Progress From the First to the Fourteenth Century: Book 1 (The History of Protestantism)
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From its origins in 14th-century Florence, the Renaissance spread across Europe — the fluidity of its ideas changing and evolving to match local cultural thinking and conditions, although always remaining true to its ideals.
It coincided with a boom in exploration, trade, marriage and diplomatic excursions As with the Ancient Greeks and Romans from whom the Renaissance took so much inspiration , a conquering army could bring not only a regime change but also a cultural overhaul. The Renaissance changed the world in just about every way one could think of. It had a kind of snowball effect: each new intellectual advance paved the way for further advancements.
Italy in the 14th century was fertile ground for a cultural revolution. The Black Death had wiped out millions of people in Europe — by some estimates killing as many as one in three between and By the simplest laws of economics, it meant that those who survived were left with proportionally greater wealth: either from fewer people inheriting more, or simply by virtue of supply and demand — with fewer workers available, wages naturally rose. At the top of Italian society was a new breed of rulers, keen to demonstrate their wealth in a way that set them apart.
Families such as the Medici of Florence looked to the Ancient Roman and Greek civilisations for inspiration — and so did those artists who relied on their patronage. Renaissance art did not limit itself to simply looking pretty, however.
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Behind it was a new intellectual discipline: perspective was developed, light and shadow were studied, and the human anatomy was pored over — all in pursuit of a new realism and a desire to capture the beauty of the world as it really was. Von Harnack's opposition between Protestantism and mysticism was rooted in the theological tradition of Albrecht Ritschl and his followers, and also found expression in the dialectical theology of Karl Barth and Emil Brunner It is still strong in some Protestant circles today, but it is scarcely the whole story.
To be sure, union with Christ and God is important in Christian mysticism, as it was to Paul and John the Evangelist; but union is not the only theme in the history of mysticism, and it was rarely understood as a "mingling" of the divine and the human. This is why a number of twentieth-century Protestant theologians, beginning with Ernst Troeltsch and Albert Schweitzer , began to take a more positive view of mysticism and its relation to all forms of Christian belief, including Protestantism.
Today, many, if not most, Protestant church historians and theologians seem willing to speak about Protestant "spirituality" long a Catholic term , and even Protestant "mysticism. In what follows I will try to give a brief overview of this issue, both by reflecting on what the sixteenth-century religious leaders who broke with Rome inherited from the mystical tradition and how they reacted and re-shaped these mystical themes in their own thinking. Neither the term mysticus that is, "hidden" , nor, of course, the modern word "mysticism" occur in the Bible.
Nevertheless, the notion of being "in Christ" en Christo was central to Paul, who also spoke of being "rapt up to the third heaven" 2 Cor. Jesus's Last Supper Discourse in John 17 uses even stronger language about becoming one with Jesus in the unity he enjoys with his Father: "That they all may be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you, may they also be one in us On the basis of such texts and others, often "mystically" interpreted, Christian teaching stretching back to Clement of Alexandria at the end of the second century C.
Origen of Alexandria d. His recognition of the inner, or mystical, dimension of Christian rituals like Baptism and the Eucharist included the possibility of attaining mystica contemplatio of God, and even union with Christ. Origen's theology was given an institutional location in monasticism in the fourth century. Between the late fourth and the end of the fifth century C. Mystical theology was seen not as an academic exercise, but rather a way of communal and liturgical life aimed at union with God.
Though subject to many variations and later development, the notion that spiritual practices were meant to prepare for a deeper sense of God's presence, variously conceived of as seeing God, uniting with God, radical obedience to God, and even being annihilated in God, became integral to Christian spirituality, both in the East and the West, between and This is the realm that we today call "mysticism". Thinkers of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were heirs to a variety of mystical traditions from the more than twelve centuries that separated them from Origen and the first masters of mystical theology for mysticism in the sixteenth century, see McGinn Four traditions were of special importance.
The first was the patristic mysticism of the Greek Fathers, Augustine, and Gregory the Great, which was valued by both Catholics and Protestants. The second was the monastic mysticism, best represented by Bernard of Clairvaux, and including Cistercians, Victorines, and Franciscans. This was central for Early Modern Catholic mystics, but some of these authors were also used by Protestants. The third tradition was the late medieval mysticism of Northern Europe, Germanic and Dutch. This was particularly important for the Reformers, but also read in southern Catholic lands, often in Latin translation during the first half of the sixteenth century the Carthusian house of St.
Barbara in Cologne became a center for spiritual renewal by publishing many spiritual and mystical texts, both in German and Dutch, as well as in Latin translation. A fourth form was the mystical theology of Dionysius, which affected some of the medieval monastic mystics and was powerful with the northern mystics of the late Middle Ages. Dionysianism had an impact on a number of early modern Catholic mystics, but less so among Protestants. The spread of printing made all these materials more widely available than ever before.
Another resource aided by the print revolution was the dissemination of mystical handbooks. These works began to be produced in manuscript form in the late thirteenth century and became popular in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Some of these manuals, such as those of the Dutch Franciscan Hendrik Herp and the French Benedictine Louis de Blois , were printed and were of moment in the later history of mysticism, although primarily among Catholics. We can also note that some forms of late medieval mysticism, especially the "Northern mysticism" of Eckhart, Suso, Tauler, and Ruusbroec lasted well into the sixteenth century, as we can see in the case of the anonymous Great Evangelical Pearl, a Dutch text written by a nun in the Eastern Netherlands in the s.
Another important aspect of the background to Protestant mysticism was what I have called the "New Mysticism" that began around This basic shift in the story of Western mysticism featured a number of tendencies that continued to shape sixteenth- and seventeenth-century mystical currents. These authors mostly wrote in the vernacular, and therefore included women to a degree unprecedented in earlier Christianity. The "New Mysticism" advanced forms of teaching that quickly became controversial.
For example, mystics such as Meister Eckhart used language that suggested that contemplatives could attain a deep union in which all distinction between the soul and God disappears, at least on some level; other mystics employed forms of excessive language about the madness of love and erotic fulfillment; they frequently spoke of extraordinary visions and raptures. Thus, some mystics, such as the French Beguine Marguerite Porete d. Underlying many of these developments was the changing relation between the liber scripturae, the Bible as the norm of belief and practice, and the liber experientiae, the inner book of the mystic's consciousness of God.
Some mystics were accused of letting experience trump church teaching. Therefore, the period from the late thirteenth century on saw a growing suspicion of the dangers of mysticism. This was the situation that confronted not just the first Evangelical Reformers, but also Catholic religious thinkers at the beginning of the sixteenth century.
But what did Luther and his followers, as well as Zwingli and Calvin and those we call the "Radical Reformers," make of this rich mix of traditions and tensions in late medieval religious life and thought? Martin Luther had a complicated relationship to mysticism. Luther's mature evangelical theology contains a number of elements marked by aspects of mystical traditions, although these appear more frequently early in his career.
Works such as the First Commentary on the Psalms Dictata super Psalterium of , the Commentarium on the Penitential Psalms , the treatise on the Freedom of the Christian , and the Commentary on the Magnificat , all feature important mystical elements. On this basis, a number of Luther scholars over the past half-century have begun to speak of the Reformer as a mystic. Stages in a Reformation Reorientation. Luther may well have been a mystic in the sense of a believer who rooted his faith in a unique and direct inner encounter with God; but, viewed in the context of the Western mystical tradition, there are reasons for questioning the appellation of Luther as a mystical author.
For one thing, Luther never wrote a mystical work in the sense of a commentary or treatise designed to guide the soul through the various practices designed to reach loving union with God. Rather, he embedded re-interpreted aspects of mysticism within the context of his new evangelical theology. Luther read the mystics selectively for the purpose of finding support for his own theology. Hence, I prefer an approach similar to that advanced by the late Heiko A. Oberman, who argued for a sic et non relationship between Luther and mysticism: one characterized by both appropriation and rejection.
After some early, though ambiguous, use of the Dionysian writings, Luther decisively rejected the mysticism of Dionysius by about see Rorem For a somewhat more positive evaluation of the connection between Dionysius and Luther, see Malysz In a famous passage from the Babylonian Captivity of the Church of , speaking of Dionysius, he says: "But in his Theology, which is rightly called Mystical, of which certain very ignorant theologians make so much, he is downright dangerous, for he is more of a Platonist than a Christian.
So if I had my way, no believing soul would give the least attention to these books. The most significant impact of mysticism on his theology, however, came from his reading of the Dominican preacher John Tauler, whom he lavishly praised. About Luther wrote marginal comments on his copy of the edition of Tauler's sermons.
In introducing these Marginalia, he says, "I have found more solid and true theology in him, even though all written in the German vernacular, than is found in all the scholastic teachers of all the universities-or than could be found in their opinions. As he put it in the "Preface" to the second edition: "God grant this booklet will be more known, so that we will find that the German theologians are without doubt the best theologians. There are a number of important links between Luther and the mystics he favored, such as the stress on the need for inner experience of God as the foundation for true faith, and an emphasis on humility and passivity while waiting for God's justifying grace see the Commentary on the Magnificat.
Like Tauler, Luther highlighted finding God through distress and dereliction Anfechtungen , because God remains hidden sub contrario, especially the scandal of Christ on the cross. Like many mystics, Luther even spoke of divinization, though how important a feature of his thought this mystical theme was remains under discussion. Founded in the "happy exchange" sacrum commercium of the Incarnation, this union is given to believers in the sacrament of baptism and is meant to be the source for the grace of sanctification shown by living faith in God and active love of neighbor.
In the Freedom of the Christian Luther used traditional language and motifs taken from the mystical tradition to describe our union with Christ through faith. Finally, ". By this mystery, as the Apostle teaches, Christ and the soul become one flesh Eph. And if they are one flesh, a true wedding is consummated between them.. John Calvin took a more negative view of mysticism than Luther, although he respected Augustine and Bernard. Recent work has shown that there are some affinities between Calvin's reformed theology and aspects of mystical spirituality, 16 and one recent book was even entitled Calvin Mystique, 17 but it would be an exaggeration, I believe, to speak of Calvin as a mystic, or even a mystical author.
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Nonetheless, the Genevan Reformer had a strong teaching on the union between Christ and believers, which he was even willing to call a "mystical union" unio mystica: Institutes 3. Given Calvin's greater distance from mysticism than Luther's, it is no surprise that mysticism was more powerful in the Lutheran than in the Reformed churches.
If one were pressed to name one Protestant mystic, probably the name of the Lutheran pastor Johann Arndt would be most often put forward. In reaction to the Scholastic rigidity of much contemporary Lutheran dogmatic theology, Arndt returned to Luther's emphasis on the experience of faith and his use of mystical texts to create a teaching that insisted that Evangelical faith had to center on the path to spiritual perfection.
The Middle Ages | The Renaissance and the Reformation
Arndt's True Christianity, originally published in four books , had an immense success for centuries After Arndt's death, the original four books of True Christianity were often combined with two of his later treatises to form a six-book compendium. See Geyer The other major recent work on Arndt is that of Braw True Christianity is a summary of the Christian life, one that argues that the justifying faith central to the Reformation is nothing without the process of sanctification that aims at loving union with God.
In the "Preface" to True Christianity Arndt puts it this way: "It is not enough to know God's word; one must also practice it in a living, active manner. Arndt even says that he structured the first three books of True Christianity according to the traditional three stages of mystical progress, ". Paul called the perfect age of Christ and the perfect man in Christ" Eph.
Arndt emphasized mystical themes far more than Luther, especially the birth of God in the soul, the necessity for "releasement" Gelassenheit , deification, and a marital union with God that could be described in the erotic language of the Song of Songs True Christianity, especially Books III and V.
Arndt was a controversial figure. Lucas Osiander attacked him as an "Enthusiast" and cryptopapist, who was not teaching "Christianity" Christentum , but "Tauleranity" Taulerdom. Nevertheless, Arndt was among the most widely read Lutheran authors and was influential on the birth of German Pietism towards the end of the seventeenth century.
Monasticism in Western Medieval Europe
The Radical Reformation is a convenient term to identify the individuals and groups who became convinced that Luther, Calvin, and their followers had not gone far enough in their rejection of the medieval church and in the establishment of pure religion based on the inner action of the Holy Spirit. Others, however, can be described as Spiritualists, thinkers who so stressed the experience of the Spirit within that the external aspects of religion Bible, visible church, sacraments, etc.
In their emphasis on interiorization the Radicals often appealed to the Northern mystics, such as Tauler, the Theologia Deutsch, even Eckhart, but there is a real difference between the interiorization of these medieval figures who never rejected the externals of Catholic religion and the Radicals who did, though in differing ways.
Karlstadt was a colleague of Luther, who broke with him between and over many issues, not least the authority of the Holy Spirit in determining belief and practice. Karlstadt's view of releasement implies a mystical anthropology based on the soul's ground in God something far from Luther , as well as a deeper sense of union than Luther would have countenanced.