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Systematic Theology - Volume I
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§ 1. Meaning of the Words Enthusiasm and Mysticism.

In the popular sense of the word, enthusiasm means a high state of mental excitement. In that state all the powers are exalted, the thoughts become more comprehensive and vivid, the feelings more fervid, and the will more determined. It is in these periods of excitement that the greatest works of genius, whether by poets, painters, or warriors, have been accomplished. The ancients referred this exaltation of the inner man to a divine influence. They regarded persons thus excited as possessed, or having a God within them. Hence they were called enthusiasts (ἔνθεος). In theology, therefore, those who ignore or reject the guidance of the Scriptures, and assume to be led by an inward divine influence into the knowledge and obedience of the truth, are properly called Enthusiasts. This term, however, has been in a great measure superseded by the word Mystics.

Few words indeed have been used in such a vague, indefinite sense as Mysticism. Its etymology does not determine its meaning. A μύστης was one initiated into the knowledge of the Greek mysteries, one to whom secret things had been revealed. Hence in the wide sense of the word, a Mystic is one who claims to see or know what is hidden from other men, whether this knowledge be attained by immediate intuition, or by inward revelation. In most cases these methods were assumed to be identical, as intuition was held to be the immediate vision of God and of divine things. Hence, in the wide sense of the word, Mystics are those who claim to be under the immediate guidance of God or of his Spirit.

A. The Philosophical Use of the Word.

Hence Mysticism, in this sense, includes all those systems of philosophy, which teach either the identity of God and the soul, or the immediate intuition of the infinite. The pantheism of the Brahmins and Buddhists, the theosophy of the Sufis, the Egyptian, and many forms of the Greek philosophy, in this acceptation of the term, are all Mystical. As the same system has been reproduced in modern times, the same designation is applied to the philosophy of Spinoza, and its various modifications. According to Cousin, “Mysticism in philosophy is the belief that God may be known face to face, without anything intermediate. It is a yielding to the sentiment awakened by the idea of the infinite, and a running up of all knowledge and all duty to the contemplation and love of Him.”1616Cours de l’Hist. de la Phil. Mod. Prem. Ser. Paris, 1846, vol. ii. leç. 9, 10. pp. 95, 120.

For the same reason the whole Alexandrian school of theology in the early Church has been called Mystical. They characteristically depreciated the outward authority of the Scriptures, and exalted that of the inward light. It is true they called that light reason, but they regarded it as divine. According to the new Platonic doctrine, the Λόγος, or impersonal reason of God, is Reason in man; or as Clemens Alexandrinus said, The Logos was a light common to all men. That, therefore, to which supreme authority was ascribed in the pursuit of truth, was “God within us.” This is the doctrine of modern Eclecticism as presented by Cousin. That philosopher says, “Reason is impersonal in its nature. It is not we who make it. It is so far from being individual, that its peculiar characteristics are the opposite of individuality, namely, universality and necessity, since it is to Reason we owe the knowledge of universal and necessary truths, of principles which we all obey, and cannot but obey. . . . . It descends from God, and approaches man. It makes its appearance in the consciousness as a guest, who brings intelligence of an unknown world, of which it at once presents the idea and awakens the want. If reason were personal, it would have no value, no authority beyond the limits of the individual subject. . . . . Reason is a revelation, a necessary and universal revelation which is wanting to no man, and which enlightens every man on his coming into the world. Reason is the necessary mediator between God and man, the Λόγος of Pythagoras and Plato, the Word made Flesh, which serves as the interpreter of God, and teacher of man, divine and human at the same time. It is not indeed the absolute God in his majestic individuality, but his manifestation in spirit and in truth. It is not the Being of beings, but it is the revealed God of the human race.”1717Specimens of Foreign Standard Literature, edited by George Ripley, vol. i.; Philosophical Miscellanies from Cousin, et al., pp. 125, 149.

Reason, according to this system, is not a faculty of the human soul, but God in man. As electricity and magnetism are (or used to be) regarded as forces diffused through the material world, so the Λόγος, the divine impersonal reason, is diffused through the world of mind, and reveals itself more or less potentially in the souls of all men. This theory, in one aspect, is a form of Rationalism, as it refers all our higher, and especially our religious knowledge, to a subjective source, which it designates Reason. It has, however, more points of analogy with Mysticism, because, (1.) It assumes that the informing principle, the source of knowledge and guide in duty, is divine, something which does not belong to our nature, but appears as a guest in our consciousness. (2.) The office of this inward principle, or light, is the same in both systems. It is to reveal truth and duty, to elevate and purify the soul. (3.) Its authority is the same; that is, it is paramount if not exclusive. (4.) Its very designations are the same. It is called by philosophers, God, the Λόγος, the Word; by Christians, Christ within us, or, the Spirit. Thus systems apparently the most diverse (Cousin and George Fox!) run into each other, and reveal themselves as reproductions of heathen philosophy, or of the heresies of the early Church.

Although the Alexandrian theologians had these points of agreement with the Mystics, yet as they were speculative in their whole tendency, and strove to transmute Christianity into a philosophy, they are not properly to be regarded as Mystics in the generally received theological meaning of the term.

B. The Sense in which Evangelical Christians are called Mystics.

As all Evangelical Christians admit a supernatural influence of the Spirit of God upon the soul, and recognize a higher form of knowledge, holiness, and fellowship with God, as the effects of that influence, they are stigmatized as Mystics, by those who discard everything supernatural from Christianity. The definitions of Mysticism given by Rationalists are designedly so framed as to include what all evangelical Christians hold to be true concerning the illumination, teaching, and guidance of the Holy Spirit. Thus Wegscheider1818Inst. § 5. says, “Mysticismus est persuasio de singulari animæ facultate ad immediatum ipsoque sensu percipiendum cum numine aut naturis coelestibus commercium jam in hac vita perveniendi, quo mens immediate cognitione rerum divinarum ac beatitate perfruatur.” And Bretschneider1919Systematische Entwickelung, fourth edit. p. 19. defines Mysticism as a “Belief in a continuous operation of God on the soul, secured by special religious exercise, producing illumination, holiness, and beatitude.” Evangelical theologians so far acquiesce in this view, that they say, as Lange,2020In Herzog’s Encyklopädie, art. “Mystik.” and Nitsch,2121System der Christlichen Lehre, fifth edit. p. 35. “that every true believer is a Mystic.” The latter writer adds, “That the Christian ideas of illumination, revelation, incarnation, regeneration, the sacraments and the resurrection, are essentially Mystical elements. As often as the religious and church-life recovers itself from formalism and scholastic barrenness, and is truly revived, it always appears as Mystical, and gives rise to the outcry that Mysticism is gaining the ascendency.” Some writers, indeed, make a distinction between Mystik and Mysticismus. “Die innerliche Lebendigkeit der Religion ist allezeit Mystik” (The inward vitality of religion is ever Mystik), says Nitsch, but “Mysticismus ist eine einseitige Herrschaft und eine Ausartung der mystischen Richtung.” That is, Mysticism is an undue and perverted development of the mystical element which belongs to true religion. This distinction, between Mystik and Mysticismus, is not generally recognized, and cannot be well expressed in English. Lange, instead of using different words, speaks of a true and false Mysticism. But different things should be designated by different words. There has been a religious theory, which has more or less extensively prevailed in the Church, which is distinguished from the Scriptural doctrine by unmistakable characteristics, and which is known in church history as Mysticism, and the word should be restricted to that theory. It is the theory, variously modified, that the knowledge, purity, and blessedness to be derived from communion with God, are not to be attained from the Scriptures and the use of the ordinary means of grace, but by a supernatural and immediate divine influence, which influence (or communication of God to the soul) is to be secured by passivity, a simple yielding the soul without thought or effort to the divine influx.

C. The System which makes the Feelings the Source of Knowledge.

A still wider use of the word Mysticism has to some extent been adopted. Any system, whether in philosophy or religion, which assigns more importance to the feelings than to the intellect, is called Mystical. Cousin, and after him, Morell, arrange the systems of philosophy under the heads of Sensationalism, Idealism, Skepticism, and Mysticism. The first makes the senses the exclusive or predominant source of our knowledge; the second, the self, in its constitution and laws, as understood and apprehended by the intellect; and Mysticism, the feelings. The Mystic assumes that the senses and reason are alike untrustworthy and inadequate, as sources of knowledge; that nothing can be received with confidence as truth, at least in the higher departments of knowledge, in all that relates to our own nature, to God, and our relation to Him, except what is revealed either naturally or supernaturally in the feelings. There are two forms of Mysticism, therefore: the one which assumes the feelings themselves to be the sources of this knowledge; the other that it is through the feelings that God makes the truth known to the soul.2222See Cousin’s Cours de l’Histoire de la Philosophie, and Morell’s History of Modern Philosophy, p. 556 ff. “Reason is no longer viewed as the great organ of truth; its decisions are enstamped as uncertain, faulty, and well-nigh valueless, while the inward impulses of our sensibility, developing themselves in the form of faith or of inspiration, are held up as the true and infallible source of human knowledge. The fundamental process, therefore, of all Mysticism, is to reverse the true order of nature, and give the precedence to the emotional instead of the intellectual element of the human mind.”2323Morell, p. 560. This is declared to be “the common ground of all Mysticism.”

Schleiermacher’s Theory.

If this be a correct view of the nature of Mysticism; if it consists in giving predominant authority to the feelings in matters of religion; and if their impulses, developing themselves in the form of faith, are the true and infallible source of knowledge, then Schleiermacher’s system, adopted and expounded by Morell himself in his “Philosophy of Religion,” is the most elaborate system of theology ever presented to the Church. It is the fundamental principle of Schleiermacher’s theory, that religion resides not in the intelligence, or the will or active powers, but in the sensibility. It is a form of feeling, a sense of absolute dependence. Instead of being, as we seem to be, individual, separate free agents, originating our own acts, we recognize ourselves as a part of a great whole, determined in all things by the great whole, of which we are a part. We find ourselves as finite creatures over against an infinite Being, in relation to whom we are as nothing. The Infinite is everything; and everything is only a manifestation of the Infinite. “Although man,” says even Morell, “while in the midst of finite objects, always feels himself to a certain extent free and independent; yet in the presence of that which is self-existent, infinite, and eternal, he may feel the sense of freedom utterly pass away, and become absorbed in the sense of absolute dependence.”2424Philosophy of Religion, p. 75. This is said to be the essential principle of religion in all its forms from Fetichism up to Christianity. It depends mainly on the degree of culture of the individual or community, in what way this sense of dependence shall reveal itself: because the more enlightened and pure the individual is, the more he will be able to apprehend aright what is involved in this sense of dependence upon God. Revelation is not the communication of new truth to the understanding, but the providential influences by which the religious life is awakened in the soul. Inspiration is not the divine influence which controls the mental operations and utterances of its subject, so as to render him infallible in the communication of the truth revealed, but simply the intuition of eternal verities due to the excited state of the religious feelings. Christianity, subjectively considered, is the intuitions of good men, as occasioned and determined by the appearance of Christ. Objectively considered, or, in other words, Christian theology, it is the logical analysis, and scientific arrangement and elucidation of the truths involved in those intuitions. The Scriptures, as a rule of faith, have no authority. They are of value only as means of awakening in us the religious life experienced by the Apostles, and thus enabling us to attain like intuitions of divine things. The source of our religious life, according to this system, is the feelings, and if this be the characteristic feature of Mysticism, the Schleiermacher doctrine is purely Mystical.

D. Mysticism as known in Church History.

This, however, is not what is meant by Mysticism, as it has appeared in the Christian Church. The Mystics, as already stated, are those who claim an immediate communication of divine knowledge and of divine life from God to the soul, independently of the Scriptures and the use of the ordinary means of grace. “It despairs,” says Fleming, “of the regular process of science; it believes that we may attain directly, without the aid of the senses or reason, and by an immediate intuition, the real and absolute principle of all truth, — God.”2525Word “Mysticism.”

Mystics are of two classes; the Theosophists, whose object is knowledge, and with whom the organ of communication with God, is the reason; and the Mystics proper, whose object is, life, purity, and beatitude; and with whom the organ of communication, or receptivity, is the feelings. They agree, first, in relying on the immediate revelation or communication of God to the soul; and secondly, that these communications are to be attained, in the neglect of outward means, by quiet or passive contemplation. “The Theosophist is one who gives a theory of God, or of the works of God, which has not reason, but an inspiration of his own for its basis.”2626Vaughan, Hours with the Mystics, vol. i. p. 45. “The Theosophists, neither contented with the natural light of reason, nor with the simple doctrines of Scripture understood in their literal sense, have recourse to an internal supernatural light superior to all other illuminations, from which they profess to derive a mysterious and divine philosophy manifested only to the chosen favorites of heaven.”2727Taylor, Elements of Thought. See Fleming, word “Theosophism.”

Mysticism not identical with the Doctrine of Spiritual Illumination.

Mysticism, then, is not to be confounded with the doctrine of spiritual illumination as held by all evangelical Christians. The Scriptures clearly teach that the mere outward presentation of the truth in the Word, does not suffice to the conversion or sanctification of men; that the natural, or unrenewed man, does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness unto him; neither can he know them; that in order to any saving knowledge of the truth, i.e., of such knowledge as produces holy affections and secures a holy life, there is need of an inward supernatural teaching of the Spirit, producing what the Scriptures call “spiritual discernment,” This supernatural teaching our Lord promised to his disciples when He said that He would send them the Spirit of truth to dwell in them, and to guide them into the knowledge of the truth. For this teaching the sacred writers pray that it may be granted not to themselves only, but to all who heard their words or read their writings. On this they depended exclusively for their success in preaching or teaching. Hence believers were designated as πνευματικοί, a Spiritu Dei illuminati, qui reguntur a Spiritu. And men of the world, unrenewed men, are described as those who have not the Spirit. God, therefore, does hold immediate intercourse with the souls of men. He reveals himself unto his people, as He does not unto the world. He gives them the Spirit of revelation in the knowledge of himself. (Eph. i. 17.) He unfolds to them his glory, and fills them with a joy which passes understanding. All this is admitted; but this is very different from Mysticism. The two things, namely, spiritual illumination and Mysticism, differ, firstly, as to their object. The object of the inward teaching of the Spirit is to enable us to discern the truth and excellence of what is already objectively revealed in the Bible. The illumination claimed by the Mystic communicates truth independently of its objective revelation. It is not intended to enable us to appreciate what we already know, but to communicate new knowledge. It would be one thing to enable man to discern and appreciate the beauty of a work of art placed before his eyes, and quite another thing to give him the intuition of all possible forms of truth and beauty, independent of everything external. So there is a great difference between that influence which enables the soul to discern the things “freely given to us of God” (1 Cor. ii. 12) in his Word, and the immediate revelation to the mind of all the contents of that word, or of their equivalents.

The doctrines of spiritual illumination and of Mysticism differ not only in the object, but secondly, in the manner in which that object is to be attained. The inward teaching of the Spirit is to be sought by prayer, and the diligent use of the appointed means; the intuitions of the Mystic are sought in the neglect of all means, in the suppression of all activity inward and outward, and in a passive waiting for the influx of God into the soul. They differ, thirdly, in their effects. The effect of spiritual illumination is, that the Word dwells in us “in all wisdom and spiritual understanding” (Col. i. 9). What dwells in the mind of the Mystic are his own imaginings, the character of which depends on his own subjective state; and whatever they are, they are of man and not of God.

It differs from the Doctrine of theLeading of the Spirit.”

Neither is Mysticism to be confounded with the doctrine of spiritual guidance. Evangelical Christians admit that the children of God are led by the Spirit of God; that their convictions as to truth and duty, their inward character and outward conduct, are moulded by his influence. They are children unable to guide themselves, who are led by an ever-present Father of infinite wisdom and love. This guidance is partly providential, ordering their external circumstances; partly through the Word, which is a lamp to their feet; and partly by the inward influence of the Spirit on the mind. This last, however, is also through the Word, making it intelligible and effectual; bringing it suitably to remembrance. God leads his people by the cords of a man, i.e., in accordance with the laws of his nature. This is very different from the doctrine that the soul, by yielding itself passively to God, is filled with all truth and goodness; or, that in special emergencies it is controlled by blind, irrational impulses.

It differs from the Doctrine ofCommon Grace.”

Finally, Mysticism differs from the doctrine of common graces as held by all Augustinians, and that of sufficient grace as held by Arminians. All Christians believe that as God is everywhere present in the material world, guiding the operation of second causes so that they secure the results which He designs; so his Spirit is everywhere present with the minds of men, exciting to good and restraining from evil, effectually controlling human character and conduct, consistently with the laws of rational beings. According to the Arminian theory this “common grace” is sufficient, if properly cultured and obeyed, to lead men to salvation, whether Pagans, Mohammedans, or Christians. There is little analogy, however, between this doctrine of common, or sufficient grace, and Mysticism as it has revealed itself in the history of the Church. The one assumes an influence of the Spirit on all men analogous to the providential efficiency of God in nature, the other an influence analogous to that granted to prophets and apostles, involving both revelation and inspiration.


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