Biblically-normed Christian Mysticism

by Peter D. Spychalla, Ph.D.

Assistant Professor of New Testament & Spiritual Formation

Is there a biblically-normed Christian mysticism? While there is no agreed-upon definition of mysticism in popular or academic literature, it can be defined as direct, transformative experience of hidden Divine Reality that exceeds human comprehension. On this characterization, the Christian life is mystical in several important respects.

The hidden Divine Reality with whom we have to do, the Triune God of the Bible—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—is not directly detectable via our ordinary physical senses of smell, taste, touch, hearing, or seeing. Nor do our scientific instruments record His presence, His manifold excellencies, His mercy, His love, or His relationship to the believer. Yet, objectively, in terms of ontology, the individual who exclusively relies upon the propitiatory, substitutionary atonement of Christ (biblical faith), and receives the righteousness of Christ by imputation (biblical justification), is united with Christ and has direct, immediate relation to each Person of this hidden God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

The believer is “in” Christ, in the Holy Spirit, and in the Father. She is indwelt by the Son and the Spirit. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit make their abode with the believer. This mutual indwelling of the believer with, and in, each Person of the Trinity is portrayed at length by the Apostles John and Paul (John 14–17, First John, Paul’s epistles). The Christian life is the experience of the Triune God actively working in the believer. “It is God who is at work in you both to will and to work for His good pleasure” (Philippians 2:13), “Christ lives in me” (Galatians 2:20), “His power which mightily works within me” (Colossians 1:29), “strengthened with power through His Spirit in the inner man . . . the power that works within us” (Ephesians 3:16, 21). This union with the hidden Triune God, and His active working in the life of the believer, are objective, mystical realities that are at the core of biblical Christianity.

In addition, noetically, in terms of epistemology and perception, the believer experiences intimate relational knowing of Living God. “And this is eternal life, that they may know Thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom Thou hast sent” (John 17:3), “That I may know Him, and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of his sufferings” (Philippians 3:10). Jesus promised that He will “manifest” or disclose Himself to the believer (John 14:21). There is direct, immediate communication from the Holy Spirit within the believer. “The Spirit bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God” (Romans 8:16). “God has sent forth the Spirit of His Son into our hearts, crying ‘Abba! Father!’” (Galatians 4:6).

The believer intimately experiences, and gains direct personal knowledge of, divine realities that exceed human comprehension. “And the peace of God, which surpasses comprehension, shall guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7). “That you, being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled up to all the fulness of God” (Ephesians 3:17–19). Such experience is transformative. Believers are being transformed into the image of Christ (2 Corinthians 3:18, Romans 8:29, 12:2).

In light of this teaching from Scripture, I conclude there is a biblically-normed Christian mysticism. It is an intelligent, Scripture-focused, living union and communion with the Triune God, the experiential elements of which are utterly informed and controlled by the Holy Scriptures, which are the final norm for all doctrine (orthodoxy) and Christian living (orthopraxy).

In Spring 2016, Urbana Theological Seminary is offering the course, “Christian Mysticism and Contemplative Spirituality,” in which we are exploring how believers in Jesus Christ across two millennia of Christian tradition have understood, written about, and reflected upon mystical aspects of the Christian faith.

Course Description: Survey of major texts, individuals, themes, imagery, and theologies of spirituality found in the Christian mystical tradition. Reading portions of representative original works in English translation. Characterization of mysticism and contemplation in the Christian tradition. Exploration of Biblical foundations for direct experience of God. Evaluation of the epistemology of religious experience. Consideration of contemplative spirituality and Centering Prayer. Emphasis on formulating and integrating a Biblically-normed understanding of direct experience of God into a Scripture-focused, gospel-emphasizing theological framework.

Consider joining us for a stretching and engaging study that will help you understand and navigate the landscape of the diverse, and frequently difficult, Christian mystical tradition. We will engage this tradition critically, yet charitably, with a view to growing in our own intimate experience of living union and communion with the Triune God of Scripture.