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Systematic Theology - Volume I
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§ 2. Mysticism in the Early Church.

A. Montanism.

The Montanists who arose toward the close of the second century had, in one aspect, some affinity to Mysticism. Montanus taught that as the ancient prophets predicted the coming of the Messiah through whom new revelations were to be made; so Christ predicted the coming of the Paraclete through whom further communications of the mind of God were to be made to his people. Tertullian, by whom this system was reduced to order and commended to the higher class of minds, did indeed maintain that the rule of faith was fixed and immutable; but nevertheless that there was need of a continued supernatural revelation of truth, at least as to matters of duty and discipline. This supernatural revelation was made through the Paraclete; whether, as was perhaps the general idea among the Montanists, by communications granted, from lime to time, to special individuals, who thereby became Christian prophets; or by an influence common to all believers, which however some more than others experienced and improved. The following passage from Tertullian2828De Virgg. Veland c. 1 — Edit. Basle, 1562, p. 490. gives clearly the fundamental principle of the system, so far as this point is concerned: “Regula quidem fidei una omnino est, sola immobilis et irreformabilis. . . . . Hac lege fidei manente, cetera jam disciplinæ et conversationis admittunt novitatem correctionis; operante scilicet et proficiente usque in finem gratia Dei. . . . . Propterea Paracletum misit Dominus, ut, quoniam humana mediocritas omnia semel capere non poterat, paulatim dirigeretur et ordinaretur et ad perfectum perduceretur disciplina ab illo vicario Domini Spiritu Sancto. Quæ est ergo Paracleti administratio nisi hæc, quod disciplina dirigitur, quod Scripturæ revelantur, quod intellectus reformatur, quod ad meliora proficitur? . . . . Justitia primo fuit in rudimentis, natura Deum metuens; dehinc per legem et prophetas promovit in infantiam; dehinc per evangelium efferbuit in juventutem; nunc per Paracletum componitur in maturitatem.

The points of analogy between Montanism and Mysticism are that both assume the insufficiency of the Scriptures and the ordinances of the Church for the full development of the Christian life; and both assert the necessity of a continued, supernatural, revelation from the Spirit of God. In other respects the two tendencies were divergent. Mysticism was directed to the inner life; Montanism to the outward. It concerned itself with the reformation of manners and strictness of discipline. It enjoined fasts, and other ascetic practices. As it depended on the supernatural and continued guidance of the Spirit, it was on the one hand opposed to speculation, or the attempt to develop Christianity by philosophy; and on the other to the dominant authority of the bishops. Its denunciatory and exclusive spirit led to its condemnation as heretical. As the Montanists excommunicated the Church, the Church excommunicated them.2929See Neander’s Dogmengeschichte, vol. i. Schwegler, F. C. (disciple of Baur) Der Montanismus und die Christliche Kirche des Zweiten Jahrhunderts, Tub. 1841-1848. A concise and clear account of Montanism is given in Mosheim’s Commentary on the Affairs of Christians before the Time of Constantine. vol. i. § 66, pp. 497 ff. of Murdock’s edition.

B. The so-called Dionysius, the Areopagite.

Mysticism, in the common acceptation of the term, is antagonistic to speculation. And yet they are often united. There have been speculative or philosophical Mystics. The father indeed of Mysticism in the Christian Church, was a philosopher. About the year A.D. 523, during the Monothelite controversy certain writings were quoted as of authority as being the productions of Dionysius the Areopagite. The total silence respecting them during the preceding centuries; the philosophical views which they express; the allusions to the state of the Church with which they abound, have produced the conviction, universally entertained, that they were the work of some author who lived in the latter part of the fifth century. The most learned investigators, however, confess their inability to fix with certainty or even with probability on any writer to whom they can be referred. Though their authorship is unknown, their influence has been confessedly great. The works which bear the pseudonym of Dionysius are, “The Celestial Hierarchy,” “The Terrestrial Hierarchy,” “Mystical Theology,” and “Twelve Epistles.” Their contents show that their author belonged to the school of the New Platonists, and that his object was to propagate the peculiar views of that school in the Christian Church. The writer attempts to show that the real, esoteric doctrines of Christianity are identical with those of his own school of philosophy. In other words, he taught New Platonism, in the terminology of the Church. Christian ideas were entirely excluded, while the language of the Bible was retained. Thus in our day we have had the philosophy of Schelling and Hegel set forth in the formulas of Christian theology.

New Platonism.

The New Platonists taught that the original ground and source of all things was simple being, without life or consciousness; of which absolutely nothing could be known, beyond that it is. They assumed an unknown quantity, of which nothing can be predicated. The pseudo-Dionysius called this original ground of all things God, and taught that God was mere being without attributes of any kind, not only unknowable by man, but of whom there was nothing to be known, as absolute being is in the language of the modern philosophy, — Nothing; nothing in itself, yet nevertheless the δύναμις τῶν πάντων.

The universe proceeds from primal being, not by any exercise of conscious power or will, but by a process or emanation. The familiar illustration is derived from the flow of light from the sun. With this difference, however. That the sun emits light, is a proof that it is itself luminous but the fact that intelligent beings emanate from the “ground-being,” is not admitted as proof that it is intelligent. The fact that the air produces cheerfulness, say these philosophers, does not prove that the atmosphere experiences joy. We can infer nothing as to the nature of the cause from the nature of the effects.

These emanations are of different orders; decreasing in dignity and excellence as they are distant from the primal source. The first of these emanations is mind, νοῦς, intelligence individualized in different ranks of spiritual beings. The next, proceeding from the first, is soul, which becomes individualized by organic or vital connection with matter. There is, therefore, an intelligence of intelligences, and also a soul of souls; hence their generic unity. Evil arises from the connection of the spiritual with the corporeal, and yet this connection so far as souls are concerned, is necessary to their individuality. Every soul, therefore, is an emanation from the soul of the world, as that is from God, through the Intelligence.

As there is no individual soul without a body, and as evil is the necessary consequence of union with a body, evil is not only necessary or unavoidable, it is a good.

The end of philosophy is the immediate vision of God, which gives the soul supreme blessedness and rest. This union with God is attained by sinking into ourselves; by passivity. As we are a form, or mode of God’s existence, we find God in ourselves, and are consciously one with him, when this is really apprehended; or, when we suffer God, as it were, to absorb our individuality.

The primary emanations from the ground of all being, which the heathen called gods (as they had gods many and lords many) the New Platonists, spirits or intelligences; and the Gnostics, æons; the pseudo-Dionysius called angels. These he divided into three triads: (1.) thrones, cherubim, and seraphim; (2.) powers, lordships, authorities; (3.) angels, archangels, principalities. He classified the ordinances and officers and members of the Church into corresponding triads: (1.) The sacraments, — baptism, communion, anointing, — these were the means of initiation or consecration ; (2.) The initiators, — bishops, priests, deacons; (3.) The initiated, — monks, the baptized, catechumens.

The terms God, sin, redemption, are retained in this system, but the meaning attached to them was entirely inconsistent with the sense they bear in the Bible and in the Christian Church. The pseudo-Dionysius was a heathen philosopher in the vestments of a Christian minister. The philosophy which he taught he claimed to be the true sense of the doctrines of the Church, as that sense had been handed down by a secret tradition. Notwithstanding its heathen origin and character, its influence in the Church was great and long continued. The writings of its author were translated, annotated and paraphrased, centuries after his death. As there is no effect without an adequate cause, there must have been power in this system and an adaptation to the cravings of a large class of minds.

Causes of the Influence of the Writings of the pseudo-Dionysius.

To account for its extensive influence it may be remarked: (1.) That it did not openly shock the faith or prejudices of the Church. It did not denounce any received doctrine or repudiate any established institution or ordinance. It pretended to be Christian. It undertook to give a deeper and more correct insight into the mysteries of religion. (2.) It subordinated the outward to the inward. Some men are satisfied with rites, ceremonies, symbols, which may mean anything or nothing; others, with knowledge or clear views of truth. To others, the inner life of the soul, intercourse with God, is the great thing. To these this system addressed itself. It proposed to satisfy this craving after God, not indeed in a legitimate way, or by means of Gods appointment. Nevertheless it was the high end of union with him that it proposed, and which it professed to secure. (3.) This system was only one form of the doctrine which has such a fascination for the human mind, and which underlies so many forms of religion in every age of the world; the doctrine, namely, that the universe is an efflux of the life of God, — all things flowing from him, and back again to him from everlasting to everlasting. This doctrine quiets the conscience, as it precludes the idea of sin; it gives the peace which flows from fatalism; and it promises the absolute rest of unconsciousness when the individual is absorbed in the bosom of the Infinite.3030See Rixner’s Geschichte der Philosophie, vol. i. §§ 168-172. Ritter’s Geschichte der Christlichen Philosophie, vol. ii. pp. 115-135. Herzog’s Encyklopädie.


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