Notes on Pentecostalism versus Mysticism

El Greco, Baptism in the Holy Spirit, Public Domain

El Greco, Baptism in the Holy Spirit, Public Domain

The following represents summary conclusions, to date, based on available information, evidence, and personal experience, and likely comprises the initial installment in a long-term, ongoing study.  It has been included as a chapter in Neoplatonist Stew: Or, How Sacramentalism, Mysticism, and Theurgy Corrupted Christian Theology (2014) by Paul A. Hughes, available in paperback at Amazon and other online retailers.  At this writing, it is in process of being published in eBook format, as well.

Mysticizing Pentecostals often claim that Pentecostal spirituality is a form of Mysticism, therefore mystical practice is no threat to and indeed compatible with New Testament-based Pentecostalism.

As a third-generation Pentecostal and trained Bible interpreter, however, I maintain that Mysticism and its practice–e.g., Contemplative Prayer and introspection with the aim of Transcendence and “spiritual formation”–represent a foreign and alternate spirituality to that intended and prescribed by the New Testament.  Heretofore, I based this contention largely on the absence of New Testament support for mystical practice, especially in terms of clear didactic statements (i.e., NT believers are neither commanded nor taught to pray contemplatively, to chant mantras or empty the mind of thought); and conversely, on important commands and practices in the New Testament that are often discounted or ignored by Mystics.

A primary example of the New Testament practices often lacking among Mystics is the apostolic emphasis on becoming baptized in the Spirit, to be followed by manifestations of charismatic gifts.  Many Mystics apparently deem Spirit Baptism, as described in the New Testament, unnecessary, irrelevant, and even redundant to their mystical practice and emphasis.  Some Mystics claim to have transcended these elements of Pentecostal spirituality, identifying them with the “childish things” described by Paul in 1 Corinthians 13:11.  Never mind the essential enablements that Jesus, in the “Paraclete passages” of John 14-16, promised that the Paraclete would provide, as well as Paul’s admonitions to “be filled with the Spirit” and “edify” others through gifts.  Mystics seem to leave little for the Holy Spirit to do:  they together with God can do it all.  They purport to be able to touch God and be changed into Christ’s image through methodologies and “spiritual disciplines” (see more below).

More recently, in response to debates with Mystics and Sacramentalists, and the occasion of a Contemplative Prayer guru being invited to speak at an event surrounding the 2013 General Council of the Assemblies of God, I embarked on further research from the opposite angle–that of Mysticism–beginning with its origins.  This resulted in my blog series entitled “Pagan Origins of Sacramental Realism,” followed by the book version, Neoplatonist Stew: Or, How Sacramentalism, Mysticism, and Theurgy Corrupted Christian Theology, along with an illustrative companion chart.

My research strongly suggests that the main stream of Mysticism throughout Church history has been the Neoplatonic type that appears to have originated, as such, with the philosopher Ammonius Saccas, passed along through his students.  These include the Pagan philosopher Plotinus and the Christian theologian Origen of Alexandria.  Building on the Platonic idea that the real world is that of the mind, from which the physical world has fallen, Neoplatonists imagined the possibility of ascending back to an ideal, divine state through contemplation of God, self-introspection, and other mental exercises.  These ideas were passed along through the speculative theologies of such major figures as Gregory of Nyssa, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Meister Eckhart, Teresa of Avila, and even John Wesley.

Having become familiarized with Mysticism in addition to Pentecostal spirituality, I can now begin to describe differences between the two.  Because of many variations in mystic practice and detail, it will be necessary to generalize, to which exception will no doubt be raised by obverse critics.  However, exceptions hardly disprove the rule.  Things which seldom occur represent exceptions, things which happen occasionally represent episodes, things which happen frequently represent trends, whereas things that are largely and regularly true make up the rule, regarding which one may generalize without justifiable contradiction.

To begin, the Pentecostal experience is not an ascent of a human being to God or attainment of divinity, but a descent in which God deigns to deposit, by measure, part of his nature or person, such that his Spirit cohabits flesh.  As such, Spirit Baptism represents a parallel or reflection, if not technically a replication, of the very Incarnation of Christ.  Once received, the Holy Spirit is ever-present, and need not be ascended-up-to.

Mystics, going back at least to Plotinus, have suggested that the “spiritual formation” engendered through Contemplative Prayer can enable God to be superimposed over the intellect or personality of the Mystic.  That view, however, is contrary to New Testament examples and to Paul’s assertion that “the spirit of the prophet is subject to the prophet” (1 Cor 14:32).  It remains that a Spirit-filled believer may “quench” as well as “grieve” the Spirit (1 Th 5:19, Eph 4:30) through, one surmises, willful sin, resistance, or neglect.  A long-held tenet among Pentecostals has been that “the Holy Spirit is a gentleman” who will not force himself upon the individual believer or overrule his or her free will.  According to Paul the Apostle, the “mental exercise” involved, if so there be, is the believer’s daily as well as immediate moral choice to “reckon” himself “dead to sin” and to “walk by the Spirit,” not “by the flesh, to fulfill its lusts” (Rom 6:11, 7:5 f., 8:1 ff., 13:14; 2 Cor 1:17, 10:2; Gal 3:3, 5:16, 25).  At all times, in the NT view, the believer remains subject to human nature, and can never with carefree permanence rise above it in this life.  Watchfulness for one’s soul is always enjoined, such that Paul himself regretted that he could never count himself to have “attained,” nor discount the possibility of being in the end “cast away” (Php 3:11 ff., 1 Cor 9:27).

In Mysticism, one’s human nature can ostensibly be transformed through “spiritual disciplines” and methodologies (one might say “methodism”), which include fasting and other ascetic practices, “purificatory virtues” (Plotinus), self-abnegation, contemplation, affirmation and negation, self-introspection, emptying oneself, guided visualization, chanting mantras, etc.  (Such methodologies, utilized by Pagans, are known to produce altered states of consciousness through self-hypnosis.)  Some would add participation in Sacraments.  To the Pentecostal, in contrast, the human mind is consciously “transformed” (Rom 12:1 ff.) through believing Biblical revelation, adherence to correct doctrine, and submission to the Holy Spirit.

The Mystic craves Transcendence over human nature and worrisome matters of this life, and constant or frequent assurance of God’s favor, God’s existence, and one’s own salvation.  He (or she) longs to rise above petty humanity, to be unfettered by exigencies and rules, to eschew doctrine and debate and “contending for the faith.”  He is emotions-based, desires to experience constant warm feelings and inner joy, and tends to be preoccupied with personal spiritual and moral development.  The Pentecostal does not expect Transcendence except to the extent that he can resist and overcome base desires, by volition, when they arise.  He is not driven to seek constant assurance, but stands by faith in the face of contrary circumstances.  (Where is faith if one receives constant assurance?)  He is encouraged (“edified”) and his faith strengthened by sound teaching, meditating on Scripture, and periodic occurrences of charismata within the church Body (“signs and wonders”), especially the exhortation and consolation produced through prophetic gifts.  As Paul instructed in the face of anxieties, “Wherefore, comfort one another with these words” (1 Th 4:18).

Contemplative Prayer, to the Mystic, is a standard methodology facilitating ascent towards God.  The Incarnation is viewed in terms of Christ showing people the path to God toward their own self-divinization.  Ascent amounts to here-and-now restoration, in part or in full, from fallen human nature, toward an original or rightful divine nature.  To the Pentecostal, on the other hand, Spirit Baptism represents reception by grace of divine power coming to reside, through faith, within fallen humanity–by virtue of which God deigns to reclaim human nature through the partial impartation of himself to mere “earthen vessels,” which are sanctified, not in their own right, but by his presence.  He comes to dwell not in deified flesh but “all kinds of flesh”; not in response to an ascent, but by effecting a descent.  “I will come to you,” Jesus said, in the form of the Paraclete (Jn 14:16-18).

The Mystic desires God’s immediacy, to realize divinization and Transcendence now.  He rejects human nature and limitations, to seek apotheosis, theosis, theopoiesis, becoming God (pick one!).  He seeks to put substance to faith:  to experience, now, the object of Christian hope, to attain the object of faith before the culmination of all things.  He is not content to wait or to “know in part” (with which the apostolic generation had to content themselves, cf. 1 Cor 13:9-12).  Many Mystics develop an attitude of superiority by virtue of their passion for God’s presence and for Transcendence, not unlike the Corinthian spiritualists who became “puffed up” in their enthusiasm for public charismatic displays.

Pentecostal spirituality is eschatological:  “fullness” (culmination) comes at the Eschaton, the End.  Man remains fully human, undivinized, mortal, until “changed” (1 Cor 15:51 f., Php 3:21).  Our treasure is in heaven, our future inheritance.  The deposit of the Holy Spirit, together with gifts, are the “earnest” of that inheritance (2 Cor 1:22, 5:5; Eph 1:11-14).  Until the End, faith, not actualization, not realization, remains the “substance” of the believer’s hope, the assurance of things yet invisible (Rom 8:24, Heb 11:1).

Spirit Baptism is human nature eschatologically redeemed.  It is incarnation, becoming God’s instrument in spite of the flesh:  “Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Col 1:27).  Our hope (salvation, Eternal Life, divinization), as an object, is not yet available for our experience in this mortal life.  At the “Last Trump” shall “mortal put on immortality” (1 Cor 15:3 f.), not before.

Mystics tend to dislike doctrine and dispute as something beneath their new apotheosized nature; but doctrine and debate, according to the New Testament pattern, are integral with declaring the Gospel before “the disputers of this Age” (1 Cor 1:20), along with preaching, rebuking, and exhorting (Titus 2:15, et al.).

To the Mystic, ascent obviates Spirit Baptism and gifts.  Those who ascend enter into their own spiritual hierarchy.  Those who reckon themselves on the path to ascent develop a “me and Jesus” attitude.  They often gravitate toward Quietism, become monks and hermits.  Their spiritual hierarchy tends to bypass church hierarchy and leadership, though they often seek out guru-type figures who can lead them into Ascension.  Church, as an authority and teaching hierarchy, as a worshipping and self-ministering Body, and as a means of spiritual growth, tends to diminish in value in their eyes as they become “lone wolves” or “gurus” in their own right.  They are too “transcended” to be subject to earthy rules, structures, and limitations.

The Pentecostal conceives a Church-as-Body-of-Christ model, with many parts variously functioning, all capable of individual, respective spiritual endowments, cooperating to form a whole.  Thus they demonstrate why the “tongues of fire” lit upon each one individually at Pentecost (Acts 2:3).  None are “higher” or “lower,” none more or less ascended, only differing in gifts.  All have the same Spirit (1 Cor 12:4 ff.).  Individuals are gifted with immediacy, as the Spirit determines (1 Cor 12:11), requiring willing cooperation of the “prophet” but not ascent, purificatory rites, prior divinization or “spiritual formation.”  The motivated individual receives an influx of the Spirit, thus becoming temporarily a vessel “filled with the Spirit” (see “refillings” in Acts 4:8, 13:9).  He is an instrument of the Divine (“a vessel unto honor, made holy, fit for the Master’s use, and prepared unto every good work,” 2 Tim 2:21), not divine himself.

Mystics rely heavily on a relative few passages of Scripture for support as well as devotional utility.  Especial favorites are allegorical passages such as the Song of Solomon and parts of Proverbs.  Such texts, comprised as they are of  figurative literature, are ripe for abuse.  In the minds of Mystics, the Song, for one, portrays a mystical pursuit of God, the soul wooing and being wooed, catching glimpses of God through Contemplative Prayer and ascent.  Such applications of the Song go back at least to Origen.

Somewhat more compelling, in terms of a Biblical argument for Mysticism, are Moses’ yearning to glimpse God (Ex 33), and Paul’s vision of, or transportation to, the “Third Heaven” (2 Cor 12:1 ff.).  Both narratives, however, actually tell against the possibility of mystical Transcendence, of approaching God, and of mere mortals becoming divinized.  Such application of the Moses episode can be traced back to Philo, and was a frequent resort of Gregory of Nyssa.  Much like today’s Mystics, Moses yearned for a close encounter with God.  Indeed, Moses is allowed to approach the vicinity of God’s presence, but cannot be said to do so in a transcendent way (certainly not via Contemplative Prayer); rather, he comes, literally and physically, to the mountain bearing tablets to be written upon by the “finger” of God.  God denies the feasibility of Moses seeing his “face” and surviving.  He offers instead to allow Moses to see his “goodness”–the expression of his essential nature–and the after-effects of his glory or presence departing.  Thus Moses can be said to experience God’s influence but not at all God’s real, full presence, nor Moses his own Transcendence.  He sees God’s effect, God’s expression, but not God (much as all men can see God in his Creation, only in greater measure).  He is affected by the experience, but not ascended.  The afterglow from God’s presence which caused his face to shine was likewise an after-effect that was passing away, and represented neither a fundamental change in Moses’ spiritual status nor his state of being, nor did God’s glory become Moses’ own lasting attribute or possession.  It might have been Moses’ concern over the fading of this ascribed glory, which the people might have gathered to be a removal of God’s blessing on his leadership, that caused him to cover his face after speaking to them.

In contrast, Paul’s “visit to Heaven” was of a spiritual, revelatory character and not a physical approach to God.  Yet to claim Paul’s experience to have been accomplished through Contemplative Prayer would be sheer assumption, as would be the details of that experience, other than the fact of “hearing unspeakable words” and his subsequent receipt of a “thorn in the flesh.”  Paul’s point in relating the episode is his realization and God-given reminder that it is not in any exalted experience, or seeming encounter with the presence of God, or “abundant” nature of divine revelations, or gifts of power, that he should glory, as if he were deserving, special, or accomplished, but in the power of the Cross and the grace that is “sufficient,” in spite of the utter helplessness of the flesh (see also Gal 6:14).

In both these narratives, God’s reply to seekers is that we can but reflect his glory.  He alone is God, He gives his glory to no other.  Though He may at times allow a glimpse, no man can attain any measure of godhood nor approach his throne.  Try as we might, and yearn as we will, we remain mortal, subject to corruption, and cannot rise above it until eventually and finally Redeemed–indeed, a vital lesson every Mystic needs to learn.

Copyright © 2013 Paul A. Hughes


3 Comments on “Notes on Pentecostalism versus Mysticism”

  1. guymax says:

    Excuse me for being irate.

    I see no reason for creating this kind of division between truth seekers. It is not helpful and depends on an idiosyncratic selection and interpretation of texts. Meanwhile you accuse the Desert Fathers, Eckhart, Dionysius and all their like along with a few thousand theologians of error. Why? To what end? On what grounds? Was not Jesus a Man? And did he not say ‘I and the Father are One?

    You write – ” Try as we might, and yearn as we will, we remain mortal, subject to corruption, and cannot rise above it until eventually and finally Redeemed–indeed, a vital lesson every Mystic needs to learn.”

    Does this not strike you a somewhat arrogant? It is certainly totally speculative. You speak as if you know what you say is true, when all you’re doing is browsing though books.

    I wonder why Christians are so often keen to shoot themselves in the foot.

    • biblequestion says:

      “Truth seekers” ought to be very grateful to be corrected from error to truth. Correction of error is one of the main tasks to which the Apostle Paul applied himself. The New Testament Gospel is the rule, not Church history, not historical theology, not tradition or personal preferences — TRUTH!

  2. guymax says:

    Quite agree. Much better to find the truth than tell other people what it is. It seems true that mysticism does not endorse Pentecostalism, but it would not follow automatically that the latter is correct. Best then to keep an open mind. Certainly no point in just stating what the truth is before knowing it. Sorry if this is an annoying comment. . . .

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