, and flesh of His flesh, because, like ourselves, He is man, but because, by the power of His Spirit, He engrafts us into His body, so that from Him we derive life” (209).

Jonathan Edwards, famous Puritan pastor and theologian of the 18th century, often spoke and wrote in terms that could easily pass for “mystical”. He spoke of his desire to “enjoy” God and “be wrapt up to God in Heaven, and be as it were swallowed up in Him.” Edwards found great delight in the Song of Solomon, the favorite book of medieval mystics, and described its impact on him as follows:

“[I found] from time to time, an inward sweetness, that used, as it were, to carry me away in my contemplations; in what I know not how to express otherwise, than by a calm, sweet abstraction of soul from all the concerns of the world; and a kind of vision, or fixed ideas and imaginations, of being alone in the mountains, or some solitary wilderness, far from all mankind, sweetly conversing with Christ, and wrapt and swallowed up in God. The sense I had of divine things, would often of a sudden as it were, kindle up a sweet burning in my heart; an ardor of my soul, that I know not how to express.”

Edwards often spoke of his meditations on the person of Christ, who

“appeared ineffably excellent, with an excellency great enough to swallow up all thought and conception. . . . I felt withal, an ardency of soul to be, what I know not otherwise how to express, than to be emptied and annihilated; to lie in the dust, and to be full of Christ alone; to love Him with a holy and pure love; to trust in Him; to live upon Him; to serve and follow Him, and to be totally wrapt up in the fullness of Christ; and to be perfectly sanctified and made pure, with a divine and heavenly purity.”

(All the above citations are taken from Samuel Hopkins, The Life and Character of Reverend Mr. Jonathan Edwards, [1765].)

It goes without saying that these “Protestant mystics” distanced themselves from the errors of the medieval mystics who at times appeared to blur the distinction between the Creator and the creature. Both Calvin and Edwards, together with others in the Protestant reformed tradition would also have insisted on the importance of the means of grace in the experience of God’s presence: the Word of God (preached, expounded, studied), corporate worship, fellowship in community with the saints, prayer, the Lord’s Supper, and baptism, among the most important.

In any case, when properly defined and rooted in biblical revelation, mysticism is present in varying degrees in virtually all streams of the Christian church. Check out my podcast for a deep dive into all things mystical!


Sam, I found this article balanced and much needed. There is so much confusion about mysticism among evangelicals. I often point to Edwards and Tozer as theologically sound mystical types.
I would call myself an ecumenical Christian. I don't attend church for personal reasons, so I do rely on a more mystical practice of my faith.
There is only one God over all of Us. Any religion is a blasphemy. Mystics are rare. So if you claim to be one, the truth must have ruined any plebeian existence.

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