Mysticism and the External Word
“Mysticism” is a heresy which teaches that you can find God in your feelings, in your emotions, your inward subjective state. Mysticism in the church divorces the external Word of God (coming to us in primarily in Scripture, derivatively in preaching and sacraments) from the work of the Holy Spirit, and claims that the Spirit communicates with us today apart from the external Word.
This mysticism can be found in many segments of the professing church today. For example, it is a heresy which saturates the Pentecostal movement and, to various degrees, manifestations of charismaticism, both of which make claims to new revelations of the Spirit and to God communicating to us apart from the objective, external Word. It may be found both in various older hymns of a romantic-sentimentalist bent (such as “In the Garden”) and in various contemporary worship songs. Likewise, many contemporary Christian authors write books that are suffused with a spirit of mysticism. (For example, Sarah Young’s very popular, best-selling devotional Jesus Calling could be more accurately titled Mysticism Calling.)
But not only is the heresy of mysticism found in conservative Christian circles. It also may be found within various liberal churches, some of which claim that the Spirit is giving new insight or “new light” apart from the Word and the historic faith of the church. (Usually this supposed “new light” from the Spirit is believed to be leading the church to abandon its historic, biblically-based beliefs, practices and ethical standards in order get the church in line with popular worldly trends and lifestyles which clearly contradict the doctrines and ethical standards revealed in the written Word and taught by the historic Christian Church.)
Biblical, orthodox Protestantism, both Lutheran and Reformed, has historically stood firmly against mysticism because of its adherence to the biblical-reformation principle of “Sola Scriptura” (“Scripture Alone”). Both Luther and Calvin taught that in this post-apostolic, new covenant era of the church, and with the completion of the canonical Scriptures, the Spirit speaks and works in and through the external Word, not apart from the Word. Indeed, they labelled the mystics of their day “enthusiasts”, and regarded such enthusiasts as fanatics and heretics.
For example, in Article VIII of Martin Luther’s Smalcald Articles, Luther writes the following about the “enthusiasts”:
“In a word, enthusiasm dwells in Adam and his children from the beginning to the end of the world. Its venom has been implanted and infused into them by the old serpent. It is the origin, power, and strength of all heresy, especially that of the papacy and Muhammed. Therefore, we must constantly maintain this point: God does not want to deal with us in any other way than through the spoken Word and the Sacraments. Whatever is praised as from the Spirit – without the Word and Sacraments – is the devil himself. God wanted to appear even to Moses through the burning bush and spoken Word [Exodus 3:2-15]. No prophet, neither Elijah nor Elisha, received the Spirit without the Ten Commandments <or the spoken Word>. John the Baptist was not conceived without the word of Gabriel coming first, nor did he leap in his mother’s womb without Mary’s voice [Luke 1:11-20, 41]. Peter says, “For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” [2 Peter 1:21]. Without the outward Word, however, they were not holy. Much less would the Holy Spirit have moved them to speak when they were still unholy. They were holy, says he, since the Holy Spirit spoke through them.” (p. 281 in Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions, A Reader’s Edition of the Book of Concord, Second Edition; General Editor Paul Timothy McCain; Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, Copyright 2005, 2006)
Mysticism (or “enthusiasm” as the Reformers called it) is very popular today. It is popular because it is exciting, trendy, “hip”. In contrast to the excitements of mysticism and revivalism, the external Word and Sacraments seem so ordinary, so hum-drum. But it is to these ordinary means of grace that the Holy Spirit has bound Himself, and through these means He has promised to work.
In the short-run mystical excitements draw large crowds, attract much attention and whip up frenzied emotions, but (as church history has repeatedly shown) in the long-run they leave God’s people starving for the Word and spiritually burned-out. In contrast, the external Word and Sacraments of Christ may seem in the short run to be so weak, so foolish, so frail, so ordinary. But the Spirit has promised to bless these ordinary means to bring sinners to faith in Christ and to nurture them in that faith, and in the long-run it is through the external Word that Christ builds His church, the new humanity. As the Apostle Paul writes, the external Word of the gospel “…is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.” (Romans 1:16, ESV)
If we claim to be Protestants and Bible-believing Christians, let us reject the poison of mysticism in its various manifestations. Instead, let us look to the objective, external Word, which is as dependable as the character of God Himself. As we latch on to God’s promises in the Word by faith, the Spirit will bring comfort to our souls by assuring us that our sins are forgiven through the work of Christ. In this way He will empower us to live lives of grateful obedience and rich daily communion with Christ our Savior.