Tuesday, January 22, 2008

The recurring challenge of mysticism

The Mystical Meister Eckhart
On Monday, Fred Serjeant, our outgoing Fraternal Chairman, addressed the Westcountry Reformed Minister's Frat. on the subject of mysticism. Here are some notes on what he had to say.
1. Introduction
Mysticism appears in one form or another in the three main world faiths; Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The phenomenon has appeared throughout the history of the Christian Church. Mysticism can often seem attractive to those who are interested in the spiritual growth. Contemporary evangelicalism is open to mystical influences. We need to understand the attraction of mysticism. What is lacking in evangelical piety that makes mystical spirituality so alluring?
2. Definition
Mystics desire to achieve a state of union with Ultimate Reality. Mysticism has five key characteristics:
1. An Ultimate Being exists
2. An Ultimate Being can be known
3. An Ultimate Being can be perceived by human sense
4. An element in the soul is akin to the Ultimate Being. Man is possessed of a divine spark, so that to find God is to find oneself.
5. The goal of mysticism is union with the Ultimate Being.
Mystics aim to transcend the phenomenal world to attain a fresh perspective on Reality by entering an altered state of consciousness. This will lead to a direct experience of union with God.
3. Roman Catholic mysticism
It has been suggested that a mystical strain may be found in Augustine of Hippo. But that claim cannot be substantiated. The apopaphic spirituality of Gregory of Nyssa and Basil of Caesarea was was tinged with mysticism. But Christian mysticism only really comes into its own with the pseudopigraphal writings of Dionysius the Areopagite in 5-6AD. He pioneered the via nagativa, the negative way. According to these writings, mystical union with God is achieved by a process of purification that leads to illumination and ultimately deification. Despite their dubious provenance, the Pseudo Dionysius literature helped to stimulate mystical tendencies in the Church.
In the 12th Century, the Franciscan movement drew on Dionysian mysticism, as did Theresa of Avila and John of the Cross. Ignatius Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits in the 16th Century was also of a mystical bent. His Spiritual Exercises helped to popularise mystical spirituality.
4. How mysticism influenced Evangelical Protestantism
The 14th Century mystic Meister Eckhart is a key figure. Eckhart taught that, "The core of the soul is the core of God." And, "If I were not, God were not." John Tauler a disciple of Eckhart was a popular preacher, whose views were to have an impact on evangelical spirituality. But the later, 16th century mystics were all opponents of the Reformation. Loyola is a case in point. Luther was once attracted to the mystical way. Later, he came to see that mysticism is incompatible with justification by faith alone and a forensic understanding of the atonement.
The German Pietist movement was a reaction against dead orthodoxy and formalism in the Lutheran Church. The Pietists leaders looked back to the likes of John Tauler for inspiration and used his writings as a resource for spiritual renewal. John Wesley's parents were steeped in the mystics and he came under the spell of Tauler and the mystical Madame Guyon. Wesley was also infuenced by the Pietistic Moravians. The preacher was to adopt a more critical attitude towards mysticism, but to the end of his days, he would recommend Thomas A' Kempis' The Imitation of Christ and other mystical works to his Methodists. Wesley's view of sanctification as a crisis experience where the believer is swallowed up in God, and filled with perfect love smacks of mysticism. His teaching fed into the Holiness movement of the 19th century, associated with the Keswick Convention and figures like Andrew Murray and Oswald Chambers. The mystical way of purgation which leads to illumination followed by union with the divine can be traced in many who took their lead from Wesley. This can be found in some of our hymns, "But we never can prove the delights of his love/until all on the altar we lay". A spiritual crisis will only follow extreme negation of the self. This kind of thing may also be seen in A. W. Tozer, who had a great admiration for the mystics. Pentecostal emphasis on the "Second Blessing" is a development of Wesley's teaching on perfect love.
Some contemporary evangelical writers are returning to the mystics in an attempt to stimulate the spiritual life of the churches. But mysticism is ultimately based on works rather than grace. It teaches that the goal of union with God can be achieved by human techniques and programmes. This is a denial of the total depravity of man in sin. We need to develop a properly biblical spirituality that is based on our experience of the God of saving grace.
5. Discussion
The meeting was opened up for discussion and various points were raised. Mysticism aims at man's ontological union with God by bringing out the "divine spark" in the human soul. But our union with God us not ontological, it is soteriological. Union with God in Christ is the basic presupposition of the Christian life. That is where be begin. Divinisation means being made like Christ and sharing his resurrection glory, not being subsumed into the divine essence. A properly biblical spirituality is based on communion with the triune God. It is rooted in the election of the Father, the sacrifice of the Son and the sanctifying work of the Spirit. We, like the Puritan John Owen need to work out a trinitarian experiential theology. We must beware of putting so much emphasis on Scriptural doctrine that we leave little room for the direct work of the Spirit in Christian experience. Holiness is not achieved in a mystical crisis event that follows purgation and illumination. Our holiness begins with definitive sanctification on union with Christ. Then, the life of holiness is worked out in the Spirit-enabled activity of mortification and vivification.
We often encounter "soft" mysticism in evangelical Christians who claim that the Lord has told them to do this or that, even if their impressions or feelings are contrary to Scripture. But we should not prize our subjective experiences above what God has revealed in the Bible. That way lies Quietism and the Quaker emphasis on "inner light" over and against the light of the written Word.
In his paper, Fred quoted these words, "Mysticism begins with mist and ends in schism." There is certainly something in that. We need to beware of mystical tendencies and respond to the challenge of mysticism by constructing an evangelical, that is a gospel-based account of the believer's experience of union and communion with the God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit.


Anonymous said...

I thought this was a very helpful post. After becoming a Christian, I cut my teeth on a mystical view of Christianity that was high on experience, surrender, and hearing the voice of God (extra-biblically). It was an absolute roller coaster.

I was so thankful when I began to understand more of the objective nature of the gospel of Christ, and how our experience of God is rooted in that.

Anonymous said...


Guy, I think it was Thomas A Kempis who wrote imitation of Christ.

It seems to me that it is a false impression that the mystics were interested in "experience" per se. In one sense, certain strains of mysticism could be seen as "anti-experience". Just read "Cloud of Unknowing" or "Imitation of Christ". Rightly speaking there are valid criticisms Reformation Theology could make of mysticism, of its excesses and of its doctrinal errors. However, it seems that the proper criticism of it is overshadowed in the light of confusing mysticism with what is popularly known as "Charismaticism".

On the other hand, one could think of a host of a cloud of witnesses whose faith was mystical in some sense. Hudson Taylor, Andrew Murray and even Spurgeon, I would say. Not to forget that Lloyd-Jones highly recommended Tozer's pursuit of God. I guess that what I wanted to say is that the report gave an impression that mysticism was confused with charismatic experiences on one hand, and insufficient balance was given to what could be learned from it.

What do you think?


Guy Davies said...

Thanks Thad. Glad you found it helpful.


Of course it was A Kempis! What was I thinking? Now corrected.

In response to your other points, my post contains brief notes of a detailed and fascinating address that lasted for over an hour. No doubt something the speaker's nuanced argument has been lost. But Fred is appreciative of Tozer, in spite of reservations regarding mystical aspects of his piety. It is worth saying that before his conversion Fred was a mystically inclined Anglo-Catholic priest.

I think his point regarding the influence of Wesley's mystically tinged views on the Holiness movement and Pentecostalism is well established. See Iain Murray's Revival and Revivalism and Lloyd-Jones' paper on Living the Christian Life - New Developments in 18th and 19th Century Teaching in The Puritans: Their Origins and Successors.

With Spurgeon and Lloyd-Jones, what you get is authentic experiential Calvinism rather than mysticism. This is what we need to emphasise rather than medieval mysticism.

Anonymous said...

I am a little confused about how Gregory and Basil were supposed to have been influenced by Pseudo-Dionysius given that they lived before him?

Perhaps the most helpful book that I have read on this subject is Denys Turner's The Darkness of God in which he argues convincingly that the whole notion of "mysticism" is a fundamentally modern concept.

Guy Davies said...

You're right anon. It would have been a little difficult for Dionysius to influence the Cappodocians! I've corrected the post accordingly. No doubt the inaccuracy was my fault rather than the speaker's.

Unknown said...

Greetings from a former large colony across the Atlantic (one of the original 13 :)

Thank you for your concise but insightful column on the issue of mysticism. It was helpful to put the issue in the context of history to understand a bit about its allure today (and the eternal Word's perspective).

Why is it that the former Catholics (including me, also having been tempted by hard core New Age before Christ saved me) seem to pick up on this while many of those raised in Evangelicalism are unaware? We are facing an issue in a local context where people do not seem to appreciate your point about mysticism undermining justification by faith alone. The claim of Henri Nouwen as the second most popular modern speaker/author among American evangelicals (source: Christianity Today) is most sobering.

What do you or your colleague think is the appeal of mysticism in Europe? If you share your thoughts, I can exchange a couple of views from the left side of the Atlantic.

S Bogom,

Guy Davies said...


It is interesting that the speaker was an Anglo-Catholic priest prior to his conversion. He used to go on retreats based on Loyola's Spiritual Exercises. I think that Fred's early experiences have given him a finely tuned antenna for mysticism. He can also see that mysticism often has little room for justifying grace.

Maybe one of the attractions of mysticism for European evangelicalism is the dire lack of genuine experiential Christianity. Some emphasise doctrine at the expense of experience, others make experience the be-all-and-end-all. What we need is a genuine, Bible based evangelical spirituality. I have a modest stab at that in a recent post.