In his originally overlooked book, The Mysticism of the Paul the Apostle, Albert Schweitzer attempts to set to explain Paul’s theology as mystical, where the believer is mystically united with Christ, which he labels as Christ-mysticism.1 He sets this pattern of mysticism in contrast to other forms of Hellenistic religious patterns, such as Stoic pantheism and the mystery religions2 and instead argues it is grounded in Jewish eschatology.3 While allowing that Paul’s theology expresses also eschatological and forensic conceptions of salvation, ultimately Schweitzer says that “when all is said and done, Pauline personal religion is in its fundamental character mystical… its own essential life lies in the mystical.”4 Simarily, as Adam Neder observes, Karl Barth’s employs the idea of participation in Christ as a fundamental core of his theology throughout the Church Dogmatics.5 Barth’s theological framework becomes realized through the subjective revelation in which Christ is made known to the person, but revelation is not given to the person as something they control and possess such as knowledge.6 IT has an impact on the believer that ushers in a person’s faith, the qualitative distinction between Christ and the believer is made absolute. This is in distinction to Schweitzer’s proposal of Pauline Christ-mysticism that suggests the believer experiences the dying and rising of Christ;7 what happens in Christ happens in the person such that there is a blurring of the boundary between Christ and believer. However, while Christ-mysticism according to Schweitzer and Barth’ participation in Christ have their differences, they have a fundamental similarity; there is a direct, ontological relationship between Christ and those who believe in him.
There is much to commend in favor of either mystic and participatory explanations as there is a plethora of places in the Apostle Paul8 where some connection between Christ and believer is imagined. PAul’s favorite repeated phrase “in Christ” conveys a critical connection. The union with Christ’s death and resurrection through baptism in Romans 6:1-13 is certainly well explained by mystic/participatory frameworks. It needs to be asked, however: is Paul’s language of “in Christ” and of “union” suggestive of a direct, ontological union between Christ and believer? While such an idea does explain the critical Pauline phrases and discourse, it runs into difficulty when one has to explain the role of the Spirit in this union. The emphasized role of the Spirit in places such as Romans 8:1-11 and 1 Corinthians 12:13 render both Christ-mysticism and participation in Christ explanations as either reductive or misleading. A fitting explanation will either incorporate the Spirit with Christ in a direct ontological relationship or will make the Spirit ontological basis for being in Christ. The former option finds its weakness because Paul does not treat Christ and Spirit as operating in the same mode: in 1 Corinthians 12:13, the Spirit is the cause of union with the body of Christ. In Romans 8:1-11, Paul does not speak of Christ impacted the believer personally, but rather that Christ defeats the forces of sin and death; rather the believer realizes the life of Christ through the Spirit. The different modes that Christ and Spirit take in regards to the believer undercuts the former option and highlights the latter option. It is more consistent with the whole Pauline corpus to say that the Spirit is the means by which a person is connected to Jesus Christ.
If that is the case, then “in Christ” and union in Romans 6 are not designating a direct relationship. Instead, they are a metaphorical9 designation for the pattern that a person comes into conformity with. To be sure, Paul doesn’t believe these metaphors are merely metaphors; these metaphors are used to describe a particular effect in the believer, but that the effect comes to fruition through the Spirit. However, what Paul has in mind is more about the source of the human pattern of Christ and its realization in believers rather than a direct, mystic/participatory relationship between the two.
The best passage that can demonstrate notion of pattern is in Galatians 2:15-3:1. There Paul expresses in v. 16 what I think should be best translated as: “we know that a person is not vindicated not by works of the Torah, but through the faith of Jesus Christ. And we believed in Christ Jesus, so that we may be vindicated by the faith of Christ and not be works of the Torah.” I think the best sense of this passage takes the genitive in the phrase πιστις χριστου as subjective (the faith of Christ), whereas πιστις is referring to faith and not faithfulness. In so doing, Paul is suggesting there is a connection between the one who believes/has faith in Jesus and Jesus’ own faith: to believe in Christ leads to believing as Christ believed in God who vindicated and raised from the dead. Put differently, to follow Jesus means to live life in the same mode and expectation as Jesus did. In so doing, the believer begins to resemble Christ through the way they respond to God as the who initiates and completes the redemption of his people. Hence, this can explain why Paul then says that Christ lives in him in v. 20; there is a conformity of Christ’s pattern being realized in Paul. One could have a different interpretation of v. 16 and a different relationship between v. 16 and v. 20, but the pattern of conformity of believer’s faith to Christ’s faith is the simplest, most parsimonious explanation of the data that I am aware of.
Furthermore, this pattern helps to explain what immediately follows, as Paul recounts how Christ was “publicly crucified” before the Galatians in 3:1. This odd phrase makes sense if Paul is speaking of his own conformity to Christ, as Paul is recounting how the Galatians saw the very example of Christ’s suffering in the Apostle Paul. This idea becomes explicit in 4:12-14, where Paul says the Galatians received him as if he was somehow acting in the pattern of Christ. If Paul is talking about his own conformity to Christ and Christ’s faith, then much of the Galatian discourse becomes coherently explained.
However, Paul does not ascribe an ontological relationship with Christ in Galatians. Rather, Paul states in 5:5: “through the Spirit, by faith, we await the hope of righteousness.” Then, he speaks of “in Christ” in the following version as a way of pointing to the importance of faith rather than circumcision (and implicitly Torah). Read together, Galatians 4:5-6 suggests the Spirit is the ontological basis by which faith is effective; presumably this is because it is through the Spirit, the faith of Christ comes to realization in the believer, as faith/πιστις is mentioned as part of the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5:22-23. More generally, it seems that Paul has a tendency to speak about Christ in visual10 or exterior11 terms, whereas he is more apt to speak of the Spirit’s impacts in the believer’s heart.12
In summary, a Spirit-mysticism as the basis for a connection to Christ in Paul’s letters is a parsimonious explanation of a wide range of Paul language about the Son and the Spirit. The term Paul uses that may best express this idea of conformity to the pattern of Christ is συμμορφος in Romans 8:29, where Paul says “those whom he knew beforehand, he beforehand ordained conformity to His Son’s image.” Here the idea of patterning after Jesus is clear; this expains the calling, vindication, and glorification in v. 30 as references to Jesus traditions that are then applied to others.13
Therefore, it seems more in line with Paul’s arguments for his language of “in Christ” and union with Christ to pertain more to a patterning of the believer’s life in resemblance to Christ. However, the nature of Paul’s language pushes against mere imitation of Christ, which would highlight ethical action by believer; the conformity to Christ that PAul emphasizes pertains to God action’s to call, vindicate, resurrect, glorify, etc., and thus still contains a divinely-realized transformation of the total life. Hence, It would be better defined as a Christ-patterned Spirit-mysticism; for Paul, Christ took on a renewed human form which the Spirit then molds God’s people into.
- Albeirt Schweitzer, The Mysticism of Paul the Apostle. (Baltimore; John Hopkins University: 1998), 3ff.
- Ibid. 7-18.
- Ibid., 36-40
- Ibid., 25
- Adam Neder, Participation in Christ, (Louisville, KY; Westminster John Knox: 2009), Kindle Edition.
- Schweitzer, Mysticism, 16.
- not to mention other places such as the Gospel of John,
- I am using metaphor here in the sense of the work of George Lakoff on cognitive metaphors as a way of describing the world from a source domain to a target domain0, rather than a mere figurative description.
- Jesus Christ as the image of God is a common visual term
- “Clothed” in Galatians 3:27
- i.e. Galatians 4:6
- Although, to be specific in this case, I think those whom God foreknows/knows beforehand is a reference to Israel; cf Rom. 11:2.