Note: For context, please see my recently asked question Can Reformed Epistemology be considered a special variant of mysticism? on Philosophy Stack Exchange. It includes many useful references and extensive quotes.

In essence, Reformed Epistemology, primarily expounded by Alvin Plantinga, posits that humans can experientially know God in a properly basic manner, through some sort of built-in spiritual sense or sensus divinitatis, akin to how we form basic beliefs about the external world through the conventional five physical senses: touch, smell, taste, hearing, and sight. William Lane Craig, building on Plantinga's work, further specifies that this direct experiential knowledge of God occurs in Christians through the inner witness of the Holy Spirit. In a clarifying 3-minute video clip, Craig elaborates on and defends this notion in a debate with an atheist. (I recommend watching the video.)

Interestingly, the experiential nature of knowing God proposed by Reformed Epistemology bears resemblance to the knowledge-granting aspect of mystical experiences as described in mysticism. I'll quote a few paragraphs from that article to clarify what I'm talking about:

Under the influence of William James’ Varieties of Religious Experience, philosophical interest in mysticism has heavily focused on distinctive, allegedly knowledge-granting “mystical experiences.” Philosophers have dealt with such topics as the classification of mystical experiences, their nature, to what extent mystical experiences are conditioned by a mystic’s language and culture, and whether mystical experiences furnish evidence for the truth of mystical claims.

A more inclusive definition of “mystical experience” is:

A purportedly nonsensory awareness or a nonstructured sensory experience granting acquaintance of realities or states of affairs that are of a kind not accessible by way of ordinary sense-perception structured by mental conceptions, somatosensory modalities, or standard introspection. “Experience,” “consciousness,” and “awareness” are notoriously difficult to define and will be left unanalyzed here, but the other key terms in the definition can be understood as follows:

  1. “Purportedly” allows the definition to be accepted without necessarily accepting that mystics ever really do experience realities or states of affairs in the way they described.

  2. “Nonsenory awareness” includes content of a kind not appropriate to sense-perception, somatosensory modalities (including the means for sensing pain and body temperature, and internally sensing body, limb, organ, and visceral positions and states), or standard introspection. Some mystics have referred to a distinct “spiritual” means of knowing appropriate only to a non-physical realm (nous, intellectus, buddhi). A super sense-perceptual mode of experience may accompany sense-perception as in the cases of “nature mysticism” or “cosmic consciousness” (Bucke 1901), as when, for example, a person has an awareness of God while watching a setting sun.

  3. “Nonstructured sensory experience” consists of phenomenological sensory content but lacks the conceptualization normally structuring sense-perception.

  4. “Acquaintance” of realities in mystical experiences means the subject is putatively aware of one or more realities in a way that overcomes the normal subject/object duality: the “acquaintance” is “knowledge by participation” or “knowledge by identity” (Forman 1990, Introduction). Mystical experiences are allegedly “direct,” “unmediated” insights in that sense.

  5. “States of affairs” include the impermanence of all reality and that God is the ground of the self. “Acquaintance” of states of affairs comes in two forms. In one, a subject is aware of either (one or more) realities on which (one or more) states of affairs supervene. An example would be an awareness of God (a reality) affording an awareness of one’s utter dependence on God (a state of affairs). In its second form, acquaintance of states of affairs involves an insight directly, without supervening on acquaintance, of any reality. An example is coming to “see” the impermanence of all that exists in the phenomenal world.

Hereafter “mystical experience” will be used in the broader sense, unless otherwise noted, not merely for unitive experiences. Correspondingly, the term “mysticism” will refer to practices, discourse, texts, institutions, and traditions associated with these experiences. The definition excludes paranormal experiences such as visions, voices, out-of-body experiences, and powers such as telepathy. All of these are “dualistic” acquaintance of subjects with objects or qualities of a kind accessible to the senses or to ordinary introspection.

In the more specific context of Christianity, it's pertinent to quote the introductory paragraph of the article Christian mysticism:

Christian mysticism is the tradition of mystical practices and mystical theology within Christianity which "concerns the preparation [of the person] for, the consciousness of, and the effect of [...] a direct and transformative presence of God" or Divine love. Until the sixth century the practice of what is now called mysticism was referred to by the term contemplatio, c.q. theoria, from contemplatio (Latin; Greek θεωρία, theoria), "looking at", "gazing at", "being aware of" God or the Divine. Christianity took up the use of both the Greek (theoria) and Latin (contemplatio, contemplation) terminology to describe various forms of prayer and the process of coming to know God.

Thus, my question for Christians who sympathize with Reformed Epistemology:

Do they see any overlap between Reformed Epistemology and Mysticism? Could the former be viewed as a special variant of the latter? Are they completely different views? Is the experience of God through the sensus divinitatis a special kind of mystical experience? Does the sensus divinitatis play any role whatsoever in mystical experiences in general?


2 Answers 2


If a man love me, he will keep my words: and my Father will love him, and we will come unto him, and make our abode with him. - John 14:23

If one believes in the Lord Jesus Christ, if one calls on the name of the Lord, as the scripture says, they will be saved. The temple of the Holy Spirit (an individual's body) is cleansed and the presence of God (Father and Son in one Holy Spirit) takes up residence within the newly sanctified person. It is an occurrence that has either taken place or is merely speculated upon.

Philosophers and theologians may assign all manner of scientific terms and it may or may not be labeled mysticism. It can be disbelieved, misunderstood, yearned after, or disregarded. Regardless of what we say, it is what it is: It happens or it does not.

A person who has been thus born again is certain. Not perfect, but certain. There is no nomenclature to fully encapsulate what God has done in Christ Jesus therefore it can only be declared, "Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you shall be saved, you and your household". This is, in the ears of unbelief, the foolish rambling of a madman no matter what philosophical terms are used:

Therefore, knowing the fear of the Lord, we persuade others. But what we are is known to God, and I hope it is known also to your conscience. We are not commending ourselves to you again but giving you cause to boast about us, so that you may be able to answer those who boast about outward appearance and not about what is in the heart. For if we are beside ourselves, it is for God; if we are in our right mind, it is for you. - 2 Corinthians 5:11-13


Mysticism is a religious belief or practice centered on achieving direct, experiential knowledge of God or Ultimate Reality. It involves transcending the physical realm to experience enlightenment and spiritual connection. Thus, in a broad sense all religious encounter and experience of the divine will be included in mysticism, thus there is nothing unique overlap with the reformed epistemology.

Origen described Christian mysticism as the most arcane sense of the scriptures and an encounter with the Bridegroom that is beyond understanding without experiencing it oneself. He used the term "mystikos" to denote this mystical sense of the scriptures and the encounter with the divine. Origen's approach to mysticism involved delving into the deeper spiritual meanings of the texts and experiencing a profound connection with the divine through scriptural interpretation and personal spiritual encounters.

  • The link describes mysticism as a characteristic of the gnostics such as non-dualists Advaita vedanta and Buddhist enlightenment through esoteric deliberations - The word "gnostic" doesn't appear even once in the entire article. It is common among philosophers to refer to “mystical experience” in a narrow sense - In that very same section, a more inclusive definition is given. Why did you ignore that definition? (I'll edit my question.)
    – Mark
    Feb 27 at 10:49
  • The book Against the Protestant Gnostics ... - Christian mysticism is very relevant in Catholicism and Orthodoxy, see en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christian_mysticism. The word "gnostic" is only mentioned 1 time in that entire article.
    – Mark
    Feb 27 at 10:50
  • I edited my question by including a few quotes for clarification.
    – Mark
    Feb 27 at 11:18

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