Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Between the Legalist and the Mystic

In the journeys of Odysseus in Greek myth, he is required to travel between Scylla and Charybdis without getting too close to either. The one is a monster that snatches men from his boat, the other is a monster that creates a whirlpool. In the Christian life I am convinced there are two dangers that act the same way. They are legalism and mysticism.

Legalism says that the chief way we commend ourselves to God is by keeping the rules. The assumption is we are fully capable of doing this .Those who follow this frequently end up making more rules than God really commands. In fact, they often end up emphasizing these new commands over God's. This results in building up an outward appearance of righteousness and ignoring what is in the heart. This perspective can add Biblical teaching as one more commandment we are required to keep. This can result in the situation where we are required to believe the following list of things, but never really understand them. This can become the enemy of understanding, for we dare not examine these truths too carefully or we might end up questioning them.

The mystic, however, focuses on experience. The concept is that the way to know God is to have an  experience of Him. This can often lead to more and more complicated methods designed to produce or sustain experience. It can also lead to a treadmill of diminishing returns, which requires some new and better experience to produce the same response in us. Also, it is possible in pursuit of experience to put aside God's teachings and God's commands, perceiving them as of little importance as long as we can maintain the experience. But experience is frequently fleeting and not a solid foundation  to build your life on.

The Scripture starts from a different position. The issue is not what we do or what we feel, but what God has done. God has invaded history (John 1:1-18; Philippians 2:5-11; Hebrews 2:9-18) to pay the price for our sins (1 Peter 2:24,25; Colossians 2:13,14; 2 Corinthians 5:21) in order to offer salvation to those who put their faith in Him (Ephesians 2:8,9; Romans 4:4,5; Galatians 3:6-9). This results in God working in our lives to transform us (2 Corinthians 3:18; Philippians 2:13; Colossians 1:29), producing a changed life (Titus 2:11-14; Ephesians 2:10; Philippians 3:12-14). It also results in our knowing God (Philippians 3:8-11; John 17:3; Hebrews 8:10-12), which produces a new experience of life (1 Peter 1:8; Romans 14:17; Galatians 5:22,23). But these are grounded in the historical fact of God invading history. And it is only on the basis of this that we can navigate by the fixed star of God's truth and pass between the extremes of legalism and mysticism. But it is easy to forget what our faith is based on and get off track. Therefore, we need to constantly remind ourselves of what God has done (2 Peter 1:9; Colossians 2:19; 1 Corinthians 11:23-26).


  1. The third danger is intellectualism which presents a gospel devoid of any real spiritual power.

    1. I totally agree. But I have found that though greatly feared, except for a few seminary professors, that the true intellectual as a rare bird in Christian circles today. There are many legalists who hold to some intellectual statements as a requirement, but the theological conservatives are all afraid of intellectualism for fear of being thought liberal and the theological liberals have all moved in the direction of mysticism.