Charles Hodge on Mysticism vs. Orthodox SpiritualityPosted: May 9, 2015
The following are excerpts from Hodge’s Systematic Theology, vol. I (NY: Scribner, Armstrong, and Co., 1877), pages 63-86, in which he defines Mysticism and differentiates it from Evangelical spirituality. His one glaring shortcoming, being a Cessationist, is his blindness toward the continuation of New Testament Pentecostal charisms, which he circumscribes (typical in the 19th Century) to the First Century and largely to the Twelve Apostles, for the formation of Scripture and the Church. Apart from this blind spot, his observations provide a supportive parallel account to the recent published works on Sacramental Realism and Neoplatonism, and differentiation of Pentecostal spirituality from Contemplative Prayer/Mysticism, found in the following published works by Paul A. Hughes:
- The blog series, “Pagan Origins of Sacramental Realism,” parts 1-7
- “Notes on Pentecostalism versus Mysticism“
- “John Wesley, Reluctant Mystic“
- The book Neoplatonist Stew, based on the collected articles above
According to Hodge:
The Sense in which Evangelical Christians are called Mystics
As all Evangelical Christians admit a supernatural influence of the Spirit of God upon the soul, and recognize a higher form of knowledge, holiness, and fellowship with God, as the effects of that influence, they are stigmatized as Mystics, by those who discard everything supernatural from Christianity. The definitions of Mysticism given by Rationalists are designedly so framed as to include what all evangelical Christians hold to be true concerning the illumination, teaching, and guidance of the Holy Spirit. …. And Bretschneider defines Mysticism as a “Belief in a continuous operation of God on the soul, secured by special religious exercise, producing illumination, holiness, and beatitude.” Evangelical theologians so far acquiesce in this view, that they say, as Lange, and Nitsch,” that every true believer is a Mystic.” The latter writer adds, “That the Christian ideas of illumination, revelation, incarnation, regeneration, the sacraments and the resurrection, are essentially Mystical elements. As often as the religious and church-life recovers itself from formalism and scholastic barrenness, and is truly revived, it always appears as Mystical, and gives rise to the outcry that Mysticism is gaining the ascendency.” …. There has been a religious theory, which has more or less extensively prevailed in the Church, which is distinguished from the Scriptural doctrine by unmistakable characteristics, and which is known in church history as Mysticism, and the word should be restricted to that theory. It is the theory, variously modified, that the knowledge, purity, and blessedness to be derived from communion with God, are not to be attained from the Scriptures and the use of the ordinary means of grace, but by a supernatural and immediate divine influence, which influence (or communication of God to the soul) is to be secured by passivity, a simple yielding the soul without thought or effort to the divine influx.
The System which makes the Feelings the Source of Knowledge
A still wider use of the word Mysticism has to some extent been adopted. Any system, whether in philosophy or religion, which assigns more importance to the feelings than to the intellect, is called Mystical. ….
…. The Mystic assumes that the senses and reason are alike untrustworthy and inadequate, as sources of knowledge; that nothing can be received with confidence as truth, at least in the higher departments of knowledge, in all that relates to our own nature, to God, and our relation to Him, except what is revealed either naturally or supernaturally in the feelings. There are two forms of Mysticism, therefore: the one which assumes the feelings themselves to be the sources of this knowledge; the other that it is through the feelings that God makes the truth known to the soul. “Reason is no longer viewed as the great organ of truth; its decisions are enstamped as uncertain, faulty, and well-nigh valueless, while the inward impulses of our sensibility, developing themselves in the form of faith or of inspiration, are held up as the true and infallible source of human knowledge. The fundamental process, therefore, of all Mysticism, is to reverse the true order of nature, and give the precedence to the emotional instead of the intellectual element of the human mind.” This is declared to be “the common ground of all Mysticism.”
…. The illumination claimed by the Mystic communicates truth independently of its objective revelation. ….
The doctrines of spiritual illumination and of Mysticism differ not only in the object, but secondly, in the manner in which that object is to be attained. The inward teaching of the Spirit is to be sought by prayer, and the diligent use of the appointed means; the intuitions of the Mystic are sought in the neglect of all means, in the suppression of all activity inward and outward, and in a passive waiting for the influx of God into the soul. They differ, thirdly, in their effects. The effect of spiritual illumination is, that the Word dwells in us “in all wisdom and spiritual understanding” (Col. i. 9). What dwells in the mind of the Mystic are his own imaginings, the character of which depends on his own subjective state; and whatever they are, they are of man and not of God.
The so-called Dionysius the Areopagite
Mysticism, in the common acceptation of the term, is antagonistic to speculation. And yet they are often united. There have been speculative or philosophical Mystics. The father indeed of Mysticism in the Christian Church, was a philosopher. About the year A. D. 523, during the Monothelite controversy certain writings were quoted as of authority as being the productions of Dionysius the Areopagite. …. Though their authorship is unknown, their influence has been confessedly great. The works which bear the pseudonym of Dionysius are, “The Celestial Hierarchy,” “The Terrestrial Hierarchy,” “Mystical Theology,” and “Twelve Epistles.” Their contents show that their author belonged to the school of the New Platonists, and that his object was to propagate the peculiar views of that school in the Christian Church. The writer attempts to show that the real, esoteric doctrines of Christianity are identical with those of his own school of philosophy. In other words, he taught New Platonism, in the terminology of the Church. Christian ideas were entirely excluded, While the language of the Bible was retained. Thus in our day we have had the philosophy of Schelling and Hegel set forth in the formulas of Christian theology.
The New Platonists taught that the original ground and source of all things was simple being, without life or consciousness; of which absolutely nothing could be known, beyond that it is. They assumed an unknown quantity, of which nothing can be predicated. The pseudo-Dionysius called this original ground of all things God, and taught that God was mere being without attributes of any kind, not only unknowable by man, but of whom there was nothing to be known, as absolute being is in the language of the modern philosophy, — Nothing; nothing in itself, yet nevertheless the DUNAMIS TWN PANTWN [“power of all things”].
The universe proceeds from primal being, not by any exercise of conscious power or will but by a process or emanation. ….
The end [i.e., “goal”] of philosophy is the immediate vision of God, which gives the soul supreme blessedness and rest. This union with God is attained by sinking into ourselves; by passivity. As we are a form, or mode of God’s existence, we find God in ourselves, and are consciously one with him, when this is really apprehended; or, when we suffer God, as it were, to absorb our individuality.
The terms God, sin, redemption, are retained in this system, but the meaning attached to them was entirely inconsistent with the sense they bear in the Bible and in the Christian Church. The pseudo-Dionysius was a heathen philosopher in the vestments of a Christian minister. The philosophy which he taught he claimed to be the true sense of the doctrines of the Church, as that sense had been handed down by a secret tradition. Notwithstanding its heathen origin and character, its influence in the Church was great and long continued. The writings of its author were translated, annotated and paraphrased, centuries after his death. As there is no effect without an adequate cause, there must have been power in this system and an adaptation to the cravings of a large class of minds.
Causes of the Influence of the Writings of the pseudo-Dionysius
To account for its extensive influence it may be remarked: (1.) That it did not openly shock the faith or prejudices of the Church. It did not denounce any received doctrine or repudiate any established institution or ordinance. It pretended to be Christian, It undertook to give a deeper and more correct insight into the mysteries of religion. (2.) It subordinated the outward to the inward. Some men are satisfied with rites, ceremonies, symbols, which may mean anything or nothing; others, with knowledge or clear views of truth. To others, the inner life of the soul, intercourse with God, is the great thing. To these this system addressed itself. It proposed to satisfy this craving after God, not indeed in a legitimate way, or by means of God’s appointment. Nevertheless it was the high end of union with him that it proposed, and which it professed to secure. (3.) This system was only one form of the doctrine which has such a fascination for the human mind, and which underlies so many forms of religion in every age of the world; the doctrine, namely, that the universe is an efflux of the life of God, — all things flowing from him, and back again to him from everlasting to everlasting. This doctrine quiets the conscience, as it precludes the idea of sin; it gives the peace which flows from fatalism; and it promises the absolute rest of unconsciousness when the individual is absorbed in the bosom of the Infinite.
Mysticism during the Middle Ages: General Characteristics of this Period
The Middle Ages embrace the period from the close of the sixth century to the Reformation. This period is distinguished by three marked characteristics. First, the great development of the Latin Church in its hierarchy, its worship, and its formulated doctrines, as well as in its superstitions, corruptions, and power. Secondly, the extraordinary intellectual activity awakened in the region of speculation, as manifested in the multiplication of seats of learning, in the number and celebrity of their teachers, and in the great multitude of students by which they were attended, and in the interest taken by all classes in the subjects of learned discussion. Thirdly, by a widespread and variously manifested movement of, so to speak, the inner life of the Church, protesting against the formalism, the corruption, and the tyranny of the external Church. This protest was made partly openly by those whom Protestants are wont to call “Witnesses for the Truth;” and partly within the Church itself. The opposition within the Church manifested itself partly among the people, in the formation of fellowships or societies for benevolent effort and spiritual culture, such as the Beguines, the Beghards, the Lollards, and afterwards, “The Brethren of the Common Lot;” and partly in the schools, or by the teachings of theologians.
The First Class of Medieval Theologians
Of these theologians, however, there were three classes. First, those who avowedly exalted reason above authority, and refused to receive anything on authority which they could not for themselves, on rational grounds, prove to be true. John Scotus Erigena (Eringehorne, Irish-born) may be taken as a representative of this class. He not only held, that reason and revelation, philosophy and religion, are perfectly consistent, but that religion and philosophy are identical. ….
…. His philosophy as developed in his work, “De Divisione Naturae,” is purely pantheistic. There is with him but one being, and everything real is thought. His system, therefore, is nearly identical with the idealistic pantheism of Hegel; yet he had his trinitarianism, his soteriology, and his eschatology, as a theologian.
The characteristic common to these classes, which differed so much from each other, was not that in all there was a protest of the heart against the head, of the feelings against the intellect, a reaction against the subtleties of the scholastic theologians, for some of the leading Mystics were among the most subtle dialecticians. Nor was it a common adherence to the Platonic as opposed to the Aristotelian philosophy, or to realism as opposed to nominalism. But it was the belief, that oneness with God was the great end to be desired and pursued, and that that union was to be sought, not so much through the truth, or the Church, or ordinances, or Christian fellowship; but by introspection, meditation, intuition. As very different views were entertained of the nature of the “oneness with God,” which was to be sought, so the Mystics differed greatly from each other. Some were extreme pantheists; others were devout theists and Christians. From its essential nature, however, the tendency of Mysticism was to pantheism. And accordingly undisguised pantheism Was not only taught by some of the most prominent Mystics, but prevailed extensively among the people.
Pantheistic tendency of Mysticism
It has already been remarked, that the system of the pseudo-Dionysius, as presented in his “Mystical Theology” and other writings, was essentially pantheistic. Those writings were translated by Scotus Erigena, himself the most pronounced pantheist of the Middle Ages. Through the joint influence of these two men, a strong tendency to pantheism was developed to a greater or less degree among the mediaeval Mystics. Even the associations among the people, such as the Beghards and Lollards, although at first exemplary and useful, by adopting a system of mystic pantheism became entirely corrupt. Believing themselves to be modes of the divine existence, all they did God did, and all they felt inclined to do was an impulse from God, and therefore nothing could be wrong. In our own day the same principles have led to the same consequences in one wing of the German school of philosophy.
It was not only among the people and in these secret fellowships that this system was adopted. Men of the highest rank in the schools, and personally exemplary in their deportment, became the advocates of the theory which lay at the foundation of these practical evils. Of these scholastic pantheistical Mystics, the most distinguished and influential was Henry [Meister] Eckart, whom some modern writers regard “as the deepest thinker of his age, if not of any age.” …. His doctrines were condemned as heretical, although he denied that he had in any respect departed from the doctrines of the Church. …. It is not necessary here to give the details of his system. Suffice it to say, that he held that God is the only being; that the universe is the self-manifestation of God; that the highest destiny of man is to come to the consciousness of his identity with God; that that end is to be accomplished partly by philosophical abstraction and partly by ascetic self renunciation.
It is true that no one can intelligently affirm the transcendence of God, and still hold the extreme form of pantheism which makes the world the existence-form of God, his whole intelligence, power, and life. But he may be a Monist. He may believe that there is but one Being in the universe, that everything is a form of God, and all life the life of God. Pantheism is Protean. Some moderns speak of a Christian Pantheism. But any system which hinders our saying “Thou,” to God, is fatal to religion.
Quietism: Its general character
Tholuck says “There is a law of seasons in the spiritual, as well as in the physical world, in virtue of which when the time has come, without apparent connection, similar phenomena reveal themselves in different places. As towards the end of the fifteenth century an ecclesiastical-doctrinal reformatory movement passed over the greater part of Europe, in part without apparent connection; so at the end of the seventeenth a mystical and spiritual tendency was almost as extensively manifested. In Germany, it took the form of Mysticism and Pietism; in England, of Quakerism; in France, of Jansenism and Mysticism; and in Spain and Italy, of Quietism.” This movement was in fact what in our day would be called a revival of religion. Not indeed in a form free from grievous errors, but nevertheless it was a return to the religion of the heart, as opposed to the religion of forms. The Mystics of this period, although they constantly appealed to the mediaeval Mystics, even to the Areopagite, and although they often used the same forms of expression, yet they adhered much more faithfully to Scriptural doctrines and to the faith of the Church. They did not fall into Pantheism, or believe in the absorption of the soul into the substance of God. They held, however, that the end to be attained was union with God. By this was not meant what Christians generally understand by that term; congeniality with God, delight in his perfections, assurance of his love, submission to his will, perfect satisfaction in the enjoyment of his favour. It was something more than all this, something mystical and therefore inexplicable; a matter of feeling, not something to be under, stood or explained; a state in which all thought, all activity was suspended; a state of perfect quietude in which the soul is lost in God …. This state is reached by few. It is to be attained not by the use of the means of grace or ordinances of the Church. The soul should be raised above the need of all such aids. It rises even above Christ, insomuch that it is not He whom the soul seeks, nor God in him; but God as God; the absolute, infinite God. The importance of the Scriptures, of prayer, of the sacraments, and of the truth concerning Christ, was not denied; but all these were regarded as belonging to the lower stages of tlie divine life. Nor was this rest and union with God to be attained by meditation; for meditation is discursive. It implies an effort to bring truth before the mind, and fixing the attention upon it. All conscious self-activity must be suspended in order to this perfect rest in God. It is a state in which the soul is out of itself; a state of ecstasy, according to the etymological meaning of the word.
This state is to be reached in the way prescribed by the older Mystics; first, by negation or abstraction; that is, the abstraction of the soul from everything out of God, from the creature, from all interest, concern, or impression from sensible objects. Hence the connection between Mysticism, in this form, and asceticism. Not only must the soul become thus abstracted from the creature, but it must be dead to self. All regard to self must be lost. There can be no prayer, for prayer is asking something for self; no thanksgiving, for thanksgiving implies gratitude for good done to self. Self must be lost. There must be no preference for heaven over hell. One of the points most strenuously insisted upon was a willingness to be damned, if such were the will of God. In the controversy between Fenelon and Bossuet, the main question concerned disinterested love, whether in loving God the soul must be raised above all regard to its own holiness and happiness. This pure or disinterested love justifies, or renders righteous in the sight of God. Although the Mystics of this period were eminently pure as well as devout, they nevertheless sometimes laid down principles, or at least used expressions, which gave their enemies a pretext for charging them with Antinomianism. It was said, that a soul filled with this love, or reduced to this entire negation of self, cannot sin; “sin is not in, but outside of him;” which was made to mean, that nothing was sin to the perfect. It is an instructive psychological fact that when men attempt or pretend to rise above the law of God, they sink below it; that Perfectionism has so generally led to Antinomianism.