Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Mysticism in the SED: Part 2, What Did Luther Say?

Dr. Martin Luther had plenty to say about the types of mystical practices which the Southeastern District of the LCMS (SED) is spreading. He warns that the Holy Spirit is not given through your own practices apart from the Word (enthusiasm), which he calls “counterfeit spiritualities.” He condemns dream interpretations, and warns that “whatever is praised as from the Spirit—without the Word and Sacraments—is the devil himself.” In a prophetic way, he describes some of the “spirituality” which is being introduced by the SED: “Away with our schismatics, who spurn the Word while they sit in corners waiting for the Spirit’s revelation, but apart from the voice of the Word! They say one must sit still in a corner and empty the mind of all speculations, and then the Holy Spirit will fill it.” His description sounds an awfully lot like breathing prayer and centering prayer.

Luther condemns the SED’s practice of silence, which they describe as “clearing your mind of all thoughts, which results in the beginning of our understanding and acceptance of a relationship with God who wishes to communicate with us through our ‘imaginations, feelings, and dreams.’ ” (quoted from Prayer And Spiritual Formation Workshop Part 1, by Frank Gillespie)

Unlike the SED lectio divina prayer advice to avoid being “caught by the literal meaning” of Scripture, Luther advises to “shun such contemplations and have a high opinion of the ministry,” and to “let him who wants to contemplate in the right way reflect on his Baptism; let him read his Bible, hear sermons, honor father and mother, and come to the aid of a brother in distress” (see full quotes below).

The first two Luther quotes below are taken from The Book of Concord, which contains the confessions of the Lutheran Church. All LCMS pastors take an oath binding themselves to the doctrinal content of these confessions.

Quoted from the Apology to the Augsburg Confession, Article XIII

13 It is helpful, so far as can be done, to honor the ministry of the Word with every kind of praise against fanatical people. These fanatics imagine that the Holy Spirit is given not through the Word, but through certain preparations of their own. For example, they imagine He is given if they sit unoccupied and silent in far-off places, waiting for illumination, as the Enthusiasts formerly taught and the Anabaptists now teach.

Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions, ed. Paul Timothy McCain (St. Louis: CPH, 2006) 185.

Quoted from the Smalcald Articles; Part III, Article VIII

3 In issues relating to the spoken, outward Word, we must firmly hold that God grants His Spirit or grace to no one except through or with the preceding outward Word [Galatians 3:2, 5]. This protects us from the enthusiasts (i.e., souls who boast that they have the Spirit without and before the Word). They judge Scripture or the spoken Word and explain and stretch it at their pleasure, as Münzer did. Many still do this today, wanting to be sharp judges between the Spirit and the letter, and yet they do not know what they are saying [2 Corinthians 3:6]. 4 Actually, the papacy too is nothing but sheer enthusiasm. The pope boasts that all rights exist in the shrine of his heart. Whatever he decides and commands within his church is from the Spirit and is right, even though it is above and contrary to Scripture and the spoken Word.
5 All this is the old devil and old serpent [Revelation 12:9], who also turned Adam and Eve into enthusiasts. He led them away from God’s outward Word to spiritualizing and self-pride [Genesis 3:2–5]. And yet, he did this through other outward words. 6 In the same way, our enthusiasts today condemn the outward Word. Yet they themselves are not silent. They fill the world with their babbling and writings, as if the Spirit could not come through the apostles’ writings and spoken Word, but has to come through their writings and words. Why don’t they leave out their own sermons and writings and let the Spirit Himself come to people without their writings before them, as they boast that He has come into them without the preaching of the Scriptures? We do not have time now to argue about this in more detail. We have treated this well enough elsewhere.

7 For even those who believe before being baptized, or become believing in Baptism, believe through the outward Word, which came first. For example, adults who have come to reason must first have heard “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved” [Mark 16:16], even though they are at first unbelieving and receive the Spirit and Baptism ten years afterward. 8 Cornelius, living among the Jews, had heard long before about the coming Messiah, through whom he was righteous before God (Acts 10:1–2). In such faith, his prayers and alms were acceptable to God (since Luke calls him devout and God-fearing). Without the Word coming first and without hearing it, he could not have believed or been righteous [Romans 10:17]. St. Peter, though, had to reveal to him that the Messiah (in whom he had previously believed as one who would come in the future) now had come, lest his faith in the coming Messiah hold him captive among the Jewish people, who were hardened and unbelieving. He must now know that he is saved by the present Messiah and must not, with the Jewish people, deny or persecute Him.
9 In a word, enthusiasm dwells in Adam and his children from the beginning to the end of the world. Its venom has been implanted and infused into them by the old serpent. It is the origin, power, and strength of all heresy, especially of that of the papacy and Muhammad. 10 Therefore, we must constantly maintain this point: God does not want to deal with us in any other way than through the spoken Word and the Sacraments. Whatever is praised as from the Spirit—without the Word and Sacraments—is the devil himself. 11 God wanted to appear even to Moses through the burning bush and spoken Word [Exodus 3:2–15]. 12 No prophet, neither Elijah nor Elisha, received the Spirit without the Ten Commandments ‹or the spoken Word›. John the Baptist was not conceived without the word of Gabriel coming first, nor did he leap in his mother’s womb without Mary’s voice [Luke 1:11–20, 41]. 13 Peter says, “For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” [2 Peter 1:21]. Without the outward Word, however, they were not holy. Much less would the Holy Spirit have moved them to speak when they were still unholy. They were holy, says he, since the Holy Spirit spoke through them.

McCain, 280.

Quoted from Luther’s Table-Talk, CLXXI

IDOLATRY is all manner of seeming holiness and worshipping, let these counterfeit spiritualities shine outwardly as glorious and fair as they may; in a word, all manner of devotion in those that we would serve God without Christ the Mediator, his Word and command. In popedom it was held a work of the greatest sanctity for the monks to sit in their cells and meditate of God, and of his wonderful works; to be kindled with zeal, kneeling on their knees, praying, and having their imaginary contemplations of celestial objects, with such supposed devotion, that they wept for joy. In these their conceits, they banished all desires and thoughts of women, and what else is temporal and evanescent. They seemed to meditate only of God, and of his wonderful works. Yet all these seeming holy actions of devotion, which the wit and wisdom of man holds to be angelical sanctity, are nothing else but works of the flesh. All manner of religion, where people serve God without his Word and command, is simply idolatry, and the more holy and spiritual such a religion seems, the more hurtful and venomous it is; for it leads people away from the faith of Christ, and makes them rely and depend upon their own strength, works, and righteousness.
     In like manner, all kinds of orders of monks, fasts, prayers, hairy shirts, the austerities of the Capuchins, who in Popedome are held to be the most holy of all, are mere works of the flesh; for the monks hold they are holy, and shall be saved, not through Christ, whom they view as a severe and angry judge, but through the rules of their order.

Luther’s Table-Talk, trans. William Hazlitt, (London, David Bogue, 1848) 68.

Quoted from Luther’s Lectures on Genesis

     In the schools they recite the statement of Dionysius that God works through His essence but that we work through a quality that has flowed down. But who will understand this? He, however, who properly adheres to the canon we have set up can judge the pope and the world in all their wisdom, namely, that God regularly does everything through the ministry of human beings. Therefore nobody will obtain salvation through so-called spiritual speculations, without external things. Attention must be paid to the Word, and Baptism must be sought. The Eucharist must be received, and absolution must be required. All these are indeed externals, but they are included in the Word. Hence the Holy Spirit works nothing without them.
     Formerly—before God revealed the light of the Gospel [to Luther]—much was written and said about the contemplative and the active life; and in the monasteries and convents monks and nuns who, on the whole, were very pious eagerly strove to have visions and revelations presented to them. Consequently, some even noted down all their dreams. Evidently they all waited for extraordinary illuminations without external means. What else is this than a desire to ascend into heaven without ladders? Consequently, these monks and nuns were very frequently deceived by delusions of the devil.
     Hence a certain father in the desert was correct in his judgment; for when he saw that his monks were given to such speculations, he warned them to refrain. He said: “If you think you are ascending into heaven and already setting one foot on the threshold of heaven, draw it back immediately, and do not follow with the other foot.” This man condemned speculations, or the contemplative life, which the unlearned and ignorant later on exalted with such great praises. Let him who wants to contemplate in the right way reflect on his Baptism; let him read his Bible, hear sermons, honor father and mother, and come to the aid of a brother in distress. But let him not shut himself up in a nook, as the sordid mob of monks and nuns is in the habit of doing, and there entertain himself with his devotions and thus suppose that he is sitting in God’s bosom and has fellowship with God without Christ, without the Word, without the sacraments, etc.
     People of this kind speak most contemptuously of the active life, and I certainly had to pay a high price before I was freed from this error, for it pleases reason and seems to be a worship of angels, as Paul calls it (Col. 2:18). The hypocrite and blasphemous apostate Witze] (sic) once reproached me by saying that we teach externals too much and should place emphasis on spiritual things. For reason wants to move about among wonderful things that are beyond it. But beware of these snares of Satan, and set up a definition of the contemplative life different from the one they taught in the monasteries, namely, that it is the true contemplative life to hear and believe the spoken Word and to want to know nothing “except Christ and Him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2). He alone, with His Word, is the profitable and salutary object of contemplation. Beware of forsaking Him; for those who have given up or disregarded the human nature or the flesh of Christ and speculate about God as the monks used to do and now Schwenkfeld and others are in the habit of doing are either driven to despair when they are overwhelmed by the clarity of the Majesty, or they foolishly exult and dream that they have been placed into heaven. But they have been deceived by Satan, who makes sport of hearts by means of such deceptions. Those who despair can indeed be helped; but the same thing does not hold true of those who, like people drunk with joy, think that they are sitting in God’s bosom.
     Gerson, too, has written about the contemplative life. He gives it high praise. When the unlearned read such statements, they accept them as oracles of God; but actually, as the proverb says, they accept coals as treasure. Hence if these good-for-nothing contemplators should call you either an externalist or a worldling, do not let this bother you. Give thanks to God for the Word and these externals, and leave these high-sounding speculations to others.
     I once read books of that sort with great zeal, and I urge you, too, to read them, but with discretion. I have good reason to stress these things in this manner. You should direct your attention to the ordered power of God and the ministrations of God; for we do not want to deal with the uncovered God, whose ways are inscrutable and whose judgments are unsearchable (Rom. 11:33).
     We must reflect on God’s ordered power, that is, on the incarnate Son, in whom are hidden all the treasures of the Godhead (Col. 2:3). Let us go to the child lying in the lap of His mother Mary and to the sacrificial victim suspended on the cross; there we shall really behold God, and there we shall look into His very heart. We shall see that He is compassionate and does not desire the death of the sinner, but that the sinner should “turn from his way and live” (Ezek. 33:11). From such speculation or contemplation spring true peace and true joy of heart. Therefore Paul says (1 Cor. 2:2): “I determine to know nothing except Christ.” We have leisure to speculate on this with profit.
     But that union of the soul and the body about which Gerson discourses in a grand manner is often fraught with great peril and pure mockery of Satan, who stirs up such devotions in the heart.
     A story is told about a certain nun who took delight in her contemplations and carefully kept away from the other nuns, lest her thoughts be hampered. When she thought she was dressed in a golden robe and adorned with a golden crown and thus, like a bride at her marriage, sat there delighted and rejoiced, the rest of the nuns discovered the mockery; for instead of a crown on her head they saw cow dung. She dreamed that this was a golden crown. Whether this actually happened or not, it nevertheless shows that people have been shamefully deceived by their contemplations. Therefore let him who wants to be safe in this respect shun such contemplations and have a high opinion of the ministry, through which God deals with us and presents Himself to us, so to speak, to be observed. But let us finally get back to the account.

Martin Luther, Luther's Works, Lectures on Genesis, CD-ROM, ed. Jaroslav Pelikan and Helmut Lehmann (Saint Louis: CPH, 1999) vol. 3, p. 274.

Quoted from Luther’s Lectures on Isaiah

3. The voice of one crying in the wilderness. This text is clear to you; it is treated every year, and so we may explain it very briefly. The voice of one crying: In the wilderness preach, etc. This is how we punctuate the text. Luke (3:4) joins in the wilderness with the preacher, John, working in the wilderness. The Jews to the Gentiles. In the wilderness is put allegorically. It does not matter. Summary: By this prophecy Isaiah promises a new kind of teaching beyond that which had been in vogue heretofore. For in this way the evangelists begin. The voice of one crying. It is as if he were saying: “The preaching of the Law was a muttering, incomplete and unpleasant to all ears, and produced nothing but hypocrites. But here comes a voice, a clear and complete and universal proclamation which purely and joyously and most loudly declares that the warfare is ended and that sins are forgiven.” This is received from a “voice,” that is, through the public preaching of the Word. It must be heard and received from a speaking voice. Away with our schismatics, who spurn the Word while they sit in corners waiting for the Spirit’s revelation, but apart from the voice of the Word! They say one must sit still in a corner and empty the mind of all speculations, and then the Holy Spirit will fill it. The sophists also taught this. In vain, however, do we rely on this, and that for two reasons. In the first place, because we are not able to empty our soul of speculations. The devil will provide you with many thoughts. In the second place, because the flesh has not yet been killed in you. When you have heard the Word, you earnestly kill the flesh and empty your soul. It will happen in no other way. No one becomes spiritual without this voice. This is the power of this voice. Away with all Enthusiasts.

Martin Luther, Luther's Works, Lectures on Isaiah, CD-ROM, ed. Jaroslav Pelikan and Helmut Lehmann (Saint Louis: CPH, 1999) vol. 17, p. vii.

Quoted from Luther’s Sermons on the Gospel of St. John

     For He will not speak on His own authority, but whatever He hears He will speak.
     Here Christ makes the Holy Spirit a Preacher. He does so to prevent one from gaping toward heaven in search of Him, as the fluttering spirits and enthusiasts do, and from divorcing Him from the oral Word or the ministry. One should know and learn that He will be in and with the Word, that it will guide us into all truth, in order that we may believe it, use it as a weapon, be preserved by it against all the lies and deception of the devil, and prevail in all trials and temptations. For there is, after all, no other way and no other means of perceiving the Holy Spirit’s consolation and power, as I have often demonstrated from Holy Writ and have often experienced myself. For I, too, am a half-baked theologian. This I say lest I exalt myself over the great minds who have long ago ascended into the clouds beyond all Scripture and have nestled under the wings of the Holy Spirit. But experience has taught me all too often that whenever the devil catches me outside Scripture and sees that my thoughts are rambling and that I, too, am fluttering toward heaven, he brings me to the point of not knowing where God is or where I am. The Holy Spirit wants this truth which He is to impress into our hearts to be so firmly fixed that reason and all one’s own thoughts and feelings are relegated to the background. He wants us to adhere solely to the Word and to regard it as the only truth. And through this Word alone He governs the Christian Church to the end.
     Here Christ defines the Holy Spirit’s office and points out what and about what He is to teach. He constantly keeps in mind the false spirits and preachers who boastfully claim to have the Holy Spirit as well as others do and allege that what they say has emanated from the Holy Spirit. That is what the pope persuaded the entire world to believe. Thus the Holy Spirit establishes a wide difference among teachers and gives the right rule by which the spirits are to be tested. He wants to say that there are two kinds of teachers. There are some who speak on their own authority; that is, they evolve their message from their own reasoning or religious zeal and judgment. The Holy Spirit is not to be that kind of preacher; for He will not speak on His own authority, and His message will not be a human dream and thought like that of the preachers who speak on their own authority of things which they have neither seen nor experienced and, as St. Paul says in 1 Tim. 1:7, talk “without understanding either what they are saying or the things about which they make assertions.” “No, His message will have substance; it will be the certain and absolute truth, for He will preach what He receives from the Father and from Me. And you will be able to recognize Him by the fact that He does not speak on His own authority—as the spirit of lies, the devil, and his mobs do—but will preach about what He will hear. Thus He will speak exclusively of Me and will glorify Me, so that the people will believe in Me.”
     In this way Christ sets bounds for the message of the Holy Spirit Himself. He is not to preach anything new or anything else than Christ and His Word. Thus we have a sure guide and touchstone for judging the false spirits. We can declare that it surely does not indicate the presence of the Holy Spirit when a person proclaims his own thoughts and notions and begins to teach in Christendom something apart from or in addition to what Christ taught. No, that betrays the presence of the loathesome spirit of lies, the devil, of whom Christ declares in John 8:44: “When he lies, he speaks according to his own nature,” that is, what he himself has fabricated. The whole heap of the pope’s doctrines—of the papacy, of purgatory, of indulgences, of pilgrimages, of monasticism, and of Masses—is composed of such lies of the devil. It contains neither a word nor a thought about Christ. Yet he has filled Christendom with it. Consequently, we, too, had to believe the nocturnal dreams of every stupid monk, transparent and obvious lies though they were and intolerable to intelligent people.

Martin Luther, Luther's Works, Sermons on the Gospel of St. John, CD-ROM, ed. Jaroslav Pelikan and Helmut Lehmann (Saint Louis: CPH, 1999) vol. 24, p. 362.

From these quotes it’s obvious that Luther had no patience for the type of “spiritual formation” being taught in the SED. He didn’t mince words when it came to these sorts of mystical practices, calling those who practice them fanatics, Enthusiasts, boastful, prideful, babblers, sordid, schismatics, and fluttering spirits.

Tomorrow, we’ll take a look at what Dr. Francis Pieper has to say about enthusiasm and mysticism.

“Let no one disqualify you, insisting on asceticism and worship of angels, going on in detail about visions, puffed up without reason by his sensuous mind.” Col 2:18 ESV

Jump to Part 3: What Did Pieper Say?

You can download all parts of this series here.


Martin Diers said...


What do you think of the Light of Life book that CPH is putting out? It is an attempt to Lutheranize lectio divina. The book seems to want to take the fours steps of lectio divina and make them about the objective Word instead of the subjective experience.

My concern is that it seems dangerous to me to take a spiritual practice that at its core comes from the mystical tradition and de-mysticize it. If nothing else, it is liable to cause great confusion to call something like this "lectio divina" when everything else known by that term is pure mysticism. It also uses the terminology of "contemplative prayer" but tries to shift the emphasis away from the subjective. Again, much room for confusion.

Second, I am very uncomfortable with how it presents the way the Holy Spirit speaks to us through the Word - namely that when we read the scripture and some word or phrase catches our attention, that that is the Holy Spirit speaking to us. Second, that we should repeat the words and phrases of a reading, letting them fill our minds, until that happens.

The author does not seem to be willing to listen to my concerns when I voiced them, and I have seen very little reaction from the confessionals in the LCMS.

Scott Diekmann said...

I agree with your points Pastor Diers. It's a bit disconcerting when they have to issue a warning for the practice they're about to teach you. I'm also not too keen on focusing on whatever single word happens to pop out of the text. Shouldn't we be focusing on the meaning of the entirety of text? It also seems to defeat their meditatio focus by then throwing in their own paragraph of meditation. Who's doing the meditating here, me, or them? And I really don't like that they chose to use the name "contemplative prayer." The Dr. Nagel quote also seems to be a bit of a stretch (I'm referring to the Light of Life sample, http://www.cph.org/pdf/Helps/124363_sample.pdf). His quote refers to the Divine Service, not lectio divina.