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Systematic Theology - Volume I
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§ 3. Mysticism during the Middle Ages.

A. General Characteristics of this Period.

The Middle Ages embrace the period from the close of the sixth century to the Reformation. This period is distinguished by three marked characteristics. First, the great development of the Latin Church in its hierarchy, its worship, and its formulated doctrines, as well as in its superstitions, corruptions, and power. Secondly, the extraordinary intellectual activity awakened in the region of speculation, as manifested in the multiplication of seats of learning, in the number and celebrity of their teachers, and in the great multitude of students by which they were attended, and in the interest taken by all classes in the subjects of learned discussion. Thirdly, by a widespread and variously manifested movement of, so to speak, the inner life of the Church, protesting against the formalism, the corruption, and the tyranny of the external Church. This protest was made partly openly by those whom Protestants are wont to call “Witnesses for the Truth;” and partly within the Church itself. The opposition within the Church manifested itself partly among the people, in the formation of fellowships or societies for benevolent effort and spiritual culture, such as the Beguines, the Beghards, the Lollards, and afterwards, “The Brethren of the Common Lot;” and partly in the schools, or by the teachings of theologians.

It was the avowed aim of the theologians of this period to justify the doctrines of the Church at the bar of reason; to prove that what was received on authority as a matter of faith, was true as a matter of philosophy. It was held to be the duty of the theologian to exalt faith into knowledge. Or, as Anselm3131Cur Deus Homo, lib. i. cap. 25. expresses it: “rationabili necessitate intelligere, esse oportere omnia illa, quæ nobis fides catholica de Christo credere præcipit.” Richard à St. Victore still more strongly asserts that we are bound, “quod tenemus ex fide, ratione apprehendere et demonstrativæ certitudinis attestatione firmare.

The First Class of Mediæval Theologians.

Of these theologians, however, there were three classes. First, those who avowedly exalted reason above authority, and refused to receive anything on authority which they could not for themselves, on rational grounds, prove to be true. John Scotus Erigena (Eringeborne, Irish-born) may be taken as a representative of this class. He not only held, that reason and revelation, philosophy and religion, are perfectly consistent, but that religion and philosophy are identical. “Conficitur,” he says, “inde veram philosophiam esse veram religionem conversimque veram religionem esse veram philosophiam.3232De Prædest. cap. i. 1, Migne, Patr. vol. cxxii. p. 358, a. And on the crucial question, Whether faith precedes science, or science faith, he decided for the latter. Reason, with him, was paramount to authority, the latter having no force except when sustained by the former. “Auctoritas siquidem ex vera ratione processit, ratio vero nequaquam ex auctoritate. Omnis autem auctoritas, quæ vera ratione non approbatur, infirma videtur esse. Vera autem ratio, quum virtutibus suis rata atque immutabilis munitur, nullius auctoritatis adstipulatione roborari indiget.3333De Div. Nat., i. 69 f., Migne, ut supra, p.513, b. His philosophy as developed in his work, “De Divisione Naturæ,” is purely pantheistic. There is with him but one being, and everything real is thought. His system, therefore, is nearly identical with the idealistic pantheism of Hegel; yet he had his trinitarianism, his soteriology, and his eschatology, as a theologian.

The Second Class.

The second and more numerous class of the mediæval theologians took the ground that faith in matters of religion precedes science; that truths are revealed to us supernaturally by the Spirit of God, which truths are to be received on the authority of the Scriptures and the testimony of the Church. But being believed, then we should endeavor to comprehend and to prove them; so that our conviction of their truth should rest on rational grounds. It is very evident that everything depends on the spirit with which this principle is applied, and on the extent to which it is carried. In the hands of many of the schoolmen, as of the Fathers, it was merely a form of rationalism. Many taught that while Christianity was to be received by the people on authority as a matter of faith, it was to be received by the cultivated as a matter of knowledge. The human was substituted for the divine, the authority of reason for the testimony of God. With the better class of the schoolmen the principle in question was held with many limitations. Anselm, for example taught: (1.) That holiness of heart is the essential condition of true knowledge. It is only so far as the truths of religion enter into our personal experience, that we are able properly to apprehend them. Faith, therefore, as including spiritual discernment, must precede all true knowledge. “Qui secundum carnem vivit, carnalis sive animalis est, de quo dicitur: animalis homo non percipit ea, quæ sunt Spiritus Dei. . . . . Qui non crediderit, non intelliget, nam qui non crediderit, non experietur, et qui expertus non fuerit, non intelliget.3434De Fide Trinitatis, 2; Opera, Paris, 1721, p. 42, B. b. c.Neque enim quæro intelligere, ut credam, sed credo, ut intelligam. Nam et hoc credo, quia, nisi credidero, non intelligam.3535Proslogium, i.; Ibid. p. 30, B. a. (2.) He held that rational proof was not needed as a help to faith. It was as absurd, he said, for us to presume to add authority to the testimony of God by our reasoning, as for a man to prop up Olympus. (3.) He taught that there are doctrines of revelation which transcend our reason, which we cannot rationally pretend to comprehend or prove, and which are to be received on the simple testimony of God. “Nam Christianus per fidem debet ad intellectum proficere, non per intellectum ad fidem accedere, aut si intelligere non valet, a fide recedere. Sed cum ad intellectum valet pertingere, delectatur, cum vero nequit, quod capere non potest, veneratur.3636Epistolæ, lib. ii. epis. 41; Opera, Paris, 1721, p. 357, B, a.

A third class of the schoolmen, while professing to adhere to the doctrines of the Church, consciously or unconsciously, explained them away.

B. Mediæval Mystics..

Mystics were to be found in all these classes, and therefore they have been divided, as by Dr. Shedd,3737History of Christian Doctrine, vol. i. p. 79. into the heretical, the orthodox, and an intermediate class, which he designates as latitudinarian. Much to the same effect, Neudecker,3838Lexicon, art. “Mystik.” classifies them as Theosophist, Evangelical, and Separatist. Ullmann3939Reformers before the Reformation. makes a somewhat different classification. The characteristic common to these classes, which differed so much from each other, was not that in all there was a protest of the heart against the head, of the feelings against the intellect, a reaction against the subtleties of the scholastic theologians, for some of the leading Mystics were among the most subtle dialecticians. Nor was it a common adherence to the Platonic as opposed to the Aristotelian philosophy, or to realism as opposed to nominalism. But it was the belief, that oneness with God was the great end to be desired and pursued, and that that union was to be sought, not so much through the truth, or the Church, or ordinances, or Christian fellowship; but by introspection, meditation, intuition. As very different views were entertained of the nature of the “oneness with God,” which was to be sought, so the Mystics differed greatly from each other. Some were extreme pantheists; others were devout theists and Christians. From its essential nature, however, the tendency of Mysticism was to pantheism. And accordingly undisguised pantheism was not only taught by some of the most prominent Mystics, but prevailed extensively among the people.

Pantheistic tendency of Mysticism.

It has already been remarked, that the system of the pseudo-Dionysius, as presented in his “Mystical Theology” and other writings, was essentially pantheistic. Those writings were translated by Scotus Erigena, himself the most pronounced pantheist of the Middle Ages. Through the joint influence of these two men, a strong tendency to pantheism was developed to a greater or less degree among the mediæval Mystics. Even the associations among the people, such as the Beghards and Lollards, although at first exemplary and useful, by adopting a system of mystic pantheism became entirely corrupt.4040Ullmann, vol. ii. ch. 2. Believing themselves to be modes of the divine existence, all they did God did, and all they felt inclined to do was an impulse from God, and therefore nothing could be wrong. In our own day the same principles have led to the same consequences in one wing of the German school of philosophy.

It was not only among the people and in these secret fellowships that this system was adopted. Men of the highest rank in the schools, and personally exemplary in their deportment, became the advocates of the theory which lay at the foundation of these practical evils. Of these scholastic pantheistical Mystics, the most distinguished and influential was Henry Eckart, whom some modern writers regard “as the deepest thinker of his age, if not of any age.” Neither the time nor the place of his birth is known. He first appears in Paris as a Dominican monk and teacher. In 1304 he was Provincial of the Dominicans in Saxony. Soon after he was active in Strasburg as a preacher. His doctrines were condemned as heretical, although he denied that he had in any respect departed from the doctrines of the Church. From the decision of his archbishop and his provincial council, Eckart appealed to the Pope, by whom the sentence of condemnation was confirmed. This decision, however, was not published until 1329, when Eckart was already dead. It is not necessary here to give the details of his system. Suffice it to say, that he held that God is the only being; that the universe is the self-manifestation of God; that the highest destiny of man is to come to the consciousness of his identity with God; that that end is to be accomplished partly by philosophical abstraction and partly by ascetic self renunciation.

“Although union with God is effected mainly by thinking and consciousness, still it also requires a corresponding act of the will, something practical, such as self-denial and privation, by which man rises above all that is finite. Not only must he lay aside all created things, the world and earthly good, and mortify desire, but more than all he must resign his ‘I,’ reduce himself to nothing, and become what he was before he issued forth into this temporal state. Nay, man must rise above the chief good, above virtue, piety, blessedness, and God himself, as things external and superior to his spirit, and it is only when he has thus annihilated self, and all that is not God within him, that nothing remains except the pure and simple divine essence, in which all division is brought into absolute unity.”4141Ullmann, Translation in Clark’s Library, vol. ii. p. 27.

Another distinguished and influential writer of the same class was John Ruysbroek, born 1293, in a village of that name not far from Brussels. Having entered the service of the Church he devoted himself to the duties of a secular priest until his sixtieth year, when he became prior of a newly instituted monastery. He was active and faithful, gentle and devout. Whether he was a theist or a pantheist is a matter of dispute. His speculative views were formed more or less under the influence of the writings of the pseudo-Dionysius and of Eckart. Gerson, himself a Mystic, objected to his doctrines as pantheistic; and every one acknowledges that there are not only forms of expression but also principles to be found in his writings which imply the pantheistic theory. He speaks of God as the super-essential being including all beings. All creatures, he taught, were in God, as thoughts before their creation. “God saw and recognized them in himself, as somehow, but not wholly, different from himself, for what is in God, is God.” “In the act of self-depletion, the spirit loses itself in the enjoyment of love, and imbibes directly the brightness of God, yea, becomes the very brightness which it imbibes. All who are raised to the sublimity of this contemplative life are one with deifying (deifica) brightness, and become one and the same light as that which they behold. To such a height is the spirit elevated above itself, and made one with God, in respect that in the oneness of that living original in which, according to its uncreated being, it possesses itself, it enjoys and contemplates boundless treasures in the same manner as God himself.” Ullmann, who quotes these and similar passages, still maintains that Ruysbroek was a theist, because, as he says, Ruysbroek “distinctly recognizes not only the immanence of God, but what no pantheist can do, his transcendence.” Moreover, he “too frequently and too solicitously avers that, in the oneness of the contemplative man with God, he still recognizes a difference between the two, to permit us to ascribe to him the doctrine of an absolute solution of the individual into the Divine substance.”4242Ibid. p. 47. A man may aver a difference between the waves and the ocean, between the leaves and the tree, and yet in both cases assert a substantial unity. It is true that no one can intelligently affirm the transcendence of God, and still hold the extreme form of pantheism which makes the world the existence-form of God, his whole intelligence, power, and life. But he may be a Monist. He may believe that there is but one Being in the universe, that everything is a form of God, and all life the life of God. Pantheism is Protean. Some moderns speak of a Christian Pantheism. But any system which hinders our saying “Thou,” to God, is fatal to religion.

Evangelical Mystics.

Bernard of Clairvaux, Hugo and Richard of St. Victor, Gersorn, Thomas à Kempis and others, are commonly referred to the class of evangelical Mystics. These eminent and influential men differed much from each other, but they all held union within God, not in the Scriptural, but in the mystical sense of that term, as the great object of desire. It was not that they held that “the beatific vision of God,” the intuition of his glory, which belongs to heaven, is attainable in this world and attainable by abstraction, ecstatic apprehension, or passive reception, but that the soul becomes one with God, if not in substance, yet in life. These men, however, were great blessings to the Church. Their influence was directed to the preservation of the inward life of religion in opposition to the formality and ritualism which then prevailed in the Church; and thus to free the conscience from subjection to human authority. The writings of Bernard are still held in high esteem, and “The Imitation of Christ,” by Thomas à Kempis, has diffused itself like incense through all the aisles and alcoves of the Universal Church.4343See Tholuck, Sufismus seu Theosophia Persarum Pantheistica. C. Schmidt, Essai sur les Mystiques du 14me Siècle. This writer is the author of most of the excellent articles in Herzog’s Encyklopädie on the Mediæval Mystics. Ullmann’s Reformers before the Reformation. Poiret, Bibliotheca Mysticorum. Vaughan’s Hours with the Mystics. Helfferich’s Christliche Mystik. Dorner, Geschichte der Protestantischen Theologie, 48-59.


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