Christian History Home > Blog > 2008 > December > Prominent Reformed Evangelical Promotes Medieval Mystics
Prominent Reformed Evangelical Promotes Medieval Mystics
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This headline seems to fall in the "man bites dog" category. From a professor (also dean and VP) of Westminster Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania, we expect precise articulations of Reformed doctrine. Defenses of biblical inerrancy. Disquisitions on the priority of theology over experience.
We don't expect a spirited exhortation to read thousand-year-old mystical texts.
But that's just what we get in Carl Trueman's article Why Should Thoughtful Evangelicals Read the Medieval Mystics. And it's worth reading - whether you share Trueman's Reformed stance or not. In a nutshell, after acknowledging difficulties, he enumerates four reasons we should read such luminaries of the Middle Ages as Bonaventure, Hildegard of Bingen, and Julian of Norwich. For those wanting to cut to the chase, here's my brief commentary on Trueman's article.
Medieval mysticism? Surely not!
On the "con" side of the ledger, Trueman diagnoses the fact that many unchurched folks and many ill-informed Christians eat up paperback editions of the mystics because they are seeking an antidote to what they see as the excessively propositional faith of conservative churches. Living in a world in which "experience is the hallmark of authenticity," such readers take the mystics' experience to be "separable from or prior to religious belief," and this attracts and comforts them.
Trueman likens this doctrine-allergic view of religious experience to such deceptive, escapist indulgences as "the increasingly fabulous special effects of movies" or "the intricate, kaleidoscopic plots of fantasy novels." The mystics' "highly symbolic and visionary manner of expression appeals to a world tired of propositions." A superficial reading of the mystics allows such readers to dabble in the transcendent without submitting themselves to the rigors of biblical faith.
I'll go at least partway with Trueman on this. An intellectually incoherent Christian religious experience is an experience that frankly is not very deep - it is not grounded in the truth of the gospel! I don't believe you have to be an intellectual to be a faithful Christian (a belief that has often seemed to hover around the Reformed intellectuals I have met, akin to the kind of charismatic elitism that says you have to speak in tongues to be a faithful Christian). But you do, at least to reach the maturity that eats meat rather than sucking on a bottle of spiritual milk, have to have a firm grasp on the shape and content of the gospel testimony.
Other readers, adds Trueman, want to hold up the mystics as precedents and paragons for the enterprises of environmental theology and feminist theology. His antipathy to these enterprises goes well beyond mine (I'd say these are important theological conversations that can and must address some of the unpaid bills of Western theology), but it's an interesting point.
Yes, Virginia, there are theologically grounded mystics
Despite these problems with how many folks read the mystics, Trueman believes the pros outweigh the cons: "I think the medieval mystics should form a staple of the literary diet of all thoughtful Christians," he says. Why?
First, Trueman says that Christians today "live in a casual age when we stroll flippantly in and out of God's presence." We should read the mystics as a pointer toward our lost "sense of God's holiness and transcendence." I'm partially with him here: I once attended the service of a charismatic church in Massachusetts in which the communion elements were placed on a chair at the front of the gymnasium-cum-sanctuary, and while a song played, people came up to partake as and when they felt like it. All very well, but some of the children seemed to think the bread, wadded up, made neat projectiles, and the juice was good enough to merit coming back for seconds and thirds. No parent or other adult seem to feel it was important to intervene and correct these childlike impressions. This level of informality bespoke, to me, the kind of flippancy Trueman is addressing here.
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