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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.

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10 thoughts on “The Dangers of Mysticism”

  1. Nathan says:

    Any thoughts on how to cultivate and maintain a proper mysticism without going down this path?

  2. Kevin DeYoung says:

    I think a proper "mysticism" embraces experience of God and affections for God as good things. But the experience and the affections are created, cultivated, and sustained through means. Mysticism in its technical sense advocates direct communion with God apart from means. The emphasis on communion with God is good, but the de-emphasis on church, sacraments, and Scripture is bad. The Bible is not some lesser way of knowing God. It is the surest, clearest, best way God makes himself known to us.

  3. Stephen Ley says:

    Your last two paragraphs could be a short history of the church in America, especially its Protestant varieties.

  4. Ron Reffett says:

    Hey Kevin,
    What are your thoughts on A.W. Tozer? I know that he spoke highly of the mystics and even quotes them quite a bit in his works. I have benefited greatly from Tozer's writings and just wnated to see what your thoughts were on him.
    Ron Reffett

  5. Kevin DeYoung says:

    Ron, I have also greatly benefited from Tozer. My impression is that Tozer's view of mysticism was more of the intimacy-with-God variety rather than the find-the-inner-light-within-you kind. But Tozer was quite eclectic and I don't always find his antecedents all that helpful.

  6. foxnala says:

    Thanks for your post Kevin.

    "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."

    I absolutely agree with you that the scriptures are an awesome gift from God, and since we have them so readily available to us today, they should of course be used as a benchmark of Christian faith and life today. But, Christians haven't always lived in a modern Protesant world where the scriptures were readily available for personal reading (and/or the avg. person couldn't read anyway).

    What are your thoughts though in regards to how the Holy Spirit lives WITHIN us and is promised to commune with us (e.g., John 14:26, John 15:26, John 16:1, John 14:16, Acts 2:32-33, 1 Corinthians 2:11, etc.)? And what about the scores of Christians for the first 1500 years of the NT church (prior to the Reformation and printing press) who either didn't read or didn't have access to the scriptures?

  7. Julie says:

    I stumbled across your name in another blog today. To my delight, I see you are now an author! I can't wait to read your books…. and now your blog as well – I bookmarked it! :) I'm so proud of you Kevin. Julie Nichols

  8. ZSB says:

    “If you want health for your souls and if you want to be the instrument of bringing health to others, do not turn your gaze forever within, as if you could find Christ there. No, turn your gaze away from your own miserable experiences, away from your own sin, to the Lord Jesus Christ as He is given to us in the Gospel. It is the same old story, my friends, the same story of the natural man. Men are trying today—as they have always been trying—to save themselves by their own act of surrender to Jesus, by the excellence of their own faith, by mystical experiences of their own lives. But it's all in vain. True peace in God is only obtained in the old, old way: by attention to something that was done once for all, long ago, and by acceptance of the Living Savior who there once for all brought redemption for our sin.”
    -J. Gresham Machen

  9. folk notions says:

    Some strains of Anabaptism look toward mysticism (such as the Quakers), however, biblically-grounded Christianity is a trademark of Mennonite churches (though more "modern" Mennonites are moving away from that)and was significant in the Hutterite movement in its early years, before it became too legalistic.

    I can't speak as much for folks like Muntzer…he was out there…but he's as similar to folks like Menno Simons and Peter Reidemann as Deepak Chopra is to John MacArthur.

    The point of your post, and the point of Bavinck's thoughts, still applies though: we must consistently appeal to Scripture. I just wanted to point out that Anabaptism can't be lumped together so easily.

  10. Will says:

    Ah, mighty, mighty Tozer… he was a full-blown mystic, though of the more evangelical, Protestant variety to be sure. Yes, he valued intimacy with God, but often at the expense of reason, benevolence and, for lack of a better word, his humanity. This is often the case with mysticism, no matter the flavor – their “Pursuit of God” comes at the expense of others and what they deem the “false self”, and neither God nor his image is glorified as a result.

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Kevin DeYoung

Kevin DeYoung is the senior pastor at Christ Covenant Church in Matthews, North Carolina. He is chairman of the board of The Gospel Coalition, assistant professor of systematic theology at Reformed Theological Seminary (Charlotte), and a PhD candidate at the University of Leicester. Kevin and his wife, Trisha, have seven children. You can follow him on Twitter.

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