This piece was first published last December over at Christianity Today‘s history blog, but since it’s been a while and not all of you saw it the first time, here it is again:
Prominent Reformed Evangelical Promotes Medieval Mystics
by Chris Armstrong | December 10, 2008
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.
However, although I’ve often seen Trueman’s Reformed compatriots issue blanket condemnations of charismatic churches for treating God as a buddy, singing about self rather than God, failing to revere God’s holiness, and so forth, my experience in such churches has usually been the opposite. That is, expressions of worship which may seem flippant or content-less to the “cultured despisers” – perhaps because expressive churches are often unschooled in the niceties of doctrine – have in fact been deeply God-centered. They have impressed on me thoughts of God’s transcendence that are both sublime and reverent. And interestingly, this seems to be something like what Trueman is saying: mystical modes of experience can indeed lead us into a deeper sense of God’s holiness and transcendence, and reading the medieval mystics can be one route to that deepening (as charismatic worship can be another such route).
Second, Trueman points out that Christian mysticism has not historically meant chucking robust theological understanding or doctrinal fidelity out the window. His Exhibit A is Thomas Aquinas, but you can go to the writings of almost any medieval mystic and see that for them, experience “is ineradicably doctrinal and connected to distinct beliefs.” Of course, as he notes, some of those beliefs would not be shared by Reformed evangelicals. But the point is that their experiences were tied to and structured around their theological understandings of the biblical witness. Truth first, experience after. I am less insistent on this priority than Trueman and others who share his Reformed convictions. But I agree that the mystics’ experiences and their devotional writings are thoroughly grounded in doctrine and Scripture.
Third, medieval mystics often practiced apophatic or “negative” theology, which turns some evangelicals off: We want to emphasize the “positive” statements about God found in Scripture – specific revelations about his character, his relationship with humanity, and the nature of his economic Trinity as he sets about repairing that relationship. Nonetheless, when it comes to the mysteries of the immanent Trinity, we share the mystics’ apophatic bent, whether we know it or not. Words we use about God’s essential nature, which we think fall into the category of positive, concrete statements about God, turn out to be negations: “Infinite means without limits. Impassible and immutable mean without suffering or change,” and so forth.
And, I would add, beyond this apophatic bent of our own theological language, most modern evangelicals have a common-sense understanding of the “fragility and inadequacy of language” to address “the transcendent mystery of God.” This is not a problem for us, and it should not put us off of reading the mystics that they sometimes press this claim of ineffability when talking about their experiences. As Trueman puts it, “medieval mysticism is sometimes closer to our theology than we realize.”
Reading the mystics as preparation for evangelism
Fourth and finally, Trueman finds a most compelling reason for us to read the mystics in the very fact that many unchurched and anti-church folk are reading them. These are books, as he points out, available in popular Penguin editions at any major bookstore. You don’t have to look to “specialist presses that serve the narrow evangelical community” to find these mystics.
Returning to his opening remarks, Trueman concludes that “in an age that craves transcendence and mystery to lift it above the banality of a bankrupt consumerism, these authors seem to have struck a chord.” Those who are reading them are probably not “reading them aright.” But don’t let that stop you from looking at the books read by the disaffected and the anti-church – books that “shape their spiritual aspirations” and feed their “critique of contemporary church life.” In the end, “an acquaintance with the medieval mystics will not just enhance your knowledge of the Middle Ages; it may also equip you better to reach out to the lost souls of the current generation.”
Now the question is, to which modern evangelical specialists in medieval Christianity can we turn for interpretive assistance as we read the mystics?
That’s easy, we’ll read Doctor . . .
Umm, we’ll go to Professor . . .
Hmm. Tom Oden, Christopher Hall, D. H. Williams,. . . It seems that these and most other scholars who agree with Bob Webber that “the path to the church’s future runs through our past” are convinced that all the good stuff is to be found in the first six centuries of the church. The unspoken, but nonetheless potent assumption seems to be that after, say, Gregory the Great, the church becomes so hopelessly corrupt as to be more toxic than nourishing as a resource for modern Christians.
But if Carl Trueman of Westminster Theological Seminary says that not all the good stuff is to be found in the church’s first few centuries, then I won’t disagree!
So who do we turn to for guidance in this area?
There are a few evangelical scholars specializing in medieval Christianity (several at BIOLA alone, and others I’ve met over the past few months since first posting this article), but books on this period from evangelical presses are still thin on the ground.
Likewise, a few evangelical seminaries offer courses on the medieval church as a discrete topic, and not just as fly-over country hurried through by the professor in the midst of the church history survey course. But in our seminaries these voices are all but drowned out by the chorus of Reformation and early church history courses, which in turn are drowned out by the deafening roar of biblical studies courses.
In other words, evangelicals seem very little attuned to the medieval period, apart from a small minority of scholars and a small but growing interest in medieval spirituality, led by such authors as Richard Foster and Dallas Willard.
So what do you think? Is Trueman right? Should the medieval mystics “form a staple of the literary diet of all thoughtful Christians”? I’d love to hear from you on this.