CHRISTIAN THEOLOGY: The Mystical Method of Theological Investigation

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The mystical method of theological investigation is a way of studying and understanding religious beliefs and practices through personal, direct experiences of the divine. This approach is based on the belief that it is possible to have direct, transformative encounters with the divine or ultimate reality that can provide insights and understanding that cannot be gained through intellectual or analytical methods alone.

In many mystical traditions, the pursuit of such experiences is considered a central aspect of spiritual practice. Mystical experiences may take many forms, including visions, revelations, and experiences of unity or oneness with the divine.

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The mystical method of theological investigation is often contrasted with more analytical or intellectual approaches to studying religion, such as the inductive or deductive methods. While these other approaches involve the collection and analysis of empirical evidence and the use of logical reasoning, the mystical method is more focused on subjective, personal experiences.

Overall, the mystical method of theological investigation is an important aspect of many religious traditions, and can provide a unique and valuable perspective on the nature of the divine and the human relationship with the divine.

Every science has its own method, determined by its peculiar nature. This is a matter of so much importance that it has been erected into a distinct department. Modern literature abounds in works on Methodology, i.e., on the science of method. They are designed to determine the principles which should control scientific investigations. If a man adopts a false method, he is like one who takes a wrong road which will never lead him to his destination. The two great comprehensive methods are the à priori and the à posteriori. The one argues from cause to effect, the other from effect to cause. The former was for ages applied even to the investigation of nature. Men sought to determine what the facts of nature must be from the laws of mind or assumed necessary laws. Even in our own day, we have had Rational Cosmogonies, which undertake to construct a theory of the universe from the nature of absolute being and its necessary modes of development. Everyone knows how much it costs to establish the induction method on a firm basis and to secure a general recognition of its authority. According to this method, we begin by collecting well-established facts and infer the general laws that determine their occurrence from them. From the fact that bodies fall toward the center of the earth, the general law of gravitation has been inferred, which we are authorized to apply far beyond the limits of actual experience. This inductive method is founded upon two principles: First, that there are laws of nature (forces) that are the proximate causes of natural phenomena. Secondly, that those laws are uniform; so that we are certain that the same causes, under the same circumstances, will produce the same effects. There may be a diversity of opinion as to the nature of these laws. They may be assumed to be forces inherent in matter, or they may be regarded as uniform modes of divine operation, but in any event there must be some cause for the phenomena which we perceive around us, and that cause must be uniform and permanent. On these principles, all the inductive sciences are founded; by them, natural philosophers’ investigations are guided.

The same principle applies to metaphysics as to physics, to psychology, as well as to natural science. The mind has its laws as well as matter, and those laws, although of a different kind, are as permanent as those of the external world.

Few words have been used with a greater latitude of meaning than mysticism. It is here to be taken in a sense antithetical to speculation. Speculation is a process of thought; mysticism is a matter of feeling. The one assumes that the thinking faculty is that by which we attain the knowledge of truth. The other distrusting reason teaches that feelings alone are to be relied upon, at least in the sphere of religion. Although this method has been unduly pressed, and systems of theology have been constructed under its guidance, which is either entirely independent of the Scriptures, or in which the doctrines of the Bible have been modified and perverted, it is not to be denied that great authority is due to our moral nature in matters of religion. It has ever been a great evil in the Church that men have allowed the logical understanding, or what they call their reason, to lead them to conclusions that are not only contrary to Scripture but which do violence to our moral nature. It is conceded that nothing contrary to reason can be true. But it is no less important to remember that nothing contrary to our moral nature can be true. It is also to be admitted that conscience is much less liable to err than reason, and when they come into conflict, real or apparent, our moral nature is the stronger, and will assert its authority in spite of all we can do. It is rightfully supreme in the soul, although, with the reason and the will, it is in absolute subjection to God, who is infinite reason and infinite moral excellence.

Mysticism as applied to Theology

Mysticism, in its application to theology, has assumed two principal forms, the supernatural and the natural. According to the former, God, or the Spirit of God, holds direct communion with the soul; and, by the excitement of its religious feelings, gives it intuitions of truth and enables it to attain a kind, a degree, and an extent of knowledge, unattainable in any other way. This has been the common theory of Christian mystics in ancient and modern times. If by this were meant merely that the Spirit of God, by his illuminating influence, gives believers a knowledge of the truths objectively revealed in the Scriptures, which is peculiar, certain, and saving, it would be admitted by all evangelical Christians. And because such Christians hold to this inward teaching of the Spirit, they are often called Mystics by their opponents. This, however, is not what is here meant. The mystical method, in its supernatural form, assumes that God, by his immediate intercourse with the soul, reveals through the feelings and by means, or in the way of intuitions, divine truth independently of the outward teaching of his Word; and that it is this inward light, and not the Scriptures, which we are to follow.

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According to the other, or natural form of the mystical method, it is not God, but the natural religious consciousness of men, as excited and influenced by the circumstances of the individual, which becomes the source of religious knowledge. The deeper and purer the religious feelings, the clearer the insight into truth. This illumination or spiritual intuition is a matter of degree. But as all men have a religious nature, they all have more or less clearly the apprehension of religious truth. The religious consciousness of men in different ages and nations has been historically developed under diverse influences, and hence we have diverse forms of religion—the Pagan, the Mohammedan, and the Christian. These do not stand related as true and false but as more or less pure. The appearance of Christ, his life, his work, his words, and his death had a wonderful effect on the minds of men. Their religious feelings were more deeply stirred, were more purified, and elevated than ever before. Hence the men of his generation, who gave themselves up to his influence, had intuitions of religious truth of a far higher order than mankind had before attained. This influence continues to the present time. All Christians are its subjects. All, therefore, in proportion to the purity and elevation of their religious feelings, have intuitions of divine things, such as the Apostles and other Christians enjoyed. Perfect holiness would secure perfect knowledge.

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Consequences of the Mystical Method

It follows from this theory,—(1.) That there are no such things as revelation and inspiration in the established theological meaning of those terms. Revelation is the supernatural objective presentation or communication of truth to the mind by the Spirit of God. But according to this theory there is, and can be, no such communication of truth. The religious feelings are providentially excited, and by reason of that excitement, the mind perceives truth more or less clearly, or more or less imperfectly. Inspiration, in the Scriptural sense, is the supernatural guidance of the Spirit, which renders its subjects infallible in communicating truth to others. But according to this theory, no man is infallible as a teacher. Revelation and inspiration are in different degrees, common to all men. And there is no reason why they should not be as perfect in some believers now as in the days of the Apostles. (2.) The Bible has no infallible authority in matters of doctrine. The doctrinal propositions therein contained are not revelations by the Spirit. They are only the forms under which men of Jewish culture gave expression to their feelings and intuitions. Men of different cultures, and under other circumstances would have used other forms or adopted other doctrinal statements. (3.) Christianity, therefore, neither consists in a system of doctrines nor does it contain any such system. It is a life, an influence, a subjective state, or by whatever term it may be expressed or explained, it is a power within each individual Christian determining his feelings and his views of divine things. (4.) Consequently, the duty of a theologian is not to interpret Scripture but to interpret his own Christian consciousness; to ascertain and exhibit what truths concerning God are implied in his feelings toward God; what truths concerning Christ are involved in his feelings toward Christ; what the feelings teach concerning sin, redemption, eternal life, etc., etc.

This method found its most distinguished and influential advocate in Schleiermacher, whose “Glaubenslehre” is constructed on this principle. By Twesten—his successor in the chair of Theology at the University of Berlin—it is held in greater subjection to the normal authority of Scripture. By others, again, of the same school, it has been carried out to its utmost extreme. We are at present, however, concerned only with its principle and neither with the details of its application nor with its refutation.

By Charles Hodge

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