Mysticism: Its Origin and Impact on Contemporary Christian Thought
Pastor of Garden City Grace Brethren Church in Roanoke, VA
Within Evangelical Christianity there has been a resurging interest in the writings of the mystics and their intuitive approach to God. This has been noticeable with the growing interest in authors such as RICHARD FOSTER, HENRI NOUWEN and THOMAS MERTON , as well as the leadership of such scholars such as Bruce Demarest.
While many evangelicals may not be familiar with each of these names, many books being written today cite these authors as influential, often because these authors purport a form of DEEPER spirituality. Sometimes this spirituality is seated in the emotions and is predominantly experiential; however for some it is far more intricate and complex.
Because of the variety of notions discussed by the MYSTICS, there is little consensus on the definition of mysticism, yet it is generally consistent for mystics to seek to engage God in a way that transcends reason, even to point of having direct contact with God. This is not to say they claim to be irrational, but more appropriately “transrational.” From this framework of thinking, mystics then build their Christology and Anthropology from their hermeneutic. Thus, it is important to summarize briefly some of the historical influences of mysticism on contemporary hermeneutics, while simultaneously evaluating the ramifications this interpretive scheme has on both their Christology and Anthropology. Finally, I will compare the Biblical model of approaching God as it contrasts with the mystical.
In Christianity, Origen is generally considered the first Christian mystic embracing this transrational approach as he lead the church toward an experiential, intuitive reading of Scripture that was highly allegorical. For him, the traditional literal renderings could not be reconciled to his understanding of history, and he struggled making sense of apparent contradictions. Rather than accepting Scripture as it was and seeking truth by further investigation, he employed a hermeneutic allowing multiple senses of scripture to satisfy his conclusions, setting the slate for John Cassian, the DESERT FATHERS and others to continue spiritualizing God’s word. This approach also included an embracing of a pseudo unity with God (theosis) that elevated some of humanity to God like status through ritualistic readings (lectio divina) and monastic counterparts to the previously accepted apostolic spirituality.
Ironically these concepts were already found in the Gnostic faith that Origen so vigilantly opposed, as they attempted to find ways to uncover secrets through various stages of knowledge or “gnosis” not too dissimilar to various hermetic and occult groups today. Further, it is evident that Origen was highly influenced by Philo, the Alexandrian Jew, who syncretized Greek Platonic ideas with Judaism, creating Hellenized Judaism that also shared many pre-gnostic ideas, including such various intermediary beings emanating from the Creator. While Origen argued against the dualism of the gnostics that found their precursors even in Biblical times, he created a form of monism that united man with the divine, thus preserving to our day the great contemplative mystical tradition found in the extremes: philosophical monism and dualism. During the apostolic age, these views were predominantly seen in the Essenes and the pre-gnostic cults (dualism) and the EASTERN RELIGIONS (monism), all failing to hold in balance both the immanence and transcendence of God. Nonetheless, this methodology continued beyond Origen and Cassian, and found home in other writings of the Patristic era through the Middle Ages and beyond, such as those of Plotinus, Pseudo-Dionysius, Saint Bonaventure and Teresa of Avila.
Further, Origen has been accused of subordinationism in the Trinity, a charge that he has not been fully severed from. His Trinitarian concepts have also been linked to his form of MYSTICISM though often intended to be complementary to his impact on theology. Thus, though a direct link may not be proven, the presence in the Patristics of a low Christology (subordinationism sometimes to the point of Arianism) with an elevated Anthropology (theosis) all form a mystical approach to Scripture.
Mystical Roots of Evangelicalism
For some today, this trend is disturbing as they rightly see connections to various other religions. It is not uncommon for modern authors to speak of the “self” as it communes with God using the same language as a Buddhist and other wisdom traditions. However, the foundations of mystical thought are not simply Pagan ideals that have been recently borrowed and may be easily discarded. Unfortunately, these concepts have been blended into Christianity for much of its history even into some strains of evangelicalism.
Many proponents of mysticism rightly argue that this emphasis was not only found in the late Alexandrian Patristics (Origen) but continued through the Eastern Church finding a home the writings of John Wesley, as well as various Pietistic and Anabaptist sources. This is seen almost instantly in the Wesleyan Quadrilateral, where though Wesley understood Scripture to be the primary authority, reason, experience and tradition are also given great weight. This is not too dissimilar to the multiple senses of Scripture found in the later Patristic writings. Given the influence Wesley has had whether directly or indirectly on modern evangelicalism by way of Methodism, Wesleyan Holiness, Pentecostalism, and even modern Neo-Evangelicalism, it is not surprising if the mystical influences on his life and interpretation of Scripture in fact have influenced more of evangelical thought than previously understood, especially in how one approaches the Scriptures. Further, Wesley’s perfectibility of man, though only focused on perfect love, was strongly influenced by the Eastern Orthodox ideas of Theosis. This perfectibility in its least elevates the ability of man, though aided by God’s grace, and connects closely to the concepts already espoused by Origen.
Beyond Wesleyan influences, Charles Finney has had a tremendous impact on evangelicalism through his revivalistic campaigns. Evangelicals such as A.T. Pierson (former Pastor of Spurgeon’s famed Metropolitan Tabernacle) and Fundamentalist Jerry Falwell have given glowing praises about Finney, yet somehow they have missed his essential mysticism that blended extreme perfectibility doctrine with a Pelagian soteriology. Concerning entire sanctification (a form of theosis), Finney writes, “So that this epistle, instead of militating against the idea of Paul’s entire sanctification, upon the supposition that he was speaking of himself, fully establishes the fact that he was in that state.” Thus, he connected his ideas of sanctification with a demand for continued human righteousness on the part of the sinner.
In contemporary scholarly writings, Reader Response Criticism has “become increasingly prominent in biblical studies.” While, like previous authors mentioned, this approach to Scripture may not be well known, the idea of the reader’s importance in determining meaning seems to be the default interpretive method of many evangelicals, rather than relying on the historical-grammatical approach of interpreting the Bible. This criticism has many parallels with mystical thought. E. M. Blaiklock in his book The Bible and I pointed out that many evangelicals responded to modernity by moving toward a mystical theology. They did so because the authority of Scripture and a simple Gospel was being questioned, and rather than being able to defend the historicity of the Word, they simply turned to a new form of spirituality. Ironically, Modernists and Mystics both end up communicating the same lack of faith in God’s revealed word. This lack of trust in the authority of the Scripture naturally increases a lack of trust in such doctrines as the deity of Christ.
Thomas Martin Lindsay echoed this conclusion in his work, “A History of the Reformation,” citing what he called Pantheistic Mysticism’s ruin of the theology of Christ and an anti-trinitarian theology. Therefore, the historical examples cited demonstrate the close connection mysticism has with a low Christology and an elevated anthropology.
Mysticism and the Bible
One of the major flaws in mystical theology is its theosis doctrine and a growing union with Christ, rather than understanding our judicial union in Christ that is complete (Rom. 6) as we are indwelt and sealed by the power of the Holy Spirit (Eph. 1-2). In like manner, the Bible portrays our access to God, and even our way of gaining knowledge, in concrete terms. The apostle Paul wrote:
“… that their hearts may be encouraged, being knit together in love, and attaining to all riches of the full assurance of understanding, to the knowledge of the mystery of God, both of the Father and of Christ, 3 in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge (Col. 2:2-3 NKJV).”
In using a play on words of which would later become key to the mystic mystery religions, Paul says that ἐπίγνωσιν that is complete knowledge or gnosis is found in Christ. Paul then proceeds to argue against the great heresies of the day, Hellenistic philosophy (represented in Plato), Judaic legalism, Hellenistic and Judaic mysticism and asceticism all are to be rejected for that which “you have been taught (Col. 2:6 NKJV)” as contained in the Word of God, and the one who they were worshiping, that is the Word Jesus Christ.
Even the phrase “intruding into those things which he has not seen” (Col. 2:18 NKJV), is a word play on a Greek word later used for mystery religions and the initiation rites one may experience. Paul’s express declaration is that Christ, the one that is said “For in Him dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily” (Col. 2:9) is sufficient.
Concerning sanctification, Paul made clear that he had not experienced divinization or entire sanctification. Though he argued that one should press on to maturity, he also commented (in contrast to Finney’s interpretation) that
Not that I have already obtained it or have already become perfect, but I press on so that I may lay hold of that for which also I was laid hold of by Christ Jesus. 13 Brethren, I do not regard myself as having laid hold of it yet; but one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. (Phil. 3:12-14 NASB)
For Paul and the apostles, a simple faith in Jesus for salvation and redemption, the power of revealed wisdom in allowing them to accept His claims and the simple Gospel was sufficient, and in opposition to every pagan and anthropocentric theology. Every philosophical addition was to be rejected. Man, as a sinner, is in need of grace “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, 9 not of works, lest anyone should boast” (Eph. 2:8-9 NKJV). And only a divine Savior, Jesus, equal with the Father, could provide this very gift.
See Lewis, Gordon R., Demarest, Bruce A. Integrative Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010).
While further research and elucidation is needed on this connection, later contemplative writers seem to connect liturgical and spiritual readings of Scripture with theosis. For an example see Cunningham, Lawrence S. Ed. Thomas Merton, Spiritual Master: The Essential Writings (Mahwah: Paulist Press, 1982) p. 30.
Bray, Gerald, “The Filioque Clause in History and Theology”, Tyndale Bulletin 34 (1983) 91-144.
A popular example of this blending of traditions may be found in Pennington, M. Basil Centering Prayer: Renewing an Ancient Christian Prayer Form (New York: Doubleday, 2001).
For a further discussion on Eastern Orthodoxy and Wesley, even to the point of theosis, see Maddox, Randy. L. Responsible Grace: John Wesley’s Practical Theology (Nashville: Kingswood Books, 1994) pp. 122, 303 etc.
While it is outside the scope of this article to examine to what extent the various evangelical movements give credit to John Wesley and his theology, it is generally accepted that John Wesley has, through the revival movements in which he was a part, influenced the later evangelicalism.
 Maddox, ibid.
Pierson, A.T., “The Communicable Secrets of Mr. Finney’s Power” accessed throughhttp://www.gospeltruth.net/Reminiscenses/pierson.htm 3/17/15.
Finney, Charles, “Sanctification: Paul Entirely Sanctified”, Lectures in Systematic Theology accessed through http://www.ccel.org/ccel/finney/theology.iv.xxxvii.html 3/17/15.
Soulen, R. Kendall, Soulen, Richard N., “Reader Response Criticism”, Handbook of Biblical Criticism (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011) p. 176.
 See Blaiklock, E. M., The Bible and I (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 1983).
Lindsay, Thomas Martin, A History of the Reformation (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.1910) p. 423.