The Presence of God. A History of Western Christian Mysticism, vol. VI:1: Mysticism in the Reformation (1500–1650) by Bernard McGinn (review)
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The Presence of God. A History of Western Christian Mysticism, vol. VI:1: Mysticism in the Reformation (1500–1650). By Bernard McGinn. New York: Crossroad/Herder and Herder, 2016. 349 pp. $59.95

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...


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