Pauline Mysticism: Christ in the Mystical Teaching of St. Paul

by Alfred Wikenhauser

Reviewed by Eileen Quinn Knight, Ph.D.



The mystical union between the faithful and Christ has been described as the heart of St. Paul’s piety. The Apostle was a profound thinker who traced the foundations of Christian Theology. But in texts like Gal.2:20, Phil. 1:21, and Col, 3:4, he appears above all as fervent disciple of the crucified and risen Christ, the Apostle whose very life after his conversion was Christ. St. Paul makes it quite clear that this mystical union with Christ was not a personal privilege reserved for himself or for a chosen few. It is a precious gift which God gives to every Christian, and it carries with it serious obligations


Is there a mystical element in the theology and spirituality of St. Paul? Was St. Paul influenced by the mysticism of his time? These two questions have provoked lovely discussion among modern scholars. The interest in these problems is partly due to a growing appreciation of mysticism in our time even outside the Catholic Church; another factor is the popularity of studies of the Oriental and Hellenistic religions and their spirituality.


There is no agreement among scholars concerning the exact nature of mysticism, and this is an obstacle to any study of St. Paul’s mysticism. It is more than eighty years since Heinrich Denifle, who had an extensive knowledge of the medieval mystics, complained that the concept of mysticism in the most ill-defined and fluid concept in all theology, and this judgement applies within even greater force to present-day studies in Comparative Religion It is no great exaggeration to say that each scholar has his own idea: some restrict the term mysticism to a small number of phenomena in the spiritual life, while others apply it to a wider field. That is why theologians do not agree about whether there is a mystical element at all in St. Paul’s spirituality. Some deny it entirely, while others say that he was steeped in Hellenistic mysticism. Others again concede that there are strong mystical elements in his spirituality.


The present study takes the word mysticism in its wider sense as meaning—not only in Christian theology, but also in Comparative Religion generally – that form of spirituality which strives after (or experiences) an immediate contact (or union) of the soul with God. This “union” appears in a number of modes, and the term mysticism cannot be restricted to any one of them; there are diverse forms of mysticism cannot be restricted to any one of them; there are diverse forms of mysticism, though some are superior to others.


The present work deals with union with Christ in the mysticism of St. Paul. We intend first to examine the nature of this union and the terms by which Paul describes it. This is to be followed by an investigation of how the union is brought about. Finally we will show where it differs from other types of mysticism of St. Paul’s time. St. Paul’s idea of the Mystical Body of Christ would be relevant here, but as we have dealt with it elsewhere it will not be treated at length.


It is true that Baptism is an objective act of God’s which is attached to certain rites. It is also correct that by Baptism God withdraws men from the sphere of the flesh and of sin, and transfers them to a new sphere. Moreover, the new “life” the “new creation”, is a work of God’s. But this does not relieve men of their moral obligations: on the contrary, it is precisely because of these objective facts that men have moral duties. And the resurrection, which is the final and supreme result of Baptism, depends on the fulfillment of these duties.


1 Cor.10:1 and following is perhaps the place where Paul expresses this doctrine most emphatically. He uses the history of the generation which wandered in the desert to show the Corinthians that the sacraments by themselves give no guarantee of attaining the goal of salvation. The Israelites also received a kind of baptism and ate heavenly food, yet God rejected them: “But with most of them God was not well pleased: for they were overthrown in the desert”, and they did not succeed in reaching the Promised Land. Their failure was a punishment for their sin. This is an example for us, and it is contained in the Scripture in order to warm us. “Wherefore, he that thinketh himself to stand, let him take care lest he fall” (verse 12). Even a Christian cam be lost (see also Rom. 3:13; 1 Cor. 6:9 Gal. 5:19).


The comparison of our union with Christ to the relationship which exists in marriage helps is to understand that the marriage bond last only as both parties are alive. If either party dies, the other is free and cam contract a new union. The same applied to the bond with the Mosaic Law. Through the body of Christ Christians have been made dead to the Law, so that they can now belong to another, namely to him who has risen from the dead. They are now bound to him, and must therefore bring forth fruit for God. Paul’s meaning is that Christ satisfied the demand of the Law by dying on the Cross, and thereby he became free from the servitude which he voluntarily undertook for the sake of men. By Baptism Christians have shared in the suffering of Christ’s death and have also shared in its consequence, namely freedom from the Law. As a result of this they belong to Christ.