Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Painted Fire: The Bible and Spiritual Experience

“For who knows a person's thoughts except the spirit of that person, which is in him? So, also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God. And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual.” (1 Corinthians 2:11-13 ESV)

It is becoming increasingly common for people wanting a deeper experience of God in their lives to seek it in mystical or emotional experiences rather than through the Bible. The irony is that the Bible helps believers experience God in a way far deeper than mystical or emotional experiences can provide. Christ redeems the whole person, not just the intellect or emotions. In Biblical faith our minds are transformed and so are our deepest desires. In Christianity, our “spiritual” experience is crucial but it is never separated from the Wisdom and Truth of God. We achieve the most powerful spiritual experience in our union with Christ through the Word.

The apostle Paul explains us why in the verses quoted at the beginning of this article. Notice first that Paul establishes the transcendence of God. It is not possible for anyone to comprehend the thoughts except the Spirit of God. This fatally undermines the philosophical method of knowing God. Philosophers attempt to know God through a rational analysis of what they observe about the world and the mind. Paul, however, tells us that only the Spirit of God comprehends the thoughts of God. The philosophical method is therefore ultimately doomed to fail. Knowing God is not achievable based upon a purely rational or intellectual method. Does this mean the mystics are correct? No, it does not.

Paul says what is understood is “freely given by God”. The Apostles have received the Spirit of God so that they are able to understand what God wishes to reveal to them. This is a crucial point because it establishes revelation as the source of Divine knowledge. The apostles did not receive their doctrine from men. It was not the result of philosophical speculation or insight. Neither was it the result of religious discipline. It came from the Spirit of God who freely gave it. Since the Apostles experienced direct revelation, it might appear that we might come to know God through a similar mystical experience but what Paul says next is as devastating to mysticism as his earlier comments were to rationalism.

 Paul says “And we impart this in words”. The “this” he refers to are the things freely given, namely the thoughts of God. This is significant because if the Apostles communicate God’s thoughts in words then they are contained in statements that are either true of false (propositions). The revelation of God is therefore rational and must be understood using reason. It also means that we have access to the very thoughts of God through the words of the Apostles, which is the Bible. Through the Word, we have access to a pure knowledge of God because it contains His very thoughts.  

Paul says that the words are not the result of human wisdom but are “taught by the Spirit.” Not only does the Spirit give these truths but also interprets them for those who are “spiritual”. We see therefore that the work of the Holy Spirit is required both in the giving of Scripture and in the spiritual rebirth of the believer who receives the Word. The Spirit prepares the minds of the believer to receive His Word. We therefore have a subjective (new birth) and objective (Bible) component of our experience of God. Biblical Christianity therefore rejects both pure mysticism and pure philosophy as legitimate ways to know or experience God. Both experience and reason are required, neither is autonomous, both are subjected to the rule of Christ.

This is an amazing thing to consider. When we read or hear a statement from the Bible what happens? Our physical sensations of the scribbles on the paper or the sound waves are transformed into a thought in our minds. Remarkably, Paul tells us that this thought, to the extent that it actually conforms to the Word of God, is also a thought in the eternal mind of the transcendent God. This is why Paul can make the bold claim a few verses later “we have the mind of Christ” (1 Cor. 2:16).

By meditating on the Word, we experience within same action the combination of intimate communion with God and rational, conscious activity. It is a remarkable thing to claim that Sprit, working through the Word, transfers the very thoughts of God to our minds. The New Testament frequently discusses the mystical union of the believer with Christ as an objective reality. It is, however, something we can experience in a special way through our meditation upon His Word. Philosophy and mysticism can never elevate beyond our creaturely mind and feelings. The Bible, however, provides access to the mind of the Creator.

I cannot imagine a deeper or more satisfying experience of God than what Paul describes. The Word of God is what deepens and sustains our experience of God as we live out the Christian life. The Puritan Thomas Manton put it this way, “he that labors must have his meals, otherwise he will faint.” Adding, “Painted fire needs no fuel.” There are many who appear to be on fire for Christ but if their zeal is not fueled by the Word of God, then I fear it will either soon burn out, or it is merely painted fire that provides no true light or heat.


  1. I enjoyed the article. But what is mysticism? It seems to me that we can know God by the Holy Spirit apart from the Bible. Also, didn't Paul say in Romans ch. 1 God showed Himself through what He has created? If this is true it would appear we can know Him with our own minds or some sort of natural way of seeing God.

  2. I am using mysticism to describe the idea that communion with God in its highest form comes through non-rational experience. The most extreme forms of mysticism seek after experiences where the creature/creator distinction is lost. Of course, that is not biblical but less extreme versions are popular in the Churches today.

    Yes, we can know certain things from God's revelation of Himself in nature but we cannot by that know Him savingly. The deepest experience and knowledge of God cannot be separated from His revelation of Himself. It does not say we can know the thoughts of God from nature, just certain attributes.

  3. Good article Pastor. But I was wondering about this statement, "It is a remarkable thing to claim that Sprit, working through the Word, transfers the very thoughts of God to our minds." You did say working through the word but how is this done? Does the Spirit simply transfer the words and thoughts God to our mind, as in memorization, or is this done some other way? NFI

    1. All communication involves a thought in one mind being transferred to another. Generally this is done through physical means such as sound or light waves. How exactly this happens is not completely understood. In fact, I would argue that material views of reality cannot explain it. Animals can communicate concepts related to instincts or physical constants: danger, hunger, etc.

      Humans, however, are able to take abstract concepts and qualitative and aesthetic concepts and transfer them from one mind to another. I think that has to do with the Logos and the creation of man in the image of God. Detailing theories on the process would take much more than a comment.