This post is a continuation of the interview I had with Deb Elkink about the spiritual views and lifestyle adopted by Brother Lawrence, whose writings I’ve been studying on the first Tuesdays of each month this year. Deb kindly offered me her educated opinion on the truths overlooked by Monk Lawrence in his mystical, contemplative approach to the Christian life…
DEB: Let’s get back to our discussion of Brother Lawrence, mysticism, and The Practice of the Presence of God. Remember that correct theology comes from what we read in the Bible, not on what we feel in our hearts (Psalm 19:7-9; Romans 10:17; Jeremiah 17:9). Our authority is Scripture; we trust the Bible’s propositions, not emotions—something Brother Lawrence, as a contemplative seeking a sense of peace, seems to have ignored in favour of looking within his “centre” to find “union with God by love” through direct experiences that bypassed the intellect. In his final letter, just days before his death, he wrote, “Let us seek Him often by faith; He is within us; seek Him not elsewhere.”
JAN: Reminds me of the song lyrics from Desiderata, played back in my high school days, “Therefore, be at peace with god, whatever you conceive him to be…” This language is vague and general, and definitely unbiblical.
DEB: Yes, we hear it used as well by Eastern religions desiring union with God by annihilation of the self. Call me a skeptic, but alarm bells ring when I read that “perfect resignation to God” gives “spiritual light” and a “sure way to heaven,” for God “reposes . . . and rests in the depths and centre of [my] soul.” Instead, we know that Scripture is the source of spiritual light giving assurance of salvation (2 Timothy 3:16-17; 1 John 5:11-13).
According to this book [The Practice of the Presence of God], we are to “enter into ourselves” and empty the heart of all things “so that God can possess it”; God cannot act and do in the heart what He pleases “unless it be left vacant to him.” But we know that it is God who works in us in our sinful state; He alone does the doing (Philippians 2:13). For all Brother Lawrence’s insistence that he’s focusing solely on God, he sounds to me as though he’s self-focused.
The Reformation was based on the return to the authority of Scripture over the traditions of religion. Brother Lawrence also seems to have disliked the traditions of religion—but in his overreaction against the authoritarianism of his ecclesial and legalistic milieu, it seems to me that he threw out the baby of Scripture with the bathwater of religiosity.
JAN: Thanks for explaining the theology behind that for me and for my readers. Are there any other discussions we can go to for further clarification on this issue?
DEB: Yes, I found a wonderful (if a rather long) article for the theologically minded about the effect of mysticism on Christianity, written by the Princeton theologian B. B. Warfield. I suggest your readers focus on the first dozen or so paragraphs, so as not to be overwhelmed by the volume: http://www.reformedliterature.com/warfield-mysticism-and-christianity.php
JAN: What are the basic points of this article we should keep in mind as we evaluate Brother Lawrence’s writings?
DEB: Concentrating on the first part of Warfield’s article, I’d say to keep in mind the following:
- Religion is humanity’s reaction to the presence of God.
- True religion that holds authority comes to a human from without and is not a creation from inside a person’s spirit.
- Mysticism appeals to feelings as the source for divine knowledge, and emotions are pitted against conceptions (that is, articulate thoughts).
- The form of religious expression resulting from these feelings depends upon personality and worldview so that, for example, mystics with a Christian background might substitute “the Christ within” for “the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.”
- Orthodox evangelical Christianity interprets all religious experience by the Bible, which alone guides, directs, and corrects.
- A quote from Warfield: “We lack all criteria, apart from the written Word, to distinguish between those motions of the heart which are created within us by the Spirit of God and those which arise out of the natural functioning of the religious consciousness . . . Mysticism is simply . . . pantheism expressed in the terms of religious aspiration.”
JAN: Thanks so much for your input today, Deb. I value your opinion and your heart for truth. Let us continue to “contend earnestly for the faith once delivered” (Jude 1:3).
JAN AGAIN: I’ve done some more reading, had some in-depth discussions and prayed about this polarity between “Christian mysticism” and “Bible only” mentality. While I believe we must run everything through the filter of God’s Word, and that Jesus Christ and His sacrifice is the only way we can know God, I am sensing more and more of a hostility toward anything that reflects personal differences and preferences, and it frightens me. My friends, let us strive for God’s truth, for unity of spirit, for love and for balance. Sometimes we must even agree to disagree and still be brothers and sisters in Christ. Let us present a unified front, a welcoming picture of what belonging to God’s family looks like. We are, after all, to be a reflection of Christ, the only one some people will ever see.
P.S. I am by nature a peacemaker and not a pot-stirrer, so this discussion has been a challenging and stretching one for me. I pray you will accept it in the manner in which it was intended. Discussion is always welcome, but I request that it remain a discussion of ideas, not a venue for personal offense.