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Luther and “Mystical” Experience


Luther and “Mystical” Experience


In his note on Rom. 5 Luther wrote, “Once I was carried away to the third heaven.”

Yet L. never based his theological authority on special revelations or mystical experiences.

Still, he knew that the doctrine of the Holy Spirit meant that God draws us into God’s own life, thus giving rise to our experience.

L. distanced himself from the mediaeval mystics with their “ladder:” purgatio, illuminatio, unio.

L. insists we encounter God but are never absorbed into God so as to blur the distinction between creature and Creator.





Three kinds of mysticism have been identified:

Dionysian. It sidesteps the incarnation and speculates about God.

Latin. It emphasizes the earthly Christ and mysticism as experience rather than as doctrine. However it sidesteps spiritual Anfechtung and deploys an erotic vocabulary while upholding an ecstatic union with the uncreated world.

German. It maintains that the true purgatory is self-despair, and such despair is an experience, a genuine foretaste, of hell.

Luther: (a) Dionysian mysticism is rejected.

(b) Latin mysticism is accepted with qualifications: its emphasis on the earthly Christ, plus

its recognition that Christ is known ultimately in experience rather than merely as


Its denial of the place of Anfechtung, its erotic vocabulary/conceptuality, and its

ecstatic union with the uncreated world are all rejected.

(c) German mysticism is accepted without qualification. (A proper understanding of the

Law drives us to self-despair.)

Luther repudiates all speculation, insisting that it belongs inherently to a theology of glory rather than to a theology of the cross.

At the same time Luther never denies the validity of an experience of God so deep and vivid that no words can do justice to it. Just as Paul, in 2nd Cor. 12, speaks of his ecstatic experience (plainly it’s important to him) yet never proclaims it instead of the “Word of the cross”, so Luther insists that “proper theology should precede mystical theology.”

L.’s point is that accessus has priority over raptus; i.e., we are granted access to God through justifying faith-clinging grasp of the crucified; only Christ-crucified (and faith’s seizing him) gives us access to God, not mystical rapture. I.e., faith is our accessus to the raptus.

L. always repudiated the notion that our love for God (or Jesus Christ) is the bond that unites us to him. Those mystics who said it is also spoke of Christ’s “sweet” embrace and of the delights of all this. L. insists that Christ’s embrace isn’t merely sweet but also deadly: to be embraced by Christ is to be embraced by one who knows most profoundly God-forsakenness, the feeling of which (but not, of course, the actuality) will torment the Christian many times over in his or her life. The Christian, identified with the crucified, is henceforth immersed in the turbulent, treacherous world and never flees it for “sweetness.”

L. disagrees with the radical reformers on the grounds that they aren’t radical enough: they separate faith in the heart from Christ in heaven, when these can never be separated. The believer’s identification with Christ is “not an imagined but a real matter,” never a metaphorical but a real way of speaking.





For L. the venue of our profoundest experience of God is conflict, tribulation, Anfechtung. (Shepherd: The risen one is the crucified one: Jesus is raised wounded. The resurrection is the triumph and efficacy of the still-bleeding Christ, not the transcending of his crucifiedness.)

Just as Christ moves history towards its fulfillment by means of the cross, so he moves Christians toward theirs by means of their suffering.

The “groaning” as in Rom. 8 describes the complete identification with Christ. Then just as simul (totus) iustus et peccator describes the Christian, so does simul gemitus et raptus.


Reverend Victor Shepherd