Word and Presence: The Role of Scripture in the Formation and Reformation of Mystical Theology, 1200–1580


Pak, G. Sujin


Smith, J. Warren


Risch Zoutendam, Erin








In the later Middle Ages, some Christians sought the presence of God through mystical contemplation, which offered a foretaste of the beatitude that the saints in heaven were believed to enjoy eternally. As such, mystical contemplation occupied a privileged place in late medieval religious culture. The scriptures played an important role in late medieval Christians’ pursuit of this mystical union: not only did reading or meditating on the scriptures prepare the soul for mystical ascent, but the scriptures were believed to contain several accounts of biblical figures who enjoyed ecstatic and contemplative union. For medieval Christians, it was not merely that mystical contemplation was compatible with the Christian scriptures; rather, the scriptures themselves gave the form and pattern for such union.

Early Protestant reformers, however, made precisely the opposite claim. For magisterial Protestants, mystical contemplation as it was practiced in the later Middle Ages was profoundly unbiblical. According to these writers, the only way to find late medieval mystical ideals in the pages of scripture was to twist and distort the words of scripture beyond their plain meaning. This dissertation examines how developments in hermeneutics and biblical exegesis during the later Middle Ages and the Reformation contributed to Protestant reformers’ stated rejection of mystical theology. It asks how and why late medieval and early modern Protestant writers came to different – and often contradictory – conclusions about what the Christian scriptures had to say about mystical contemplation, and it examines how the criteria for what was considered “scriptural” underwent dramatic changes during the Reformation.

This study traces the history of interpretation for three passages that were used in the later Middle Ages to shape and sustain mystical theology, asking how the hermeneutics and theological commitments of both late medieval and early Protestant writers shaped their diverging interpretations of those passages. The first chapter traces late medieval and early Protestant interpretations of the mysterious account of the Apostle Paul’s ecstatic rapture to the third heaven in 2 Cor. 12:2–4. The second chapter traces the account of Christ’s visit to the home of Mary and Martha in Luke 10:38–42, which was understood by medieval interpreters to be a passage about the active and contemplative lives – an interpretation that Protestant writers rejected. The third chapter traces the image of the bridegroom’s kiss in Song of Songs 1:1, which many late medieval mystical writers saw as symbol of mystical union but which magisterial Protestants redirected toward evangelical ideals. Each chapter shows how diverging biblical hermeneutics led late medieval and Protestant writers to diverging interpretations and points to the ways in which the interpretation of scripture is neither determined nor fixed, but rather continually open to revision and even reversal.




Religious history


Word and Presence: The Role of Scripture in the Formation and Reformation of Mystical Theology, 1200–1580