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Steven J. Lawson speaking at the 2013 Strange Fire conference in a lecture titled The Puritan Commitment to Sola Scriptura (video here, transcribed by Mike Riccardi writing at the Cripplegate blog) seems to express antagonism and criticism toward both concepts:

They claimed to be receiving new revelations, prophecies. And with that they were being led astray into hyper-emotionalism and mysticism.

And out of this commitment to be “open and uncautious” to continuing revelation by the Spirit, they were led into all kinds of mystical experiences and bizarre patterns, not the least of which was going naked as a sign.

“All of these ways”—referring to the abuses of the Quakers with the inner light, new revelation, mystical, intuitive, subjective impulses—“are uncertain, dangerous, useless, and totally unnecessary. … They must be rejected and shunned.”

What is more bizarre than running around half naked is the outlandish claims and freakish actions of so many in today’s Charismatic movement. What we saw during the Q&A today is more bizarre than these women who walked around naked.

He was the personal chaplain to Oliver Cromwell. John Owen Addressed Parliament. This brilliant man gave himself to combat this Charismatic emotional departure from sola Scriptura with its new revelations. And Owen affirmed the deeper issue, which was sola Scriptura.

It would be in 1659 that Owen responded by writing one of his most important works: A Defense of Sacred Scripture against the Fanatics. I want to zone in on chapter 3, entitled, “On the Perfection of Scripture.” And Owen will state his case for the lunacy of the charismatic excesses based upon the sure foundation of the perfection of the Word of God.

It leaves no room for any new revelations. If you are seeking any of these Charismatic new-revelations, it is because you have no understanding of the perfection of the written Word of God.

Is Steve Lawson using the concepts of (Christian) mysticism and the charismatic movement almost interchangeably, or at least with enough overlap between the two to be regarded as equally dangerous to the doctrine of Sola scriptura as he understands it?

More generally, how much overlap is there between Christian mysticism and the charismatic movement? Does a Charismatic Christian necessarily, by definition, believe in the possibility of mystical experiences? Is a Christian mystic necessarily, by definition, open to the possibility of the charismata? Are there any nuances between the two concepts, making them, at least in certain contexts, non-interchangeable?

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    You may want to add at least 1 more distinction: Pietist (central to Evangelical spirituality). I would say the older Mysticism ties with the hierarchy of being (primarily utilizing Neoplatonic concept to describe it, but also the effect of grace to know God more metaphysically and using the "ascending" paradigm), while Pietist focuses more epistemologically using the human psyche with the "listening" paradigm, and the latest Charismatic is a variation of Pietist but more bodily with the "passive receptive" paradigm tying w/ HS gifts: vision, prophecy, word of knowledge. Commented May 17 at 18:42
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    There's an insightful episode from Truth Unites Is "Spirituality W/O Religion" Worse than Atheism interviewing Michael Horton who is working on his 3 volume historical spirituality books (the first is out: Shaman and Sage: The Roots of "Spiritual but Not Religious" In Antiquity), exposing the ancient roots of both today's Evangelical Pietism AND private revelations prevalent in Charismatic circles as various ways to synthesize the ancient "natural supernaturalism" and "Orphism". Commented May 17 at 18:55
  • @GratefulDisciple Thank you for sharing these resources and insights. Would you like to write an answer?
    – Mark
    Commented May 18 at 1:11
  • If I were to write an answer, I will likely have this thesis: Lutheran (German) Pietism as a bridge between Late Medieval mysticism and Charismatic movement. First, Pietism (started with Luther) offers a sola scriptura check on unbridled mystical speculation but more negatively (from Catholic perspective) denying the possibility (cf St. John of the Cross) of "a person reaching beyond Christ to the divine darkness" (quote from page 51 of *Pietists, Protestants, and Mysticism: Arnold and Late Medieval Spirituality). Commented May 19 at 15:25
  • From Pietism to Charismatic movement, my thesis would be that Protestant Pietism is not satisfying enough ("cold formalism"), so there is an emergence of a different kind of mysticism within the charismatic mov. that on paper is still within the framework of Bebbington's evangelicalism (see 2016 paper Exploring Pietism as an Intermediary for Lutheran-Pentecostal Dialogue) but in practice is irrational in character and is thus susceptible to "hyper-emotionalism" and "bizarre patterns" maybe not unlike the (now forgotten) medieval excesses. Commented May 19 at 15:41

2 Answers 2

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Some overlap but not fully.

To understand how the Reformers and the Puritans opposed the fanatics, we must be clear. In their minds, at the root the following guide is helpful:

Anything that makes a believer becoming distracted from looking centrally, every day, at the gospel, that is the justification for sin by faith apart from works, is satanic. It is the cross of Christ and the imputation of righteousness by faith that is the gospel and is the scripture. It must always have centrality. It is sola scripture. The gospel.

Therefore if anyone puts the ministry of the Spirit, our experience, or anything else at the center, they are denying the scriptures and walking blind.

At first cut therefore, individuals in the charismatic movement who make the mystical or the charismatic experience to be central, are blind. On the other hand, if by charismatic we simply mean those who believe the filling of the Holy Spirit is something subsequent to regeneration and can occur multiple times (versus the non-charismatics who dislike this idea), well, the answer is much more complicated.

At a superficial level, one could simply paint a broad stroke and note the obvious: the Christ-centered Puritans who frequently mentioned the Holy Spirit in their teachings (when measured by percentage of words) talked much more about the Holy Spirit than non-Charismatics. Something is wrong here.

So maybe this is the answer. If being charismatic primarily means relying on the Holy Spirit in maintaining a centrally gospel minded life, then that sounds good, is sola scripture, and is not overly fanatical or mystical. If the charismatic person does not keep Christ central (citing fake gifts, etc.) then not only are they overly mystical but they clearly are not filled with the Spirit.

The proof of being filled with the Spirit is a passion and every day obsession with the gospel, as exhibited in a person who finds real daily relief in the imputation of Christ’s righteousness and rejoices with a happy clean conscience apart from their own works. A person who loves God and his neighbor is filled with the Spirit.

I think it's more scriptural to separate attitudes about the Spirit in relation to Christ in this way, rather than trying to categorize every person to be identified with a charismatic movement or with a mystical bent, as "wise" or "blind".

The Devil has many strategies but they all branch from one: to keep our eyes off of Christ and the justification he has provided in the gospel.

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  • Heartily up-voted +1. Well balanced response to both ends of the scale that would distract from the central, balanced, pivot.
    – Nigel J
    Commented May 17 at 12:53
  • @Mike can you please elaborate more on your very first sentence: Some overlap but not fully? I was expecting you to offer a detailed explanation of each concept, and the points of overlap and difference between the two, but you ended up focusing more on emphasizing how important the gospel must be, which is great, but the main point of the question (the contrast between the two concepts) was only superficially addressed.
    – Mark
    Commented May 17 at 14:30
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    To make this more concrete: What are aspects of Christian mysticism that do not fit into the definition of Charismatic? What are aspects of the Charismatic movement that do not fit into the definition of Christian mysticism?
    – Mark
    Commented May 17 at 14:33
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    @Mark - I can appreciate your comment. I think the word mystic is about simple experience of God going back to Catholic roots, whereas charismatic movement is more about specific doctrines around the meaning of Baptism with the Spirit and the gifts of the Spirit. The varieties of what that means in each term is varied and big., ranging from group to group and generation to generation. So the only common denominator is the emphasis on experience and the Holy Spirit, which also overlaps the reformed and Puritans. This is why it may be too complicated without pointing to the cross that divides
    – Mike
    Commented May 17 at 16:36
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+50

Steve Lawson's lecture

Steve Lawson only mentions "mysticism" ONCE in the lecture you cited, The Puritan Commitment to Sola Scriptura, which is about the importance of Sola Scriptura (as his church understands it) to curb the excesses of charismatics today (since the lecture is part of the 2013 Strange Fire conference at Grace Community Church, a pointed criticism of the worldwide Charismatic movement). After reviewing the Biblical basis of his church's Doctrine of Scripture, he told the story of how when the Puritans were convening, writing, and ratifying the WCF in 1640s, the Quaker movement broke out in the early 1650s, led by George Fox who taught "inner light in all men". And how 2 Quaker unclothed women visited Oxford, which he linked to even worse teachings and actions by some charismatics today, citing Word of Faith movement leaders Kenneth Copeland, Kenneth Hagen, Fred Price, and Benny Hinn. He then cited as God's providence how Puritan John Owen happened to be the vice-chancellor at Oxford at the time, who proceeded to deploy sola scriptura to counter

"... the abuses of the Quakers in this inner light, new revelation, mystical intuitive, subjective impulses are uncertain, dangerous, useless and totally unnecessary. They must be rejected and shunned."

In the context that the word is mentioned ONE TIME, it is a caricature: a non-specific, undiscerned and undisciplined metaphysical experience that has nothing to do with historic medieval Christian mysticism described in this Wikipedia article which is a Patristic and Medieval contemplative practice intended for devout Christians to see God with grace-filled mind's eye resulting in deeper knowledge and love of God achieved via prescribed discipline of progressive purgation to ascend the ladder of being so at the peak the soul experience an mystical ecstasy and union with God after which (when you come down the peak of this experiential mountain) your soul is fired up with Godly love enabling you to love others more purely and intensely. [insert supporting reference here]

At any rate, by casually mentioning "mysticism", Quakerism, and 20th century charismatic abuses in a single breath

And with that, they were being led astray into hyper emotionalism and into mysticism and that is where it always leads when you pull up anchor from sola scriptura.

his presentation was in essence a polemic calculated to further the agenda of the Strange Fire conference to protect churches aligned with the Grace Community Church against the worldwide charismatic churches which GCC thinks (at best) open the door to compromising orthodoxy which is supposed to be based on their understanding of sola scriptura (i.e. "Scripture alone", not the more Magisterial reformer understanding "Scripture is the ultimate norm"). Because of this:

  • he didn't elaborate on Patristic / Medieval mysticism
  • he only mentioned fringe Pietist but not orthodox Pietism (out of scope)
  • he didn't give charismatic mysticism a fair description by focusing only on the "mysticism" done by the unorthodox Word of Faith movement, which is ALSO denounced by evangelical charismatics.

This strategic narrowing of Charismatic spirituality not only by Steve Lawson but also by John MacArthur-led church and seminary, is a "strawman" fallacy, in contrast with what Daniel Costelo did below.

Steve Lawson's coverage of Charismatic spirituality can be remedied by providing an introduction on the similarities and differences between

  1. Pre-Reformation mysticism which focuses on unitive experience with God
  2. Reformation-era Pietism which focuses (among other things) on our awareness of sins assisted by breaking the law, and of the joy of having a cleansed conscience delivered from condemnation
  3. Pentecostal style mysticism which focuses on experiencing the Holy Spirit presence

But for this answer, the focus will be the similarities and differences between Pre-Reformation mysticism and today's Pentecostalism as proposed by Daniel Costelo in his 2017 book Pentecostalism as a Christian Mystical Tradition reviewed here and here. He was brought up in a Latin American flavored charismatic church, but after exposure from North American evangelical scholarship he found writing theology to be important (unlike most Charismatics), while STILL sympathizing with most charismatics in how rationalistic theology can dampen spirituality (unlike Patristic-era church fathers where theology actually enables knowing God better, while the Reformation figures sidestepped both by focusing on personal relationship with Jesus through the joy of sola fide and through studying Scripture). He also wrote handbook-style scholarly books on Pneumatology: Pneumatology: A Guide for the Perplexed (2015) and T&T Clark Handbook of Pneumatology (2020).

Note: I was going to advance a thesis that Pietism is a bridge, but due to time (and not asked explicitly in the OP), I will restrict this answer mostly to Daniel Costelo's book.

Methodological concerns

[For methodological concern, insert here Costelo's treatment of]

  • Bifurcation of the theology and the experience of God, the "Spiritual-Theology Interface", and studious avoidance of charismatics to write Systematic theology (until very recently)
  • Insights from famous Religious studies scholar Harvey Cox in his book *Fire From Heaven" arguing for the common underlying experience of God powering the resurgence of religion in the form of charismatic churches all over the world

A little history

Even though Patristic and Medieval mysticism is arguably orthodox in its theology (thus Biblical and consistent with apostolic tradition) this kind of spirituality was eschewed by the Reformers who instead started the Pietist tradition where the accent is NOT ascending the ladder of being but devout listening to God facilitated by deeper appreciation of our salvation through faith in Christ and reading Scriptures for spiritual benefit. This started with Luther and in due time became the key element of Evangelical spirituality (until today), expressed through the typical church practice today which nurtures spiritual engagement with Scripture (Bible study) and prayerful personal relationship with Jesus Christ.

Lutheran Pietism, as well as Puritan Reformed John Owen cited by Steve Lawson, offers a sola scriptura check on unbridled mystical speculation but more negatively (from Catholic perspective) denying the possibility (cf St. John of the Cross) of "a person reaching beyond Christ to the divine darkness" (quote from page 51 of Pietists, Protestants, and Mysticism: Arnold and Late Medieval Spirituality). Read the book for an introduction of more similarity/differences between pre-Reformation mysticism and Lutheran Pietism. The author, Peter C. Erb, wrote a dissertation on it.

The similarity between Pietism and late medieval mysticism is that both uses orthodox theology of God. The difference is that mysticism is conceptualized using a Neoplatonic theory (analogy of being) while Pietism is conceptualized using the analogy of faith. [insert supporting reference here]

The motivating factor for the 20th century Pentecostals and later Charismatics is that Protestant Pietism (even in the Evangelical version) is not satisfying since it is STILL not experiential enough, having endured much "cold formalism" in the rationalistic theology promoted in the 19th century churches. Hence, the emergence of a different kind of mysticism within the charismatic movement that on paper is still within the framework of Bebbington's evangelicalism (see 2016 paper Exploring Pietism as an Intermediary for Lutheran-Pentecostal Dialogue) but eschews any theologizing which Daniel Costelo calls "The Scandal of Pentecostal Theology" (pg. 23).

Untethered to theology, and thus unchecked by objectivity, it's not surprising that the practice can easily become irrational in character and is thus susceptible to "hyper-emotionalism" and "bizarre patterns" maybe not unlike the (now forgotten) medieval excesses, which to bystanders such as the speakers of the Strange Fire conference find extremely worrisome. Of course I agree that Steve Lawson is completely right in criticizing the experiential practices accompanying the ethos of the Word of Faith movement, which I unfortunately also witnessed first-hand.

But in a more careful charismatic church, Charismatic spirituality can be argued to be quite similar with Pietism in practice, although how the practitioners describe the spirituality more in terms of the Holy Spirit baptism, gifting, and encounter rather than how Pietists (and the rest of evangelicals today) describe it in terms of relationship with Jesus. [insert reference here].

Pentecostalism as a Christian Mystical Tradition

In lieu of a more extensive summary of Daniel Costelo's book, here are several quotes from a book review by Juliana Morley of Talbot School of Theology, the seminary arm of evangelical Biola University:

... Daniel Castelo proposes that Pentecostalism is best understood as a “mystical tradition of the church catholic” (pp. xv-xvi). In Pentecostalism as a Christian mystical tradition, he argues that Pentecostalism does not fit squarely within the Protestant tradition or evangelical orientation, but is rather a reflection of the voices of historical Christian mystics. This connection is pursued by exploring the relationship between spirituality and theology, specifically the theological methodology and theological epistemology within American evangelicalism.

... Noting that outsiders to the movement and insiders are not in agreement as to how Pentecostalism fits within a broader theological framework, he demonstrates that a spirituality-theology interface is very much alive within the methodological framework of Pentecostalism. Christian theologians are urged to consider God as a revelational mystery that needs to be made manifest or known in a genuine way, and Castelo offers the term “encounter” as a useful way to describe this intellectual and relational activity (p. 55). He continues to build his case by highlighting the widespread emphasis on encounter, which is central to the Pentecostal identity, and argues it is primarily what makes Pentecostalism a mystical tradition. He later concludes that these experience-based encounters, with the potential to transform believers, help us identify Pentecostals as “modern-day mystics” (p. 82).

A third dimension of Castelo’s overall argument is how Pentecostalism relates to American evangelicalism. By giving an account of several theological positions from the last three centuries, he shows how the rationalism at work in American evangelicalism can prohibit a full understanding of the Pentecostal identity and its mystical orientation. These mystical features prominent in church history are often dismissed as representative of the gospel. Castelo creates further links between Pentecostalism and Christian mysticism by expanding the Pentecostal understanding of Spirit-baptism. In his final chapter, he develops the thoughts of contemporary Pentecostal scholars and argues that Pentecostalism must rely on its character as a mystical tradition in order to further perpetuate its identity.

Below are more quotes, from another book review by David Bradnick, a philosophy instructor:

Provided that Pentecostal theology is largely an encounter with God, Castelo proceeds to show its relatedness to classic mysticism. Not only have scholars within and outside of Pentecostalism labeled it as mystical, for example James K.A. Smith and Harvey Cox, but Castelo argues that there are strong theological similarities between them. Castelo suggests that Pentecostalism shares a “family resemblance” with mysticism given their emphasis upon purgation, illumination, and union. In these ways, and for both traditions, God encounters individuals and transform them.

Castelo also attempts to distance Pentecostalism from Evangelicalism. He proposes that the latter is principally based upon rationalism and allows little space for mysticism. For him, this type of Evangelicalism is incompatible with Pentecostalism, given its mystical bent. He traces the roots of American Evangelical theology to Scottish common sense philosophy and discusses its development by the Old Princeton theologians, especially Charles Hodge. Castelo maintains that Hodge’s high regard for rationalism and disdain for mysticism continue to provide the foundations for much of Evangelical thought, and these very traits challenge Pentecostal hermeneutics, which stresses divine encounter and embodiment.

We can readily see from both book reviews above that the core of the similarity is in the underlying encounter experience and the core of the difference is in the theology of it. While the GCC church says that giving this spirituality an important role is already dangerous (not "Scripture alone"), most sectors of the evangelical movement still regard the practice sola scriptura as long as objective Scripture can norm subjective experience.

Examples of the difference:

  1. Most Evangelicals would not even consider "Spirit-baptism" as real, but it's central to Pentecostalism which has given it a plausible Biblical basis.
  2. Non-Pentecostal early 20th century American theologies (such as Charles Hodge) is rationalistic (I can testify to this, having skimmed his 3 volume Systematic Theology as my first introduction to theology) but the center of Pentecostal theology is "divine encounter and embodiment" which makes it more aligned with Eastern orthodox's theological emphasis on Incarnation and theosis.

Reading and studying the book will enable one to flesh out more aspects of the similarity and the difference.

Conclusion

As we see above, Pietism is a precursor of Charismatic spirituality, and is also a kind of bridge between late medieval mysticism and late 20th century charismatic mysticism. Although the three spiritualities are very different in how they describe the experience and also very different in the ethos, I argue that all 3 spiritualities (when not unhinged) have the same goal: purifying one's soul to be more like Christ and attempting to be closer to God.

In particular, Daniel Costelo, a charismatic sympathizer who is also a religious studies scholar specializing in BOTH mysticism and Pentecostal theology, proposed a deep similarity at the level of experience ("encounter with God") between Patristic mystics and contemporary charismatics, even though the self-description of the practice is very different. The difference can be explained as follows:

  • Like the Pietist forebears, evangelical charismatic movement adheres to sola scriptura and shares the 16th-18th century Pietist's prejudice of medieval mysticism
  • Early charismatics' customary avoidance of theologizing makes it hard for outsiders to do compare/contrast thus masking the underlying similarity
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  • +1. Looking forward to the finished version.
    – Mark
    Commented May 26 at 2:59
  • Daniel Costelo's book is a gold mine since he is a mature religious studies scholar and his 2017 book contains many references to Pentecostal scholars that I recognize. I feel this is just the canary in the mine. There will be more books following his thesis. Dr. Roger Olson (who was also brought up Pentecostal) and has PhD in religious studies, also have many insights on this, although his theology now is not explicitly Pentecostal but Evangelical Arminian Anabaptist tinged with modern theology. His blog articles frequently talk about spirituality and its excesses. Commented May 26 at 19:59
  • Excellent book find. If four hours is not enough time for reading and summarizing the insights of an entire book, maybe a short review would be more manageable: digitalcommons.georgefox.edu/cgi/…
    – Mark
    Commented May 26 at 20:02
  • The latest version is great. Accepted and awarded. Some proof reading would certainly not hurt, and there are bracketed sentences still waiting for references to be inserted, so at least those are two ways in which the answer can be improved.
    – Mark
    Commented May 26 at 22:05

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