Mysticism: An Evangelical Option?, by Winfried Corduam; Zondervan Publishing House, 1991; 150 pp., $14.95 (paper). [Reviewed by Prof. H. Hanko.]
Anyone interested in mysticism in the church will probably want to consult this book. While it is somewhat philosophical and psychological in the first part of the book, especially the last two chapters are well worth reading.
The book starts out by examining very broadly mysticism as a universal phenomenon found in all religions, and it asks such questions as: Does mysticism have a common core? Does mysticism have an objective referent? Can language describe mystical experience?
But at the end of the book the author zeros in on a brief history of mysticism in Christianity, and he faces, in the final paragraph, the question of mysticism as a legitimate experience within the Christian and Evangelical tradition.
Early in the book, mysticism is defined as an unmediated link with the absolute, which, in the Christian tradition, means an unmediated link with God. It is here that the book grabs our interest.
An unmediated link with God as a means of acquiring knowledge is rightly condemned as being contrary to the principle of Sola Scripture. But a mysticism which confirms biblical truth is approved.
The author correctly explains that the Scriptures surely teach that the believer enjoys union with Christ, and that this union with Christ is effected by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. This union with Christ can be said to be mystical because, through Christ, we are brought into fellowship with the triune God. And this union with Christ is brought about by faith.
All of this is surely sound, biblical teaching.
The problem comes in the author’s definition of faith. He never really defines faith carefully, and seems to suggest that the mystical union which faith works can be apart from knowledge. In two statements on page 137 this is affirmed. “But it would also be a mistake to fall into the error of rationalism, namely, that God works only through our rational response to verbal messages,” where “rational response” apparently means, “a response by means of knowledge.” The second statement is: “Any wholesale dismissal of everything ‘mystical’ in favor of the purely cognitive would direct us away from these supernatural facts.”
I am aware of the fact that the word “purely” in the above sentence modifies “cognitive”; it leaves room for something which is partially cognitive, i.e., partially involving the mind, and therefore knowledge. But the author seems nevertheless to ignore that line of reasoning. He seems to be saying that faith which brings us into union with Christ and thus with God is a faith which need not operate on the cognitive level in every instance.
What then does faith do? The position of the author seems to be that such mystical union with Christ and God can be, and sometimes is, purely a matter of feeling, feeling which defies description and cannot be described by mere human language.
It is here that we dissent. Our Heidelberg Catechism defines faith as the bond by which we are engrafted into Christ and thus placed in “mystical union” with him. But in a further definition of faith in the very next question and answer the Heidelberg Catechism insists that faith is a sure knowledge by which we hold for true all that God has revealed in His Word. And, having said that, the Heidelberg Catechism goes on to define faith as trust in Christ by which we rely completely upon Him.
That feelings or emotions are involved in faith goes without saying. Love for God and our neighbor is an emotion; trust has emotional implications. We are told in Scripture to come to God with a broken spirit and a contrite heart – all of which are intensely emotional. We are admonished to rejoice in the Lord always – again profoundly emotional. But never can or may any of this be separated from the sure knowledge of faith. Our emotional experiences in which we have union with God through Christ are always mediated by knowledge.
This point the author seems to deny.