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5.05.2012

Why orthodox (small 'o') Christianity, especially Protestantism, historically rejects the general notion of mysticism

[This was an email.]

I'm not recommending these books, I havn't even read them complete, and they are not cheap, I'm just mentioning them to show that there is more involved - historically - in the subject matter that we talk about in the context of Work vis-a-vis Christianity:

Union With Christ: John Calvin and the Mysticism of St. Bernard - Dennis E. Tamburello (1994)

Calvin's Ladder: A Spiritual Theology of Ascent and Ascension - Julie Canlis (2010)

At the beginning of the Tamburello book (you can use the 'look in book' feature at Amazon to see the Canlis book) he gives a lot of context of why mysticism and the Reformation seemed to be at such odds. Here's a good quote:

'According to Ritschl, "wherever mysticism is found, the thought of justification no longer retains its true significance and the key to the whole domain of the Christian life."'

I.e. the reality of sin and the need for solving the problems of guilt and pollution due to Adam's fall and the need to satisfy God's justice gets left in the dust, so that in effect sinners engaging in mystical practices try to get into God's Kingdom, or Heaven, by illegally jumping the fence.

The quote goes on to say that the preached (or read) word and biblical means of grace are seen to be transcended and get forgotten.

Remember in this email I am giving the historical reasons why mysticism has been rejected by mainstream Protestantism. Of course the term 'mysticism', as Tamburello goes on to speak about, is very ill defined, yet still it's good to see why it is rejected. Here's another quote getting at another central criticism:

"But Ritschl reserves his most incisive critique for a discussion of Bernard's notion of mystical union. The fact that Bernard's conception centers on love makes it totally unacceptable: 'For love very distinctly implies the equality of the person loving with the beloved. St. Bernard, who gave to the world the pattern of this species of piety, expressly states that in intercourse with the Bridegroom awe ceases, majesty is laid aside, and immediate personal intercourse is carried on as between lover or neighbors.' In contrast, the Reformers shifted to faith, which 'denies the possibility of equality' with God." [One note: it is weak language to say they "shifted to faith" as if that is an equal choice. Salvation is by faith alone. Love would be considered a 'work.']

One more quote to show why traditionally mysticism in general is rejected by orthodox (small 'o') Christianity:

Here are five assumptions the critics of mysticism have about mysticism in relation to justification:

(1) It is inherently individualistic. A mystical conception of the scheme of salvation "completely isolates the individual from connection with the Church."

(2) It is quietistic [I think this just means withdrawn from the world and involved in self-annihilation and contemplation of God solely to an absolute degree, it also means other things.], and therefore opposed to the ethical thrust of Reformation thought.

(3) It is elitist, because it tends to be a phenomenon restricted to the monastery.

(4) Mysticism is a form of works righteousness, particularly with respect to the various disciplines associated with the contemplative life.

(5) It is the antithesis of evangelical doctrine in that it expressly speaks of a kind of "equality" with God. Thus Ritschl comes to his conclusion that mysticism and a sound theology of justification are totally incompatible.

Tamburello then uses the rest of the book to defend St. Bernard from most of these accusations saying they are simplistic criticisms and so forth. He also shows how Calvin adopted similar mystical thought in his Institutes, though while not mentioning it explicitly. (Calvin quoted the mystic St. Bernard extensively in his Institutes.)

This is what I've seen in Calvinism, or Reformed Theology. I just think *hard truth* on-the-mark biblical doctrine is 'mystical' by nature. It effects, when it is discerned *and accepted*, internal reorientation from being man-centered to be God-centered. But that is using the word 'mystical' in a unique way and one can see how confusing the topic is when no one has a clear definition of 'mysticism.' There is also the 'ascent' aspect of mysticism that Tamborello and Canlis discuss in their books.

But anyway I just wanted to quote Tamburello's book some to show just why orthodox Protestantism has historically rejected the notion - the general notion - of mysticism or mystical practices. It gives some understanding in the Work [Fourth Way] vis-a-vis Christianity discussion. - C.

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