Based upon several years of observation, it is my serious conviction that mysticism is a danger that is permeating, incognito, into the church today. As it greets Christians under the name of various innocuous phrases, its content is hidden behind words with Christian connotations while its nature deceives with experiences that promise a deeper knowledge of God and a transcendence of the weight of care and sin. Thomas Merton said, “The only cure for the angst of modern man is mysticism.”1 It appears many Christians have also come to believe mysticism is the only cure for their angst.
Rather than begin with who is saying what or who is writing that, I want to give you some background on mysticism to help you recognize some of its teachings and some of its forms. I’m doing it this way because women especially seem susceptible to being pulled into it, and once they have become enamored of a teacher, they close their ears and are resistant to considering whether or not that person is faithfully adhering to God’s Word—loyalty is an admirable trait, but our first loyalty is to Christ!
There will be several posts on mysticism. This is a series I considered doing last year, but I thought I needed to first anchor this blog with God’s Word by emphasizing and encouraging you to read your Bible.
What is mysticism? Looking back on history, Charles Hodge wrote in the chapter titled “Mysticism” in his Systematic Theology:
“Few words indeed have been used in such a vague, indefinite sense as Mysticism. Its etymology does not determine its meaning. A μύστης [W. E. Vine: “mustēs: the initiated (from mueō, to initiate into the mysteries…).”2] was one initiated into the knowledge of the Greek mysteries, one to whom secret things had been revealed. Hence in the wide sense of the word, a Mystic is one who claims to see or know what is hidden from other men, whether this knowledge be attained by immediate intuition, or by inward revelation. In most cases these methods were assumed to be identical, as intuition was held to be the immediate vision of God and of divine things. Hence, in the wide sense of the word, Mystics are those who claim to be under the immediate guidance of God or of his Spirit.”3
B. B. Warfield in Mysticism & Christianity explained:
“There is a deeper reason for a mystic being “mute” — that is what the name imports — than that he wishes to make a mystery of his discoveries. He is “mute” because, as a mystic, he has nothing to say. When he sinks within himself he finds feelings, not conceptions; his is an emotional, not a conceptional, religion; and feelings, emotions, though not inaudible, are not articulate…. On the brink of this abyss the mystic may stand in awe, and, standing in awe upon its brink, he may deify it. Then he calls it indifferently Brahm or Zeus, Allah or the Holy Spirit, according as men about him speak of God. He explains its meaning, in other words, in terms of the conception of the universe which he has brought with him, or, as it is more fashionable now to phrase it, each in accordance with his own world-view.”4
Francis Schaeffer has three chapters on mysticism in The God Who Is There. In “Modern Mysticism: Despair Beyond Despair” he noted the misuse of words by Neo-orthodox theology.
“Real communication is not established, but an illusion of communication is given by employing words rich in connotation. Expressing the inexpressible existential experience in religious connotation words gives an illusion of communication.”5
People still do that. They use a biblical word, but what that words means to the speaker and what it means to you may be two different things. You may assume he means the biblical definition, when he does not.
Schaeffer described the mysticism he observed by saying:
“All the new theology and mysticism is nothing more than a faith contrary to rationality, deprived of content and incapable of communication. You can bear ‘witness’ to it, but you cannot discuss it. Rationality and faith are out of contact with each other.”6
John MacArthur in Reckless Faith stated:
“Mysticism is the idea that spiritual reality is found by looking inward. Mysticism is perfectly suited for religious existentialism; indeed, it is its inevitable consequence. The mystic disdains rational understanding and seeks truth instead through the feelings, the imagination, personal visions, inner voices, private illumination, or other purely subjective means. Objective truth becomes practically superfluous. Mystical experiences are therefore self-authenticating; that is, they are not subject to any form of objective verification.”7
If you look at the dates in the footnotes, you’ll find that the above quotes span over 100 years. There are reasons I used them. First, mysticism is a recurrent movement that has introduced heretical teaching into the church in various forms over the last 2000 years. Second, I want you to see how we can learn from Christians in the past who have recognized the danger and have given us their wisdom.
Mysticism denies or subverts major biblical truths. I’ll discuss a few of those in part two.
“For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires, and will turn away their ears from the truth and will turn aside to myths.”
2 Timothy 4:3–4
The New Testament teaches that Christians don’t merely know facts, they confess Jesus as Lord. Jesus taught that the Bible is the truthful and authoritative Word of God. Those who confess Jesus Christ as Lord are thus compelled to conclude, “When Scripture speaks, God speaks.” Be like the Bereans who, when they heard Paul, were “examining the Scriptures daily to see whether these things were so.” Whatever you read, whoever you hear, hold those words under the examination of the truth of God’s Word.
2 Peter: God’s Precious & Magnificent Promises
2 John: Walk & Watch
“Love or Die”
In Sheep Clothing: cropped flickr photograph by Pierre Tourigny
1Thomas Merton as quoted by Brennan Manning in The Furious Longing of God (David C. Cook, 2009) 63. I do not recommend anything by Merton or Manning. They are both false teachers of heretical doctrines.
2W. E. Vine, Vine’s Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words, Old Testament edited by F. F. Bruce, vol. 3 (Fleming H. Revell, 1981) 97. Vine also states:
“Among the ancient Greeks ‘the mysteries’ were religious rites and ceremonies practised by secret societies into which any one who so desired might be received. Those who were initiated into these ‘mysteries’ became possessors of certain knowledge, which was not imparted to the uninitiated, and were called the ‘perfected,’…”
3Charles Hodge, “Mysticism,” Systematic Theology, vol. 1, chapter IV, § 1. Meaning of the Words Enthusiasm and Mysticism (1871–1872).
4B. B. Warfield, Mysticism & Christianity.
“This essay originally appeared in The Biblical Review (vol. 2 ,1917, pp. 169-191) but this edition was derived from The Works of Benjamin B. Warfield (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1991, vol. 9, pp. 649-666). The electronic edition of this article was scanned and edited by Shane Rosenthal for Reformation Ink. It is in the public domain and may be freely copied and distributed. Pagination from the Baker edition has been retained for purposes of reference. Scanning errors may be present in this edition.”
5, 6Francis Schaeffer, The God Who Is There (Inter-Varsity Press, 1968) 56, 61.
7John MacArthur, Reckless Faith (Crossway Books, 1994) 27.
Original content: Copyright ©2012 Iwana Carpenter