Personal experiences and feelings are dangerous sources from which to derive one’s theology. The subjective impressions of reprobate minds rarely reflect concrete truth. Our most pressing need is for the fixed, external, objective, and unshakable truth found in God’s inerrant Word.
But even in the church, the allure of mystical experience regularly trumps the heavy lifting Bible study requires. The popularity of self-appointed prophets, outlandish claims of trips to heaven, and bizarre charismatic manifestations show that mysticism is alive and well in modern evangelicalism.
As one authority on mysticism has written, “A mystical experience is primarily an emotive event, rather than a cognitive one.”  Arthur L. Johnson, Faith Misguided (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1988), 23. The emotive event apart from cognitive functioning (an emotional high while the intellect is passive) has become for many Christians the ultimate spiritual experience. Multitudes have concluded that God’s most powerful work in our lives is not in the realm of truth but in the realm of emotion. This idea is rapidly changing the face of evangelicalism.
The Battle for Truth over Experience
Evangelicals have historically waged their most important battles in defense of truth and sound doctrine—and against an undue emphasis on emotion and experience. The early fundamentalist movement was a broad-based coalition of evangelicals who understood that sound doctrine is the litmus test of authentic faith. They defined true Christianity in terms of its essential doctrines. The doctrines they labeled fundamental were nothing new; these were truths all Christians had held in common since before the Protestant Reformation. But the fundamentalists were responding to the threat of liberalism, which was attacking doctrines at the very core of the historic Christian faith.
Liberals argued that Christianity is supposed to be an experience, not a doctrine. They wanted to discard the core of Christian doctrine but continue to call themselves Christians on the basis of their lifestyle. The original fundamentalists rescued evangelicalism from the liberal threat by unashamedly declaring that Christianity must be doctrine before it can be legitimate experience. Christianity is grounded in truth, they maintained, and no experience can be part of authentic Christianity if its origin is not in essential Christian truth. That is why they put such an emphasis on doctrine.
Today’s evangelicals are losing the will to hold that line. Voices within the camp are now suggesting that experience may be more important than doctrine after all. The evangelical consensus has shifted decidedly in the past three decades. Our collective message is now short on doctrine and long on experience. Thinking is deemed less important than feeling. Ironically, we have succumbed to the very ideas that the early fundamentalists argued so fiercely against. We have absorbed the same existential influences they fought so hard to overthrow.
Modern evangelicals can no longer define their identity in terms of doctrines they hold in common because the movement has become fragmented doctrinally. The obvious solution would be to return to our common doctrinal roots. Unfortunately, the panacea usually offered instead is an appeal to soften our doctrinal stance and unite on the basis of common experiences. This may be the most serious assault on truth evangelicalism has ever faced, because it comes from within the movement and has met little resistance.
Lest anyone misunderstand, I am by no means appealing for doctrine divorced from experience, or truth apart from love. That would be worthless. The apostle James said it this way: “Just as the body without the spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead” (James 2:26). Truth genuinely believed is truth acted upon. Real faith always results in lively experience, and this frequently involves deep emotion. I am wholly in favor of those things. But genuine experience and legitimate emotions always come in response to truth; truth must never become the slave of sheer emotion or unintelligible experiences.
At least that is the position evangelicalism has always taken. Are we prepared to abandon that conviction? Shall we now exalt experience at the expense of sound doctrine? Will we allow emotion to run roughshod over truth? Will evangelicalism be swept away with unbridled passion?
Old Battle, New Battlefield
Unfortunately, those things are already happening by default. Sound doctrine and biblical truth are practically missing from evangelical pulpits. They have been replaced by show business, pop psychology, partisan politics, motivational talks, and even comedy. Many pastors and church leaders are woefully ill-equipped to teach doctrine and Scripture. The love of sound doctrine that has always been a distinctive of evangelicalism has all but disappeared.
Add a dose of mysticism to this mix, and you have the recipe for unmitigated spiritual disaster. People begin seeking spiritual experiences in everything except the objective truth of Scripture. Sheer emotion begins to replace any sensible understanding of truth and anyone who dares voice doctrinal concerns is likely to be labeled legalistic (or worse). More and more people are therefore encouraged to seek God via emotional experiences that are essentially divorced from truth. They eventually get caught in an endless cycle where, in order to maintain the emotional high, each experience must be more spectacular than the preceding one.
God’s people need to recognize danger before getting swept up in unrestrained emotion. In the days ahead we’ll examine the various fronts where mysticism is invading the church, considering both historic and current examples. Join us as we learn to detect and resist the insidious incursion of mysticism into our local churches.
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