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It is becoming popular in Protestant circles to embrace traditional Roman Catholic (RC) mysticism, such as the practice of lectio divina. For example, see this page on the website of Timothy Keller's church, and also his recommendation of this book. However, it occurs to me that the original Reformers were probably aware of these forms of mysticism, and had reasons for rejecting them, or they would have been preserved in the Protestant tradition. In light of the current trend, it would behoove those who subscribed to a Protestant and particularly a traditional Reformed position to be aware of and wrestle with these objections.

What did the Reformers (or later Reformed theologians) teach about RC mysticism?

  • In what works did they critique it?
  • What were their major objections?
  • Did they find anything laudable in it?
  • What alternatives did they offer for spiritual growth?

I am most particularly interested in the practice of lectio divina.

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What is your definition of mysticism? Would it also include, say, meditative prayer? I've never heard of such a practice being referred to as "mysticism," (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mysticism) though I wouldn't recommend any person do this who hasn't read through the entire Canon at least once and most of the Bible a few times. –  San Jacinto Jun 10 '12 at 19:33
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Yep, I'm not sure I'd call lectio divina mysticism, but then again maybe I just do it wrong :) –  Peter Turner Jun 10 '12 at 19:39
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@SanJacinto what is suggested by Timothy Keller's church certainly seems like what I've heard suggested by priests. I don't think it's a great idea to try and find holes in your faith in the Bible. (especially counterproductive if you're Catholic) but that's certainly not the point of meditative reading of the Bible. It really is supposed to put you deeper in prayer, at least deeper than you would if you were just looking for some fodder for a Christianity answer. And, that link didn't say it explicitly, but it's good to mention that it is not based on randomly opening the Bible. –  Peter Turner Jun 11 '12 at 0:32
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For the latest Catholic word on lectio divina see Pope Benedict's Verbum Domini, paragraphs 86-87. –  Ben Dunlap Jun 12 '12 at 14:49
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I'd have imagined the reformers would have loved authentic lectio divina. There are some specifics involved, but essentially it's nothing other than the prayerful reading of Scripture -- i.e., a discipline for keeping one's prayer rooted in the Word, while keeping one's reading of the Word prayerful and devout. What's not to like? –  Ben Dunlap Jun 12 '12 at 14:52

2 Answers 2

This subject is all about balance. Rationalism and Mysticism are the extremes to avoid. Your question does not seem biased to either extreme.

I do not think you will find reformers making direct attacks upon particular forms of meditation so long as those meditating, mediated on those objective doctrines that they taught! The moment any type of mysticism crept in that would give cause for someone to claim that their 'inner light' had authority over objective doctrine, they were called fanatics. Thomas Muntzer was a German reformer who went that way. Luther mentions his sentiments when discussing the necessity of the public reading of scripture:

First, attend to the public reading. Do not omit it. It seems to me that there is a miraculous spirit in those fanatics. Thomas [Müntzer] began it. So they hold the Word in contempt. “The testimony in my inner being is enough for me.” (Luther's Works 28.329)

However the reformers were not rationalists, they felt until the Spirit opened up the objective doctrine you did not know what you ought:

Secondly, you should meditate, that is, not only in your heart, but also externally, by actually repeating and comparing oral speech and literal words of the book, reading and rereading them with diligent attention and reflection, so that you may see what the Holy Spirit means by them. And take care that you do not grow weary or think that you have done enough when you have read, heard, and spoken them once or twice, and that you then have complete understanding. You will never be a particularly good theologian if you do that, for you will be like untimely fruit which falls to the ground before it is haft ripe. (Luther's Works 34.386)

However, to reiterate, if one's meditation was not centered on objective truth, and most importantly objective truth of grace, as opposed to works, one's meditation was self-based and idolatry:

The highest forms of religion and holiness, and the most fervent forms of devotion of those who worship God without the Word and command of God, are idolatry. Thus under the papacy it was regarded as an act of the greatest spirituality when the monks sat in their cells and meditated about God and His works, or when their fervent devotions so inflamed them as they genuflected, prayed, and contemplated heavenly things that they wept for sheer pleasure and joy. There was no thinking here about women or about any other creature, but only about the Creator and His marvelous works. And yet this action, which reason regards as eminently spiritual, is a “work of the flesh” according to Paul. Thus every such form of religion, which worships God without His Word and command, is idolatry. The more spiritual and holy it appears to be, the more dangerous and destructive it is; for it deflects men from faith in Christ and causes them to rely on their own powers, works, and righteousness. (Luther's Works 27.87)

From all the references about prayer or meditation in Luther or Calvin that I have read, which is a fair sum, never will you find an encouragement to practice mysticism, nor is the subject important enough for their attention. So long as people held to the doctrines they preached, meditation styles just did not matter.

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It is possible that the Reformers did not know about Lectio Divina. It had fallen out of disuse by the time of the Reformation. It has only been recently that the practice was revitalized.

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