It can hardly be denied that the Mysticism of the Middle Ages and at the time of the Reformation was a reaction which set in because of certain characteristics which marked this period. There was, first of all, the great development of the Latin or Western Church and of the Roman hierarchy. This age was characterized by the mighty Roman Church, its worship and formulated doctrines, as well as all its superstitions, corruptions and power; the power of the Roman pontiff, as he claimed to be not only the spiritual head and leader of the Church in the midst of the world and also the temporal ruler of the earth, and as he claimed to rule over Church and State, to have the authority to enthrone and dethrone kings and monarchs was simply fantastic. The Church, and I speak of the clergy, claimed the right to dominate men’s hearts and minds, to dictate what every man was permitted to teach and believe, simply exercised a strangle hold upon the souls and bodies of men. And as this Church grew in power and in authority it also increased in sin and corruption. Secondly, especially toward the close of the Middle Ages (the Middles Ages embrace the period from approximately the sixth century to the Reformation) we may speak of the development of learning. Intellectual activity was awakened in the minds of many. This was manifested in the multiplication of the seats of learning, in the number of teachers, and also in the great multitudes of students by which these schools were attended. An interest was taken by all the classes of people in various subjects of learned discussion. This revival of learning and culture was inseparably connected with that great movement which is known in history as the Crusades, a movement which covered approximately two hundred years. We must remember that the people of the Eastern Empire and of the eastern countries were far more civilized and advanced in learning than the people of the Western empire, Western Europe. Contact with the Orient, the Far East, through the Crusades, surely stimulated the mental life of the people in the various countries of Western Europe. Hence, from the twelfth century on the medieval darkness of Western Europe was gradually being dispelled. Many universities sprang up in Italy, Germany, France, and England. These universities could boast of teachers of great learning and mental acumen, such as Anselm, Abelard, Peter the Lombard, Albertus Magnus, Thomas Aquinas, and Duns Scotus. There was a great revival of learning and culture. And a third characteristic of this period was a widespread and variously manifested movement of Mysticism, the inner life of the Church, protesting against the formalism, the corruption and the tyranny of the external Church.
We cannot, of course, treat at length and in details the many mystics in the period before and during the time of the Reformation. Such a discussion could become too long and tedious. Some of the mystics, prior to the Reformation, were pantheistic in their conceptions. Of these pantheistic mystics, the most distinguished and influential is said to have been a Henry Eckart. His teachings were condemned by the pope, although the pope’s decision was not announced until after his death. Eckart maintained 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. Another distinguished and influential mystic of the same class was a certain John Ruysbroeck, although there are those who question his pantheistic tendencies, who doubt whether he was pantheistic in his conceptions.
The reaction which set in the form of Mysticism as at the time of the Reformation is surely understandable. A statement from Hodge is interesting in this connection. He writes as follows in his Systematic Theology, Vol. I, page 80, and we quote: “Such a great and general movement of the public mind as occurred during the sixteenth century, when the old foundations of doctrine and order in the Church were overturned, could hardly fail to be attended by irregularities and extravagancies in the inward and outward life of the people. There are two principles advanced, both Scriptural and both of the last importance, which are specially liable to abuse in times of popular excitement.
The first is the right of private judgment. This, as understood by the Reformers, is the right of every man to decide what a revelation made by God to him, requires him to believe. It was a protest against the authority assumed by the Church (i.e. the Bishops), of deciding for the people what they were to believe. It was very natural that the fanatical, in rejecting the authority of the Church, should reject all external authority in matters of religion. They understood by the right of private judgment, the right of every man to determine what he should believe from the operations of his own mind and from his own inward experience, independently of the Scriptures. But as it is palpably absurd to expect, on such a subject as religion, a certainty either satisfactory to our selves or authoritative for others, from our own reason or feelings, it was inevitable that these subjective convictions should be referred to a supernatural source. Private revelations, tin inward light, the testimony of the Spirit, came to be exalted over the authority of the Bible.
Secondly, the Reformers taught that religion is a matter of the heart, that a man’s acceptance with God does not depend on his membership in any external society, on obedience to its officers, and on sedulous observance of its rites and ordinances; but on the regeneration of his heart, and his personal faith in the Son of God, manifesting itself in a holy life. This was a protest against the fundamental principle of Romanism, that all within the external organization which Romanists call the. Church, are saved, and all out of it are lost. It is not a matter of surprise that evil men should wrest this principle, as they do all other truths, to their own destruction. Because religion does not consist in externals, many rushed to the conclusion that externals—the Church, its ordinances, its officers, its worship—were of no account. These principles were soon applied beyond the sphere of religion. Those who regarded themselves as the organs of God, emancipated from the authority of the Bible and exalted above the Church, came to claim exemption from the authority of the State. To this outbreak the grievous and long continued oppression of the peasantry greatly contributed, so that this spirit of fanaticism and revolt rapidly spread over all Germany, and into Switzerland and Holland.” —end of quote from Hodge. In other words, stating this briefly as has been done in the past, when the people were delivered dram the shackles of Roman Catholicism, it also gave men the opportunity to reveal themselves; and this also means that also all the evil that is ever present in the human heart was now given the opportunity to reveal itself. That Protestantism broke up into so many fragments, so many different “Protestant” churches, is not because the Word of God is not sufficiently clear in its setting forth of the truth, but only because the human heart resents and rejects the clear testimony of the Word of God.
It is undoubtedly true that few words have been used in such a vague, indefinite sense as Mysticism. A mystic was one who was considered to have been initiated into the knowledge of the Greek mysteries, one to whom secret things had been revealed. Hence, a Mystic was one who claimed to know things hidden from other men, whether this knowledge be attained by immediate intuition or by inward revelation. And so a mystic was one who claimed to be under the immediate guidance of God or of His Spirit. Mysticism assigns more importance to the feelings than to the intellect. We may say that the fundamental process of all. Mysticism is to give precedence to the emotional rather than to the intellectual element of the human mind. This is considered to be the common ground of all Mysticism.
A form of Mysticism which was prevalent during this time in the history of the Church in Spain and in Italy was known as Quietism. The followers of this movement were not pantheistic in their conception, did not believe that the human soul was finally absorbed into the substance of God. They did believe that the end to be attained was union with God. By this they did not mean what is commonly understood by the Church of God. We must maintain, of course, that the end and purpose of all true religion is union, fellowship with the alone and ever blessed God. But this union with God they regarded as a matter of feeling, not something to be understood or explained, a state in which all thought, all activity was suspended, a state of perfect quietude in which the soul is lost in God. The importance of the Scriptures, of prayer and of the sacraments, and of the truth concerning Christ was not denied; but all these were regarded as belonging to the lower stages of the divine life. All conscious self-activity must be suspended in order to attain unto this perfect rest in God.
The most permanent and best organized representatives of the principles of Mysticism which appeared in the Church are undoubtedly the Quakers or Friends. They have now existed as an organized society nearly two hundred and fifty years, and number in Europe and America several hundred thousands.
They took their origin and name from George. Fox who was born in England in 1624. He received only the rudiments of an English education and was by trade a shoemaker. He felt himself called by God, by direct revelation and inspiration, to denounce the existing Church, its organization and officers, and to proclaim a new and spiritual dispensation. This dispensation was designed as a restoration of the, apostolic age, when the Church was guided and extended by the Spirit, without the interventions of the written Word, or, as Fox and his followers maintained, of a special order of ministers, but every man and every woman spake as the Spirit gave them utterance. They were called Quakers either because they themselves trembled when under the influence of the Spirit, or because they were in the habit of calling on those whom they addressed to quake in fear of the judgment of God. This designation, however, has long since ceased to be appropriate, as they are characteristically quiet in their worship, and gentle toward those who are without. They call themselves Friends because they are opposed to violence, contention, and especially to war. At first, however, they were chargeable with many irregularities, which, in connection with their refusing to pay tithes, take oaths, and to perform military service, gave pretext to frequent and long continued persecutions. The Lord willing, we will continue with this in our following article.