Is God's presence limited to Scripture?

by Rachel Held Evans Read Distraction Free
'Small 'gift' Bible' photo (c) 2012, Mike Johnson - license:

"You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life." – John 5:39

It has become something of a sport for folks in the evangelical, neo-Reformed tradition to take to the internet to draw out the “boundaries of evangelicalism,” boundaries which inevitably fall around their own particular theological distinctions and which seem to grow narrower and narrower with every blog post on the topic. 

Pastor and blogger Tim Challies recently added a few more stones to the fortress wall in a blog post entitled “The Boundaries of Evangelicalism.” In it, Challies writes about his concerns regarding “the power and prevalence of mysticism” in the contemporary church and posits that true evangelicalism rejects all forms of this “mysticism” and instead embraces the doctrine of the Reformed tradition and its emphasis on knowing God through Scripture alone.

He concludes:

“God has given us his Word to guide us in all matters of faith and practice. When we commit ourselves to mysticism, we commit ourselves to looking for revelation from God and experiences of God that come from outside that Word. We reject his gift--his good, infallible, inerrant, sufficient gift--and demand more. Because God promises us no more, we quickly create our own experiences and interpret them as if they are God’s revelation. Yet the Bible warns us that we can do no better than God’s Word and have no right to demand anything else. The question for Evangelicals today is just this: Will God’s Word be enough? Because whatever does not lead us toward God’s Word will always, inevitably and ultimately lead us away.”

The post is so full of historical inaccuracies, theological problems, and contradictions that it’s hard to know where to start, but I want to make clear from the get-go that my response to this post should not be seen as an attack on Tim Challies himself, (who I respect and like), but rather a response to the general belief that God’s presence is limited to the pages of Scripture and that all forms of contemplative or experiential spirituality should therefore be dismissed out of hand or regarded with suspicion. As evangelicalism in the U.S. has been working its way through something of an identity crisis over the past few years, and as many young evangelicals like myself have reconnected with the spiritual disciplines, this seems to be a recurring point of contention, and therefore one that should be addressed. 

Challies defines mysticism as “those forms of Christian spirituality which attempt direct or unmediated access to God” and mentions, generally, the popularity of books on spiritual disciplines and spiritual formation and, specifically, books by Christian authors like Sarah Young and John Eldredge. In the past, Challies has been highly critical of Ann Voskamp’s spirituality in One Thousand Gifts, chastising her for her experiencing the presence of God in nature and in a Catholic cathedral, and for being influenced by the likes of Henri Nouwen, Brennan Manning, Teresa of Avila, Brother Lawrence, Annie Dillard, and Dallas Willard.  One of the commenters after Challlies’ post also mentioned Richard Foster, Thomas Merton, centering prayer, contemplative prayer, lectio divina, and prayer labyrinths, which the commenter describes as efforts to “access God in a pagan/occult way.” 

According to Challies, mystics are those who experience  “a direct inner realization of the Divine,” and an “unmediated link to an absolute.” He goes on to argue that mysticism is any connection with God outside the context of Scripture. 

Challies writes, “Mysticism was once regarded as an alternative to Evangelical Christianity. You were Evangelical or you were a mystic, you heeded the doctrine of the Reformation and understood it to faithfully describe the doctrine laid out in Scripture or you heeded the doctrine of mysticism. Today, though, mysticism has wormed its way inside Evangelicalism so that the two have become integrated and almost inseparable.”  

I have no idea where Challies got the idea that “mysticism was once regarded as an alternative to evangelical Christianity.”

While it is true that the Reformers occasionally used the word “evangelical” in their writings, most historians locate the roots of evangelicalism solidly within Wesley’s Methodism in England and in the Great Awakenings of the 18th and 19th centuries. Evangelicalism was, at its heart, a movement, influenced not only by a strong emphasis on the authority of Scripture but also by a lively, impassioned, and deeply personal spirituality—an eclectic, ecumenical mix of elements from Pietism, Presbyterianism, Puritanism, and Pentecostalism. Evangelicalism’s mothers and fathers were mystically-inclined Christians like John Wesley, Jonathan and Sarah Edwards, William J. Seymour, and A.W. Tozer—people whose “hearts were strangely warmed” by profound experiences with God, by  “a direct inner realization of the Divine.” 

And indeed, mysticism—which I would define as practices intended to help connect a person to God through experience, intuition, contemplation, the devotional reading of Scripture, ritual, and prayer—has been a part of the Church from the very beginning.  

From the events of Pentecost, to the practices of communion and baptism throughout Christian history, to the writings and teachings of the desert fathers and mothers, to the Reformation, to the divine offices being prayed continually throughout the world today, to the Azusa Street revival, to the spread of Christianity in the global South and East, the story of Christianity is the story of regular people connecting in powerful ways to the presence of God. 

Indeed, the history of the faith, and the teachings of Scripture itself, show that Tim Challies is dead wrong on one very important point: 

He says at the end of his post that when it comes to our connection with the holy, “God promises us no more” than Scripture as a means to knowing and experiencing his presence. 

This is absolutely not true. Scripture itself teaches us that God has promised us the Holy Spirit (Luke 24:49, Acts 2:33, Ephesians 1:13).

As Peter exclaimed at Pentecost, “you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for your and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call.” 

The Holy Spirit  has sustained the Church through good times and bad, through persecution and imperial power, through the centuries before the Christian Bible was fully assembled, through the assembling of that Bible, through the centuries when most Christians had very little access to the Bible, through the centuries when many American Christians have multiple versions of the Bible on their bookshelves and multiple Christian denominations in their hometowns. 

And as Jesus told Nicodemus, “the wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”

In other words, the Holy Spirit doesn’t have boundaries. 

Furthermore, to limit the presence of Jesus to the words of Scripture, as if Christ’s presence is restricted to paper and ink, is to deny the resurrection of all its power. Christ is not merely an historical figure that we read about, a person from the past to whom we make intellectual assent. Christ is alive! Christ is present! Christ is directly accessible to all who believe! 

Jesus himself said that we can expect to encounter his presence not simply in the pages of Scripture, but also among the least of these, where two or three are gathered, in persecution, and in communion. Paul experienced Jesus on the road to Damascus. Peter experienced Jesus in the home of Cornelius (much to his surprise). Stephen saw Jesus just before his death. I have encountered the presence of Jesus in fellowship with other Christians, among the poor and disenfranchised, as I eat the bread and drink the wine. And if this makes me a mystic, then count me in! 

The whole point of Scripture is to testify to the Living Word, which is Jesus Christ. As Jesus told the Scribes and Pharisees, "You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life." 

When we become more committed to the testimony than to the Person to whom it testifies, we are likely to miss the presence of Jesus even when it’s right in front of us. Probably because it took some form we weren’t expecting. Probably because it showed up outside of our boundaries. 

But Challies says “we can do no better” than the Bible. 

I’m not sure this is true. For what do we long for when we read the Beatitudes, when we meditate on the words of Christ through lectio divina, when we join with Christians past and present to pray the hours, when we climb Teresa of Avila’s “Interior Castle,” when we raise our hands in worship, when we eat the bread and drink the wine, when we walk the labyrinths, when like David we see that the night sky declares the glory of God, when we study the Bible in Hebrew and Greek, when we connect with a glorious line from Wendell Berry or Frederick Buechner, or Annie Dillard? 

We long for consummation, for total union with our beloved Christ. For He is the source of eternal life, the fulfillment of Scripture, and the object of our desire. 

Scripture points to Jesus, not the other way around. 

And all of these practices—from prayer to communion to fellowship to reading Scripture— give us glimpses of the day when that union will be realized, when we will all gather at the marriage supper of the Lamb.  But right now, even with Scripture, we see through a glass darkly. Right now, even with Scripture, we know only in part.

Only later will we see Jesus face to face and be known even as we are known. 

Now, here’s where I suspect Challies and I may agree: Because we believe Scripture to be authoritative in matters of faith and practice and a trustworthy testimony regarding Jesus Christ, we would be right to be highly suspicious of anyone whose claims about their experiences with God run contrary to the teachings of Scripture. Our testimonies should harmonize. Mysticism that morphs into mere superstition, or that contradicts what we know about Jesus from the written Word, is not a faithful testimony and should be warned against in the sternest terms. There is obviously space here to "test the spirits." 

But while we should be appropriately wary of anyone whose claims of personal revelation run contrary to Scripture, we should not discount, out of hand, all personal experiences with God that occur outside the context of Scripture...which is what Challies has essentially done with this piece. 

Furthermore, any understanding of “sola scriptura” that totally divorces reason, experience, and tradition from the interpretation process is a misunderstanding of that principle. We never approach Scripture alone. It does not exist in a vacuum. We approach Scripture with our Helper, the Holy Spirit, with the influence of the great cloud of witnesses who have read and interpreted it before us, and—like it or not—with the subtle but powerful influences of our culture, our language, our background, our experiences, and our biases. This notion of total, exclusive reliance on Scripture is a fantasy; it cannot be done. 

Challies says that “whatever does not lead us toward God’s Word will always, inevitably and ultimately lead us away.” But the point of Scripture is not to lead us back to Scripture. The point of Scripture is to lead us to Jesus Christ.  And any student of Luther will know that this was central to the Reformer’s theology as well. 

Finally, when Challies defines mysticism as “direct or unmediated access to God” and then essentially trashes it as heresy, he (probably unintentionally) communicates that Christians need some kind of additional mediator to access God— Scripture, he seems to think, or perhaps the pastor interpreting it. (This is a fine example of how many Protestants tend to simply replace the Pope with the Bible and priests with the pastors interpreting it.) 

But once again, Scripture itself disputes this claim.  “For there is one God and one mediator between God and mankind, the man Jesus Christ, who gave himself a ransom for all people,” writes Paul. “Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need,” says the writer of Hebrews.  

Challies is wrong. We do have direct access to God. We need no additional mediator. 

And if labyrinths and lectio divina and contemplative prayer and Annie Dillard help remind us of that, I see no reason why we should fear them. 

A lot of young evangelicals are reconnecting with these mystical practices, and I count myself among them. I suspect we are drawn to ritual, tradition, contemplative prayer, and silence because these are things that give us a sense of history, identity, and communion with the universal Church that has perhaps been lacking in the evangelical church of late.  Praying the hours provides a rhythm to my day that takes the focus off of myself and my schedule and puts it on God and the members of God’s Church who are praying along with me. Ancient liturgies connect me to followers of Jesus from the past. Reading St. Francis and Teresa of Avila and Dallas Willard and Madeleine L'Engle help put words to my experiences and stretch me to see God in new ways. Communion…well, I can’t explain exactly what happens in communion, and I’m beginning to wonder if maybe that’s the point. While none of these things should serve as replacements of Scripture; they can certainly function constructively alongside of it. 

Honestly, the more Scripture I memorize, the more labyrinths I walk, the more prayers I pray and the more mystics I engaged, the sadder I become by all this boundary marking and fortress building coming from the more fundamentalist camps within evangelicalism. 

For I have tasted and seen. I’ve felt this wind blow wherever it wishes, however it wishes, whenever it wishes. I’ve caught a glimpse of this God who is bigger than Calvinism, bigger than evangelicalism, bigger even than the Church. 

And I have come to see that these boundaries designed to shut others out only serve to shut the builders in.

They’re missing out on all this space, all this freedom, all this fresh air we call grace. 


So what do you think? Is mysticism helpful or harmful to Christians? Should we expect to encounter God outside the context of Scripture? Do we have "direct, unmediated access" to God? 

End of article logo.

Shareable Permalink

© 2013 All rights reserved.
Copying and republishing this article on other Web sites without written permission is prohibited.
Browse articles with tags: faithcalvinismBible