Monday, November 28, 2022

Mysticism and the Jesus of John's Gospel

I have previously defined mysticism briefly as "the experience of mystical union or direct communion with God."1 In other words, it is an experience in which an individual becomes one with God, or unites with God. Recently I found the following definition on the internet:

In modern times, "mysticism" has acquired a limited definition, with broad applications, as meaning the aim at the "union with the Absolute, the Infinite, or God". This limited definition has been applied to a wide range of religious traditions and practices, valuing "mystical experience" as a key element of mysticism.2

Becoming “one with God” would seem to be a claim that one has become “divinized,” or simply stated: one has become absorbed in God. Is that even possible? Through history, however, there have been those that believed it to be possible. One finds such statements in ancient texts as the Corpus Hermeticum (1,25-26), and Plotinus, for example, said that the goal of humanity “was not to be sinless but to be God” (Enneads, I.6,1-3). Porphyry, his student, claimed that Plotinus had achieved union with God four times during his time with Plotinus and even Porphyry claimed to have achieved it once.3 In philosophy it is known as henosis (becoming one with the one).4

In the modern Orthodox Christian Church, the stated goal of salvation is becoming one with God.5 For a brief discussion of the pervasiveness of union with God in the Christian devotional classics, see the brief discussion in Georgia Harkness, Mysticism. Its Meaning & Message.6

            Against this all too brief background I note several statements by Jesus in the Gospel of John suggesting that the author portrayed Jesus as a mystic who was conscious of being one with God. The plain language of the statements themselves are clearly mystical, but critical New Testament scholarship has generally not taken them to be such.7 There are two levels of mystical statements; in the first Jesus speaks of himself and God and a second level in which he speaks of himself, God, and the disciple. The union of the Father and the “son” are reflected in statements made by others at the beginning and ending of the gospel. At the beginning the narrator describes the “Word” (generally it is assumed Jesus is the Word) as being both opposite God and as being God (The word is Theos, God, and not theios, divine): “The Word was with God and the Word was God” (John 1:1). And a second statement by the narrator describing Jesus (from the critical Greek text) as: “the only God in the bosom of the Father” (John 1:18). And at the end of the gospel Philip’s confession about Jesus: “my Lord and my God” (John 20:28). These two statements form a basis for understanding the statements below as mystical.

            In the first level of statements Jesus claimed union with the father: “I and the Father, we are one” (John 10:30; see also for similar statements: 14:10-11; 17:21-22). In the second level of statements Jesus brought the disciple into mystical union with himself and the Father: “On that day you shall know that I am in my Father, and you are in me and I am in you” (John 14:20; see also 15:4-7; 17;21, 23, 26).

            Is the author of the Gospel of John a mystic? The English New Testament scholar C. H. Dodd had problems with the term mystic and wrote:

If the mystic is one whose religious life is expressed in ecstasy, or one who experiences an impersonal absorption in the divine, then one is right to deny this description to the author of the gospel (Dodd, p. 198).

Nevertheless, Dodd avers that John was not using stereotypical language then in vogue, but clearly using language evocative of mysticism. Dodd surveys the passages in John that suggest “union with God” and chides the German scholar, Walter Bauer, for shying away from the term “mystic” and instead describing the author of John as opting for a “conception of the Christian life” akin to a “kind of legalism.” Dodd himself affirms that the author of John opened up for believers a situation in which faith permitted them to dwell in God and God in them, but opines “whether this should be called ‘mysticism’ I do not know” (Dodd, p. 198). His problem with the term is the ecstasy associated with it.8

            Clearly John uses the language of mysticism, but there is no evidence for ecstatic visions or other mystical retreats from the world to be found in John. Does this suggest John reflects a kind of intellectual “mysticism” (if such is even possible), as Dodd seemed to think?

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University



3Porphyry, “Life of Plotinus,” 23: in A. H. Armstrong, Plotinus, Porphyry on Plotinus; Enead I (Cambridge/London: Harvard, 1966; revised 1989), 69.


5Timothy Ware, The Orthodox Church (Penguin Books, 1964), 236-37. For the quotations, see C. Hedrick, “On Becoming God,” Wry Thoughts about Religion, Tuesday July 4, 2017:

6Georgia Harkness, Mysticism. Its Meaning & Message (Nashville: Abingdon, 1973), 20-24.

7For example, see C. H. Dodd, The Interpretation of the Fourth Gospel (Cambridge: University Press), 187-200; Raymond Brown does not even raise the subject of mysticism in connection with John’s language: The Gospel of John (2 vols.; AB 29; New York: Doubleday, 1966, 1970). Ernest Haenchen sees no hint of mysticism in these verses: A Commentary on the Gospel of John (2 vols.; Hermenia; Fortress, 1984), 2.50. He even translates Theos (God) in John 1:1 as if it were theios (divine).

8See Rev 1:9-20 as an example of an ecstatic vision; for definition see


  1. This is helpful stuff, and I realize that I never thought of mysticism as "becoming one with God." I took Albert Schweitzer's definition from "The Mysticism of Paul the Apostle (1931)," where he defines the term on the first page: "We are always in the presence of mysticism when we find a human being looking upon the division between earthly and super-earthly, temporal and eternal, as transcended, and feeling himself, while still externally amid the earthly and temporal, to belong to the super-earthly and eternal." Or, more simply, to my understanding, mysticism is the sensation of all things being One. I don't find that so much in John, but rather a spiritualization of earthly things, and the assumption of divinity "out there" or here in Jesus, who is not much like us. Schweitzer goes on to say that Paul was not into God-mysticism but Christ-mysticism, a being in Christ, a transcendence of all things earthly. (I knew there was a reason I saved this book!)

  2. Hi Charlie,

    In my opinion John's Jesus is not a mystic, either of the intellectual stripe or otherwise.
    John's Jesus is a literary construction which elaborates on the author's belief that Jesus and the Father are one in essence and purpose. This is also likely true of the other gospel authors but in a somewhat more historically grounded and less flamboyant way.

    Gene Stecher
    Chambersburg, Pa.

  3. Charlie,
    Primeval tales in Genesis defined boundaries perceived between humanity and God (Genesis 2-3, 6.1-4, 11.1-10) which suggest to me that the compilers of these myths saw this boundary as one that humanity couldn’t cross without negative consequences. Christianity’s view that human nature is sinful is another perceived boundary between humanity and the divine. This is not generally true of Eastern (non-Christian) religions, which tend to see the divine within humanity, since all is considered of one substance (monism). In other words, instead of making a Jesus the incarnation of God, all are part of this divine source. It is not “sin” that is the problem, but “ignorance” of one’s nature.

    I believe Eastern Orthodox Christianity used the concept of incarnation, especially in John, to attempt to tear down this boundary between humanity and the divine. “Teachings about theosis are often expressed in the simple formula, ‘God became man so man can become God.’ The Logos became incarnate so flesh can become divine” (Geffert & Stavrou, Eastern Orthodox Christianity: The Essential Texts,” p. 133). The idea is that the incarnation of Christ made it possible for humanity to become like God. The “death of God incarnate” led to victory over death, thus making it possible for humans to strive toward divinity (p. 134) . How this happens is discussed in writings by Dionysius the Areopagite and Maximus Confessor, from the 6th-7th c. The questions of the religion aren’t is one “justified,” or in a “state of grace,” but is one “on a process that will lead to union with God in part in this life and in full in the life to come” (p.133). Another factor, from Michael Prokurat, in an essay (p.65,The Bible in the Churches, Hagen), might be, “The Bible is not so much history, literature, or theology in the abstract, as it is the liturgical book of the Church.”

    Dennis Dean Carpenter
    Dahlonega, Ga.

  4. Hi Dennis,

    I like your historical analysis that there are those who perceive that each human being participates in the divine nature, and others who perceive that sinful human nature is incompatible with divine nature.

    Myself, I'm for being the best human that one can be. There are examples out there, including one's own parents. The number of life stories that can be help[ful are beyond number; the Jesus story should be included. I'm agnostic about what role divine nature may have in the matter.

    Gene Stecher
    Chambersburg, Pa.