The Dangers of Mysticism
I’ve noted before that I like to begin my devotional time in the morning by reading either a classic or a book by someone dead. Recently I’ve been working my way through Herman Bavinck’s Saved by Grace: The Holy Spirit’s Work in Calling and Regeneration. This work, which is separate from his four volume Dogmatics, focuses on the controversy in his day surrounding immediate regeneration and presumptive regeneration.
Since I have Anabaptists on the brain, I thought it would be worthwhile to quote Bavinck’s discussion on Anabaptist mysticism (which I’m not equating with the Neo-Anabaptists). After noting that the Anabaptists often referenced an internal light or inner Word as their authority, Bavinck comments more broadly about mysticism.
Its fundamental idea, although modified in a Christian way within Christian circles, is essential to all mysticism, wherever it has appeared–whether in India or Greece, in Persia or Egypt. Simply stated, it is this: in order to find truth or life or salvation–in a word, to find God–a person need not go outside of himself but need only descend within himself. God dwells within a person, making His abode within the person either through nature or through a special, supernatural descent into the person. After all, religion does not involve doctrine or activity, thinking or doing, but religion involves living in God, union and communion with God, which can be enjoyed only in the depths of one’s psyche, in the immediacy of one’s consciousness (72).
Bavinck disagrees with this kind of mysticism, but he does not think it is without any short-term positive results.
When this notion has been expressed at any time in history by a person of deep seriousness and firm conviction, finding warm and enthusiastic agreement within any circle small or large, it frequently give birth to exuberance, courage, enthusiasm, and deep and glorious mysticism. This was the case at first with the Anabaptists as well. At that time there were many upright believers among them, many genuine children of God. Whatever one might say about the Anabaptists, one must never forget that in large numbers and with remarkable courage of faith, they sacrificed their goods and their blood for the cause of the Lord (73).
Having given this warm commendation, Bavinck goes on to state the danger of Anabaptist mysticism.
But the principle soon manifested its mistaken implications. First, people came to be satisfied with the internal Word alone, despising Scripture and church, office and sacrament, appealing to private revelations and becoming guilty of various excesses. Second, when the initial exuberance was past, gradually the internal Word was robbed of it special, supernatural character, coming to be more and more identified with the natural light of reason and conscience. Abstract supra-naturalism was followed by rationalism…The internal light came gradually to be identified, as with the Quakers, for example, with the light of nature. In both instances, however, Scripture contained nothing other than what a person had already learn by God’s Spirit (73).
The pattern has been repeated many times. People start to pay less and less attention to Scripture, saying it has errors or it can’t be understood or it’s less spiritual than the Spirit within us. Exuberance, courage, and activity follow as people feel alive and less shackled by “tradition” and fixed propositions. With their new found inner truth, these people grow dissatisfied with sermons, notions of authority, and Church-as-we-know-it. More exuberance. But eventually the excitement wears off. The activity dies down. What’s left is the internal Word, which, it turns out, is no different from our own opinions, convictions, and desires.
Without an outer, objective Word, the internal Word always gives way to rationalism, because in appealing to our inner sense of things, we end up just appealing to our own reason. Over time, then, Scripture is increasingly silenced, as we continue doing and thinking what we want, and Scripture is consulted only to confirm what we already “know.” The result is a cold, lifeless church, without the power of God or the truth of God’s word.