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§ 4. The Mystical Method.
Few words have been used with greater latitude of meaning than mysticism. It is here to be taken in a sense antithetical to speculation. Speculation is a process of thought; mysticism is matter of feeling. The one assumes that the thinking faculty is that by which we attain the knowledge of truth. The other, distrusting reason, teaches that the feelings alone are to be relied upon, at least in the sphere of religion. Although this method has been unduly pressed, and systems of theology have been constructed under its guidance, which are either entirely independent of the Scriptures, or in which the doctrines of the Bible have been modified and perverted, it is not to be denied that great authority is due to our moral nature in matters of religion. It has ever been a great evil in the Church that men have allowed the logical understanding, or what they call their reason, to lead them to conclusions which are not only contrary to Scripture, but which do violence to our moral nature. It is conceded that nothing contrary to reason can be true. But it is no less important to remember that nothing contrary to our moral nature can be true. It is also to be admitted that conscience is much less liable to err than reason; and when they come into conflict, real or apparent, our moral nature is the stronger, and will assert its authority in spite of all we can do. It is rightfully supreme in the soul, although, with the reason and the will, it is in absolute subjection to God, who is infinite reason and infinite moral excellence.
Mysticism as applied to Theology.
Mysticism, in its application to theology, has assumed two principal forms, the supernatural and the natural. According to the former, God, or the Spirit of God, holds direct communion with the soul; and by the excitement of its religious feelings gives it intuitions of truth, and enables it to attain a kind, a degree, and an extent of knowledge, unattainable in any other way. This has been the common theory of Christian mystics in ancient and modern times. If by this were meant merely that the Spirit of God, by his illuminating influence, gives believers a knowledge of the truths objectively revealed in the Scriptures, which is peculiar, certain, and saving, it would be admitted by all evangelical Christians. And it is because such Christians do hold to this inward teaching of the Spirit, that they are often called Mystics by their opponents. This, however, is not what is here meant. The mystical method, in its supernatural form, assumes that God by his immediate intercourse with the soul, reveals through the Feelings and by means, or in the way of intuitions, divine truth independently of the outward teaching of his Word; and that it is this inward light, and not the Scriptures, which we are to follow.
According to the other, or natural form of the mystical method, it is not God, but the natural religious consciousness of men, as excited and influenced by the circumstances of the individual, which becomes the source of religious knowledge. The deeper and purer the religious feelings, the clearer the insight into truth. This illumination or spiritual intuition is a matter of degree. But as all men have a religious nature, they all have more or less clearly the apprehension of religious truth. The religious consciousness of men in different ages and nations, has been historically developed under diverse influences, and hence we have diverse forms of religion, — the Pagan, the Mohammedan, and the Christian. These do not stand related as true and false, but as more or less pure. The appearance of Christ, his life, his work, his words, his death, had a wonderful effect on the minds of men. Their religious feelings were more deeply stirred, were more purified and elevated than ever before. Hence the men of his generation, who gave themselves up to his influence, had intuitions of religious truth of a far higher order than mankind had before attained. This influence continues to the present time. All Christians are its subjects. All, therefore, in proportion to the purity and elevation of their religious feelings, have intuitions of divine things, such as the Apostles and other Christians enjoyed. Perfect holiness would secure perfect knowledge.
Consequences of the Mystical Method.
It follows from this theory, — (1.) That there are no such things as revelation and inspiration, in the established theological meaning of those terms. Revelation is the supernatural objective presentation or communication of truth to the mind, by the Spirit of God. But according to this theory there is, and can be, no such communication of truth. The religious feelings are providentially excited, and by reason of that excitement the mind perceives truth more or less clearly, or more or less imperfectly. Inspiration, in the Scriptural sense, is the supernatural guidance of the Spirit, which renders its subjects infallible in the communicating truth to others. But according to this theory, no man is infallible as a teacher. Revelation and inspiration are in different degrees common to all men. And there is no reason why they should not be as perfect in some believers now as in the days of the Apostles. (2.) The Bible has no infallible authority in matters of doctrine. The doctrinal propositions therein contained are not revelations by the Spirit. They are only the forms under which men of Jewish culture gave expression to their feelings and intuitions. Men of different culture, and under other circumstances, would have used other forms or adopted other doctrinal statements. (3.) Christianity therefore, neither consists in a system of doctrines, nor does it contain any such system. It is a life, an influence, a subjective state; or by whatever term it may be expressed or explained, it is a power within each individual Christian determining his feelings and his views of divine things. (4.) Consequently the duty of a theologian is not to interpret Scripture, but to interpret his own Christian consciousness; to ascertain and exhibit what truths concerning God are implied in his feelings toward God; what truths concerning Christ are involved in his feelings toward Christ; what the feelings teach concerning sin, redemption, eternal life, etc., etc.
This method found its most distinguished and influential advocate in Schleiermacher, whose “Glaubenslehre” is constructed on this principle. By Twesten — his successor in the chair of Theology in the University of Berlin — it is held in greater subjection to the normal authority of Scripture. By others, again, of the same school, it has been carried out to its utmost extreme. We are at present, however, concerned only with its principle, and neither with the details of its application, nor with its refutation.
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