Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Is Contemplative “Christianity” Preschool Christianity?

Peter Haas, who identifies as a contemplative, recently made the comment that evangelicalism, with its focus on Scripture and doctrine, might be an immature form of Christianity. He stated this by asking the more rhetorical question, “Is Evangelicalism Sixth Grade Christianity?” He said this because, as most contemplatives, he views a Christianity focused on doctrine as basic and a mere stepping stone to a greater spirituality that is experienced directly in the presence of God (i.e., a spirituality without or surpassing external mediation).

As I have argued in a couple previous posts, immature Christianity is that which seeks a direct encounter with God apart from the mediation of Scripture and the Church’s/orthodox teaching thereof that He has provided. It wishes to experience the divine for the self rather than submit to the sufficiency of the Divine revealing Himself through human language. There is a Gnostic/Marcionite skeptical assumption toward the physical world and knowledge obtained through non-experience, as well as a desire to bypass what one considers unsightly in Scripture. And so, contemplatives end up ignoring what the Scripture tells us about itself—namely, that the path to maturity is not through contemplation and direct experiences with God that transcend the Scripture, but rather through Scripture itself. It is through the teaching of Scripture and its doctrines by which the man of God is equipped for every good work (2 Tim 3:15-17), the body as a whole is grown up and fitted together, no longer tossed around by false teaching, made perfect/mature (Eph 4:11–16), and sanctified in the truth (John 17:17).

In fact, in Ephesians 4, Paul argues that no one should ask how we can receive a maturity in Christ, as though we have to wonder whether we have to go up to God to get it, or He still needs to descend to us to receive it. This is Sinai imagery, where Moses had to ascend to the heights of the mountain to receive God’s revelation and then descend in order to give it to the people. Paul’s point is that the truth has been received already. Christ has given the Church revelation through its apostles and prophets and a guidance to the church through its evangelists, pastors, and teachers that it might be used and interpreted correctly to equip and mature the saints. Hence, contemplatives are rejecting the Pauline testimony by continuing to seek further access to God in order to receive a “mature” spirituality that He does not give to anyone beside the church through the Word.

In fact, even though I ask whether contemplative Christianity is preschool Christianity, what I really mean to ask is whether it is Christianity at all. I’ve argued that it, in fact, is not. It is an immature spirituality that seeks direct experience of the divine. That is why it is the vehicle by which paganism seeks to know God. It is the path of the animist, the Hindu, the Buddhist, the Egyptian and Babylonian religions, etc. It seeks to know God directly rather than by analogy through language, because it is not in submission to the Word. That is why contemplatives come back to Scripture and start dissecting what they think is of God and what they think is not. Gregory did this and everyone affected by such a concept within Christianity has since. 

Now, I am not saying that contemplatives are not Christians. That’s not my call. But they are undermining the means through which Christians are matured, and therefore, their sanctification/salvation. One who does this ought to seriously think of the severity of God toward such a crime as to seek to hinder the growth, and perhaps birth, of His children. As I have said before, knowing God through what God has spoken requires us to submit to Him in faith. I cannot experience God for myself. I must trust what He has revealed of Himself and His church for getting Him right. 

That all requires submission to God’s revelation and the means He has provided to interpret that revelation. This is where the rubber meets the road and the Christian claim of a contemplative will manifest itself to be either an immature Christianity that has not rid itself of pagan assumptions or a false Christianity that is still in rebellion against the Spirit of Truth.

In any case, the Reformed/orthodox view has articulated the Scripture’s teaching concerning itself quite well, so I’ll let Muller sum it up for me.

As we have already recognized in the Reformed prolegomena, and their focus on ectypal theology after the fall, Reformed theology emphasizes the accommodation of the divine will to human need and of divine revelation to the modes of human knowing. Here Turretin quite pointedly directs attention away from the absolute power of God toward the power of God exercised according to the divine wisdom concerning the needs of beings in this life. Thus, comments Turretin, in the natural pattern (oeconomia naturali) of human life, parents teach their children—first, with a living voice, when children are infants and are being given their initial formation, and then, later, with the voice of a teacher, through the use of books and reading, in order to inculcate as with a strong rod, the teaching (doctrina) in those books. God has followed the same pattern in teaching his children. Thus, in the infancy of the people of God, God spoke directly and in a living voice. This unwritten word could be properly conserved at the time because of the longevity of the patriarchs, the small number of people in the covenant, and the frequency of revelations. In later times, however, the church was no longer confined to a few families and human life was shortened considerably. Oracles were fewer and, moreover, the establishment of the nation of Israel demanded not so much a living voice as written laws.

Thus, too, the written word was necessary “that the church might have a certain and true rule and canon, whereby it might judge all questions, doubts and controversies of religion,” and “that the faith of men in Christ which was to come, might better be confirmed by the Messias, and see all things that were foretold of him verified in the event,” and further, “that the purity of God’s worship might be preserved from corruption and the truth propagated among all nations.” Scripture is also given to take away excuse from those who would ignore the precepts of God . . . Thus, the orthodox will speak of Scripture as the medium conversionis on the basis of James 1:18; the medium fidei et consolationis, on the basis of Romans 10:17; and the fundamentum ecclesiae, et omnis cultis eius, on the basis of Ephesians 2:20. Scripture is the “Lydian stone” by which all things are measured (Isa. 8:20; Gal 1:9) and the lux splendens in obscuro (2 Pet. 1:19) to be employed as a remedy against all errors.

Against the “Enthusiasts and the Libertines,” who claim that Scripture is necessary only for children and beginners in faith, whereas the more perfect and mature Christian can rest on the teaching of the Spirit, the Reformed pose the testimony of Scripture itself. Thus, Paul asks the Corinthians to come to a decision on the basis of what he writes to them (1 Cor. 10:15)—while the apostles John first states that he writes to Christians as “children” and then, subsequently, addresses instructions to Christian “fathers” (1 John 2:1, 12–14). Similarly, Paul addresses the perfect or mature—adulti—with advice (Phil. 3:15). The Enthusiasts and Libertines draw on 1 John 2:27 in order to argue that the special anointing of the Spirit renders them superior to all human teachings. These words, Rüssen argues, ought not be understood “absolutely,” as if the New Testament writings were no longer necessary, inasmuch as John’s own epistle in which these words appear would then be quite unnecessary (!), but rather “relatively” insofar as the Spirit working through the New Testament has provided a fuller teaching than had been available under the previous dispensation. Similarly, the words of Paul that “the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life” cannot be used to refute the orthodox claim of the necessity of Scripture inasmuch as “the letter” is not the letter of Scripture but the letter of the law that condemns sin . . .Neither does the fact that the faithful are theodidaktoi, taught by the inward working of the Spirit, render Scripture unnecessary. Word and Spirit cannot be separated (Isa. 59:21). The former is objective and extrinsic, the latter efficient and inward in the heart: “the Spirit is the teacher, Scripture the doctrine that he teaches us”—“Spiritus est Doctor, Scriptura est doctrina quam nos docet.” The Spirit does not work through new revelations, but by impressing the written Word on the heart.[1]

[1] Richard A. Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, 2:179–81.


  1. "It is an immature spirituality that seeks direct experience of the divine."

    How does one form a *reliable* interpretation of Scripture? Can one rely on human reason and logic alone? If one needs the guidance/assistance of the Holy Spirit, is that not an "experience" of the divine that transcends the material, as well?

    "Thus, in the infancy of the people of God, God spoke directly and in a living voice"

    How do you know this? Is this specified in Scripture? Why does He hide now? Isn't the challenge of obedience sufficiently difficult without the added challenge of trying to figure out what He wants and whether He exists at all?

  2. "How does one form a *reliable* interpretation of Scripture?"

    By believing and submitting oneself to the biblical teachings of the historic Christian church that continues the apostolic orthodoxy that Christ lays down in the giving of the interpretive gifts to that Church. This gives him his necessary presuppositions by which he proceeds to interpret the rest of Scripture with logic and reasoning by aid of the Holy Spirit.

    "Can one rely on human reason and logic alone?"

    No. The Scripture is spiritually discerned, and so we need His aid in order to see it correctly.

    "If one needs the guidance/assistance of the Holy Spirit, is that not an 'experience' of the divine that transcends the material, as well?"

    Yes, it is an experience of God, but it is not a direct (i.e., unmediated) one. I have interaction with the Spirit of God through the Word and it is in grappling with the Word that the Spirit illumines it. Hence, God communes with us through the Word, not apart from it.

    "How do you know this? Is this specified in Scripture?"

    Yes, it is a summary of progressive revelation and the "bibliology" presented in the canon. Turretin here is relating what God does according to that revelation.

    "Why does He hide now? Isn't the challenge of obedience sufficiently difficult without the added challenge of trying to figure out what He wants and whether He exists at all?"

    We're never told to figure out if He exists. We're told to believe it and move on from there. We can argue for it, but it is ultimately an act of trust.
    Second to this, the theology of the text indicates that God does not continually speak this way because it feeds into the self religion from which He is trying to save us. If He continually "appears" then there is no submission of the self through an external medium by which our self religion is destroyed. Instead, I experience God for myself and never need to submit to God in a way that is outside of myself. This is the problem of idolatry as well. If God were to feed my experience, He feeds the religion of the devil, not His own worship and glory.

  3. "If He continually "appears" then there is no submission of the self through an external medium by which our self religion is destroyed."

    Come again? If He speaks or shows up as an actual presence of any kind, that leads to "self worship", but if I have to rely on subjective interpretation of what I think Scripture means, I'm more likely to go "outside of myself"?

    I'm sorry ... I have no idea what that means.

  4. I'm sorry, James, I've explained this many times on this blog, so I assumed that maybe you had read some of that. The point the Scripture makes is that if God concedes to appearing to you so that you can empirically verify what He says and that He exists, He is simply submitting Himself to your wishes. You remain the one in control and giving the demands. You remain as lord of your life to which God must submit Himself to you. If He concedes to the demands of the lord of Self then He will be acceptable to you. If He does not, then He is rejected. This keeps the religion of the Self, the only other religion that exists beside true religion, in full swing.

    Speaking through men, however, in a text that can no longer be verified by Self, but demands its full submission to it, causes the individual to relinquish the religion of Self and bow to an outside source, which in this case, represents God Himself. Hence, submitting oneself to Scripture that is outside the self is the only way to worship God. Ergo, seeking a direct experience of God that will only puff up the self is not a Christian idea.