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Tuesday, May 14, 2013
RHE nails it again!
of our Reformed brothers and sisters are severely theocentric, to the
point of dismissing the Third Person of the Trinity. But some of our
"mystical" brothers and sisters are severely pneumacentric, to the point
of dismissing the other Persons. I am grateful that the Covenant http://www.covchurch.org/ connects me with people who strive to be fully Trinitarian, and relate to all three Persons of the Godhead.
study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have
eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet
you refuse to come to me to have life." – John 5:39
become something of a sport for folks in the evangelical, neo-Reformed
tradition to take to the internet to draw out the “boundaries of
evangelicalism,” boundaries which inevitably fall around their own
particular theological distinctions and which seem to grow narrower and
narrower with every blog post on the topic.
Pastor and blogger Tim Challies recently added a few more stones to the fortress wall in a blog post entitled “The Boundaries of Evangelicalism.” In it, Challies
writes about his concerns regarding “the power and prevalence of
mysticism” in the contemporary church and posits that true
evangelicalism rejects all forms of this “mysticism”
and instead embraces the doctrine of the Reformed tradition and its
emphasis on knowing God through Scripture alone. He concludes:
has given us his Word to guide us in all matters of faith and practice.
When we commit ourselves to mysticism, we commit ourselves to looking
for revelation from God and experiences of God that come from outside
that Word. We reject his gift--his good, infallible, inerrant,
sufficient gift--and demand more. Because God promises us no more, we
quickly create our own experiences and interpret them as if they are
God’s revelation. Yet the Bible warns us that we can do no better than
God’s Word and have no right to demand anything else. The question for
Evangelicals today is just this: Will God’s Word be enough? Because
whatever does not lead us toward God’s Word will always, inevitably and
ultimately lead us away.”
The post is so full of
historical inaccuracies, theological problems, and contradictions that
it’s hard to know where to start, but I want to make clear from
the get-go that my response to this post should not be seen as an attack
on Tim Challies himself, (who I respect and like), but rather a
response to the general belief that God’s presence is limited to the
pages of Scripture and that all forms of contemplative or experiential
spirituality should therefore be dismissed out of hand or regarded with
suspicion. As evangelicalism in the U.S. has been working its
way through something of an identity crisis over the past few years, and
as many young evangelicals like myself have reconnected with the
spiritual disciplines, this seems to be a recurring point of contention,
and therefore one that should be addressed.
Challies defines mysticism as “those forms of Christian spirituality which attempt direct or unmediated access to God”
and mentions, generally, the popularity of books on spiritual
disciplines and spiritual formation and, specifically, books by
Christian authors like Sarah Young and John Eldredge. In the past,
Challies has been highly critical of Ann Voskamp’s spirituality in One Thousand Gifts,
chastising her for her experiencing the presence of God in nature and
in a Catholic cathedral, and for being influenced by the likes of Henri
Nouwen, Brennan Manning, Teresa of Avila, Brother Lawrence, Annie
Dillard, and Dallas Willard. One of the commenters after Challlies’
post also mentioned Richard Foster, Thomas Merton, centering prayer,
contemplative prayer, lectio divina, and prayer labyrinths, which the commenter describes as efforts to “access God in a pagan/occult way.”
to Challies, mystics are those who experience “a direct inner
realization of the Divine,” and an “unmediated link to an absolute.” He
goes on to argue that mysticism is any connection with God outside the
context of Scripture.
Challies writes, “Mysticism was once
regarded as an alternative to Evangelical Christianity. You were
Evangelical or you were a mystic, you heeded the doctrine of the
Reformation and understood it to faithfully describe the doctrine laid
out in Scripture or you heeded the doctrine of mysticism. Today, though,
mysticism has wormed its way inside Evangelicalism so that the two have
become integrated and almost inseparable.”
I have no idea where Challies got the idea that “mysticism was once regarded as an alternative to evangelical Christianity.” While
it is true that the Reformers occasionally used the word “evangelical”
in their writings, most historians locate the roots of evangelicalism
solidly within Wesley’s Methodism in England and in the Great Awakenings
of the 18th and 19th centuries. Evangelicalism was, at its heart, a
movement, influenced not only by a strong emphasis on the authority of
Scripture but also by a lively, impassioned, and deeply personal
spirituality—an eclectic, ecumenical mix of elements from Pietism,
Presbyterianism, Puritanism, and Pentecostalism. Evangelicalism’s
mothers and fathers were mystically-inclined Christians like John
Wesley, Jonathan and Sarah Edwards, William J. Seymour, and A.W.
Tozer—people whose “hearts were strangely warmed” by profound
experiences with God, by “a direct inner realization of the Divine.”
indeed, mysticism—which I would define as practices intended to help
connect a person to God through experience, intuition, contemplation,
the devotional reading of Scripture, ritual, and prayer—has been a part
of the Church from the very beginning.
From the events of
Pentecost, to the practices of communion and baptism throughout
Christian history, to the writings and teachings of the desert fathers
and mothers, to the Reformation, to the divine offices being prayed
continually throughout the world today, to the Azusa Street revival, to
the spread of Christianity in the global South and East, the story of
Christianity is the story of regular people connecting in powerful ways
to the presence of God. Indeed, the history of the faith,
and the teachings of Scripture itself, show that Tim Challies is dead
wrong on one very important point:
He says at the end of his post that when it comes to our connection with the holy, “God promises us no more” than Scripture as a means to knowing and experiencing his presence. This is absolutely not true. Scripture itself teaches us that God has promised us the Holy Spirit (Luke 24:49, Acts 2:33, Ephesians 1:13).
Peter exclaimed at Pentecost, “you will receive the gift of the Holy
Spirit. The promise is for your and your children and for all who are
far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call.”
The Holy Spirit
has sustained the Church through good times and bad, through
persecution and imperial power, through the centuries before the
Christian Bible was fully assembled, through the assembling of that
Bible, through the centuries when most Christians had very little access
to the Bible, through the centuries when many American Christians have
multiple versions of the Bible on their bookshelves and multiple
Christian denominations in their hometowns.
And as Jesus told
Nicodemus, “the wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but
you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with
everyone born of the Spirit.” In other words, the Holy Spirit doesn’t have boundaries.
to limit the presence of Jesus to the words of Scripture, as if
Christ’s presence is restricted to paper and ink, is to deny the
resurrection of all its power. Christ is not merely an
historical figure that we read about, a person from the past to whom we
make intellectual assent. Christ is alive! Christ is present! Christ is
directly accessible to all who believe!
said that we can expect to encounter his presence not simply in the
pages of Scripture, but also among the least of these, where two or
three are gathered, in persecution, and in communion. Paul experienced
Jesus on the road to Damascus. Peter experienced Jesus in the home of
Cornelius (much to his surprise). Stephen saw Jesus just before his
death. I have encountered the presence
of Jesus in fellowship with other Christians, among the poor and
disenfranchised, as I eat the bread and drink the wine. And if this
makes me a mystic, then count me in!
The whole point of
Scripture is to testify to the Living Word, which is Jesus Christ. As
Jesus told the Scribes and Pharisees, "You study the Scriptures
diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These
are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to
me to have life."
When we become more committed to the
testimony than to the Person to whom it testifies, we are likely to miss
the presence of Jesus even when it’s right in front of us. Probably
because it took some form we weren’t expecting. Probably because it
showed up outside of our boundaries.
But Challies says “we can do no better” than the Bible. I’m not sure this is true.For
what do we long for when we read the Beatitudes, when we meditate on
the words of Christ through lectio divina, when we join with Christians
past and present to pray the hours, when we climb Teresa of Avila’s
“Interior Castle,” when we raise our hands in worship, when we eat the
bread and drink the wine, when we walk the labyrinths, when like David
we see that the night sky declares the glory of God, when we study the
Bible in Hebrew and Greek, when we connect with a glorious line from
Wendell Berry or Frederick Buechner, or Annie Dillard? We
long for consummation, for total union with our beloved Christ. For He
is the source of eternal life, the fulfillment of Scripture, and the
object of our desire.
Scripture points to Jesus, not the other way around.
all of these practices—from prayer to communion to fellowship to
reading Scripture— give us glimpses of the day when that union will be
realized, when we will all gather at the marriage supper of the Lamb.
But right now, even with Scripture, we see through a glass darkly.
Right now, even with Scripture, we know only in part.
Only later will we see Jesus face to face and be known even as we are known. Now, here’s where I suspect Challies and I may agree: Because
we believe Scripture to be authoritative in matters of faith and
practice and a trustworthy testimony regarding Jesus Christ, we would be
right to be highly suspicious of anyone whose claims about their
experiences with God run contrary to the teachings of Scripture.
Our testimonies should harmonize. Mysticism that morphs into mere
superstition, or that contradicts what we know about Jesus from the
written Word, is not a faithful testimony and should be warned against
in the sternest terms. But while we should be
appropriately wary of anyone whose claims of personal revelation run
contrary to Scripture, we should not discount, out of hand, all personal
experiences with God that occur outside the context of
Scripture...which is what Challies has essentially done with this
any understanding of “sola scriptura” that totally divorces reason,
experience, and tradition from the interpretation process is a
misunderstanding of that principle. We never approach Scripture alone.
It does not exist in a vacuum. We approach Scripture with our Helper,
the Holy Spirit, with the influence of the great cloud of witnesses who
have read and interpreted it before us, and—like it or not—with the
subtle but powerful influences of our culture, our language, our
background, our experiences, and our biases. This notion of total,
exclusive reliance on Scripture is a fantasy; it cannot be done.
Challies says that “whatever does not lead us toward God’s Word will always, inevitably and ultimately lead us away.” But the point of Scripture is not to lead us back to Scripture. The point of Scripture is to lead us to Jesus Christ. And any student of Luther will know that this was central to the Reformer’s theology as well.
when Challies defines mysticism as “direct or unmediated access to God”
and then essentially trashes it as heresy, he (probably
unintentionally) communicates that Christians need some kind of
additional mediator to access God— Scripture, he seems to think, or
perhaps the pastor interpreting it. (This is a fine example of how many
Protestants tend to simply replace the Pope with the Bible and priests
with the pastors interpreting it.)
But once again, Scripture
itself disputes this claim. “For there is one God and one mediator
between God and mankind, the man Jesus Christ, who gave himself a ransom
for all people,” writes Paul. “Let us then approach God’s throne of
grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to
help us in our time of need,” says the writer of Hebrews.
Challies is wrong. We do have direct access to God. We need no additional mediator.
And if labyrinths and lectio divina and contemplative prayer and Annie Dillard help remind us of that, I see no reason why we should fear them.
lot of young evangelicals are reconnecting with these mystical
practices, and I count myself among them. I suspect we are drawn to
ritual, tradition, contemplative prayer, and silence because these are
things that give us a sense of history, identity, and communion with the
universal Church that has perhaps been lacking in the evangelical
church of late. Praying the hours provides a rhythm to my day that
takes the focus off of myself and my schedule and puts it on God and the
members of God’s Church who are praying along with me. Ancient
liturgies connect me to followers of Jesus from the past. Reading St.
Francis and Teresa of Avila and Dallas Willard and Madeleine L'Engle
help put words to my experiences and stretch me to see God in new ways.
Communion…well, I can’t explain exactly what happens in communion, and
I’m beginning to wonder if maybe that’s the point. While none of
these things should serve as replacements of Scripture; they can
certainly function constructively alongside of it. Honestly,
the more Scripture I memorize, the more labyrinths I walk, the more
prayers I pray and the more mystics I engaged, the sadder I become by
all this boundary marking and fortress building coming from the more
fundamentalist camps within evangelicalism.
I have tasted and seen. I’ve felt this wind blow wherever it wishes,
however it wishes, whenever it wishes. I’ve caught a glimpse of this God
who is bigger than Calvinism, bigger than evangelicalism, bigger even
than the Church.
And I have come to see that these boundaries designed to shut others out only serve to shut the builders in.
They’re missing out on all this space, all this freedom, all this fresh air we call grace.
what do you think? Is mysticism helpful or harmful to Christians?
Should we expect to encounter God outside the context of Scripture? Do
we have "direct, unmediated access" to God?