The heresy of mysticism, heavily indebted to the ancient pagan Greek philosopher Plato, 1 emerged near the end of the patristic era, and it has been a recurrent plague ever since. Before defining it, we should understand what it is not. It surely is not the recognition that certain aspects of the Bible and the Christian Faith are mysterious that is, hard to understand or beyond creaturely logic. The Trinity, the two natures of Christ, the sovereignty of God as it relates to the will of man, and other central doctrines of the Bible are mysterious, and not easily reducible to human reason; and the attempt to demystify them usually ends up in heresy. 2 Mystery is not mysticism.
Mysticism, rather, is the attempt to secure an unmediated relationship to God. Mystics believe that man (or, more specifically, certain men) can have an inexplicable, but certain, knowledge of and relationship to God unencumbered by God's specifically chosen vehicles of special revelation notably, Jesus Christ and the Sacred Scriptures. Almost all mystics devalue or ignore the instrumental role of reason in relating to God and His revelation; but what they deny they can know rationally, they affirm they can experience irrationally. This almost always entails the notion that man can somehow share in God's being. Man, in other words, becomes ontologically one with God. Man has an intimate knowledge of God because he shares in God's existence.
Naturally, if one shares in God's existence, he need not concern himself with God's revelation. To Thomas, our Lord made abundantly clear:
Thomas saith unto him, Lord we know not whither thou goest; and how can we know the way? Jesus saith unto him, I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father but by me. (Jn. 14:5-6)
The Bible, in addition, declares that in Jesus Christ "dwelleth all the fulness of the Godhead bodily" (Col. 2:9). While each member of the Trinity is a discrete Person, it is nonetheless the case that Christ Himself is the "express image of his [God's] person" (Heb. 1:3). In other words, while our Lord in no way substitutes for God the Father and God the Holy Spirit, neither is He a mode or expression of God, He surely mediates the Godhead to mankind, God's rational creation. The attempt to gain a relationship with or knowledge of God the Father while circumventing Jesus Christ is to secure one's own destruction and condemnation. Jesus Christ is the Appointed Mediator between God and man (1 Tim. 2:5). He is the Mediator of creation (Heb. 1:2), the Mediator of providence (Col. 1:17), the Mediator of redemption (Heb. 8), and the Mediator of revelation (Jn. 14:10). Modern "devotional" writers, no less than medieval mystics, speak gushingly of "knowing God"; but if they teach or imply that one can know God without approaching Him through His Son, Jesus Christ, they subvert the Faith. 3 We cannot be saved apart from faith in Jesus Christ and His redemptive work. It is not enough, however, to say this. We must also assert that we cannot approach God subsequently to our regeneration apart from Jesus Christ. He is our only hope of wisdom, righteousness, sanctification, and redemption (1 Cor. 1:30).
Just as many mystics circumvent Jesus Christ as God's Mediator to man, so they circumvent His mediating Word in the Bible. God does not now speak an immediate word, but the Bible remains immediately with us as God's revelation to man. The Bible mediates God's verbal revelation. Mystics, because they feel a unity with God, do not believe it necessary to recognize or submit to this Word. In fact, they sometimes hold that the true mystic is "beyond good and evil," 4 a theme the nineteenth-century madman Nietzsche took up and secularized: "We sail right over morality, we crush, we destroy perhaps the remains of our own morality by daring to take our voyage there ." 5
Even mystics who do not consider themselves "beyond good and evil" believe they have access to some "higher" revelation from or relationship to God. This is a sub-Christian attitude. God's entire, objective will for man is set out in the Sacred Scriptures. Mystics go beyond even the erroneous idea of "private" revelation ("God told me to do such-and-such last night"). Because they are in some sense (they believe) ontologically united to God, they know His will, not so much by revelation, as by participation He moves and motivates them as aspects of His own being. Mystics must claim (implicitly, of course) to be little gods, extensions of God's being.
In trying to circumvent God's revelation and in an attempt to have an immediate relationship to Him, mystics are really denying their creaturehood. They do not recognize or else they deny that man needs God's revelation because man is not God. Though made in God's image, he is a qualitatively different kind of being. Man's knowledge is not God's knowledge, and man's being is not God's being. Man cannot participate in God's being any more than he can participate in God's knowledge. Mystics are not content with their creaturehood; and with their attempt to become God, they become less than men.
1. Jaroslav Pelikan, The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition (100-600) (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1971), 344. See also Andrew Louth, The Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1981).
2. As Harold O. J. Brown asserts, orthodoxy gives priority to history, and heresy gives priority to speculation. See his Heresies (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1984), 28-29.
3. Even the evangelical mystic A. W. Tozer seems to fall into this trap. See his "Following Hard After God," in The Best of A. W. Tozer, ed., Warren Wiersbe (Harrisburg, PA: Christian Publications, 1981), 13-19.
4. Pelikan, op. cit., 348.
5. Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, in Basic Writings of Nietzsche, trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: The Modern Library, 1968), 221.