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The Boundaries of Evangelicalism

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As I survey the contemporary church, one of my gravest concerns is the power and prevalence of mysticism. It appears in pulpits, books, and conversation. It is at the heart of Sarah Young’s bestselling Jesus Calling, it is in all the much-loved books by John Eldredge, it fills the pages of so many books on spiritual disciplines or spiritual formation, it is almost everywhere you look. Language that was once considered the distinguishing language of mysticism is now commonly used by Evangelicals.

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. In an age of syncretism we fail to spot the contradiction and opposition.

Several years ago Donald Whitney attempted to define the boundaries of Evangelical spirituality—the boundaries of how we may rightly live out our Christian faith. His paper has been very helpful to me as I’ve thought this through.

Before we proceed, we need some definitions, and I will turn to Whitney: Evangelical theology is “the theology and practice considered orthodox by a consensus of the heirs of the Reformation.” These are the five solas of the Reformation, the divinity of Jesus Christ, the necessity of his atoning work, and so on—the core doctrines of historic Protestantism. Mysticism refers “those forms of Christian spirituality which attempt direct or unmediated access to God.” Mystics are those who expect to experience “a direct inner realization of the Divine” and an “unmediated link to an absolute.”

I want to track with Whitney as he expresses his concerns and challenges us to think carefully.

The Big Boundary

The first thing Whitney does is tell us where we can and must go to find the boundaries that must surround Evangelicalism. He says that they will and must be found in “the written self-revelation of God.” Whatever the boundaries are, they are God’s own boundaries and have been revealed to us. We cannot depend upon ourselves, our own wisdom or our own desires, to teach us about how we may experience God. The Bible points us to two forms of revelation: natural revelation and special revelation.

In natural revelation God reveals himself through creation, but this is incomplete and insufficient revelation. “It reveals Him to us only as Creator. It does little, if anything, to reveal Him to us as holy, as Judge, as Son, as Savior, or as Spirit.” For us to know God as he is and for us to obey him, we must have more than the revelation God gives us through what he has created.

“Knowledge of God requires a message, a message from God, a perspicuous (clear) message from God. And God sent a self-attesting, manifestly clear message in Word form.” This was Jesus Christ, the very Word of God. But Jesus was not the only living and active Word of God. There is also Scripture, God’s words recorded and written. “This written Word which reveals God to us has a unique and supernatural quality to it, part of which is that these are the words through which God the Holy Spirit makes Himself known to us individually and calls us to Himself personally.”

Whitney next narrows in on two particular boundaries drawn out of the first: the doctrines of Scripture alone (sola scriptura) and faith alone (sola fide). As we live out our Christian faith, these boundaries will constrain us.

Sola Scriptura

At the very heart of Evangelical theology is the uniqueness and the supremacy of Scripture.

Evangelicals hold to the Reformation doctrine of sola scriptura, that is, the Scriptures alone—and not anyone’s individual experience nor the collected and distilled corporate tradition of the church—are our final authority. And the Scriptures are our final authority because the Scriptures are what God says. In this context sola scriptura means that the Bible is the ultimate authority in all matters of faith and Christian living, and thus the ultimate authority in spirituality.

The Bible is sufficient to tell us what to believe and how to live.

Many a mystic will agree with all of this. However, Evangelical doctrine goes farther. If the Scriptures are the final authority on all matters pertaining to what we must believe and how we must live, “the Scriptures are also a sufficient guide for our spirituality. In other words, the authority for our spirituality claims its sufficiency as the director of our spirituality.” The Bible is sufficient to tell us what to believe and how to live.

The Bible will guide us not only in what we know of God but also in how we know God. “The boundaries of the forms and expressions of spirituality for disciples of Jesus are those consistent with the Gospel of Jesus, that is, those found in Scripture, or those inaugurated, guided, or interpreted by Scripture.” We have no right to determine how we will experience God, but are to go to the Bible and there to see how God promises he will guide us, teach us, and allow us to experience him.

Whitney offers two ways we cross this boundary of sola scriptura. The first is whenever

we seek an experience with Him in a way not found in Scripture. In one sense it is difficult to think of an example of an encounter with God for which there is nothing remotely similar in the Bible. Yet in another sense mankind seems to have a unlimited capacity to invent ways to “get in touch with God.” And all these have in common the presumption of the ability to experience God apart from the forms He has selected, and/or the presumption of the ability to experience Him immediately, that is, unmediated by God’s ordained means of revealing Himself to us.

A second way to cross the boundary of sola scriptura is

seeking to experience God in a way not inaugurated, guided, or interpreted by Scripture. Scripture should inaugurate many of our experiences with God, for the Scriptures are the clearest revelation of God. This is why He gave His Word to us, so that we would experience Him. And in a real sense we might say that all true experiences with God are ultimately inaugurated by Scripture.

We can undoubtedly all think of times that we have experienced some of the goodness, grace and nearness of God while holding a child in our arms or watching a sunset. Not all of our encounters with God involve an open Bible. However, this is consistent with sola scriptura if what we experience of God in that moment begins with, is guided by, or is interpreted by God’s Word. “So if in beholding the splendor of the sunset I find myself in awe of the goodness of God, the glory of God, or the power of God, I may rightly deem that an experience with God because the Bible tells me that God is good, glorious, and powerful.”

The key, of course, is that we constantly go back to the Bible to guide even our experiences, acknowledging that it is infallible and sufficient.

Sola Fide

The second great boundary we cross as we integrate mysticism into Evangelicalism is the boundary of sola fide, the doctrine that expresses that we are justified by grace through faith alone, without contributing any merit of our own. The danger here is that the majority of the people we look to as teachers of mysticism hold a very different view of sola fide or a view of justification that outright rejects sola fide. “Specifically, this means that to send our disciples by means of books and quotations to learn their sanctification and spirituality from those we would consider heretical on justification is a dangerous practice.” There are few mystics who hold to a robust doctrine of justification by grace through faith alone.

Does this mean that we can learn nothing from the spirituality of anyone who embraces a theology which gets the Gospel wrong? No, but we should at the very least recognize the risk that this may lead some of our disciples to conclude that if Evangelicals are not right when it comes to knowing Jesus better, how can we be right about how to know Him in the first place.


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.

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