Development of Christian Mysticism

Pre-Nicene New Testament by Robert M. Price
p. 335, note about The First Epistle to the Corinthians
“Valentinians were the first to write commentaries on the Pauline letters.  Thus, along with the Marcionites, Valentinians are the earliest Pauline Christians we know of.”

His Alexandrian followers said that Valentinus was a follower of Theudas and that Theudas in turn was a follower of St. Paul of Tarsus. Valentinus said that Theudas imparted to him the secret wisdom that Paul had taught privately to his inner circle, which Paul publicly referred to in connection with his visionary encounter with the risen Christ (Romans 16:25; 1 Corinthians 2:7; 2 Corinthians 12:2-4; Acts 9:9-10), when he received the secret teaching from him. Such esoteric teachings were becoming downplayed in Rome after the mid-2nd century.

Tertullian wrote that Valentinus was a candidate for the office of bishop of Rome and that he lost the election by a rather narrow margin. This same failed orthodox church father (Tertullian himself joined the heresy of Montanism) alleges that Valentinus fell into apostasy around 175 A.D. There is much evidence indicating, however, that he was never universally condemned as a heretic in his lifetime and that he was a respected member of the Christian community until his death. He was almost certainly a priest in the mainstream church and may even have been a bishop.

It is certainly a question of some interest what the course of Christian theology might have been had Valentinus been elected to the office of bishop of Rome. His hermeneutic vision combined with his superb sense of the mythical would have probably resulted in a general flowering of the Gnosis within the very fabric of the Church of Rome, and might have created an authoritative paradigm of Gnostic Christianity that could not have been easily exorcised for centuries, if at all.
Like many of the greatest Gnostic teachers, Valentinus claimed to have been instructed by a direct disciple of one of Jesus’ apostles, an “apostolic man” by the name of Theodas. Tertullian also stated that Valentinus was personally acquainted with Origen, and one may speculate with some justification that his influence on this orthodox church father was considerable. The overall character of his contribution has been accurately summarized by Mead in the following manner:

The Gnosis in his hands is trying to … embrace everything, even the most dogmatic formulation of the traditions of the Master. The great popular movement and its incomprehensibilities were recognized by Valentinus as an integral part of the mighty outpouring; he laboured to weave all together, external and internal, into one piece, devoted his life to the task, and doubtless only at his death perceived that for that age he was attempting the impossible. None but the very few could ever appreciate the ideal of the man, much less understand it. (Fragments of a Faith Forgotten, p. 297)

Valentinus, the Gnostic who almost became pope, was thus the only man who could have succeeded in gaining a form of permanent positive recognition for the Gnostic approach to the message of Christ.
The distinction between faith (pistis) and knowledge (gnosis) is a very important one in Valentinianism. Pistis, the Greek word for faith denotes intellectual and emotional acceptance of a proposition. To the Valentinians, faith is primarily intellectual/emotional in character and consists accepting a body of teaching as true.
Knowledge (gnosis) is a somewhat more complex concept. Here is the definition of gnosis given by Elaine Pagels in her book The Gnostic Gospels: “…gnosis is not primarily rational knowledge. The Greek language distinguishes between scientific or reflective knowledge (‘He knows mathematics’) and knowing through observation or experience (‘He knows me’). As the gnostics use the term, we could translate it as ‘insight’, for gnosis involves an intuitive process of knowing oneself… Yet to know oneself, at the deepest level is to know God; this is the secret of gnosis.”(The Gnostic Gospels, p xviii-xix) Bentley Layton provides a similar definition in The Gnostic Scriptures: “The ancient Greek language could easily differentiate between two kinds of knowledge… One kind is propositional knowing – the knowledge that something is the case (‘I know Athens is in Greece’). Greek has several words for this kind of knowing-for example, eidenai. The other kind of knowing is personal aquaintance with an object, often a person. (‘I know Athens well’; ‘I have known Susan for many years’). In Greek the word for this is gignoskein…The corresponding Greek noun is gnosis. If for example two people have been introduced to one another, each can claim to have gnosis or aquaintance of one another. If one is introduced to God, one has gnosis of God. The ancient gnostics described salvation as a kind of gnosis or aquaintance, and the ultimate object of that aquaintance was nothing less than God” (The Gnostic Scriptures, p 9).
Faith corresponds to the intellectual/emotional aspect of religion while gnosis corresponds to the spiritual/experiential aspect. Valentinians linked the distinction between pistis and gnosis to the distinction they made between psyche and pneuma. The psyche (soul) was identified by them with cognitive/emotional aspect of the personality (the ego consciousness). The pneuma (spirit) was identified by them with the intuitive/unconscious level. The pyche was seen as consubstantial with the Demiurge while the pneuma was consubstantial with Sophia (and hence with God). Both the psyche and pneuma were capable of salvation. Psyche was saved through pistis while pneuma was saved through gnosis. Hence they distinguished two levels of salvation: psychic and pneumatic.
The psychic level of salvation was characterized by conversion (metanoia) and faith (pistis). This corresponds to receiving oral and written teachings since the psyche “requires perceptible intruction”. (Irenaeus Against Heresies 1:6:1). Herakleon describes the psychic level of salvation as “believing from human testimony” (Herakleon Fragment 39). Through pistis and psychic salvation, one attained to the level of the Demiurge. In order to be saved the person had to freely chose to believe and to do good works (Irenaeus Against Heresies 1:6:2). The psychic level of salvation was decisive in that it opened the person to the possibility of attaining the pneumatic level. Receiving the Valentinian tradition was only a first step towards the goal of gnosis.
The superior pneumatic level of salvation depends on the person having already attained to the psychic level. As the Gospel of Philip says, “No one can receive without faith” (GPhil 61:35-36) Elsewhere in the same work, the author uses an agricultural metaphor to describe this process: “Our earth in which we take root is faith. The water by which we are nourished is hope. The air by which we grow is love. And the light is aquaintance (gnosis), by which we ripen to maturity” (GPhil 79:25-32)
At the pneumatic level the person was reborn through spiritual resurrection and directly experienced the divine Truth through gnosis. Herakleon described this as follows: “At first men believe in the Savior because they are lead to that point by men, but when they encounter his word they no longer believe because of human testimony alone, but from the Truth itself” (Herakleon Fragment 39). Through gnosis one could participate in and experience the divine realm. Thats what the Gnostic doctrine of the resurrection refers to: spiritual rebirth through mystical experience (gnosis). One attained gnosis through the grace of God, not by choice. Psychic salvation was by choice while pneumatic salvation was by election.
If Elaine Pagels is correct, then the Valentinians believed that those who only attained psychic salvation would ultimately attain pneumatic salvation at the end of the world. After they died, those who had only attained psychic redemption waited with the Demiurge until the end. Then they joined those who had pneumatic redemption for the “wedding feast of all the saved” and they “all become equal and mutually recognize one another” (Excerpts of Theodotus 63:2). Then they entered the Pleroma to be joined to an angel.
If this is correct then the only difference between psychic salvation and pneumatic salvation is a matter of timing. One could attain pneumatic salvation now by becoming a Valentinian or wait until the end to attain it. Despite its lower value than gnosis, pistis was decisive for salvation!
In orthodox Christianity, pistis is an end in itself. The object of pistis is pistis itself. This easily leads to a rigid dogmatism. Salvation comes to be seen as acceptance of a specific body of dogma to the exclusion of all others. In Valentinianism and other forms of “Gnostic” Christianity, the object of pistis is gnosis. The teachings are seen as a series of metaphors that point to the higher reality of gnosis.
In many Gnostic systems (and heresiologies), God is known as the Monad, the One, The Absolute, Aion teleos (The Perfect Æon), Bythos (Depth or Profundity, Βυθος), Proarkhe (Before the Beginning, προαρχη), and E Arkhe (The Beginning, η αρχη). God is the high source of the pleroma, the region of light. The various emanations of God are called æons.
Within certain variations of Gnosticism, especially those inspired by Monoimus, the Monad was the highest God which created lesser gods, or elements (similar to æons).
According to Hippolytus, this view was inspired by the Pythagoreans, who called the first thing that came into existence the Monad, which begat the dyad, which begat the numbers, which begat the point, begetting lines, etc. This was also clarified in the writings of Plato, Aristotle and Plotinus. This teaching being largely Neopythagorean via Numenius as well.
This Monad is the spiritual source of everything which emanates the pleroma, and could be contrasted to the dark Demiurge (Yaldabaoth) that controls matter.
The Sethian cosmogony as most famously contained in the Apocryphon (‘Secret book’) of John describes an unknown God, very similar to the orthodox apophatic theology, although very different from the orthodox credal teachings that there is one such god who is identified also as creator of heaven and earth. In describing the nature of a creator god associated with Biblical texts, orthodox theologians often attempt to define God through a series of explicit positive statements, themselves universal but in the divine taken to their superlative degrees: he is omniscient, omnipotent and truly benevolent. The Sethian conception of the most hidden transcendent God is, by contrast, defined through negative theology: he is immovable, invisible, intangible, ineffable; commonly, ‘he’ is seen as being hermaphroditic, a potent symbol for being, as it were, ‘all-containing’. In the Apocryphon of John, this god is good in that it bestows goodness. After the apophatic statements, the process of the Divine in action are used to describe the effect of such a god.
An apophatic approach to discussing the Divine is found throughout gnosticism, Vedanta, and Platonic and Aristotelian theology as well. It is also found in some Judaic sources.
Eckhart’s philosophy, psychology and pneumatology are original and seminal. He distinguished between the psyche and the spiritual element in human beings, as did such early Gnostics as Valentinus. Valentinian spiritual seed can be compared to Eckhart’s fuenklein, scintilla animae, ground of the soul or soul-spark, which he identifies with “Imago Dei” from the Bible. This indestructible and divine element in the human being is for Eckhart (and for the major Christian mystical theology, including the concept of “synteresis” in the Eastern Orthodox tradition) only a potentiality, a latent function that needs to be nourished by virtuous living and spiritual vigilance in order to grow and expand. This differs from perfect Buddha nature in Mahayana Buddhism or Atman in the Hindu Vedanta. The “Imago Dei” is sometimes compared to the fallen Adam, exiled from Paradise, and the new Adam, potentially the final destination of soul-spark if, through classic Christian spiritual stages of purificative, contemplative and illuminative life, it comes to the unitive life where soul-spark is self-transformed into Logos.

“So I say that the aristocrat is one who derives his being, his life, and his happiness from God alone, with God and in God and not at all from his knowledge, perception, or love of God, or any such thing….This much is certain: when a man is happy, happy to the core and root of beatitude, he is no longer conscious of himself or anything else. He is conscious only of God…To be conscious of knowing God is to know about God and self. As I have just been explaining, the agent of the soul which enables one to see is one thing and the agent by which one knows that he sees is another. [2]

Here Eckhart foreshadows the phenomenological understanding (i.e. Merleau-Ponty) that our lived world is lived in a pre-reflective manner (what Husserl called the “natural attitude”). And this pre-reflective or implicit understanding is different from the “knowing” which is reflective understanding. For Eckhart, these two modes of engagement with the world are mutually exclusive.[2] 

p. 37: Of all the proposed “foreign” influences upon early Christianity and monasticism, it is perhaps gnosticism which has the strongest case.
This was a Christianized version of the asceticism that had been developed by the Jewish sects of the Essenes in Palestine and the Therapeutae in Egypt. Pachomius pioneered Christian communal cenobitic monastic living, and, within a very short time the intensely ascetic, renunciate form of desert Christianity burgeoned, so much so that it was estimated that more people were living out in the monasteries than in the cities. It should also be known that the Desert Fathers of Christianity were, as Palladius observed, outnumbered by their female colleagues, the Desert Mothers, by a factor of two-to-one: 20,000 females, he estimated, lived in the monasteries and hermitages of the desert regions, compared to 10,000 males. (Along this line, we do well to know that women abbesses, evidently with virtual episcopal power, flourished in certain circles of Christianity until late Renaissance times; moreover, there is evidence of women bishops and priests from a very early period of Christianity, who hosted the churches and celebrated the Eucharistic sacrament.)
Monastic Christianity was developed further by such leading lights in the East as Gregory of Nyssa (330-95), his brother Basil (330-79) and their sister, Macrina the Younger (actual founder of Eastern monasticism), and, in the West, Martin of Tours (315-97; bishop, missionary, wonderworker, and father of monasticism in France), John Cassian (360-435), and Benedict of Nursia (480-547; the moderate, mystical father of monasticism in Italy).
The monasteries yielded some of the finest fruit of Christendom. Benedictine abbeys became the grand centers for learning and culture during Europe’s Dark Ages. Many saintly abbots/abbesses headed these institutions over the centuries. Most significant was the Cistercian reform led by Bernard (1090-1153), et al. (Bernard also was the main promoter of the cult of Mother Mary in the West).
A strong tradition of via negativa or apophatic mysticism, realizing God/Spirit prior to all images, forms and concepts, took off with pseudo-Dionysius (Denys) Areopagite, an unknown monk (likely Syrian) who, circa 500 CE, wrote seminal works of mystical theology and transcendental metaphysics synthesizing Christianity and Neoplatonism (Plotinus, Proclus, et al.) (see Dionysius’ Divine Names, Mystical Theology, and epistles; he also wrote some via positiva works: Celestial Hierarchy, Ecclesiastical Hierarchy). The next great proponent of mysticism—combining the apophatic via negativa with a very positive sense of the final “cloud-like,” “sightless” beatitude in/as the Divine was John Scotus Eriugena (c.800-c.877), “the greatest Christian mind of the early middle ages,” a towering theologian long neglected by most of Christianity. Retrieving the best ideas of the Greek Fathers, Eriugena gave European Christianity a profoundly nondual and quite rich theology of panentheism (no mere pantheism or limited theism) and the beautiful emphasis on apocatastasis, or, as Eriugena terms it, the reditus or return of all beings into/as God—even though this profound theology was appreciated by only a few great Christian mystics of the middle ages, like Meister Eckhart.
Eckhart’s importance rests, however, on his German works, for it was his striving to impart “the innermost and truest truth” not as the privilege of an exclusive circle, but for all the people. It was especially in “simple piety” but that he felt himself understood, and so, as Windelband says, he “transposed the most delicate formulations of concepts into a German form with linguistic forcefulness of a genius.” Thereby Eckhart burst the narrow bonds of medieval scholasticism and through his stress on the new birth he becomes the forerunner of a new understanding of Christianity. Not only Luther and the other reformers profited from it, but also the extra-church circles, especially the Anabaptists.
Eckhart became the representative of a specifically German theology, the head and center of a numerous circle of disciples, and as Ludwig Keller (p. 163) correctly says, the “originator of impulses, from which all the parties that in later centuries grew out of the Waldenses, have been more or less touched.”
It is very probable that Hubmaier, Haetzer, and especially Hans Denck, at least indirectly, were strongly influenced by Eckhart and German mysticism in general. This is seen in their doctrine of the freedom of the will, in their slight interest in the dogma of the Trinity, and, especially in the case of Denck, in his teaching on regeneration. There is a conspicuous relationship between Eckhart and Denck in style of writing and the entire complex of ideas. Where Eckhart speaks of “the impoverishment of the creature” and of “poverty of the soul” as a condition for entry into God, Denck uses very similar expressions when he says that we “must therefore become so spiritually poor that we feel we must of ourselves perish.” Similarity is again seen in the expressions with which on the one hand Eckhart describes the divine birth in the depths of the soul and on the other hand Denck describes the new birth of the elect of God.
But however related in language, style, and manner of expression, Eckhart and Denck may be, their agreement is of a merely formal nature. Factually there are very deep differences. In Eckhart the concept of God is philosophically abstract and mixed with pantheistic mysticism; in Denck it is real and concrete. In Eckhart Christ appears essentially only as the Logos, and, in so far as he reflects on the Incarnation at all, it is only as an example (Loofs, 629); in Denck Christ is the “Lord and Prince” of salvation. In Eckhart the new birth is an act of deification, almost in a Neo-Platonic ascetic sense; in Denck the new birth is preceded by a moral collapse, a “sitting in the abyss of hell”; it is the needle’s eye “through which immense camels must slip and yet cannot do it,” until God helps them, and the eye of the needle becomes for them a narrow door to life. In Eckhart moral obligations of a practical nature retreat quietistically; in Denck they are developed into full activity in the service of God for the world. In Eckhart, all is in its essence asceticism, ecstasy, mysticism; in Denck it becomes discipleship of Christ and a listening to the revelation of God in Christ, which finds its resolution in the ”inner word,” which, to be sure, has a counterpart in Eckhart’s “divine spark.”

The effects of Eckhart’s mysticism are later to be found in Jakob Böhme (1575-1624), G. W. Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831), and Schleiermacher (1768-1834). Also in Gerhard Tersteegen’s (1697-1769) hymns there are echoes of Eckhart, without, however, the danger of falling prey to pantheism, which is inherent in Eckhart’s system.

In locating the authority within the individual rather than church, the mystics attempted to loose themselves from ecclesiastical power.  The seat of authority was in the individual, rather than church hierarchy.  For medieval mystics like Meister Eckhart and Johannes Tauler, salvation was “the discovery of the final power and authority of the Self within one’s own self.”

Ontological union of divinity and humanity is key to the mystical understanding of revelation.  It is impossible for humanity to know the Deity without sharing the same being.  Eckart remarked, “As the masters say, to be and to have knowledge of are one and the same thing.”  For the human to know the divine being in a saving way, implied humanity on the part of the Deity and Deity on the part of humanity. 

The mystics assert that his divinity is present in humans, after the Fall, in the form of an inner spark.  It is through this remaining spark of divinity that humans are able to receive direct revelation from God.  The Anabaptists, building on the foundation laid by the mystics, believed that this divine spark also gave them inspired understanding of the written Word.  Their ontology opened the door to their epistemology.  Hans Denck, close friend of Han’s Hut, clarified:

As I now progress at the hand of the inner and outer Word, I reach the understanding that the inner voice in me is a spark of the divine spirit.  But this divine spark is darkened in many hearts.  Only he can understand the Scriptures correctly who is himself illuminated by the light of the divine Spirit.

The external divine being speaks through the divine spark within a person and provides either new revelation or illumination of the Bible. 

Hut believed that humans receive more than just a divine spark.  He stated that the divine Word, himself, must become incarnate within the individual:

The Word must be received in him with a true heart through the Holy Spirit and become flesh in us.  That happens through great terror and trembling as with Mary when she heard the will of God from the angel.  The Word must be born in us too.  That can happen only through pain, poverty, and distress inside and out, etc.  And where the Word has been born and become flesh in us so that we praise God for such a favour, our heart has found peace and we become Christ’s mothers, brother, and sister.

2 thoughts on “Development of Christian Mysticism

  1. I was talking to my friend tonight. He has been reading about Hans Denck recently. Denck was an Anabaptist which was a part of the Radical Reformation which opposed both Catholicism and Protestantism.

    Some of Denck’s beliefs seem influenced by the mystic tradition. Some theorized that the Anabaptists were a part of an apostolic succession from the time of Christ.

    That is an interesting speculation as they shared some heretical views with heretic Marcion from the second century, and Marcion saw himself in the tradition of Paul. Marcion was a major competitor with the Catholic Church and so it wouldn’t be surprising that his ideas might’ve survived to be passed on.

    Nonetheless, I’m not sure how well the Anabaptists fit into the tradition of Gnosticism and Mysticism. The Catholic Mystics set the stage for the Reformationists, but there isn’t a Mystic tradition within the Reformationist churches. So, what happened to Mysticism?

    Mysticism seems to have become less central within Christianity of recent centuries. Many spiritual seekers started turning to esoteric traditions and ancient philosophy. However, Christian Mysticism has survived even if not in the mainstream.

    In terms of Protestantism, it makes sense that the Catholic tradition of Mysticism isn’t embraced. Mysticism implies a direct experience of God whereas many Protestants emphasize God as relationship. Protestants may be more likely to interpret spiritual experiences as being caused by the Holy Spirit as mediary rather than directly by God the Father.

    I did find some books about Protestantism and Mysticism, but I’ve never read any of them:

    – True Christianity (1605)
    by Johann Arndt

    – The Protestant Mystics: An Anthology of Spiritual Experience
    by Anne Fremantle and W.H. Auden

    – Post Reformation Mysticism In England
    by W. K. Fleming

    – The Mystic Spirituality of A.W. Tozer, a Twentieth-Century American Protestant
    by E. Lynn Harris

    – Mystics of the Christian Tradition
    by Steven Fanning

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