Benjamin B. Warfield on Contemplative Mysticism
Of all the conceivable forms of enlightenment, the worst is what these people call the Inner Light. Of all horrible religions the most horrible is the worship of the God within. Anyone who knows anybody knows how it would work; anyone who knows anyone from the Higher Thought Center knows how it does work. That Jones should worship the God within him turns out ultimately to mean that Jones shall worship Jones.
"For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war according to the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are . . . mighty in God for . . . bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ . . ." Paul, 2 Corinthians 10:3-5, NKJV
As endorsed by a glut of books written by its various leaders and authors, the pan-evangelical movement–that "once-upon-a-time" embraced the Reformation principle of sola scriptura, that Scripture alone is sufficient in matters of faith and its practice (2 Timothy 3:16)–is promoting and embracing mystical spirituality. Because parachurch ministries, local church pastors, and spirtitual directors encourage practices of spiritual formation, increasing numbers of devout souls are uncritically engaging the contemplative disciplines. For reason that they desire a closer walk with God, these sincere souls engage in spiritual techniques which they hope will open new doors and vistas of spirituality to them.
So amidst these winds of spiritual change, Benjamin B. Warfield’s writing on mysticism will help orient Christian believers to understand the challenge contemplative spirituality poses to orthodox and biblical Christianity. Faddish approaches to and methods of spirituality are not new and are seldom original. To Warfield, what is currently working itself up into a popular religious fervor is but a modern version and adaptation of what he would have called the old “theosophical mysticism,” the feelings of which he described as “the footprints of Deity moving in the soul.” To the mystic, these footprints become “immediate sources of knowledge of God,” knowledge that can be “obtained by simple quiescence and rapt contemplation.”
Who among us would not desire to experience God walking within our souls? By appealing to the deepest longings and sentiments of the human spirit, the sensus divinitatis as Warfield called it, self-acclaimed and appointed gurus of “enlightenment” promote and peddle their “mysteries of godliness” by lectures and seminars, on talk shows, in books, and via video presentations like the Be Still DVD, and literally, a mass of the Christian populace is “buying” into it.
To seduce the gullible and to define the “seeking of God from within,” elitist teachers recommend and promote the mystical practices of ancient Christendom as the way to spiritual enlightenment; spiritual disciplines such as “contemplative prayer,” “lectio divina,” “entering the silence,” “expanded imagination,” “spirit visualization,” and more. Masquerading as means of grace, these recommendations bait naïve Christians to engage novel but age-old spiritual exercises. But as Paul warned, such spiritual practices "have, to be sure, the appearance of wisdom in self-made religion and self-abasement and severe treatment of the body, but are of no value against fleshly indulgence" (Emphasis mine, Colossians 2:23).
Christian believers must therefore ask critical questions like these: Where might mystical practices lead persons who engage them? Are there spiritual risks that accompany the disciplines of contemplative spirituality? Can these practices be wrong when they might seem right? As the Apostle Paul admonished the Galatian Christians:
O foolish Galatians, who hath bewitched you, that ye should not obey the truth, before whose eyes Jesus Christ hath been evidently set forth, crucified among you? This only would I learn of you, Received ye the Spirit by the works of the law, or by the hearing of faith? Are ye so foolish? having begun in the Spirit, are ye now made perfect by the flesh? (Galatians 3:1-3, KJV)
When engaging Warfield’s argument, readers will discover a watershed distinction the theologian made between “external authority” which lies at the core of revealed religion, and “internal authority” which serves as the basis of unrevealed religion. Mysticism, Warfield noted, belongs to the latter category while Christianity is bonded to the former. With its emphasis upon “internal authority,” contemplative and mystical spirituality is averse to and therefore at odds with the idea of “external religious authority,” authority deriving from the divinely initiated revelatory and redemptive events of salvation history recorded, interpreted, and proposed in the words, sentences, paragraphs and books of Holy Scripture. Mysticism “in-sources” authority to the human spirit while contrarily, biblical Christianity “out-sources” authority to the Triune God and the divine Word of Holy Scripture. In short, as they fixate upon “the authority within,” at the shrine of the mind, contemplative spiritualists and mystics separate themselves from “the authority without.”
If the movement continues to gain popularity and ascendancy, where will contemplative spirituality, with its passion for individualized spiritual experiences, lead evangelism? As Warfield reasoned:
Above all other elements of Christianity, Christ and what Christ stands for, with the cross at the center, come to us solely by “external authority.” No “external authority,” no Christ, and no cross of Christ. For Christ is history, and Christ’s cross is history, and mysticism which lives solely on what is within can have nothing to do with history; mysticism which seeks solely eternal verities can have nothing to do with time and that which has occurred in time.
Thus, Warfield argues that spirituality absorbed in mystery will eventually be forced to deny history, and consequently will jettison the salvific events and truths stated in and witnessed to by the Bible. In their focus upon the “internal authority” of the present, mystics will be led to deny the “external authority” of the past.
If historical precedent teaches us anything at all, contemplative evangelicals, all their denial not withstanding, will likely apostatize from the orthodox faith that involves Jesus’ historic incarnation, substitutionary atonement for sin, and physical resurrection. Mystery doesn’t need history. To repeat, in their embrace of mystery, mystics do not need history. While claiming to love God, contemplative or mystical spirituality will at the time be led to deny the “external authority” of Jesus’ Person and Work. Such a denial will imperil their souls, for as the Apostle John wrote:
Who is the liar but the one who denies that Jesus is the Christ? This is the antichrist, the one who denies the Father and the Son. Whoever denies the Son does not have the Father; the one who confesses the Son has the Father also. (1 John 2:22-23)
Mysticism corrupts Christian hearts and minds “from the simplicity that is in Christ” (2 Corinthians 11:3, KJV). By affirming the search for a vague divinity within, mystical contemplators will eventually be led to deny the sin and the Savior who died for it (1 Corinthians 15:3-4).
James explains there to be two opposite sources of wisdom: one that is “from above” and another that “is not . . . from above, but is earthly, natural, demonic” (James 3:15-17, NASB). Though Warfield does not address the potential darker side and consequences of applying mystical wisdom to one’s soul through engaging man-made spiritual exercises—possible demonic deception, then influence, and finally, control (1 Timothy 4:1-3)—his essay does expose the anti-historical and therefore the anti-Christian nature of contemplative spirituality.
Every believer ought to pause and know that religious experiences must be experienced according to conditions designed and set by God in Holy Scripture, and not upon extra0scriptural methods and practices devised by humans. As Paul wrote to the Corinthians:
For what man knoweth the things of a man, save the spirit of man which is in him? Even so the things of God knoweth no man, but the Spirit of God. (1 Corinthians 2:11, KJV)
If not experienced on God’s terms, then supposed divine encounters are really not divine at all. At best, they may be self-induced delusions. At worst, they may demonic deceptions that lead to the deification of the “self.” (See Genesis 3:5; Compare Isaiah 14:14b.) As Warfield saw it, “The history of mysticism only too clearly shows that he who begins by seeking God within himself may end by confusing himself with God.”
It is my conviction that if the current trend of seeking God within continues and grows, then, as with devotees of eastern religions, personal experience will eclipse a faith regulated by the Word of God, the Holy Scriptures which, ironically, the “spiritual” Spirit inspired (See 2 Peter 1:21; 2 Timothy 3:16.).
Unregulated spiritual chaos will reign as this and future generations seek ecumenical oneness with spiritual contemplators of other religions; Jewish Kabbalists, Muslim Sufis, Hindu and Buddhist mystics, and whomever. Cardinal and foundational Christian teachings will drown in a sea of religious subjectivity created by personal experiences and demonic influences (1 Timothy 4:1). Professing Christians will believe only that which seems right in their own hearts as they seek confirmation from and unity with those of like precious experiences.
As Warfield concluded:
We may be mystics, or we may be Christians. We cannot be both. And the pretension of being both usually merely veils defection from Christianity. Mysticism baptized with the name of Christianity is not thereby made Christianity. A rose by any other name will smell as sweet. But it does not follow that whatever we choose to call a rose will possess the rose’s fragrance.
The movement of contemplative spirituality must be discerned. For that purpose, Warfield’s writings are more relevant today than when they were first composed a century ago. Though they do not answer all of the questions raised by contemplative spirituality, his writings do provide an excellent theological framework by which to evaluate and discern mysticism. As for other issues raised by contemplative spiritualists, we say, “To the law and to the testimony: if they speak not according to this word, it is because there is no light in them” (Isaiah 8:20, KJV).
 All quotations are from Warfield’s essay “Mysticism and Christianity” that first was published in The Biblical Review (1917), and has been reprinted in the 9th volume of The Works of Benjamin B. Warfield, 10 Volumes (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 2003): 649-666. An electronic version of his works is available as Volume 14 of the Christian Library Series, “The Benjamin B. Warfield Collection,” produced by Ages Digital Library, P.O. Box 216, Rio, WI 53960 USA. Available online at www. ageslibrary.com.
 B. B. WARFIELD (1851-1921)
A Biographical Sketch
Born into a devout Christian home near Lexington, Kentucky, and inheriting his mother’s maiden name as his middle name, Benjamin Breckenridge Warfield was a Presbyterian theologian and educator who twice served as president of Princeton Theological Seminary, 1902-1903 and 1913-1914. Tutored with the Westminster Confession of Faith and afforded a private education during his youth, his special interests grew to be in mathematics and physics during his university years. But while studying in Europe during the summer of 1872, Warfield wrote home announcing his call to the Christian ministry. He enrolled at the Theological Seminary at Princeton in the fall of 1873, graduating from that institution in May, 1876. Thereupon, a Presbytery in Kentucky licensed him to preach.
After further education in Europe, he accepted an appointment to be an instructor in New Testament at Western Theological seminary in Allegheny, Pennsylvania in 1878. He spent nine years there studying, teaching and writing. Warfield’s belief in the plenary inspiration of the Scriptures, it must be noted, guided his scholarship for his entire life.
Upon Archibald Alexander Hodge’s death, Warfield moved to the Chair of Theology at Princeton in 1886, where he served that institution until he died on February 16, 1921.
Harold Lindsell noted that, “Perhaps no theologian of that age is as widely read and has had his books kept in print as long as Warfield.”
 Within the Christian tradition, the techniques of contemplation go back at least as far as Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite (circa 500 A.D), whose three-fold mystical formula involved the steps of purgation, contemplation and finally, unification with the divine. The spirituality developed and articulated by the Areopagite in his Mystical Theology (Dionysius the Areopagite, The Mystical Theology and the Divine Names, C.E. Holt Translator (Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, Inc., 2004), or Denys as he is alternately named, grew to influence a host of other mystics dating from the Medieval to the beginnings of the Protestant era (800-1600 A.D.). As Petry stated: “To exaggerate the role of Dionysius the Areopagite in medieval mysticism would be difficult indeed.” See Ray C. Petry, Editor, Late Medieval Mysticism: The Library of Christian Classics (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1957):33.
One Response to “The “Shrine” in Mind”
Leave a Reply
You must be logged in to post a comment.