Prof. Hanko is professor emeritus of Church History and New Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.
In the previous article I described the ladder which mystics defined as necessary to climb to attain union with God. In this article I take a look at criticisms of mysticism which must be made.
Criticisms of Mysticism
There are various criticisms of mysticism that can be made which, as serious as they are, do not come to the heart of the matter. We mention these first. Some have said that in the quest for union with God and absorption into the divine being, the mystic bypasses Christ. There is an element of truth in this, although it is not true of all mystics. However, when one reads the mystics one cannot help but think that the union with God which the mystic holds up as the ideal religion is such complete absorption into the divine essence that Christ is no longer the only way to the Father. One goes directly to God and hurls himself into the brilliantly shining ocean of the divine being without coming to Christ.
In the interests of a genuinely godly life, devotional exercises, meditations, solitude, and a life of prayer are held high as the ideal for one who would be saintly. It is, so the mystic says, better for a mother to read Augustine’s Confessions than to wash the dirty dishes. It is better for a father to spend the day on his knees than to pick up his lunch pail and punch the time clock at Steelcase.
It all brings to mind an incident from my youth. It was in grade school where we often had chapel speakers who were missionaries or missionary helpers. This particular chapel speaker whose speech I recall (I cannot even remember whether the speaker was male or female, although I think the latter) warned us with unmistakable premillennial emphases (which I did not recognize) that, because of the fact that Christ could come back at any time we ought to spend our time reading our Bibles so that Christ would find us doing this when He returned. Being a bit puzzled by the question of how I could spend my time reading my Bible and get my Arithmetic finished in time to please my teacher, I questioned my father about it. “Well,” he said, “I’ll tell you. You ought really to hoe the corn in the garden this afternoon. And even if you and I knew with absolute certainty that the Lord was coming back this afternoon, you ought still to go out and hoe the corn and keep right on hoeing until you saw Christ and He took the hoe out of your hands.”
The point is that, while indeed the contemplative life of prayer and meditation is to be a part of our daily existence, the fact remains that we are given tasks to perform. The position taken by mystics often led to monasteries and cubicles far removed from life—as happened to Thomas à Kempis. We have work to do. We must do our work to God’s glory, that is true. But we had better do the work for all that.
The Greatest Evil
But there is one evil in mysticism which is greater than all others. It is this. It divorces Christian experience from the objective Word of God. It speaks of communion with God through contemplation of the godhead itself. Often, when mystics speak of meditation or a life of contemplation, they do not refer to meditating on Scripture or contemplating God’s revelation in Holy Writ; they mean direct, immediate contemplation of God Himself without any intervening mediating means. They just sit and think about God. They do not think about various propositions concerning God, and by means of these, think about God. They do not pay attention to any objective truth which God has revealed. They just think, vaguely, ethereally, wordlessly, thoughtlessly, of God, much in the same way one would think about a bright light—not thinking about why the light is bright, where it gets its energy to give light, how it is able to be so bright, what the nature of the light is which it emits, but just thinking about light, so that the light floods one’s mind simply as light. (That, someone once told me, is a good way to go to sleep.)
The mystic tips his hand when he describes his experience of God as so high, so other-worldly, so exalted that it is pure experience, beyond description in human words, ineffable (which word means indescribable), of the sort that lies beyond thought, beyond our senses, beyond cognitive powers and the rational operation of the mind. Pure experience—that is what it is.
That experience can easily embrace trances, visions, dreams, special revelations, direct speech of God to the consciousness, etc. In both cases, the Word of God is abandoned.
To set aside the Word of God is always very wicked. Some claim, and, in my judgment, with considerable justice, that Luther adopted the theory of consubstantiation (Christ’s bodily presence in, with, and under the elements of the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper), because he was so desperately afraid of the Zwickau prophets and their dreams, visions, and special revelations. In the view of consubstantiation, Luther gave an objectivity to the Word of God which, Luther believed, kept one from the subjectivism of mysticism.
As a side light, this is extremely interesting because Luther himself was influenced in his formative years by German mysticism. He was able, however, to throw it off completely and do fierce battle with the right wing of the Reformation, the mystical Anabaptists.
We must insist on an important truth which is being sacrificed on the altar of today’s versions of mysticism. The only way we are able to know God is through His revelation to us. He is the transcendent One, so highly exalted above us that we can never climb any ladder, not even the ladder of the mystics, to contemplate Him as He is. He must first speak. He must speak in a language which we are able to understand. Calvin talked about God speaking to us in baby talk because we are so small. God speaks of Himself in His speech. He speaks of who He is, what kind of God He is, what He does, how He works, etc., etc. He also tells us that, because He is the kind of God He is, we are to be the kind of people He demands. He is holy, we must be holy. We can know this only because God speaks in such a way that He tells us these things in words we understand.
So true is this that, on the one hand, God’s speech is always a miracle, whether that speech be in creation or in Scripture. And, by the way, these two speeches of God are not really two speeches, as the theistic evolutionist insists; they are one speech saying the same thing about Christ and salvation as the great work of God. Only, we are able to hear His speech in creation only when God gives us the “hearing aids” of His Word in Scripture. On the other hand, God’s speech to us is always limited, finite, only a part of the whole, only a dribbling of God’s infinite depths. We can never know everything in the Scriptures and in creation. But, even if we could, we would still possess less than a thimble full of knowledge in comparison with all the oceans of this world.
That Word of God is the only way to know God. There is no short cut. There is no direct path. There is no speech of God directly to the soul—not even the assurance of our salvation. The Spirit indeed witnesses with our spirit that we are the sons of God, but the Spirit speaks of our sonship only through the Scriptures. The Spirit chains Himself to the Scriptures. The Spirit confines all His work to the Holy Word of God in the Bible. Where no Bible is, there is no Spirit.
Thus we know God before we can “feel” Him. What kind of nonsense is it to say, as some do, “I felt the closeness of God?” How does one do that apart from Scripture? We must know, with our heads and in our minds, definite intellectual propositions found in Scripture to know Him. And, indeed, it is true that the more I know of Reformed dogmatics the better I know God—not simply know about Him, but know Him!
This is not intended to imply, of course, that the mere knowledge of Scripture in itself guarantees the delightful experience of God. The devil knows more about God than you and I. Hell is populated with learned theologians who have ThD and DD behind their names. But, although it is true that not all who know about God actually experience God, it is as true as it can be that those who experience God know Him first of all. And the knowledge of Him is intellectual, cognitive knowledge.
Earlier in these articles I made mention of the fact that God saves the whole man, body and soul, mind and will and emotions. But the emotions are part of the mind and will and not a power in themselves. When religion becomes an emotional matter, as it ought to become, it is so only because we appropriate its truths with the mind, and desire its truths with the will.
This amazing work of the transformation of our minds takes place by means of the work of the Spirit (consult Canons, 3 & 4, Arts. 12-14). The Spirit causes the truth of the Scriptures to be indelibly impressed upon our consciousness in such a way that these truths are reflected in our conscious experience. This is an amazing work, but it is part of God’s way of saving us so that we know our salvation and can praise Him for it.
All the religious life is rooted in, based upon, empowered by, and in conformity with God’s Word in Scripture. Do we desire to make confession of faith in our church? It is not enough to feel one is a Christian and to have some sense of Christ in one’s heart. One had better be able to give an account of the Reformed faith as contained in Scripture and the confessions. Do we want to have the sweet consciousness of fellowship with God? Then we had better pore over His Word and meditate upon its truths. There is no other way. Do we want such fellowship that God speaks to us and we to Him? His speech comes only and always through the Bible. Is God speaking to me? Yes, He is—becausePsalm 27:1 says, Jehovah is my light and my salvation. And that is all that God says to me at the moment I am pondering that text. He may and does say that to me when I am surrounded by enemies who seek to destroy me with threats and fierce hatred. He says it to me when I need to know it and when my response is also His Word to me: Whom shall I fear? But it is there in the Bible, and sitting down and reading it is the only way I hear Him speak.
Do I have problems which need the solutions which divine guidance alone can provide? Then, foolishly and wickedly I do not say, “God put it on my heart to do this or that.” I do not ask for the prayers of others so that I may know the will of God. (Maybe I ask for the prayers of others, but then it is only that others may pray that I put my nose more deeply into the Bible and receive a willingness to do what the Bible says.) I do not wait for some direct word of God, subjectively heard, spoken in my soul, to do this or that. That is nonsense and results only in doing, after all, what I had wanted to do all the time regardless of what the Bible says.
If you object and say, Yes, but my particular problem is not mentioned in the Bible because I want to know whether God wants me to build a new house, and I want to do the will of God; then the answer is: God tells you in the Bible. He tells you that a critical and important aspect of the Christian’s life is to be a good steward of the earthly possessions which He gives and to seek the kingdom of God and His righteousness first. And if you find that you do not have the wisdom to know how stewardship applies in this case, then ask of God who gives wisdom to all liberally and upbraids not, and it will be given you. Just ask in faith and do not be like a wave of the sea, driven by the wind and tossed. For wisdom is that spiritual, God-given gift by means of which we are able to apply the Word of God to every aspect of our lives.
The Holy Spirit binds Himself in all His work to the Word. We must do nothing less. To separate ourselves from the Word, or to separate the Spirit’s work from the Word, is to get trapped in the quick sands of subjectivism. If anyone claims that the Holy Spirit speaks directly to him apart from the Word, he can make the Holy Spirit say anything that he wants the Spirit to say; and, indeed, this is precisely what he does. The Holy Spirit, in these subjective revelations, is always in full agreement with anything the receiver wants or thinks. There is never any dissent from above.
Our subjective assurance of our salvation is also inseparably tied to the Word. The Spirit speaks to us through the Word, and never apart from it. The Spirit does not use experiences, dreams, visions, inner voices, or anything of the like. The Word speaks. The Spirit speaks through that Word, also in our own consciousness.
The close inner communion of the soul with God in which we are caught up in the rapture of union with the divine may seem the ideal of the Christian life. But it is the siren call of Satan who would lead us away from the Word in which alone our souls ought to be anchored. Every child of God has times of great spiritual drought, when God is very distant and the inner life of the soul seems barren. The same thing happens to churches where zeal has been lost, love has grown cold, and piety seems a distant dream. The solution to the problem is not to pray for revival with special outpourings of the Spirit apart from the Word, outpourings resulting in bizarre behavior reminiscent of medieval mysticism. The solution is not to seek revival through some mystical contemplation of the divine. The solution for the church is the lively and faithful preaching of the Word. And the solution for the child of God wandering in a wasteland is to tie himself to the Word and await times of spiritual refreshing.
Mysticism is wrong. In every form it takes. Let us cling to the Word.