Excerpts from Anglican Canon Charles Gore, Dissertations on Subjects Connected with the Incarnation (London: John Murray, 1895), pages 171-2, 173.
The earlier mediaeval and scholastic method appears to put the dogmas of the Church in a wrong place. The dogmas are primarily intended as limits of ecclesiastical thought rather than as its premises: they are the hedge rather than the pasture-ground: they block us off from lines of error rather than edify us in the truth. By them we are warned that Christ is no inferior being but very God; and that He became at His Incarnation completely man, not in body only but in mind and spirit; . . . But thus warned off from cardinal errors, we are sent back to the New Testament, especially to the Gospels, to edify ourselves in the positive conception of what the Incarnation really meant. To Irenaeus, to Origen, to Athanasius, the New Testament is the real pasture-ground of the soul, and the function of the Church is conceived to be to keep men to it. But after a time there comes a change. The dogmas are used as the positive premises of thought. The truth about Christ’s person is formed deductively and logically from the dogmas whether decrees of councils or popes, or sayings of great fathers which are ranked as authoritative and the figure in the Gospels grows dim in the background. Particular texts from the Gospels which seem contrary to current ecclesiastical teaching are quoted and requoted, but though, taken together, they might have availed to restore a more historical image of the divine person incarnate, in fact they are taken one by one and explained away with an ingenuity which excites in equal degrees our admiration of the logical skill of the disputant and our sense of the lamentably low ebb at which the true and continuous interpretation of the Gospel documents obviously lies.
. . . .
. . . Greek philosophy was primarily concerned to conceive of God metaphysically. He was the One in opposition to the many objects of sense, and the Absolute and Unchangeable in opposition to the relative and mutable. In particular the divine immutability had a meaning assigned to it very different from that which belongs to it in the Bible, a meaning determined by contrast, not to the changeableness of human purpose, but to the very idea of motion which, as belonging to the material, was also supposed to be of the nature of the evil. There is no doubt that this Greek metaphysical conception of God influenced Christian theology largely and not only for good. In particular, through the medium of Neo-Platonism, it deeply coloured the thought of that remarkable and anonymous author who, writing about A.D. 500, passed himself off, probably without any intention to deceive, as Dionysius the Areopagite, the convert of St. Paul. With him the metaphysical conceptions of the transcendence, incomprehensibility, absolute unity and immutability of God are a master passion. In his general philosophy the result of his zeal for the One is to lead him to ascribe to the manifold life of the universe only a precarious reality. In his view of the Incarnation it produces at least a monophysite [sort of Unitarian or Monarchian] tendency.
Excerpt from Hugh M. Scott, Origin and Development of the Nicene Theology: With Some Reference to the Ritschlian View of Theology and History of Doctrine (Chicago Theological Seminary Press, 1896), pp. 250 f.
The loss of the gospel conception of personal, living union throughout life of the believer with the exalted Christ was followed inevitably by the wrong soteriology of the early Church: (1) Because He was not felt to be the head of every Christian man and every congregation, bishops and other heads arose. (2) Because direct personal communion with Him was obscured, the Church and the Sacraments came in between the soul and the Saviour, thus not only bringing in a hierarchy but perverting the whole conception of man’s relation to Christ. (3) Because constant, direct approach to Christ was lost, a thousand indirect approaches by washings, fastings, visions, ascetic practices, confessions, came into use. (4) Because the witness of Christ by His Spirit in the heart was largely overlooked, too much stress was laid upon intellectual forms of faith, philosophical proofs of Christianity, and theological creeds. (5) This loss of the present Christ in the midst of the worshiping congregation was followed by a more formal worship, in which liturgies, elaborate ceremonies, and theological statements, too much took the place of the free charismatic prayers and teachings of the primitive Church. (6) In life also, as the thought was obscured that Christ dwells in each believer, a loss of holiness followed. To have the rules of the Church, to follow her discipline, was a lower standard than to “have the mind of Christ.” From the individual this view spread to the Church. For the New Testament, believers were a temple of God; for Callixtus, the Church was the ark of Noah, full of both clean and unclean creatures. (7) Finally, this loss of Christ as King in each Christian changed the whole missionary character of the Church. Instead of all preaching — let him that heareth say, come” — the clergy preached and the laity listened; or monks went out, spreading their defective views of Christianity.
See also “Pagan Origins of Sacramental Realism, Part 2” by the author.
Sacramental Realism is a dogma which cannot be established from Scripture; in fact, is baldly in opposition to the New Testament presentation of spiritual efficacy, not through ritual act, nor through priestly mediation, but through receipt of Holy Spirit Baptism, as at Pentecost and continuing thereafter. Sacramentalists point to the wedding at Cana (John 2) and the miraculous multiplication of loaves associated with the Sermon on the Mount (John 6). But significantly there was no bread at Cana, no wine included on the Mount, no ceremonial act taking place at either location, no “institution” of a ritual or sacrament, nor connection with spiritual efficacy; moreover, all of these events took place prior to the Last Supper and to the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.
In fact, Christ’s statements in John 6 strikingly contradict the concept of spiritual efficacy in bread. Crowds continued to follow him for days after the miracle, asking him for more “bread from heaven,” by which they meant manna. Jesus reminded them, “Your fathers ate manna in the wilderness, and are dead” (6:58). No physical bread, even “from heaven,” is truly spiritual or eternal, and neither God’s presence, nor blessing, nor salvation are inherently associated with it.
The “breaking of bread from house to house” mentioned in Acts cannot be proven to describe any ceremony, but simple “table fellowship” common to both Jews and Gentiles. Paul in 1 Corinthians 11 describes the confusion in Corinth of a fellowship meal with the Lord’s Supper, the former having degenerated into self-indulgent feasting on the part of some, devoid of true fellowship, and the latter similarly failing to include the responsibility of the believer to remember and identify himself with Christ’s sacrifice by “examining himself” in that light (see also 2 Cor. 13:5). He writes,
1 Corinthians 11:20 When ye come together therefore into one place, this is not to eat the Lord’s supper. 21 For in eating every one taketh before other his own supper: and one is hungry, and another is drunken. 22 What? have ye not houses to eat and to drink in? ….
The idea of Sacramentalism is absent in Church history until it began to be developed by Cyprian (early 3rd century) and Athanasius (3rd-4th century), along with Sacerdotalism. The Didache (dated late 1st century) includes a recitation of the Eucharist ceremony of the time, which notably does not include any form of sacrament. Nor does the famous letter by Pliny to Emperor Trajan mention a sacrament, rather a fellowship meal afterward, in another location. Irenaeus and Tertullian spoke in seemingly realistic terms of the Communion elements relative to the body of Christ, but were actually contrasting the reality of Christ’s crucifixion, and his physical body, to the Docetism (denial of a physical Incarnation of Christ) of the Gnostics whom they opposed.
Yet committed Sacramentalists—if there be any other kind—just like Martin Luther, insist on a literal interpretation of “Take, eat, this is my body” at all costs. The passages in question are these:
Mark 14:22 And as they did eat, Jesus took bread, and blessed, and brake it, and gave to them, and said, Take, eat: this is my body. 23 And he took the cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them: and they all drank of it. 24 And he said unto them, This is my blood of the new testament, which is shed for many.
Matthew 26:26 And as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and blessed it, and brake it, and gave it to the disciples, and said, Take, eat; this is my body. 27 And he took the cup, and gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, Drink ye all of it; 28 For this is my blood of the new testament, which is shed for many for the remission of sins.
Luke 22:19 And he took bread, and gave thanks, and brake it, and gave unto them, saying, This is my body which is given for you: this do in remembrance of me. 20 Likewise also the cup after supper, saying, This cup is the new testament in my blood, which is shed for you
1 Corinthians 11:24 And when he had given thanks, he brake it, and said, Take, eat: this is my body, which is broken for you: this do in remembrance of me. 25 After the same manner also he took the cup, when he had supped, saying, This cup is the new testament in my blood: this do ye, as oft as ye drink it, in remembrance of me. 26 For as often as ye eat this bread, and drink this cup, ye do show the Lord’s death till he come.
Note, among other details, that in two of the passages, Jesus specifically describes the purpose of the action to be “in remembrance of me” (in bold above); and further, that only in those same passages is it implied that the ceremony is to be repeated. Since the Last Supper is clearly a reflection of the Passover ceremony, with many parallels, the natural inference of the ceremony itself must be that it is to replace traditional observance of the Passover memorial, which is once a year. Yet there is no restriction of frequency stated, and it is commonly considered that new Christians in their enthusiasm soon began to gladly practice the observance of the Lord’s Supper, often, perhaps even before every meal (as Jews blessed their bread and many of us to this day say “Grace”). In the case of frequent and even casual observance, however, the act could hardly be imagined to have been officiated over by a priest and to have any salvific spiritual efficacy, as sacramentalists imagine.
Still sacramentalists insist on taking the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper literally as Christ’s body and blood, representing the “institution” of a sacrament, and being continually “for the remission of sins”—instead of being the afore-mentioned “remembrance,” and allowing the elements to be used figuratively to point to a greater, eschatological reality, which was yet to be fully realized, in Christ’s actual death on the cross for our sins.
There are many instances of figurative language in the New Testament and in Christ’s sayings. In the famous “I am” sayings, Jesus describes himself figuratively as the voice, the Light of the World, the door, the good shepherd, the road or path, and the vine, as well as the Bread of Life. There is none but arbitrary, dogmatic reasons to take “This is my body” any more literally than these statements.
In conclusion, let us examine an even closer, figurative parallel. Just as Jesus said, “Take, eat,” he elsewhere commanded, “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me” (Matthew 16:24; par. Mark 8:34, 10:21; Luke 9:23). With the exception of a few ascetic fanatics in Church history, few have imagined that Jesus meant us to regard “Take up your cross” literally, as opposed to figuratively, by which it represents a greater reality—which certainly begs the question of the arbitrary insistence of sacramentalists upon taking with supreme literalness this one particular and debatable instance.
Copyright © 2015 Paul A. Hughes
Dr. Hugh M. Scott (1848-1909), Professor of Church History at Chicago Theological Seminary, writes in Origin and Development of the Nicene Theology: with Some Reference to the Ritschlian View of Theology and History of Doctrine, Lectures Delivered on the L. P. Stone Foundation at Princeton Theological Seminary, January 1896 (Chicago Theological Seminary Press, 1896), note, pp.248-251.
Within this form of mystery, the conception of the Lord’s Supper changed in the following direction: The New Testament Church spoke of all worship as sacrifice; the post-Apostolic Fathers applied the term sacrifice especially to the prayer and gifts offered at the Lord’s Supper; next, the idea of sacrifice was transferred to the Supper itself; the bread and wine were given the virtue of Christ’s atonement and finally they were identified with the Lord’s body and blood; so that in the third century the Supper was regarded as a sacrifice offered by Christ for the Church, instead of an offering presented by the Church to Christ. It was Athanasius who went beyond the realistic view of the Apostolic Fathers and Apologists, and beyond the symbolical, mystical view of Clement and Origen, to the metabolic theory that the bread and wine became “entirely transformed,” as was done at Cana in Galilee (cf. Thomasius, I. 434). The chief factors in this change of view were the prominence given in the Supper to the death of Christ, the assumption of priestly functions by the clergy, some influence from the pagan mysteries, but especially a failure to grasp the finished redemption of Christ as ever present to the believer. The real presence was limited to bread and wine, instead of being found in every Christian; it was put in the hands of the clergy and not in the hearts of all believers. The result was that the merits of the one sacrifice for sin were overlooked, and man regarded it as a merit on his part to cause the sacrifice of Christ to be repeated.
This Moralism, which captured the sacraments, took most striking form in Monasticism. The monk followed a leading idea of Greek theology, which regarded salvation as separation from the world. He interpreted this to mean, first, imitation of Jesus and then imitation of Christ. Asceticism, a life of poverty, chastity, obedience, meant following the lowly Jesus. Contemplation, ending in the beatific vision of God, meant to ascend to heaven with Christ. New Testament teachings, historic circumstances, the influence of heathenism all helped produce Monasticism; but none of these weighed so much as the false theory of man’s relation to Christ. The pupils of Origen regarded the Gnostic and the ascetic as the true types of Christian living (cf. Harnack, II. 424); that is, knowledge and the life of superiority to the world made the ideal man. But it is plain such a theory lands us in the place of learners, with Christ as nothing but a great teacher. The monk needs no Saviour; he is a self-redeemer like the Stoic or any other moralist. In the fourth century, when worldliness was pressing hard into the Church, every form of piety was combined against it; hence asceticism, which was fully developed among the heathen, with no Christ in it, when adopted by Christians did not find a place for Him as Redeemer. The Neo-Platonist thought that through the contemplation of nature he became partaker of God; so the monk in rapt devotion might reach God without the saving help of Christ. The Church fell again into two classes; ordinary Christians who were saved by the potent mysteries of the sacraments, and ideal Christians—the monks—who saved themselves by good works and ecstasy; but both had lost sight of Christ as perfect Redeemer of men.
[Footnote] The loss of the gospel conception of personal, living union throughout life of the believer with the exalted Christ was followed inevitably by the wrong soteriology of the early Church: (1) Because He was not felt to be the head of every Christian man and every congregation, bishops and other heads arose. (2) Because direct personal communion with Him was obscured, the Church and the Sacraments came in between the soul and the Saviour, thus not only bringing in a hierarchy but perverting the whole conception of man’s relation to Christ. (3) Because constant, direct approach to Christ was lost, a thousand indirect approaches by washings, fastings, visions, ascetic practices, confessions, came into use. (4) Because the witness of Christ by His Spirit in the heart was largely overlooked, too much stress was laid upon intellectual forms of faith, philosophical proofs of Christianity, and theological creeds. (5) This loss of the present Christ in the midst of the worshiping congregation was followed by a more formal worship, in which liturgies, elaborate ceremonies, and theological statements, too much took the place of the free charismatic prayers and teachings of the primitive Church. (6) In life also, as the thought was obscured that Christ dwells in each believer, a loss of holiness followed. To have the rules of the Church, to follow her discipline, was a lower standard than to “have the mind of Christ.” From the individual this view spread to the Church. For the New Testament, believers were a temple of God; for Callixtus, the Church was the ark of Noah, full of both clean and unclean creatures. (7) Finally, this loss of Christ as King in each Christian changed the whole missionary character of the Church. Instead of all preaching—let him that heareth say, come”—the clergy preached and the laity listened; or monks went out, spreading their defective views of Christianity.
Dr. Hugh M. Scott (1848-1909), Professor of Church History at Chicago Theological Seminary, writes in Origin and Development of the Nicene Theology: with Some Reference to the Ritschlian View of Theology and History of Doctrine, Lectures Delivered on the L. P. Stone Foundation at Princeton Theological Seminary, January 1896 (Chicago Theological Seminary Press, 1896), note, pp. 220 f.:
The greatest problem in the internal history of the early-Church was that of sins committed after baptism. Connected with it, appeared Montanism, schisms, asceticism, sacraments, penances, etc. The solutions reached were various and, in an increasing degree, unsatisfactory. (1) In opposition to Montanism, many Catholic Christians grew content with a lower standard of living, became more unholy, and trusted in general belief in Christianity and doing one’s duty. (2) In recognition of a certain truth in the attitude of separation from the world preached by Montanism, ascetics and later monks sought pardon of post-baptismal sins in the anchorite life. (3) The Church that did not flee to the deserts magnified more and more the sacraments and mysteries as means of blotting out sins. The number of sacraments was increased, a penitential system (from Cyprian on) grew up about them, and a mathematical calculation of good works arose, which reckoned the alms, prayers, and other exercises, required for the removal of every kind and degree of post-baptismal sin. Sacraments especially got between the soul and the Saviour, till, by a strange combination of superstition and a longing for the Divine Redeemer, the doctrine of the Mass arose in the Middle Ages — the one dogma developed in that eclipse of faith — and brought the penitent, kneeling before the bread and wine, to bow also to Christ crucified. The supreme central position attained by the Mass, with all its errors, helped fasten the faith of the worshiper upon Christ, even though the very prayer addressed to Him was part of a system of legality. (4) But above all and crowning all, was the thought that good works earned the pardon of post-baptismal sins. Cyprian said, “we wash away by alms ” such defects. He summed up religion in “prayer and good works” (Ep. xvi. 2). These, he said, satisfied God. The Lord’s Supper, which Irenaeus called “a gift” (IV. 17, 5), Cyprian called “a sacrifice,” offered by “a priest” and only in the Church (Ep. Ixiii. 14). It was the great aid of good works. Here we find the clear outlines of early Catholicism, with its “utter materializing of religion” by legalism and priestcraft (Seeberg, S. 115). The result was a two-fold morality, of “secular” Christians, who did as well as possible in the world, and “regular” Christians, who assumed the Virgin, the ascetic life. Heaven was the reward of such good works; hence eschatology now became prominent with its resurrection to crown the saints with immortality, and the rich payment for all faithful services. The Kingdom of God passed more and more into this future of hope.
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.
The following is to be added to the original Part 7—Epilogue of my blog series, “Pagan Origins of Sacramental Realism,” hence included in Chapter 7 of the resulting print version, Neoplatonist Stew: Or, How Sacramentalism, Mysticism, and Theurgy Corrupted Christian Theology. The paperback print version, with other additions, is now available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and other online booksellers.
Advocates and defenders of John Wesley (1703–1791) are quick to assert that any elements of Neoplatonism and Mysticism within the order of the Anglican Church were well-known and acknowledged, suitably dealt-with, and adequately mitigated. It is moreover suggested that Wesley, if accused of harboring any such influences, hardly introduced them himself. John Cassian, as mentioned in Chapter 6 of Neoplatonist Stew, had introduced Evagrius to the Western Church, and “had physically brought back with him Basil’s Institutes, a work which would serve as a model for western monastic rules, including Benedict’s.” These ideas significantly influenced Thomas á Kempis and later mystics, including the Jansenists and Port-Royalists, “their Augustinian orientation notwithstanding.”1
By the Seventeenth Century, English intellectuals and divines had rediscovered many works of the Eastern Mystics, and began to publish new editions. The “Cambridge Platonists,” in particular, turned away from Aristotle and Scholasticism and renewed interest in Plato.2 Anglicanism, seeking a “middle way” (via media) of compromise between salvation by faith alone and salvation by works, found especially in the works of John Chrysostom a “forgotten strand of theosis,” as Steve McCormick describes it, in the guise of “divine-human participation.”3 But then, Thomas Cranmer, in the time of Henry VIII, had already incorporated Neoplatonic “participation” into the Book of Common Prayer, namely, his homilies “Of Salvation,” “Of the True, Lively and Christian Faith,” and “Of Good Works Annexed Unto Faith.” Together, these comprise the formal expression of Anglican soteriology.4 In 1738, John Wesley abridged Cranmer’s three homilies into “his first doctrinal manifesto.”5
The son of an Anglican rector (local priest), Wesley was steeped in Anglicanism, which he never abandoned. His father, Samuel, particularly enamored of Chrysostom, urged his son to obtain a copy of Chrysostom’s work, On the Priesthood (De sacerdotia), with the words, “Master it: digest it”; and later, “Master St. Chrysostom, our Articles and the form of Ordination.” “If I were to preach in Greek,” Samuel wrote, “St. Chrysostom should be my master.”6 John was further encouraged to study the Church Fathers, especially those of the first three centuries of the Christian era, by John Clayton, an accomplished Patristics scholar.7
Wesley learned from his father to appreciate the ancient pastoral theologians: Chrysostom, Basil, Athanasius and Cyprian (Advice to a Young Clergyman).8
Wesley later recommended the Eastern Fathers, and borrowed heavily from Chrysostom in his own Address to Clergy (1756).9 He wrote, for instance,
Can any who spend several years in those seats of learning, be excused, if they do not add to that of the languages and sciences, the knowledge of the Fathers? The most authentic commentators on Scripture, as being both nearest the fountain, and eminently endued with that Spirit by whom “all Scripture was given?” It will be easily perceived, I speak chiefly of those who wrote before the Council of Nice[a]. But who would not likewise desire to have some acquaintance with those that followed them? With St. Chrysostom, Basil, Jerome, [Augustine]; and above all, that man of a broken heart, Ephraim Syrus?10
In his writings and preaching, Wesley “Frequently cited … Basil, Chrysostom, Clement of Alexandria, Clement of Rome, Ephraem Syrus, Ignatius, Irenaeus, Justin Martyr, Origen, Polycarp and (Pseudo-)Macarius.” The latter, Pseudo-Macarius, was to become a significant influence on Wesley’s doctrines: in particular, those of “Prevenient Grace” and “Christian Perfection.” While Wesley at times differs with Macarius in details, clearly “the similarities are much stronger than the differences ….”11
Wesley himself described several of the other early influences on his devotional life as well as his theology:
In the year 1725, being in the twenty-third year of my age, I met with Bishop Taylor’s Rules and Exercises of Holy Living and Dying. In reading several parts of this book, I was exceedingly affected with that part in particular which relates to purity of intention….
In the year 1726, I met with Kempis’s ‘Christian Pattern.’ The nature and extent of inward religion, the religion of the heart, now appeared to me in a stronger light than ever it had done before. I saw, that giving even all my life to God, (supposing it possible to do this and go no farther,) would profit me nothing, unless I gave my heart, yea, all my heart, to him. I saw that ‘simplicity of intention and purity of affection,’ one design in all we speak or do, and one desire, ruling all our tempers, are indeed ‘the wings of the soul,’ without which she can never ascend to the mount of God.
A year or two after, Mr. Law’s ‘Christian Perfection,’ and ‘Serious Call,’ were put into my hands. These convinced me, more than ever, of the absolute impossibility of being half a Christian.12
Over the course of his life, Wesley utilized a great many recent secondary works that applied Eastern principles, and (as we shall see) created others of his own. Kempis he found too pessimistic: “I cannot think, that when God sent us into the world, he had irreversibly decreed, that we should be perpetually miserable in it,”13 yet Wesley largely embraced his concepts of self-abnegation and ascent. William Law had been a mentor to John and his brother Charles.14 Law and Jeremy Taylor were both attempting to construct “patristic primitivist syntheses of the virtuous Christian life, viewing it developmentally.”15 Law had visited the Wesley home on many occasions and had a profound effect on the siblings, such that Charles Wesley suggested much later, “Mr. Law was our John the Baptist.”16 Law was one of the select individuals that John Wesley consulted before committing to his Georgia mission.17
Wesley’s enthusiasm for William Beveridge further exposed him to Chrysostom, the two combining to serve as the apparent origin of his conception of restoring the image of God (ultimately Platonic) by virtue of the “energy of love.”
Wesley found this notion, which is, again, the eastern idea of theosis, of divine-human participation, a characteristic note in the homilies of Chrysostom, and in the liturgy, the homilies, and the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion of the Church of England. Wesley was to take that motif of divine-human participation in the via salutis and weave it throughout his ordo salutis [i.e., integrate a Neoplatonic “way of salvation” into his conception of the “order of salvation”].18
Sailing for Georgia aboard the Simmonds, 1735, Wesley busied himself studying the German language, along with devotional reading and his accustomed Christian disciplines. He had managed to procure a library of over sixty volumes, many of them of recent Anglican authorship, but also including Beveridge’s Pandectae, William Cave’s Primitive Christianity, and a large assortment of Eastern liturgical works.19 It was probably Cave’s book that introduced him to Pseudo-Macarius and Ephraim of Syria. Thus Wesley absorbed Neoplatonic ideas “about the stages of divine ascent, holiness of heart, progressive perfection, and the affective manifestations of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer.”20
During a particularly severe storm at sea, he was highly impressed by the calmness displayed by the Moravians on board. He had already studied the mystic work, Theologica Germanica.21 Arriving in Georgia, he was similarly impressed by Rev. Spangenberg, of Savannah, but hedged when the Moravian asked him, “Does the Spirit of God bear witness with your spirit that you are a child of God?” to which Wesley weakly replied, “I know He is the Saviour of the world,” and “I hope He has died to save me.”22 In spite of his Christian disciplines, Wesley had been all full of doubts all through the voyage. Later still, he wrote in his journal,
It is now two years and almost four months since I left my native country in order to teach the Georgian Indians the nature of Christianity. But what have I learned myself in the meantime? Why (what I the least of all suspected), that I, who went to America to convert others, was never myself converted to God.23
During the subsequent debacle in Georgia, Wesley obtained a Moravian hymnal, and spent three to five hours a day translating and adapting, in all, thirty-three German hymns, according to his own purposes and inclinations. Among these was the Gerhard Tersteegen hymn, rendered in English, “Thou Hidden Love of God, Whose Height,” one of four by Tersteegen that he translated, and the one most often published thereafter in English hymnals.24 One commentator suggests that “this hymn might be seen as one of the clearest reflections of Wesley’s own spiritual yearning….”25 (Yearning appears to be a common indicator of mystic propensities and appeal.) Meanwhile, Wesley also took the opportunity to experiment with new forms of liturgy, which confused and offended his congregation. A local magistrate scolded, “The people … say they are Protestants. But as for you, they cannot tell what religion you are of.”26
The Methodist mission to Georgia was a fiasco. Charles proved a maladroit secretary to General Oglethorpe; John, a tactless pastor, Ingham and Delamotte, ineffectual assistants.27
In 1738, abandoning Georgia under a cloud, Wesley returned to England, where he and Charles almost immediately became involved with the Fetter Lane Moravian group. That May, he had an emotional experience that he counted as his belated conversion, and by September, he was off to visit the German Pietists at Herrnhut.
The representatives of this tradition who influenced Wesley began with the Dominican mysticism of Johann Tauler (1300-1361), and proceeded to the distinctive Reformed spirituality of Gerhard Tersteegen (1697-1769).”28
Always seeking his own “assurance of faith,” Wesley asked one Arvid Gradin to provide, in writing, his definition of the concept. Gradin’s reply concluded with, “a deliverance from every fleshly desire, and a cessation of all, even inward sins”—it would seem, as it did to Wesley, a confirmation of his own developing view of Perfection.29 “Spiritually bankrupt, without peace and joy or the assurance of salvation, he embraced the Moravian approach to ‘faith alone’ and ‘full salvation.'”30 On the negative side, Wesley found Herrnhut to be in the midst of controversy with the brethren at Halle. The Hallensians regarded the necessity of an extended “penitential struggle” (Bußkampf) leading eventually to a “breakthrough” (Durchbruch) to gain assurance of saving faith, whereas the Herrnhuters had gravitated toward a quick and easy, “affective” acceptance.31 Wesley soon became disenchanted with their polemics and with Count von Zinzendorf, thereafter distancing himself from the Moravians.32 “The English writers,” he wrote, “such as Bishop Beveridge, Bishop Taylor, and Mr. Nelson, a little relieved me from these well-meaning, wrong-headed Germans.”33 Yet he continued to value many of the German Pietist hymns, especially those of Tersteegen.34
Through Wesley, it has been said, Tersteegen’s spirituality has reached millions of English-speaking people. John Nuelson, a German Methodist, granted that Wesley’s dissemination of German hymns had strongly influenced the Methodists’ doctrine of Perfection. With Tersteegen’s ideas came the influence of French Quietists, English Philadelphians, and Berleburg Bible Pietists, along with all the Patristic, mystical, and ascetic works that Tersteegen had translated and edited. He spoke in terms of a Seelengrund (a term garnered from Eckhart and Tauler), an “inward soul” capable of longing for God. This inward soul may possess an “inward inclination” (Grundneigung) able to respond to the “wooing” of Christ’s Prevenient Grace (as Wesley would perceive it), such that it “makes room” (Raum gebe) for God’s presence. From that Seelengrund, Christ purposes “to expand His gracious influence to encompass the cognitive, volitional, affective, and relational aspects of one’s existence,”35 in other words, spiritual formation. Yet Tersteegen, in spite of other Plotinian affinities, discouraged seekers from introspection, that being idolatry; rather to “turn your inward eye from yourself,” fixing one’s gaze on Christ.36 He considered the imputation of righteousness to be instantaneous, but the transformation to Christ-likeness to be progressive (contra Wesley), the goal being to renew in believers the image of Christ (so also Wesley).37
Besides Tersteegen, Pseudo-Macarius and Ephraim of Syria were particular favorites of Wesley, from whom he sought devotional material and theological fodder, mining for ideas and modes of expression. Besides his aforementioned contribution to Prevenient Grace, Macarius further contributed to Wesley’s soteriology (as had Tersteegen)—one point of difference being “that Wesley understood perfection primarily as an identifiable, instantaneously-achieved state, while Macarius emphasized the tenacious entrenchment of sin in even the most mature Christian and the constant need to seek God through prayer.”38 “This great gift of God,” Wesley wrote, “the salvation of our souls, is no other than the image of God fresh stamped on our hearts. It is a ‘renewal of believers in the spirit of their minds, after the likeness of Him that created them.'”39 Certainly Wesley’s views on grace appear to be more closely derived from Macarius and Eastern theology in general than from, as one might expect, Arminius.40 Wesley, one will note, believed that the Fifty Spiritual Homilies were the work of “Macarius of Egypt,” a fourth-century Desert Father, rather than a pseudonymous writer now widely purported to have been a fifth-century Syrian monk, strongly influenced by Gregory of Nyssa.41
Wesley’s exposure to Ephraim of Syria, whom he called “the man of the broken heart,” goes back to his Holy Club days at Oxford. Ephraim taught self-abnegation, contemplation, theosis, and an ante-Nicene view of man yearning to return to an “angelic” original state. Michael Christensen and Randy Maddox suggest that Ephraim’s “luminous eye” figure “is similar to if not the source of Wesley’s doctrine of ‘spiritual senses'” (a concept to which Tersteegen probably also contributed, see above). “Spiritual senses,” to Wesley, include the faculty of perceiving assurance, both of salvation and Perfection.42
Wesley, it is noted, mitigated the theosis of Macarius and Ephraim, emphasizing a divine work of grace through love that he posited in the negation of the power of sin and perfection of human intent. When Wesley edited the Homilies of Macarius for his Christian Library series, he excised references to theosis as well as asceticism.43
In regard to Perfection, Wesley expressed concern to his brother Charles that the latter, by aiming at theosis, was setting the bar of holiness too high to be realistically attainable.44 Wesley, says McCormick, had gradually come to understand soteriology in the anthropological terms of a “Biblical eudaemonism,” by which man seeks holiness because in holiness man is most happy.45 Albert Outler suggests that Wesley repositioned the “ladder” of Perfection, after his own scheme, toward becoming “like” God, but short of becoming a god.46 This effectively “domesticated” or even “democratized” the (Plotinian) ascent that Eastern Mystics had taught, making “perfection” an “attainable goal.”47 In Wesley’s defense, David Bundy insists that he “took much of the [Anglican] synthesis [of Eastern theology] out of the academy, church and cloister and brought it to the people” and “adapted that synthesis in structures of discipline and accountability for laity; and who modeled what he preached.”48 It was “Methodists in America,” Outler asserts, who “contributed to a very considerable confusion by interpreting ‘perfection’ in terms of ‘the second blessing’ or ‘entire sanctification as a state of grace distinct from justification, attainable instantaneously by faith.'”49
Wesley’s writings reflect many more Eastern Mystic influences besides these three. It is widely recognized (not without considerable dispute, in regard to extent as well as provenance), that Wesley based his tract, The Character of a Methodist, and also a published poem, “On Clemens Alexandrinus’s Description of a Perfect Christian” on Clement’s picture of the “Perfect Gnostic” (from Stromateis, Book 7, see also Chapter 6 of Neoplatonist Stew). Bundy suggests that Wesley might have been exposed to Clement’s ideas secondarily through publishing a certain book by Anthony Horneck, and that the poem might rather be attributable to John Gambold.50 But in a letter to Lloyd’s Evening Post, Wesley himself stated, “Five or six and thirty years ago, I much admired the character of a perfect Christian drawn up by Clemens Alexandrinus. Five or six and twenty years ago, a thought came to my mind, of drawing such a character myself, only in a more scriptural manner, and mostly in the very words of Scripture ….”51 Similarly, Wesley “plagiarized” (Bundy’s word) John Williams’ book, A Catechism Truly Representing the Doctrines and Practices of the Church of Rome, with an Answer Thereto, in his work of similar title; and Beveridge’s Sunodikon, sive Pandectae Canonum 55. Apostolorum et Conciliorum Ecclesia Graeca Receptorum “provided grist” for Wesley’s “mill.”52 In fact, the extent of Wesley’s interest in affective Eastern spirituality is demonstrable from many of the books he chose to “extract and abridge” in his fifty-volume A Christian Library collection, first published in 1750.53
Disenchanted with the German Mystics, wary of asceticism and apathy, doubtful of the possibility of theosis, he nevertheless mined them for useful ideas yet shied away from unqualified endorsement. In time, Wesley even broke with his past mentor William Law.54 Around 1734, Law had become an admirer of self-taught Theosophist and Mystic Jakob Böhme, who laid claim to a series of visions. In his evolving circumspection, Wesley seems to follow once again the example of Tersteegen, who turned away, even within his own circles, from potential antinomianism and the “excessive ecstasy that he perceived could degenerate into idolatrous self-edification or even demonic torment.”55 Wesley, however, “nonetheless remained in dialogue with these early mentors, edited and ‘corrected’ them, and recommended them throughout his life.”56
The results of this “programmatic”57 selectivity appears to reveal a considered determination not to publish, for the most part, primary works by Eastern Mystics. Primary works are largely absent within the corpus, for which were substituted secondary works of modern provenance. “Wesley preferred to edit and present the works of the [Anglican] and continental interpreters of the ancient texts rather than to edit and present the ancient texts themselves!” admits Bundy.58 Further, Wesley “reconstructed” mystical works, says Christensen, by replacing implications of theosis in Eastern theology with his own formulation and conception of Perfection, or effectively hiding it.59 For example, when he published twenty-two of Macarius’ Spiritual Homilies in A Christian Library, “Wesley consistently omitted references to ascetic life and to the notion of theosis….”60 As Frank Baker describes his modus operandi, Wesley’s editing “mainly involved choice, striking his pen through passages in printed works, changing the words and phrases, and supplying written links from time to time.”
After considerable hesitation he resolved to leave his human sources uncited, ‘that nothing might divert the mind of the reader’ from the brief notes themselves. He omitted without comment statements with which he did not agree. All his quotations and allusions, however, rephrased as they were in simpler language, honestly sought to represent the essence of his sources.61
The extent of Wesley’s editing and revisionism of such works (for less it cannot justly be called) is clearly demonstrated in the following passage from Macarius that diametrically contradicts Wesley’s doctrine of attainable Perfection:
So this man confesses that he is not perfect or altogether free from sin. He says that the middle wall of partition has been broken through and shattered, and yet, at some point not wholly broken, nor at all times. There are moments when grace kindles up and comforts and refreshes more fully; there are moments when it retreats and clouds over, according as grace itself manages for the man’s advantage. But who is there that has come to the perfect measure at particular seasons, and has tasted and had direct experience of that world? A perfect Christian man, one completely free, I have not yet seen. Although one and another is at rest in grace, and enters into mysteries and revelations and into much sweetness of grace, still sin is yet present within. By reason of the exceeding grace and of the light that is in them, men consider themselves free and perfect; but inexperience deceives them. They are under the influence of grace, but I have never yet seen a man that is free. I myself at times have in part come to that measure, and I have learned to know that it does not constitute a perfect man.62
The “extracted” version of this homily, published by Wesley in A Christian Library, bears little resemblance to the independent translation above, and does not contain this particular passage at all, as such.63 “Wesley, in appropriating the idea of theosis and constructing his doctrine of Christian perfection, found that the Church Fathers required editing.”64
The logical conclusion of these factors is that Wesley effectively obscured, perhaps to himself as well, elements of Neoplatonic Mysticism that contributed to his doctrines of Prevenient Grace and Perfection, in some cases by failing to recognize them for what they were, and in other cases by carefully editing out overt references to the most objectionable concepts. This consequence has unfortunately served, due to Wesley’s abiding popularity and influence, to introduce and establish erroneous views of Sanctification and related issues within a large segment of Christianity, including, via the Holiness Movement, some Perfectionist and Legalistic strains of Pentecostalism.
Even beyond this conclusion, problems associated with Wesley’s exegesis must still be addressed, for which purpose three brief examples will suffice. Wesley uses the term, “the energy of love,” to describe the “divine initiative” of God’s Prevenient Grace, the “divine-human participation” by which man may attain Perfection.65 Wesley engages Galatians 5:6, in particular, as a prooftext for this “energy” terminology. However, any first-year Greek student knows that while energein is indeed the etymological source for the English word, “energy,” the Greek word literally means “work.” Therefore, Theodore Runyon is mistaken in supposing Wesley’s rendition to be “a literal translation” of the text,66 which actually reads, “faith working through love.” Contextually, righteousness rather comes by the instrumentality of faith (Gal 2:16, 3:6, 5:5, et al.), because of love; hence it is faith, not love, that does the work (and arguably faith is cognitive and volitional; not affective, as in the case of many definitions of love). Wesley’s appropriation of the phrase, “energy of love,” as well as the concept, can be traced back, again, to Chrysostom.67
Second, being challenged regarding the statement by James (3:2) that “we all stumble in many things,” Wesley claims that “we” is just a “figure of speech,” that James “could not possibly include himself,” but rather refers “Not [to] apostles, nor true believers,” but to others who will “receive the greater condemnation.”68 These claims are devoid of textual justification; rather, are obvious rationalizations and impositions on the text due to preconceptions (“analogy of faith,” doctrinal construct) that are clearly contradicted by the passage.
Third, in prooftexting from John’s first epistle, by which he argues that a person who has achieved Perfection cannot sin (or does not sin),69 Wesley falls prey to errors common to “armchair” interpreters of that book, in particular: failing to account for the idiosyncrasies and alleged Hebraisms (too complex to detail here) inherent to it, but certainly including John’s propensity for black-and-white dualisms and pointed use of the perfect participle. Most interpreters agree that John is describing those who make a regular practice of sin, or whose activities are by virtue of their unregenerated nature always characterized by sin, in contrast to the Regenerated. Worse, Wesley makes in this same context a claim upon Kingdom promises (Zech 12:8), saying, “The kingdom of heaven is now set up on earth.” Thus he reveals a fundamental lack of understanding of eschatology, since the “fullness of the Kingdom” (including not only future glory but Perfection) will not come about till the Eschaton, the End. Elsewhere, among other examples, Wesley likewise fails to interpret Psalm 103:8, on the ultimate redemption of Israel, and 1 John 3:8, regarding Christ’s complete work in overcoming sin and death, eschatologically.70
In fact, a studied perusal of Wesley’s signature work, A Plain Account on Christian Perfection, on the whole reveals its proofs to amount to an exercise in unenlightened prooftexting—all done, one hopes, in ingenuous simplicity, by reason of the inadequate hermeneutical theory and tools of the day. Nevertheless, one cannot escape the inevitable conclusion that as a result of his long-term quest for personal, affective assurance, Wesley produced a compromise, “designer” religion that, however it might have shaded his exegesis, served his purposes more than it offended his strict British sensibilities.
1 David Bundy, “Christian Virtue: John Wesley and the Alexandrian Tradition,” Wesleyan Theological Journal 26 (1991):142.
2 Mark Goldie, ‘Cambridge Platonists (act. 1630s–1680s),’ Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, Sept 2013 (http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/theme/94274, accessed March 27, 2014). The Cambridge Platonists might have had fairly direct influence on John Wesley through his father, whose friend was John Norris, see Bundy, p. 142.
3 K. Steve McCormick, “Theosis in Chrysostom and Wesley: An Eastern Paradigm on Faith and Love,” Wesleyan Theological Journal 26 (1991):49-50.
4 Ibid., p. 66, see also 67.
5 Ibid., p. 67.
6 Ibid., p. 50.
7 Albert C. Outler, ed., John Wesley (NY: Oxford University Press, 1964; paperback, 1980), p. 9, and Michael J. Christensen, “Theosis and Sanctification: John Wesley’s Reformulation of a Patristic Doctrine,” Wesleyan Theological Journal 31/2 (Fall 1996):75.
8 Christensen, p. 75.
9 McCormick, p. 50, Christensen, p. 74.
10 John Wesley, The Miscellaneous Works of the Rev. John Wesley (NY: J. & J. Harper, 1828), p. 70, also quoted from another source in McCormick, pp. 50-51.
11 Randy L. Maddox, “John Wesley and Eastern Orthodoxy: Influences, Convergences, and Differences,” Asbury Theological Journal 45/2 (1990):30, 31, 35; see also Outler, pp. 9-10, and Christensen, p. 74.
12 Henry Moore, The Life of the Rev. John Wesley, A. M., vol. I (London: Printed for John Kershaw, 1824), p. 161. Regarding “purity of intention,” Runyon writes, “If the intention is right, this is what really counts [to Wesley]. ‘Intention’ was a theme important to him from his 1725 self-dedication onward,” Theodore Runyon, “The New Creation: A Wesleyan Distinctive,” Wesleyan Theological Journal 31/2 (Fall 1996):12.
13 Moore., p. 124.
14 Christensen, p. 75.
15 Bundy, p. 141.
16 Moore, p. 107.
17 Ibid., p. 234, see also 190.
18 Ibid., p. 54.
19 Outler, p. 12, Christensen, p. 75.
20 Christensen, pp. 76, 85.
21 Moore, p. 190, Bundy, p. 142.
22 From Chapter 6 of John Telford, The Life of John Wesley (http://Wesley.nnu-edu/?id=88, accessed April 2, 2014). This passage is apparently taken from a printing other than that of 1900, in which this and some other passages do not appear.
23 Ibid., see also McCormick, p. 48.
24 J. Steven O’Malley, “Pietistic Influence on John Wesley: Wesley and Gerhard Tersteegen” Wesleyan Theological Journal 31/2 (Fall 1996):49, 65, 66.
25 O’Malley, p. 57 f.
26 Outler, pp. 12-13, see also Bundy, p. 141.
27 Ibid., p. 11.
28 O’Malley, p. 49.
29 John Wesley, A Plain Account of Christian Perfection, in Wesley and Fletcher, Entire Sanctification Attainable in This Life (London: Charles H. Kelly, 1898), p. 11.
30 Christensen, p. 76.
31 O’Malley, p. 51.
32 Tersteegen had previously questioned von Zinzendorf’s self-interest and possible antinomianism, O’Malley, p. 57.
33 Moore, p. 343.
34 O’Malley, p. 53, see also 57.
35 Ibid., pp. 49, 57-61.
36 Ibid., p. 69, incl. note 77, referring to L. G. Harvey, ed., Tersteegen, Recluse in Demand: Life and Letters, vol. I (Hampton, TN: Harvey & Tait, n.d.), pp. 125, 129.
37 Ibid., p. 65; see also Bundy, p. 153, and Christensen, p. 71, note 1.
38 Maddox, p. 31; on Tersteegen, see also O’Malley, p. 65.
39 Wesley, A Plain Account, p. 25.
40 So Maddox, pp. 31, 35.
41 See Christensen, p. 85; Outler, p. 9, note 26; and a somewhat contrary view in Bundy, p. 139.
42 Christensen, pp. 81, 85, incl. note 19.
43 See Christensen, pp. 76; 85, note 22; and p. 87. For more on the awakening of spiritual senses, in the views of both Macarius and Wesley, see Runyon, p. 14.
44 Letter from John to Charles Wesley, June 27, 1766, cited in Christensen, p. 90.
45 McCormick, p. 53. “God is the joy of his heart, and the desire of his soul, which is continually crying, ‘Whom have I in heaven but Thee’? He is therefore happy in God; yea, always happy…,” Wesley, A Plain Account, p. 13, see also p. 8.
46 Outler, p. 31.
47 Christensen, p. 88, see also p. 80.
48 Bundy, p. 155.
49 Outler, p. 30.
50 Maddox, p. 30; Christensen, pp. 76, 78; Bundy, pp. 139 ff., 149.
51 Bundy, pp.139, 143, 151.
52 Bundy, p. 141.
53 “A Christian Library by John Wesley,” Wesley Center Online (http://wesley.nnu.edu/john-wesley/a-christian-library/, accessed April 3, 2014).
54 Christensen, p. 75, Runyon, p. 13, Moore, p. 518.
55 O’Malley, p. 56 f.
56 Christensen, p. 76.
57 Christensen’s term, pp. 74, 80.
58 Bundy, p. 143, see also 142.
59 Christensen, p. 80.
60 Ted Campbell in Christensen, p. 81, note 22.
61 Frank Baker, “John Wesley, Biblical Commentator,” Bulletin of the John Rylands Library 71 (1989):111 f.
62 Pseudo-Macarius Homily 8:5, in A. J. Mason, Fifty Spiritual Homilies of St. Macarius the Egyptian, Translations of Christian Literature, Series I, gen. ed. W. J. Sparrow-Simpson and W. K. Lowther Clarke (London: SPCK, 1921), pp. 67 f.
63 See A Christian Library, Wesley Center Online (http://wesley.nnu.edu/john-wesley/a-christian-library/a-christian-library-volume-1/volume-1-the-homilies-of-macarius/, accessed April 3, 2014).
64 Christensen, p. 88.
65 McCormick, p. 54.
66 Runyon, p. 15.
67 McCormick, p. 102, note 153; McCormick, quoted in Troy W. Martin, “John Wesley’s Exegetical Orientation: East Or West?” Wesleyan Theological Journal 26 (1991):136, note 114; see also Runyon, p. 15, note 30.
68 Wesley, A Plain Account, p. 21.
69 See Ibid., p. 19 f.
70 Ibid., p. 41.
© 2014 Paul A. Hughes