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4. Mysticism at, and after the Reformation.

A. Effect of the Reformation on the Popular Mind.

Such a great and general movement of the public mind as occurred during the sixteenth century, when the old foundations of doctrine and order in the Church, were overturned, could hardly fail to be attended by irregularities and extravagancies in the inward and outward life of the people. There are two principles advanced, both Scriptural and both of the last importance, which are specially liable to abuse in times of popular excitement.


The first is, the right of private judgment. This, as understood by the Reformers, is the right of every man to decide what a revelation made by God to him, requires him to believe. It was a protest against the authority assumed by the Church (i.e. the Bishops), of deciding for the people what they were to believe. It was very natural that the fanatical, in rejecting the authority of the Church, should reject all external authority in matters of religion. They understood by the right of private judgment, the right of every man to determine what he should believe from the operations of his own mind and from his own inward experience, independently of the Scriptures. But as it is palpably absurd to expect, on such a subject as religion, a certainty either satisfactory to ourselves or authoritative for others, from our own reason or feelings, it was inevitable that these subjective convictions should be referred to a supernatural source. Private revelations, an inward light, the testimony of the Spirit, came to be exalted over the authority of the Bible.

Secondly, the Reformers taught that religion is a matter of the heart, that a man’s acceptance with God does not depend on his membership in any external society, on obedience to its officers, and on sedulous observance of its rites and ordinances; but on the regeneration of his heart, and his personal faith in the Son of God, manifesting itself in a holy life. This was a protest against the fundamental principle of Romanism, that all within the external organization which Romanists call the Church, are saved, and all out of it are lost. It is not a matter of surprise that evil men should wrest this principle, as they do all other truths, to their own destruction. Because religion does not consist in externals, many rushed to the conclusion that externals, — the Church, its ordinances, its officers, its worship, — were of no account. These principles were soon applied beyond the sphere of religion. Those who regarded them themselves as the organs of God, emancipated from the authority of the Bible and exalted above the Church, came to claim exemption from the authority of the State. To this outbreak the grievous and long-continued oppression of the peasantry greatly contributed, so that this spirit of fanaticism and revolt rapidly spread over all Germany, and into Switzerland and Holland.

The Popular Disorders not the Effects of the Reformation.

The extent to which these disorders spread, and the rapidity with which they diffused themselves, show that they were not the mere outgrowth of the Reformation. The principles avowed by the 81Reformers, and the relaxation of papal authority occasioned by the Reformation, served but to inflame the elements which had for years been slumbering in the minds of the people. The innumerous associations and fellowships, of which mention was made in the preceding section, had leavened the public mind with the principles of pantheistic Mysticism, which were the prolific source of evil. Men who imagined themselves to be forms in which God existed and acted, were not likely to be subject to any authority human or divine, nor were they apt to regard anything as sinful which they felt inclined to do.

These men also had been brought up under the Papacy. According to the papal theory, especially as it prevailed during the Middle Ages, the Church was a theocracy, whose representatives were the subjects of a constant inspiration rendering them infallible as teachers and absolute as rulers. All who opposed the Church were rebels against God, whom to destroy was a duty both to God and man. These ideas Münzer and his followers applied to themselves. They were the true Church. They were inspired. They were entitled to determine what is true in matters of doctrine. They were entitled to rule with absolute authority in church and state. All who opposed them, opposed God, and ought to be exterminated. Münzer died upon the scaffold: thus was fulfilled anew our Lord’s declaration, “Those who take the sword, shall perish by the sword.”

B. Mystics among the Reformers.

Few of the theologians contemporary with Luther took any part in this fanatical movement. To a certain extent this however was done by Carlstadt (Bodenstein), archdeacon and afterwards professor of theology at Wittenberg. At first he cooperated zealously with the great Reformer, but when Storch and Stübener claiming to be prophets, came to Wittenberg during Luther’s confinement at Wartburg, and denounced learning and Church institutions, and taught that all reliance was to be placed on the inward light, or supernatural guidance of the Spirit, Carlstadt gave them his support and exhorted the students to abandon their studies and to betake themselves to manual labor. Great disorder following these movements, Luther left his place of seclusion, appeared upon the scene, and succeeded in allaying the tumult. Carlstadt then withdrew from Wittenberg, and ultimately united himself with Schwenkfeld, a more influential opponent of Luther and who was equally imbued with the spirit of Mysticism.



Schwenkfeld, a nobleman born 1490, in the principality of Lignitz, in Lower Silesia, was a man of great energy and force of character, exemplary in his conduct, of extensive learning and indefatigable diligence. He at first took an active part in promoting the Reformation, and was on friendly terms with Luther, Melancthon, and the other leading Reformers. Being a man not only of an independent way of thinking, but confident and zealous in maintaining his peculiar opinions, he soon separated himself from other Protestants and passed his whole life in controversy; condemned by synods and proscribed by the civil authorities, he was driven from city to city, until his death, which occurred in 1561.

That Schwenkfeld differed not only from the Romanists, but from Lutherans and Reformed on all the great doctrines then in controversy, is to be referred to the fact that he held, in common with the great body of the Mystics of the Middle Ages, that union or oneness with God, not in nature or character only, but also in being or substance, was the one great desideratum and essential condition of holiness and felicity. To avoid the pantheistic doctrines into which the majority of the Mystics were led, he held to a form of dualism. Creatures exist out of God, and are due to the exercise of his power. In them there is nothing of the substance of God, and therefore nothing really good. With regard to men, they are made good and blessed by communicating to them the substance of God. This communication is made through Christ. Christ is not, even as to his human nature, a creature. His body and soul were formed out of the substance of God. While on earth, in his state of humiliation, this substantial unity of his humanity with God, was undeveloped and unrevealed. Since his exaltation it is completely deified, or lost in the divine essence. It followed from these principles, First, That the external church, with its ordinances and means of grace, was of little importance. Especially that the Scriptures are not, even instrumentally, the source of the divine life. Faith does not come by hearing, but from the Christ within; i.e. from the living substance of God communicated to the soul. This communication is to be sought by abnegation, renunciation of the creature, by contemplation and prayer. Secondly, as to the sacrament of the supper, which then was the great subject of controversy, Schwenkfeld stood by himself. Not admitting that Christ had any material body or blood, he could not admit that the bread and wine were transubstantiated into his body 83and blood, as Romanists teach; nor that his body and blood were focally present in the sacrament, in, with, and under the bread and wine, as Luther held; nor could he admit the dynamic presence of Christ’s body, as taught by Calvin; nor that the Lord’s Supper was merely a significant and commemorative ordinance, as Zwingle taught. He held his own doctrine. He transposed the words of Christ. Instead of “This (bread) is my body,” he said, the true meaning and intent of Christ was, “My body is bread;” that is, as bread is the staff and source of life to the body, so my body, formed of the essence of God, is the life of the soul.

A third inference from Schwenkfeld’s fundamental principle was that the redemption of the soul is purely subjective; something wrought in the soul itself. He denied justification by faith as Luther taught that doctrine, and which Luther regarded as the life of the Church. He said that we are justified not by what Christ has done for us, but by what He does within us. All we need is the communication of the life or substance of Christ to the soul. With him, as with Mystics generally, the ideas of guilt and expiation were ignored.

Later Mystics.

The succession of mystical writers was kept up by such men as Paracelsus, Weigel, Jacob Boehmne, and others. The first named was a physician and chemist, who combined natural philosophy and alchemy with his theosophy. He was born in 1493 and died in 1541. Weigel, a pastor, was born in Saxony in 1533, and died in 1588. His views were formed under the influence of Tauler, Schwenkfeld, and Paracelsus. He taught, as his predecessors had done, that the inner word, and not the Scriptures, was the source of true knowledge, that all that God creates is God himself, and that all that is good in man is of the substance of God. The most remarkable writer of this class was Jacob Boehme, who was born near Gorlitz in Silesia, in 1575. His parents were peasants, and he himself a shoemaker. That such a man should write books which have proved a mine of thoughts to Schelling, Hegel, and Coleridge, as well as to a whole class of theologians, is decisive evidence of his extraordinary gifts. In character he was mild, gentle, and devout; and although denounced as a heretic, he constantly professed his allegiance to the faith of the Church. He regarded himself as having received in answer to prayer, on three different occasions. communications of divine light and knowledge which he was impelled to reveal to others. He did not represent the primordial being as without attributes or qualities of which nothing could be 84predicated, but as the seat of all kinds of forces seeking development. What the Bible teaches of the Trinity, he understood as an account of the development of the universe out of God and its relation to him. He was a theosophist in one sense, in which Vaughan4444Hours with Mystics, vol. i. p. 45. defines the term, “One who gives you a theory of God or of the works of God, which has not reason, but an inspiration of his own for its basis.” “The theosophists,” says Fleming,4545Vocabulary of Philosophy. “are a school of philosophers who mix enthusiasm with observation, alchemy with theology, metaphysics with medicine, and clothe the whole with a form of mystery and inspiration.”4646See Baur’s Christliche Gnosis; Dorner’s History of the Doctrine of the Person of Christ and his History of Protestant Theology; Hamberger, Die Lehre des Deutschen Philosophen u Boehme, 1844.

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