How the Church became Sacerdotal instead of Spiritual

Public Domain

Public Domain

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.


Dr. Scott on the Development of Sacramentalism and Monasticism

Monashic Groups

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.

John Wesley, Reluctant Mystic

John Wesley Preaching in Ireland, 1789, attributed to Maria Spilsbury

John Wesley Preaching in Ireland, 1789, attributed to Maria Spilsbury

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.

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

A Fish Or a Camel?

A Fish or a Camel

A Fish or a Camel

Sure, we would all like to feel like a Christian fish, always enveloped in God’s love and immersed in his constant, total provision.

But the Lord wants us to grow up to be a Christian camel, able to “stoke up” with His Spirit so that we can walk many miles in dry places without fainting.

© 2014 Paul A. Hughes

Make Way for the Spirit!

How to Have More Spiritual Church Worship

As described in 1 Corinthians 14, there are few worship activities that are as edifying and energizing as the verbal gifts of the Spirit.  However, in circulating amongst various full-gospel churches in recent years, I have noticed an absence of verbal manifestations (messages in tongues, interpretation, prophecy) in most services.  Some churches apparently go for weeks or months without hearing a fresh “word” from the Lord.

While prophecy in particular might be abused or over-emphasized in some circles, a church is ill-advised to react by trying to limit or control manifestations.

Sometimes pastors ask me what they can do to make their services more spiritual.  I offer the following suggestions:

1. Pray Up

In order to be sensitive to the moving of the Spirit, the pastor or worship leader must be spiritually sensitive. Moves of God do not always come through the leader–make sure you are on the cutting edge, not the tail! Fast and pray before each service, and engage prayer warriors to bolster that intercession.  Be sure you are cleaned up, prayed up, and “fessed up.”  Set aside all unnecessary activities and distractions, and go into the service with your mind centered on the Lord.

2. Let Go

No one can quench the Spirit like the “man in charge.”  Do not let yourself be preoccupied with the order of the service.  Never change the order when the Spirit is trying to move.  Wait!  Be secure in your spiritual authority, unafraid that you might lose control of the service.  (If you do not have spiritual authority, GET SOME!)  Do not give in to the conceit that the move of the Spirit always comes through the leader.  Avoid trying to manipulate the people, dictating their actions, or trying to stir up the Spirit by human means.

IMPORTANT:  Do not limit the opportunity to speak to a few chosen leaders.  The moving of the Spirit in Acts and Corinthians is corporate and “upon all flesh,” not limited.  (As Paul wrote, “you may all prophesy one by one,” and “let one speak, and let the others judge.”)

3. Pipe Down

The Spirit does not always move in an atmosphere of noise and frenetic activity (which is prevalent these days).  Moves are more likely genuine when they are spontaneous.  Often, the Spirit settles on the congregation with a warm, sweet heaviness.  Do not be afraid of “quiet times” or “dead air”–avoid the temptation to fill every moment with words or activity.  Do not keep the music volume so loud that someone speaking in the Spirit in the congregation cannot be heard!  (In a large church, place microphones in strategic areas, and instruct the congregation on their proper use.)

4. Slow Down

I have often felt moved by the Spirit to speak, but had no opportunity that would not interrupt the order of service.  Since I do not seem to receive an entire message until I have begun to speak, the moment was quickly past.  Again, do not let yourself be preoccupied with advancing the order of service.  Do not hurry through the worship time–if it or any other activity were a mere “preliminary,” it could be eliminated!  Do not treat the Spirit as such. A true word from the Lord is probably more important than your sermon!

5. Teach and Preach the Gifts

Give proper emphasis to the spiritual gifts in the church, teach their appropriate use, and encourage members to seek them.  (Even the best teaching will be voided if you do not then give the people adequate opportunity to exercise the gifts.)  Allow people to make honest mistakes.  Correct mistakes gently and respectfully from the pulpit when necessary, in private when possible–keeping in mind the potential for public embarrassment.  Realize that the gifts are for lay people, too!

If the above suggestions are followed, I cannot guarantee that a move of the Spirit will take place, but hopefully a lot of human barriers will have been removed, in order to encourage and make room for the gifts in the service.  Is that not what is truly important?

©1999 Paul A. Hughes

Notes on Pentecostalism versus Mysticism

El Greco, Baptism in the Holy Spirit, Public Domain

El Greco, Baptism in the Holy Spirit, Public Domain

The following represents summary conclusions, to date, based on available information, evidence, and personal experience, and likely comprises the initial installment in a long-term, ongoing study.  It has been included as a chapter in Neoplatonist Stew: Or, How Sacramentalism, Mysticism, and Theurgy Corrupted Christian Theology (2014) by Paul A. Hughes, available in paperback at Amazon and other online retailers.  At this writing, it is in process of being published in eBook format, as well.

Mysticizing Pentecostals often claim that Pentecostal spirituality is a form of Mysticism, therefore mystical practice is no threat to and indeed compatible with New Testament-based Pentecostalism.

As a third-generation Pentecostal and trained Bible interpreter, however, I maintain that Mysticism and its practice–e.g., Contemplative Prayer and introspection with the aim of Transcendence and “spiritual formation”–represent a foreign and alternate spirituality to that intended and prescribed by the New Testament.  Heretofore, I based this contention largely on the absence of New Testament support for mystical practice, especially in terms of clear didactic statements (i.e., NT believers are neither commanded nor taught to pray contemplatively, to chant mantras or empty the mind of thought); and conversely, on important commands and practices in the New Testament that are often discounted or ignored by Mystics.

A primary example of the New Testament practices often lacking among Mystics is the apostolic emphasis on becoming baptized in the Spirit, to be followed by manifestations of charismatic gifts.  Many Mystics apparently deem Spirit Baptism, as described in the New Testament, unnecessary, irrelevant, and even redundant to their mystical practice and emphasis.  Some Mystics claim to have transcended these elements of Pentecostal spirituality, identifying them with the “childish things” described by Paul in 1 Corinthians 13:11.  Never mind the essential enablements that Jesus, in the “Paraclete passages” of John 14-16, promised that the Paraclete would provide, as well as Paul’s admonitions to “be filled with the Spirit” and “edify” others through gifts.  Mystics seem to leave little for the Holy Spirit to do:  they together with God can do it all.  They purport to be able to touch God and be changed into Christ’s image through methodologies and “spiritual disciplines” (see more below).

More recently, in response to debates with Mystics and Sacramentalists, and the occasion of a Contemplative Prayer guru being invited to speak at an event surrounding the 2013 General Council of the Assemblies of God, I embarked on further research from the opposite angle–that of Mysticism–beginning with its origins.  This resulted in my blog series entitled “Pagan Origins of Sacramental Realism,” followed by the book version, Neoplatonist Stew: Or, How Sacramentalism, Mysticism, and Theurgy Corrupted Christian Theology, along with an illustrative companion chart.

My research strongly suggests that the main stream of Mysticism throughout Church history has been the Neoplatonic type that appears to have originated, as such, with the philosopher Ammonius Saccas, passed along through his students.  These include the Pagan philosopher Plotinus and the Christian theologian Origen of Alexandria.  Building on the Platonic idea that the real world is that of the mind, from which the physical world has fallen, Neoplatonists imagined the possibility of ascending back to an ideal, divine state through contemplation of God, self-introspection, and other mental exercises.  These ideas were passed along through the speculative theologies of such major figures as Gregory of Nyssa, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Meister Eckhart, Teresa of Avila, and even John Wesley.

Having become familiarized with Mysticism in addition to Pentecostal spirituality, I can now begin to describe differences between the two.  Because of many variations in mystic practice and detail, it will be necessary to generalize, to which exception will no doubt be raised by obverse critics.  However, exceptions hardly disprove the rule.  Things which seldom occur represent exceptions, things which happen occasionally represent episodes, things which happen frequently represent trends, whereas things that are largely and regularly true make up the rule, regarding which one may generalize without justifiable contradiction.

To begin, the Pentecostal experience is not an ascent of a human being to God or attainment of divinity, but a descent in which God deigns to deposit, by measure, part of his nature or person, such that his Spirit cohabits flesh.  As such, Spirit Baptism represents a parallel or reflection, if not technically a replication, of the very Incarnation of Christ.  Once received, the Holy Spirit is ever-present, and need not be ascended-up-to.

Mystics, going back at least to Plotinus, have suggested that the “spiritual formation” engendered through Contemplative Prayer can enable God to be superimposed over the intellect or personality of the Mystic.  That view, however, is contrary to New Testament examples and to Paul’s assertion that “the spirit of the prophet is subject to the prophet” (1 Cor 14:32).  It remains that a Spirit-filled believer may “quench” as well as “grieve” the Spirit (1 Th 5:19, Eph 4:30) through, one surmises, willful sin, resistance, or neglect.  A long-held tenet among Pentecostals has been that “the Holy Spirit is a gentleman” who will not force himself upon the individual believer or overrule his or her free will.  According to Paul the Apostle, the “mental exercise” involved, if so there be, is the believer’s daily as well as immediate moral choice to “reckon” himself “dead to sin” and to “walk by the Spirit,” not “by the flesh, to fulfill its lusts” (Rom 6:11, 7:5 f., 8:1 ff., 13:14; 2 Cor 1:17, 10:2; Gal 3:3, 5:16, 25).  At all times, in the NT view, the believer remains subject to human nature, and can never with carefree permanence rise above it in this life.  Watchfulness for one’s soul is always enjoined, such that Paul himself regretted that he could never count himself to have “attained,” nor discount the possibility of being in the end “cast away” (Php 3:11 ff., 1 Cor 9:27).

In Mysticism, one’s human nature can ostensibly be transformed through “spiritual disciplines” and methodologies (one might say “methodism”), which include fasting and other ascetic practices, “purificatory virtues” (Plotinus), self-abnegation, contemplation, affirmation and negation, self-introspection, emptying oneself, guided visualization, chanting mantras, etc.  (Such methodologies, utilized by Pagans, are known to produce altered states of consciousness through self-hypnosis.)  Some would add participation in Sacraments.  To the Pentecostal, in contrast, the human mind is consciously “transformed” (Rom 12:1 ff.) through believing Biblical revelation, adherence to correct doctrine, and submission to the Holy Spirit.

The Mystic craves Transcendence over human nature and worrisome matters of this life, and constant or frequent assurance of God’s favor, God’s existence, and one’s own salvation.  He (or she) longs to rise above petty humanity, to be unfettered by exigencies and rules, to eschew doctrine and debate and “contending for the faith.”  He is emotions-based, desires to experience constant warm feelings and inner joy, and tends to be preoccupied with personal spiritual and moral development.  The Pentecostal does not expect Transcendence except to the extent that he can resist and overcome base desires, by volition, when they arise.  He is not driven to seek constant assurance, but stands by faith in the face of contrary circumstances.  (Where is faith if one receives constant assurance?)  He is encouraged (“edified”) and his faith strengthened by sound teaching, meditating on Scripture, and periodic occurrences of charismata within the church Body (“signs and wonders”), especially the exhortation and consolation produced through prophetic gifts.  As Paul instructed in the face of anxieties, “Wherefore, comfort one another with these words” (1 Th 4:18).

Contemplative Prayer, to the Mystic, is a standard methodology facilitating ascent towards God.  The Incarnation is viewed in terms of Christ showing people the path to God toward their own self-divinization.  Ascent amounts to here-and-now restoration, in part or in full, from fallen human nature, toward an original or rightful divine nature.  To the Pentecostal, on the other hand, Spirit Baptism represents reception by grace of divine power coming to reside, through faith, within fallen humanity–by virtue of which God deigns to reclaim human nature through the partial impartation of himself to mere “earthen vessels,” which are sanctified, not in their own right, but by his presence.  He comes to dwell not in deified flesh but “all kinds of flesh”; not in response to an ascent, but by effecting a descent.  “I will come to you,” Jesus said, in the form of the Paraclete (Jn 14:16-18).

The Mystic desires God’s immediacy, to realize divinization and Transcendence now.  He rejects human nature and limitations, to seek apotheosis, theosis, theopoiesis, becoming God (pick one!).  He seeks to put substance to faith:  to experience, now, the object of Christian hope, to attain the object of faith before the culmination of all things.  He is not content to wait or to “know in part” (with which the apostolic generation had to content themselves, cf. 1 Cor 13:9-12).  Many Mystics develop an attitude of superiority by virtue of their passion for God’s presence and for Transcendence, not unlike the Corinthian spiritualists who became “puffed up” in their enthusiasm for public charismatic displays.

Pentecostal spirituality is eschatological:  “fullness” (culmination) comes at the Eschaton, the End.  Man remains fully human, undivinized, mortal, until “changed” (1 Cor 15:51 f., Php 3:21).  Our treasure is in heaven, our future inheritance.  The deposit of the Holy Spirit, together with gifts, are the “earnest” of that inheritance (2 Cor 1:22, 5:5; Eph 1:11-14).  Until the End, faith, not actualization, not realization, remains the “substance” of the believer’s hope, the assurance of things yet invisible (Rom 8:24, Heb 11:1).

Spirit Baptism is human nature eschatologically redeemed.  It is incarnation, becoming God’s instrument in spite of the flesh:  “Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Col 1:27).  Our hope (salvation, Eternal Life, divinization), as an object, is not yet available for our experience in this mortal life.  At the “Last Trump” shall “mortal put on immortality” (1 Cor 15:3 f.), not before.

Mystics tend to dislike doctrine and dispute as something beneath their new apotheosized nature; but doctrine and debate, according to the New Testament pattern, are integral with declaring the Gospel before “the disputers of this Age” (1 Cor 1:20), along with preaching, rebuking, and exhorting (Titus 2:15, et al.).

To the Mystic, ascent obviates Spirit Baptism and gifts.  Those who ascend enter into their own spiritual hierarchy.  Those who reckon themselves on the path to ascent develop a “me and Jesus” attitude.  They often gravitate toward Quietism, become monks and hermits.  Their spiritual hierarchy tends to bypass church hierarchy and leadership, though they often seek out guru-type figures who can lead them into Ascension.  Church, as an authority and teaching hierarchy, as a worshipping and self-ministering Body, and as a means of spiritual growth, tends to diminish in value in their eyes as they become “lone wolves” or “gurus” in their own right.  They are too “transcended” to be subject to earthy rules, structures, and limitations.

The Pentecostal conceives a Church-as-Body-of-Christ model, with many parts variously functioning, all capable of individual, respective spiritual endowments, cooperating to form a whole.  Thus they demonstrate why the “tongues of fire” lit upon each one individually at Pentecost (Acts 2:3).  None are “higher” or “lower,” none more or less ascended, only differing in gifts.  All have the same Spirit (1 Cor 12:4 ff.).  Individuals are gifted with immediacy, as the Spirit determines (1 Cor 12:11), requiring willing cooperation of the “prophet” but not ascent, purificatory rites, prior divinization or “spiritual formation.”  The motivated individual receives an influx of the Spirit, thus becoming temporarily a vessel “filled with the Spirit” (see “refillings” in Acts 4:8, 13:9).  He is an instrument of the Divine (“a vessel unto honor, made holy, fit for the Master’s use, and prepared unto every good work,” 2 Tim 2:21), not divine himself.

Mystics rely heavily on a relative few passages of Scripture for support as well as devotional utility.  Especial favorites are allegorical passages such as the Song of Solomon and parts of Proverbs.  Such texts, comprised as they are of  figurative literature, are ripe for abuse.  In the minds of Mystics, the Song, for one, portrays a mystical pursuit of God, the soul wooing and being wooed, catching glimpses of God through Contemplative Prayer and ascent.  Such applications of the Song go back at least to Origen.

Somewhat more compelling, in terms of a Biblical argument for Mysticism, are Moses’ yearning to glimpse God (Ex 33), and Paul’s vision of, or transportation to, the “Third Heaven” (2 Cor 12:1 ff.).  Both narratives, however, actually tell against the possibility of mystical Transcendence, of approaching God, and of mere mortals becoming divinized.  Such application of the Moses episode can be traced back to Philo, and was a frequent resort of Gregory of Nyssa.  Much like today’s Mystics, Moses yearned for a close encounter with God.  Indeed, Moses is allowed to approach the vicinity of God’s presence, but cannot be said to do so in a transcendent way (certainly not via Contemplative Prayer); rather, he comes, literally and physically, to the mountain bearing tablets to be written upon by the “finger” of God.  God denies the feasibility of Moses seeing his “face” and surviving.  He offers instead to allow Moses to see his “goodness”–the expression of his essential nature–and the after-effects of his glory or presence departing.  Thus Moses can be said to experience God’s influence but not at all God’s real, full presence, nor Moses his own Transcendence.  He sees God’s effect, God’s expression, but not God (much as all men can see God in his Creation, only in greater measure).  He is affected by the experience, but not ascended.  The afterglow from God’s presence which caused his face to shine was likewise an after-effect that was passing away, and represented neither a fundamental change in Moses’ spiritual status nor his state of being, nor did God’s glory become Moses’ own lasting attribute or possession.  It might have been Moses’ concern over the fading of this ascribed glory, which the people might have gathered to be a removal of God’s blessing on his leadership, that caused him to cover his face after speaking to them.

In contrast, Paul’s “visit to Heaven” was of a spiritual, revelatory character and not a physical approach to God.  Yet to claim Paul’s experience to have been accomplished through Contemplative Prayer would be sheer assumption, as would be the details of that experience, other than the fact of “hearing unspeakable words” and his subsequent receipt of a “thorn in the flesh.”  Paul’s point in relating the episode is his realization and God-given reminder that it is not in any exalted experience, or seeming encounter with the presence of God, or “abundant” nature of divine revelations, or gifts of power, that he should glory, as if he were deserving, special, or accomplished, but in the power of the Cross and the grace that is “sufficient,” in spite of the utter helplessness of the flesh (see also Gal 6:14).

In both these narratives, God’s reply to seekers is that we can but reflect his glory.  He alone is God, He gives his glory to no other.  Though He may at times allow a glimpse, no man can attain any measure of godhood nor approach his throne.  Try as we might, and yearn as we will, we remain mortal, subject to corruption, and cannot rise above it until eventually and finally Redeemed–indeed, a vital lesson every Mystic needs to learn.

Copyright © 2013 Paul A. Hughes

Pagan Origins of Sacramental Realism, Epilogue

Apotheosis of Thomas Aquinas by Francisco de Zurbaran 1631

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Pagan Infiltration of Christian Theology

In the future, the present writer might choose to trace the influences of Pagan theology more extensively, and in detail, down to the present day.  Additional avenues of pertinent study would be an examination of the psychology behind Mysticism (what inner needs and desires compel practitioners to crave and seek mystical experience, according to the testimony of expert sources, and why Mystics so intractably defend their practice in spite its contradictions of Scripture) as well as the politics behind the sacramental/sacerdotal system.

For now, it is appropriate to close the present study with a selection of examples of the later effects of the intrusion of Pagan philosophy into Christian theology.

John Scotus Eriugena (c. 810–c. 877)

As mentioned earlier, Eriugena (or Erigena) translated the works attributed to Pseudo-Dionysius, long popular in the East, into Latin, which made them available to the Western Church.  He likewise translated and propagated works by Gregory of Nyssa and Maximus the Confessor (citation “John Scottus Eriugena” in SEP at  Eriugena “made it his aim to elucidate the vague theories of Dionysius, and to present them as a consistent philosophical system worked out by the help of Aristotle and perhaps Boethius.”  This fueled an exercise in speculation which Inge, himself a Neoplatonist, labels “audacious” (William Ralph Inge, Christian Mysticism [NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1899], p. 133; see also Mosheim, vol. 2, p. 332).  Eriugena thereafter gives rein to the “most dangerous tendencies” of Dionysius as well as Origen and the Alexandrian Fathers (Inge, CM, p. 137).

In his time, Eriugena enjoyed the patronage and protection of Charles the Bald.  Over the ensuing centuries, many of his works were condemned by bishops’ councils, yet he maintained a strong following, including Hugh of St. Victor, Meister Eckhart, and Nicholas of Cusa; and in the 19th Century, Hegelians (“Eriugena” in SEP).

Bonaventure (1221-1274)

The Franciscans were founded by Francis of Assisi in 1209.  Their leader in the middle of the century was Bonaventure, a traditionalist who defended the theology of Augustine and the philosophy of Plato, incorporating only a little of Aristotle in with the more neoplatonist elements.  Following Anselm, Bonaventure supposed that reason can only discover truth when philosophy is illuminated by religious faith (citation “Scholasticism” at

Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274)

The textbooks credit Aquinas with being an Aristotelian, rationalist scholastic, yet Inge calls him “nearer to Plotinus than to the real Aristotle” (Russell, p. 284).  John F. Wippel (Metaphysical Themes in Thomas Aquinas II, in Studies in Philosophy and the History of Philosophy, vol. 47 [The Catholic University of America Press, 2007]) catalogs a number of instances in which Aquinas’s theology follows Plato (pp. 287, 288), Dionysius (pp. 9, 144, 159, 164, 287, 288), or some other Neoplatonist (pp. 10, 281), as well as Augustine’s Book of Eighty-Three Questions (pp. 287 f.), rather than Aristotle.  Dionysius’ book on divine names was one of Aquinas’s favorites, though in some ways misapprehended (Louth, p. 155).

Aquinas outlines three ways in which God can be known:  reason, revelation, and intuition (Russell, p. 460), the nature of which he does not fully explain, but is comparable to the three “stages” of Gregory of Nyssa, and bears every appearance of a neat Neoplatonic triad.

Following the teaching of Dionysius, “names of pure perfections do signify the divine substance albeit in deficient and imperfect fashion.  Since every agent [cause, form] acts insofar as it is in act (sic.), and therefore produces something like itself [i.e., effect, shadow], the form of any effect must be present in its efficient cause in some way” (Wippel, p. 159), which goes right back to the Proclian/Dionysian concept of names as symbols having sympathy toward their originating forms, i.e., effects that appeal to their receptive causes.

A divine idea, according to Aquinas, “exists in God”; moreover, following Aristotle, “like produces like” (Ibid., p. 164).  “The sacramental event”—now following Neoplatonism—has a “single hidden origin in the ‘being, living and thinking’ of contingent beings”; therefore “sacraments function as events which bring believers into harmony with this origin” (Lieven Boeve, “Thinking Sacramental Presence in a Postmodern Context: A Playground for Theological Renewal,” in L. Boeve and L. Leijssen, eds., Sacramental Presence in a Postmodern Context [Leuven, Belgium: Leuven University Press, 2001], p. 7).  In this “context, sacramental grace is defined according to a causality-scheme” in such a way that it “causes/realises what it signifies,” which is grace “produced” by God (Ibid.).  Since “grace is nothing else than a certain shared similitude to the divine nature” (Aquinas), following the circular reasoning that sacraments are the means of grace that God has provided, then it is the sacraments by which “God produces grace” (Ibid., pp. 7-8).

Today, this Dionysian subtext, bequeathed through Aquinas, is reflected with remarkable exactitude in modern expressions of Catholic doctrine:

According to Catholic theology, a dynamic link exists between these sacramental signs and the realities they signify.  The outward sign is not just a symbol of divine grace, rather sacraments are efficacious signs:  they do not merely represent a sacred reality but themselves cause the reality they represent. …. Accordingly, the outward signs of the sacraments are dynamic signs and instruments of grace, visible and tangible realities dignified through their involvement in the sanctification of humanity (Helena M. Tomko, “Introduction: Sacramental Realism,” Sacramental Realism: Gertrud von le Fort and German Catholic Literature in the Weimar Republic and Third Reich (1924-46), MHRA Texts and Dissertations, vol. 68, Bithell Series of Dissertations, vol. 31 [Leeds, UK: Maney Publishing, 2007], p. 2).

Besides sacramental grace, Aquinas presents a mode, if not a methodology, by which a soul may transcend, albeit temporarily, to Mystical Union with God.  The only means he admits is “by grace,” through having been granted the lumen gloriae, the “light of glory.”  This “vision of God by the blessed in Heaven is not mere vision, but union,” writes A. B. Sharpe.  It does not come by a Plotinian “discursive intellectual process”; rather, “they see God as He is in Himself, not from a distance … but from within” (Alfred Bowyer Sharpe, Mysticism: Its True Nature and Value, 2nd ed. (London: Sands & Company, 1910), pp. 93, 95).  This degree of personal revelation of God, one notes, is certainly a bold claim, if not to say a presumption, one hardly made by the Prophets.  The picture of transcendence which Aquinas presents perhaps describes ecstasy, of the Augustinian type, but goes beyond ecstasy.  It does not seem to go quite so far as “displacement” or “possession” as Philo ascribed to the Prophets, since “self-consciousness” remains; but seems definitely to describe a superimposition of God’s mind on one’s own (see Ibid., pp. 93 f.), which one presumes automatically produces spiritual formationapotheosis, if not theopoiesis.

The experience of the lumen gloriae may presumably be equated with the “changeless light” of Augustine, and the illuminations described in the experiences of John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila (Ibid., pp. 99 f.). John’s concept of “the dark night of the soul” was strongly influenced by Dionysius, whom he often quotes, as well as by Gregory of Nyssa (Louth, p. 176).

The celestial hierarchy of Dionysius and the benign daemons of Proclus, the powers invoked by Pagan or by Christian theurgy, by Platonist, by Cabbalist, or by saint, alike reward the successful aspirant with supernatural endowments; and so far Apollonius of Tyana and Peter of Alcantara, Asclepigenia and St. Theresa, must occupy as religious magicians the same province.  The error is in either case the same—a divine efficacy is attributed to rites and formulas, sprinklings or fumigations, relics or incantations, of mortal manufacture (Vaughan, p. 46).

Interestingly, John himself warns at some length of the risk of mistaking natural phenomena and experiences of specious origin for the revelation of God (Sharpe, p. 102).  Neither John nor Teresa “address themselves to any consideration of the mode, whether partially natural or wholly supernatural, in which the supernatural effects are produced” (Ibid., pp. 108 f.).

Dante Alighieri (c. 1265–1321)

Dante writes in Paradiso 28:127-135:

Those orders upwards all intensely gaze,
And prevail below, that towards God
All are attracted, whilst they all attract.
And with such mighty longings Denys [Dionysius] sought
To contemplate those Orders, that he names,
And, like myself, described them in detail.
But Gregory thought not afterwards as he;
Whence and so soon as in this heaven his eyes
Were opened, he at his own error smiled.
~David Johnston, trans.,
A Translation of Dante’s Paradiso [Bath, UK: Printed at the Chronicle Office, 1868], p. 171, also quoted in part by Louth, p. 155.

Dante’s divine hierarchy, then, was based on that of Pseudo-Dionysius, whom he seems to regard as a prophet. Pope Gregory the Great, who disagreed somewhat with Dionysius, and with whom Dante had some differences, is seen acknowledging his errors with a smile.

E. R. Dodds points back even further to Plotinus as the theological source and watershed in Christian thinking:  “In [The Enneads] converge almost all the main currents of thought that come down from eight hundred years of Greek speculation; out of it there issues a new current, destined to fertilize minds as different as those of Augustine and Boethius, Dante and Meister Eckhart, Coleridge, Bergson and Mr. T. S. Eliot” (“Tradition and Personal Achievement in the Philosophy of Plotinus,” The Journal of Roman Studies vol. 50/1-2 [1960], p. 1; also quoted in part from another source by Louth, p. 35).

Immanuel Kant (1724–1804)

Kant expressed Platonic ideas when he distinguished, in his Inaugural Dissertation, an intelligible, paradigmatic world from the sensible material world, a view he never relinquished in spite of later criticisms of Plato.  He also appeared to strike a Platonic note later when, inspired by the empirical scientific “revolution” of Copernicus, he suggested that one’s own metaphysical perception of reality might be judged as valid as that discovered by scientific observation (citation “Immanuel Kant” in SEP at

Karl Barth (1886–1968)

Early in his career, Barth was open in his admiration for certain historic figures, such as Mozart, Goethe, Schiller, Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, and in particular Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky and the philosophers Socrates, Plato, and Kant.  Dostoevsky was steeped in the beliefs and superstitions of the Eastern Orthodox Church, as well as widely read in philosophers such as Hegel and Kant.

Partly due to the influence of his philosopher brother, Heinrich, Barth placed Socrates and Plato on a level with Abraham and the Prophets in terms of inspired moral insight.  He featured them alongside Biblical figures in his “Lebensbilder aus der Geshichte der christlichen Religion” lessons to the young girls of the congregation.  Plato and Socrates, according to Barth, shared the ideals of the Prophets.  Since “Jesus is, for us, not lesser but greater when we recognize him everywhere,” these great pre-Christians act as “lights” and “mirrors” to reflect Christ to us.  Kant further represented to Barth a “unique resurrection” of Platonic thinking, and therefore shares the limelight.  Barth maintained these views at least through the authorship of his two Romans commentaries and his First Corinthians 15 commentary, The Resurrection of the Dead.  He wrote, “It does not matter whether what they have and guard is Moses or John the Baptist, Plato or Socialism, or even the simple, daily activity of an inherent moral reason:  it is calling, promise, the potential for a parable in this having and guarding, the offer and the open door of the deepest knowledge” (Kenneth Oakes, Karl Barth on Theology and Philosophy [Oxford University Press, 2012], pp. 32 f., 45, 64 f., 76, 97, 106, 239, 247; Gregg Strawbridge, “Karl Barth’s Rejection of Natural Theology: Or an Exegesis of Romans 1:19-20,” A Paper Presented to the Evangelical Theological Society, San Francisco, 1997], posted at

In later years, Barth became more reticent about his enthusiasm for Socrates and Plato, admitting that his earlier works had a “remarkable crust of Kantian and Platonic ideas.”  “But look,” he excused, “at that time I was strongly influenced—always influenced—by platonic philosophy.  And like in the Römerbrief so also in this book on resurrection there are traces of Plato.  And I stopped being a Platonist later on.”  So “then I was under the influence, well, from Plato, from Kant, from Dostojewski, from Kierkegaard and so on” (Oakes, pp. 76 note, 239).

Barth did not seem to be of a mystic bent, did not like using philosophical terms, and was critical of the intrusion of Metaphysics into theology in his day, yet does appear to have picked up a measure of Platonic, even Neoplatonic thinking.  He echoed Plato’s yearning for the Good and the Beautiful, fundamental motivations in Plato’s search for transcendence.  As in Plotinus’ quest for the Fatherland, the Creation has forgotten God and longs to return to the source.  As Kenneth Oakes summarizes, “Jesus Christ is the turning point of time and history, the Tatsache, the actuality, not as a philosopher or as a moral teacher, but because he is that which both Plato and the Old Testament prophets posited as the ideal: a man living in time and yet also living in eternity” (Oakes, pp. 33, 45, 76).  Judging as well from the way his contemporary, Ludwig Wittgenstein, used the term Tatsache, “fact,” in his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1922), it appears that Barth is thinking in terms of Christ as Logos, philosophically speaking, and ultimately as Platonic form; while Wittgenstein in parallel thinks in terms of a world created of “facts” made up of “objects,” which in turn build “pictures” of thought.  “The picture,” says his Tractatus 2.12, “is a model of reality”—or as one could well surmise, a form (Luigi Perissinotto, “‘The Socratic Method!'”: Wittgenstein and Plato,” Wittgenstein and Plato: Connections, Comparisons and Contrasts, eds. Luigi Perissinotto and Begoña Ramón Cámara, [Houndmills, Hampshire, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013], sec. 3; Robert B. Pippin, “Negation and Not-Being in Wittgenstein’s Tractatus and Plato’s Sophist,” Kant-Studien 70 [1-4] [1979], p. 180; citation “Ludwig Wittgenstein” in SEP at

Karl Rahner (1904–1984)

A Jesuit priest, Karl Rahner studied Kant and Joseph Maréchal, a transcendental Thomist, extensively, and during his doctoral studies became an especial devotee of existentialist Martin Heidegger, whose lectures he attended faithfully.  One of Heidegger’s peeves was Platonism in church tradition, in the sense of a transcedent spiritual world over the material.  Rahner adopted this bias, and included Heidegger’s as well as Maréchal’s views in his doctoral dissertation, which was subsequently rejected.  Nevertheless, he published the work in 1939 as Geist in Welt, a radical reinterpretation of Thomas Aquinas, which gained Rahner a popular following (Thomas Sheehan, “The Dream of Karl Rahner,” The New York Review of Books 29/1 [February 4, 1982] at; citation “Karl Rahner” in Wikipedia at

Rahner was labeled as heterodox, if not heretical, and was placed under publishing sanctions by Pope Pius XII; but was soon favored by “progressive” Pope John XXIII with an appointment as advisor to the pivotal Vatican II Councils, where he emerged as a popular “star.”  “Rahner’s influence was enormous,” writes a critic.  “He satisfied a modern world, and modern churchmen, whose ears were itching for doctrinal compromises under the pretext of ‘enlightenment.'”  During the Council, Rahner worked alongside another Progressive, Joseph Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict XVI.  It was revealed in 1994 that during the several years of Vatican II, Rahner wrote 758 letters to his longtime, ostensibly “Platonic” love interest, writer Luise Rinser.  A double divorcee with two sons, Rinser professed Catholicism while delving into Buddhism, was a pro-abortion and anti-celibacy activist, ran for German president with the Green Party, and lended her support to dictator Kim Il Sung of North Korea (John Vennari, “Karl Rahner’s Girlfriend,” Catholic Family News [May 2004], now reposted at

Espousing views called the New Theology, Rahner and other advocates pressed to reform or redefine many Catholic dogmas.  Earlier, Father David Greenstock had warned, “The main contention of the partisans of this new movement is that theology, to remain alive, must move with the times.  At the same time, they are very careful to repeat all the fundamental propositions of traditional theology, almost as if there was no intention of any attack against it.  This is very true of such writers as Fathers [Henri] de Lubac, [Jean] Daniélou, Rahner …. All of whom are undoubtedly at the very center of this movement” (“Thomism and the New Theology,” The Thomist 13 (1950), quoted in Ibid.). Rahner’s proposed doctrine of Transfinalization, intended to replace Transubstantiation, was condemned by Pope Paul VI in 1965 (“Karl Rahner” in Wikipedia; citation “Transfinalization” at

While outspoken against Platonic Dualism (Soul/Body), Rahner’s theology includes many Platonic as well as Neoplatonic and other Pagan elements.  He believed in a unity of the soul with the body (Aristotle), and no “afterlife,” as described in Christian revelation, but a “self-realization which embodies the result of what a man has made of himself during life” (Rahner, quoted in Sheehan), and only comes at death.  So “if one maintains that man is immortal as a whole and not just as a spirit, then it follows for Rahner that in death one does not leave the material world but enters more deeply into it and becomes what he calls ‘all-cosmic,’ somehow present to and in communication with all material reality” (Sheehan), i.e., a form of Pantheism.  To Rahner, God’s grace is built into nature, as is the soul itself, “Thus all persons are ‘Christian’—that is, caught up in God’s universal saving grace—by the very fact that they exist, regardless of whether they are baptized” (Sheehan), which of course is Inclusivism or Universalism.  God loves everyone and wants everyone to be saved, and can apply his Atonement as he wishes, apart from belief in Jesus (“Religious Pluralism” in SEP at

A concept of such “anonymous Christianity” (Rahner’s term) “obviously changes the idea of missionary evangelization from ‘telling the natives what they don’t yet know’ to ‘showing them what they already are'” (Sheehan).  One recalls that “self-realization” was a necessary step in metaphysical ascent, going back at least as far as Plotinus; as to Plato the doctrine of the fallen entity drawn back to its source.  Liberation theologian Gustavo Gutiérrez also speaks in terms of “anonymous” Christians, in essence calling the masses of poor the Church, and therefore the temple of God and a “sacrament of universal salvation” (see Part 2 of this series).  “We and the world are sacraments of God,” writes Mark F. Fischer, and we “make the divine reality actual in our words and deeds” (“Karl Rahner and the Immortality of the Soul,” The Saint Anselm Journal 6.1 [Fall 2008], p. 1).  To Fischer and other Rahnerians, the “sacramental principle” is that the material world is the spiritual world, such that human expression is an expression of God (Ibid.).  In essence, humans are thus the effects of God’s cause in Christ, the shadows of his form, working in theurgic, Proclian, Dionysian sympathy toward the source, God.

“God established a world, not in a one-time act of creation, but in a constant process of divine causality [Proclian terminology], that is, in a relationship that is being ‘continuously constituted’ by God” (Fischer, p. 8).  Christ came “in the flesh” as Logos only insofar as one is referring to “soul”; which Incarnation constitutes in itself “an act of creation” (Ibid., pp. 10 ff.).  Likewise, the Resurrection was not an “historical event” but a divine expression or concretization of God’s identification with humanity (Sheehan).  Thus God “creates the human reality by the very fact that he assumes it as his own” (Rahner, italics his, quoted in Fischer, p. 10).  Rahner’s redefinition of the Trinity, in Sheehan’s opinion, “rehabilitates” it “by relating it to man’s self-transcendence.”  As Sheehan summarizes, “Man knows the Father when he knows God as infinitely distant, he knows the Son when he knows God as absolutely close, and he knows the Holy Spirit when he knows God as penetrating existence and history,” which statement is, by the way, a more or less exact reflection of the Platonic Trinity of “the One” (who lives in thick darkness), the Spirit, and the Soul (in that order).

Rahner’s version of transcendence presumes the preexistence of souls (a Platonic concept) by presupposing that all humans have a “latent experience of God” (“Karl Rahner” in Wikipedia; see also Fischer, p. 11).  Integral with Rahner’s theory of transcendence is the concept of “affective connaturality,” a concept which Aquinas rationalized from Dionysius and Aristotle (see Jacques Maritain, The Range of Reason, ch. 3, online at  The term describes “intellect” not based on reason, nor from feelings or emotion, but intuitive and affective, by volition.  Aquinas saw a “difference between the knowledge of divine reality acquired by theology and the knowledge of divine reality acquired by mystical experience” (Ibid.), the latter of which in fact implies the Plotinian model of acquisition of divine knowledge through contemplative prayer, as earlier discussed.

Andrew Tallon defines that alternate kind of knowledge, or one might rather say innate formative virtue, as “the normal … way the good person, the saint (… in the ‘state of grace’), exists and acts as an embodied spirit, more highly actualized by virtues (some of them gifts of the Spirit), affectable and affected by God and then responding” (“The Heart in Rahner’s Philosophy of Mysticism,” Theological Studies 53 [1992], p. 711), which one presumes refers to the phenomenon of “spiritual formation.”  Tallon further defines “affective connaturality” as “the essential ‘mechanism’ of … intersubjectivity,” the latter term having to do with the interrelating of two minds (Ibid., p. 709), apparently expressing the theoretial superimposition of God’s mind upon the human mind taught by Aquinas.  Elsewhere, Tallon posits the instrumentality of “the life of the [small-‘s’] spirit” through “prayer and action in reciprocal causation” (Ibid., p. 708), which is perhaps comparable to a cause-and-effect theurgy of sympathy and receptivity.

There are two kinds of prayer, that which is direct and vocative (presumably rational and cognitive), and that imaginatively called “discernment of spirits … consciously and responsibly bringing the rest of life into free relation to the God addressed by prayer.  Love of God and love of neighbor are traditional ways of saying the same thing….  The most perfect ethical action comes from discernment based on mystical attunement.  The continuum of the ethical and mystical is again confirmed when the mystical as prayer becomes practical by flowing ‘backward’ as discernment” (Ibid., p. 708).  Further, “The human soul, when more perfectly actualized by good habits (and, we hope, graced by the virtues that are gifts of the Spirit), approximates asymptotically the intuitive knowing and spontaneous love of the angels” (Ibid., p. 714).

The word asymptotic is a geometry term Tallon chooses, one gathers, to express approximation in the sense of replication that is nearly but not exactly perfect—suggesting “image” or “shadow” as compared to reality or form; and the realm of the angels is, of course, the higher realm of the Platonic forms.  Moreover, Rahner (following Pierre Rousselot) “interprets Aquinas’s hierarchy of spirit as meaning that the more perfectly actualized human soul (lowest in the hierarchy of spirits that includes angels and God) … performs” on the highest level (Ibid., p. 713), a concept lifted directly out of Pseudo-Dionysius, being that of the hierarch, who alone may “contemplate, directly, the intelligible realm … the realm visible and accessible to the angels,” as described earlier.

So being Christian is reduced to arranging one’s mental and behavioral patterns in a kind of semi-cognitive Feng Shui, in order to be attuned to more effectively channel the thinking and activities of the Spirit of God which one cohabits.  The accomplished soul is then the one most imprinted with God’s mind and conformed, through self-realization combined with a spiritual osmosis, in a process of theopoiesis, till achieving apotheosis or demigod status. This is a theology and methodology devoid of particular content and profoundly opposed to the New Testament revelation, wherein virtue is inculcated as it is instituted, through cognitive assent to the propositional truth of the Gospel, by receiving grace through obedience to the Gospel and Christ’s commands, and trust in his provision, and by accepting the promised gift of the Holy Spirit:  by whose continuing grace, in terms of enlightenment, empowerment, and encouragement, the believer can “perform” above mere human levels in order to overcome sin and “bear” righteous “fruit of the Spirit.”

Pope Benedict XVI (b. 1927)

As mentioned earlier, Joseph Ratzinger worked with Karl Rahner at Vatican II.  While conservatively Catholic in many ways, Ratzinger shares many theological perspectives with Rahner, has worked alongside Hans Küng and Edward Schillebeeckx, as well, and follows Neoplatonists Jean Daniélou and Hans Urs von Balthazar, and Metaphysicist René Guénon.

“Ratzinger is convinced that the dialogue between Judeo-Christian biblical faith and Hellenistic (neo-Platonic) philosophy has been providential” (Boeve, p. 8).  The true God, as “the ground of all being,” is the same the philosophers sought (Nicholas J. Healy, “Natural Theology and the Christian Contibution to Metaphysics: On Thomas Joseph White’s Wisdom in the Face of Modernity,” Nova et Vetera 10, No. 2 [2012], p. 540).  Indeed, Ratzinger holds that the world emanates from a greater reality and seeks to return to the Source (Boeve, p. 8), a generally Platonic and specifically Proclian-Dionysian idea.  To him, being “called by and to God” culminates in incorporation into the “God-initiated” or “God-permeated” world continuum (“Einfügung in den durchgottete Kosmos“), a world that is “sacramentally structured” such that it directs the creature back to the Creator (Ibid.), again a Proclian/Dionysian concept.

In defending Sacramental Realism, Ratzinger deprecates the “idealist misjudgment of human nature” and the “naïve idea of man’s spiritual autonomy” for which Immanuel Fichte is known, and by which Rudolf Bultmann concluded “that spirit cannot be nourished by matter.”  This “Idealistic heresy,” according to Ratzinger, is relative to Marxist ideas and due to materialist thinking based on human effort―homo faber―”which thinks it knows again that man can only be spirit in the manner of bodilyness” and “want[s] to make man into a pure spirit before God.”  The sacraments, on the other hand, are vital as God’s way of meeting man on a human level, using material means which embody “incarnation,” “historicity,” and the presence of Christ (Joseph Ratzinger, Die sakramentale Begründung christlicher Existenz [Freiburg im Breisgau, DE: Herder Verlag Herder, 2008], translator unknown, excerpted at; see also Healy, pp. 559 f.).

Here Ratzinger falls back, unfortunately, upon a theurgic view of symbols and shadows which appeal to corresponding spiritual realities.  Moreover, Ratzinger’s dichotomy on human nature is a false one since, far from Ficte’s totally man-centered view, the Biblical view is that man is a rational being capable of making choices of what to believe, whether to obey, and whether to “walk in the Spirit” daily, as opposed to “by the flesh, to fulfill its lusts.”  True, man is helpless to save himself, apart from grace; but the activation of grace is by rational choice in response to propositional truth, not dependence upon material sacraments or sacerdotal auspices.  To Ratzinger, in contrast, the soul of man is not autonomous but part of a world-spirit destined to be restored as a body to God.  His view relies more on “natural theology” (see Healey) and historical Church theology than Scripture, which leads him to a view of Inclusiveness that has spawned suspicions of Universalism, as did Rahner’s.

The sacramental view, contends Ratzinger, is proven typologically, not rationally or empirically; by looking forward, not backward.  He who clings to exegesis and the historical study of Scripture is “elitist,” an “analyzer” who is “unspiritual” because he “imagines himself to be the initiate,” presuming to “always know better” and “to be wholly spiritual” (Ratzinger, “On the Meaning of the Sacrament,” trans. Kenneth Baker, in FCS Quarterly [Spring 2011], p. 30).  “Historical reconstruction” fails to see “the unity of typological history” (Ibid., p. 33).  This “narrowly conceived, purely salvation-historical view” fails to apprehend the “mystery.”  Yet the hidden wisdom is “simple,” revealed to “fools,” and “promises … entry into the innermost thinking of God.”  Mystery is effectual for “The one who lives and stays in the simple unity of the universal Church” (Ibid., p. 30).  Meaning “is no longer the meaning of a biblical text” but of an “event, which reaches down to the center of creation and reaches up to the innermost and definitive will of God” (Ibid., p. 31).  One is reminded of the suggestions earlier by Fathers Keefe and Keleher to quit worrying and learn to trust the Church.

Ratzinger does not initially ground his claim of mystery relative to sacrament in the New Testament, in which the connection is conspicuously absent.  He first consults the Old Testament wisdom books and Apocrypha, then late rabbinical commentaries, then sacramental views expressed by the Church Fathers (see Part 7 of this series), which he afterward applies by virtue of the Catholic analogy of faith and with reference to typology to reinterpret New Testament content by what he deems a typological and sacramental “hermeneutic” (Ibid., pp. 29 ff.).  In Ratzinger’s hermeneutic, parabolic speech in Scripture which is literally unintelligible nevertheless represents reality.  Thus to “Rabbi Paul,” the mysteries of the Old Testament and the parables of the New “become visible” in Christ, and “a word of creation” (Ibid., p. 30).  More than that, “Jesus is the meaning of all the words in the Scripture.”  Therefore, “not only the words, but also the realities described by them are mysteries, emblematic references to Christ” (Ibid., p. 31); to the Sacramentalist, Christianity is a mystery expressed in “symbols” which “reveal reality” and by which one may “gain access to reality” (Ibid., p. 28)—all of which suggest theurgy.

All of Scripture, concludes Ratzinger, is a sacrament, both literal words and “events” (Ibid., p. 31).  His typological “understanding of the sacraments,” as a creative hermeneutical gnosis, “presupposes the historical continuity of God’s activity and, as its concrete locus, the living community of the Church, which is the sacrament of sacraments” (Ibid., p. 34), a view of the church entirely amenable to the concerns of John A. T. Robinson and Gustavo Gutiérrez.  Further, “The meaning of creation, which appears in Jesus as the unveiling of the Scriptures, is unity in which the fullness of God shines forth and illumines” (Ibid., p. 31). The sacramental understanding “purifies” and “refashions” creation continually (Ibid., p. 32) until “the Church, in which no longer Israel alone, but all mankind is drawn into the unity of love that leads to an indissoluble merger into one single existence” (Ibid., p. 31).

This “indissoluble merger” (unlöslicher Verschmelzung, “unfathomable fusion,” Séan Corkery, Christological Hermeneutic: Sacrament and Scripture in the Work of Joseph Ratzinger, a paper presented to the 50th International Eucharistic Congress, Maynooth, Ireland, June 6, 2012, p. 4), describes incorporation of souls not into an eschatological “kingdom-come,” nor an exodus from darkness to light, from hell to heaven, as in the New Testament, but a continuum (“unity”) of God’s work upon the world, in all peoples, at all times and in both Testaments, amounting to a Plotinian ascent in knowledge of God—not however as individuals, but corporately as the Church.  From the Old Testament to the New, one ascends from “the oppressive multiplicity of what is not yet transparent, to the liberating simplicity of what is Christian,” then to rites which Ratzinger reckons to be open, transparent, and rational (Rat. OTM, p. 33)—yet “mysterious” and symbolic?—until the day when God brings all things and all peoples, Catholics, Jews, and others, into him in unity and love, which echoes Robinson’s conception of the Parousia.

Thus one observes Neoplatonism and Theurgy, along with the method called “analogy of faith,”employed at will, eclectically, when convenient to theology and argumentation, and arguably so interwoven into the fabric of sacramental and mystical theology that its use, as well as its origins, may be utterly unconscious on the part of the practitioner.

© 2013 Paul A. Hughes

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