The Presence of God. A History of Western Christian Mysticism, vol. VI:1: Mysticism in the Reformation (1500–1650) by Bernard McGinn
With this sixth part of his multi-volume treatment of the history of western Christian mysticism, Bernard McGinn turns his focus to the age of Reformations. As he clarifies at the outset, his intent in exploring Mysticism in the Reformation (1500–1650), the first of three books in the "volume" entitled Mysticism in Divided Christianity, 1500–1650, is to underscore the role mysticism played in the emerging theologies among Protestants and how these continuities help us better understand the complex horizon of theological thought in this contested period. His efforts here argue against more narrowly confessional approaches—whether Protestant or Roman Catholic—that would see Protestantism as a disruption of older traditions, above all in relation to mystical themes, as these had evolved to that point in the later Middle Ages. As McGinn argues in the preface, "the Reformation was not the end, but rather a recalibration of the mystical element that had been present in Christianity from the time of the writing of the New Testament." What this "recalibration" looks like is the focal point of his argument. McGinn's conviction that much binds Protestant theological thought and approaches to the spiritual life with ancient and medieval mysticism is by no means unprecedented. Yet, his treatment leads to an unexpected sense of how "catholic" many of the leading figures among the Protestants were—not only Luther and Calvin but also including a number of so-called "radical reformers" or "spiritualists" who comprise the widely diverse and divergent "left-wing" of Protestantism. That the volume appeared in time for the fifth centenary, in 2017, of what was once rather simplistically called simply "the Reformation" offers a useful reminder of how complex and nuanced the question of "tradition" became in the hands of these theologians.
Scholars familiar with this series, presumably including many readers of this journal, know that the previous volumes in this series have had an enormous and shaping impact, not only on the study of Christian mysticism per se—or, indeed, of mysticism in broader terms—but on our understanding of the role mysticism has played in shaping Christian theology and history more generally. As the series-title suggests, McGinn understands mysticism as a witness to "the presence of God," and, as such, approaches it as an expression of Christian faith rooted in spiritual experience and practice. As such, his presumptions here and throughout this series argue against a historiographical approach, such as the one Adolf von Harnack argued for in the early 20th century, which would view Protestantism as a retrieval of a "pure" biblical faith against the presumed mystical excesses of Hellenism. Against such reasoning, McGinn insists that "there is more continuity than break between inherited mystical traditions and what we find in the Protestant mystics studied here." Already in this formulation his point of view is clear, and if it is "polemical" as he suggests, it is a convincing argument steeped in his characteristically careful attention to the sources.
At the outset, it must also be said that the question of what these theological continuities are, and how they are to be interpreted, is not entirely clear. This is true in part because the field under study is broad, complex, and varied in its theological emphases, convictions, and approaches, and in part because these [End Page 117] themes belonged to a wider program of reform—among those who came to be called "Protestant" and those who labored for renewal within the Roman Catholic Church. In order to attend to this circumstance, McGinn's analysis in each section includes a narrative review of the wider historical contexts in question, an approach thickened—particularly in the early chapters—by an astute recognition of the contested historiography that continues to surround this period. To be clear about this, McGinn sides with Troeltsch and his followers in emphasizing continuities among the first generations of Protestants with earlier traditions, though how this is to be understood in terms of mysticism only emerges inductively as McGinn's discussion moves forward. This makes the volume particularly engaging for historians or those interested in historical theology and what has been called the "development of doctrine," though the "general reader" will also be brought along on a thoughtful and often provocative exploration of how early Protestants contributed to the evolution of mysticism, and how understanding mysticism is essential to grasping the theological contribution of these theologians and the ecclesial ramifications these suggested.
That said, it would have been useful had the present book included a sketch of the two further books which, as a whole, constitute this sixth "volume" of The Presence of God, particularly because this volume alone is meant to handle the question of mysticism among the Protestants with the two later parts to take up the contribution of Roman Catholics to mysticism within the horizon of "divided Christianity." In this first installment of this larger part, McGinn turns our attention primarily to Protestant sources, but with occasional references to the wider theological themes of the day. He opens the volume by discussing the disputed historiography of this period, "The Dividing of Western Christianity," and only then turns in the opening chapter to "Mysticism and the Magisterial Reformers," limiting the focus of this discussion to Luther and Calvin. The second chapter explores a variety of so-called "radical reformers," followed by a chapter on two later Lutheran mystics (Arndt and Boehme) before concluding with a chapter entitled "Mysticism in the English Reformation." No convincing explanation is given for the omission of the Separatists, in general, and the Quakers in specific (214), and one can only presume that these figures, together with continental Pietists living and working in the latter half of the 17th century, will figure in the seventh volume, tentatively entitled Crisis and Renewal in Western Mysticism.
McGinn's approach to the question of mysticism during this contested period makes this not simply another interesting book to appear in this year that marks the fifth centenary of Luther's 95 Theses. Rather, it is a volume that will merit careful attention by Protestant and Roman Catholic scholars alike. In the course of this cornucopia of theological analysis, a theme that is fundamental to this project—as one would expect given the general focus of the series—is the matter of theological continuities among self-avowed Protestant reformers. What is fascinating in this discussion is how their not uncritical, but nonetheless constructive, reception of earlier mystical traditions stood as a proviso to the hermeneutical principle of sola scriptura among Protestants, including the "radicals" and reformed who were generally more severe in this matter than their Lutheran contemporaries.
McGinn's treatment in the opening chapter on Luther and Calvin demonstrates how complicated this question is. He does this by following Oberman, zur Mühlen, Hamm and others and by examining how Luther reworked existing categories [End Page 118] of mystical experience by redirecting their aim toward "the realm of faith" rather than jettisoning them altogether or approaching them in terms of the category of caritas, as had often been the case in medieval mystical thought. On this point, as McGinn adroitly notes, Luther balances his insistence that Christ justifies us extra nos, which we come to know by faith alone, with his reminder that the effect of this is that Christ indwells us, which we come to experience per fidem. McGinn's treatment of Calvin is less detailed, though the sketch he offers is rich with insight and suggestions for further work. He rightly sees the importance Calvin placed on sanctification, constructed as a means of understanding the experience of the unio mystica, which, while the consequence of justification, comes to be experienced in our sanctification. Here, the theme of Christ's "indwelling—central in Luther's earlier thought—acquires an even more pronounced role, becoming the foundation of Calvin's understanding of the Christian life as a real participation in Christ through the presence of the Spirit.
The middle chapter on the so-called "radical reformers," twice the length of the preceding one, is a particularly valuable contribution of this volume, both in terms of the detailed analysis McGinn devotes to a selection of these theologians and because of the subtle manner in which he points to what unites these otherwise widely diverse reformers. For example, they share the idea that the commitment to "inner religion" allowed them to rethink the nature of the "externals" of church, sacrament, and even the role of scripture. To my mind, this treatment is the most innovative contribution made in this volume, focusing on the work of Karlstadt, Müntzer, Denck, Frank, and Weigel in which McGinn emphasizes, above all, the use these thinkers made of Eckhart and themes in late-medieval German mysticism. McGinn convincingly argues how and why these reformers took a position that "all external forms of religion, even the Bible, were secondary and even harmful in the search for salvation," against the pressures toward religious conformity that came to dominate the magisterial reformers' aims.
What follows in chapter three is a detailed exploration of "two Lutheran mystics," Johann Arndt and Jacob Boehme. Here, one might wish that McGinn had extended his treatment of Arndt (and the importance of his remarkable work, True Christianity) to include a detailed discussion of the emergence and development of Pietism (mentioned with a disclaimer on 151 and 197), though this would have exceeded the chronological bounds the author placed on this volume. What marks this section of the chapter is the insightful manner in which McGinn sorts through the complicated historiography surrounding Arndt, following Hermann Geyer's lead that Arndt's achievement was to "spiritualize" Lutheranism—"but from within, not from without, as the Radical Spiritualists attempted." His conclusion is that Arndt represents "an original voice in the story of early modern mysticism," a way of thinking about this period that one can only hope will shape the following two parts of Mysticism in Divided Christianity, 1500–1650. If so, one might hope to find important thematic convergences among theologians who, by the end of this period, lived in increasingly separated and polarized churches—and, here, not only Protestant and Roman Catholic, but in terms of various churches, leaders, and reform movements among the former as well.
The final chapter, "Mysticism in the English Reformation," offers a thumbnail sketch of the tumultuous history of the church in England during the period under review, from the early story under Henry VIII to the beginnings of the civil war in [End Page 119] the mid-17th century. McGinn's decision to exclude the separatists, because they did not think of themselves "as belonging to the Ecclesia Anglicana," is understandable, from one vantage point, but puzzling from another, since their presence here would have emphasized striking and important continuities with those "radical spiritualists" who receive extensive attention in Chapter Two. Be that as it may, what follows is a useful overview of those theologians, preachers, and poets whose work shaped the Anglican tradition during the period under review. The strength of this chapter is the sustained consideration of the "metaphysical poets," whose work McGinn describes under the category of "Anglican Mystical Poetry" and which, he suggests, offers "a stronger witness" for an "Anglican mysticism" than one finds in the sources treated in the opening section (i.e., Lancelot Andrewes and John Donne's sermonic contribution). To my mind, this middle section of the chapter, given as much space as the entire first chapter on "Mysticism and the Magisterial Reformers"—that is, Luther and Calvin—is the most original contribution of this volume, taken as a whole. This might have as much to do with the manner in which poetic language offers a form uniquely suited to the opening a space to explore spiritual experience as with the author's own interests and proclivities. It is in this sense regrettable that McGinn, normally ingenious in weaving historio-graphical matters with his substantive treatment of the sources, only mentions this in passing when he reminds us that "the relation between poetical expression and mystical discourse has often been a topic of discussion." To my mind, a discussion of why this was (and is) so would have been a great gain for the reader, opening as it might have the complicated historiographical questions surrounding this period along a new axis, one that will be increasingly important in the period of "crisis and renewal of mysticism" that will shape Europe and the West in Modernity.
The volume closes with a terse two-page conclusion in which McGinn restates his partly polemical purpose in approaching this material as he does: viz., "to argue against those Protestant theologians (and their Catholic sympathizers) who contend that the Protestant branch of Christianity was not favorable to mysticism and therefore had few, if any, important mystics." Of course, taken as a whole, this simply underscores the importance of the substantive arguments he makes which, together, manifest the centrifugal pressures that seemed to grip Protestant theologians in terms of their ongoing "traditioning" of ancient and medieval spiritual themes, prominently among them those that we have come to call "mystical."
All this suggests how complicated the hermeneutical principle sola scriptura was for Protestant reformers, none of whom bracketed theological tradition(s) altogether from their constructive work as theologians. That this is the case with the so-called "radical reformers" or "spiritualists," as also with Calvin and the early reformed tradition, will only surprise those who interpret these traditions retrospectively, from the vantage point of later developments. For such readers, this volume will come as a helpful corrective, perhaps even as a revelation of sorts. The rest will savor the rich feast McGinn serves up, with appetites whetted for what he promises in the concluding two installments of this "volume" on Mysticism in Divided Christianity: the second of these volumes will explore Mysticism in the Golden Age of Spain, 1500–1650 (to appear in the Fall of 2017), while the third and final part will investigate mysticism in Catholic Italy, Germany, and especially France during this period. One hopes that these last two installments will explore thematic continuities with these Protestant theologians and poets, despite the [End Page 120] increasingly divergent institutional and doctrinal disagreements that would force them ever further apart from their Roman Catholic contemporaries.
Such an approach is not simply one in service of a generous ecumenism, but rather one that understands how much common ground such spiritual trajectories held in the midst of increasing institutional hostilities and doctrinal tensions and incompatibilities. Following such a line of argument, one is tempted to speak of Protestantism, at least in part, as having a viable claim for the "catholicity" of its versions of theological reform, as Luther and Melanchthon, among others, adamantly insisted. This has found a welcome if often unexpected confirmation in the fruit of recent ecumenical work, above all in the 1999 "Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification" ratified by the Lutheran World Federation and the Roman Catholic Church. Thus, while it might seem at first incongruous, it would not be finally illegitimate to consider Protestantism, at least in terms of its varied approaches to traditional mystical themes, as not altogether removed from the theological trajectories that gave shape to what John O'Malley has portrayed as "early modern Catholicism." Presumably, we will hear more of this in the following two parts of this sixth volume of The Presence of God, pointing to important theological continuities to older theological traditions, but, as importantly, to some of the constructive formulations among the early Protestants explored here. If so, Professor McGinn's analysis might further suggest what might be seen to bind theologians across confessional divides, and in spite of wide-ranging and deep-seated hostilities that had come to polarize these now "separated brethren."
Mark S. Burrows is Professor of historical theology at the Protestant University of Applied Sciences in Bochum, Germany. His research interests focus on mystical theology and the intersections of theology, spirituality, and the arts. He recently edited Poetic Revelations (Routledge, 2017), Breaking the Silence (Peter Lang, 2016), and The Paraclete Poetry Anthology (Paraclete, 2017); a forthcoming book of his poems, The Chance of Home, will appear in 2017.