E/W Part V: Protestant Theologies–Lutheranism

Since this is a general overview, I will only deal with Luther and Calvin, in terms of classical Protestant theology, though there are many other classical Prot. theologians who would deserve a reflection in a more thorough analysis (e.g. Huldrich Zwingli and Philip Melanchthon).

I’ll begin with Luther, focusing only on his theological vision as it relates to Christian mysticism.

One of the key elements of Luther’s insight was the notion of law/gospel. Luther was an avid Augustinian. Augustine, recall separated (ontologically) nature from grace. What Luther did that was quite new was re-interpret Augustine’s nature/grace dichotomy as law/gospel. The Catholic Church and its system of penace, sacraments, purgatory, and “good works” was for Luther the law (that is nature). The Gospel was Grace. The Gospel, the Evangelical gift of Grace was the source of salvation alone.

Now in one sense Luther is here in the mainstream of Western theology–from Augustine through Aquinas, Duns Scotus, Ockham. Grace alone. Prevenient and subsequent grace. All of them are in Augustine’s line against the more ancient notion of grace and free will working symbiotically as in Eastern Orthodox Theology.

But what did separate Luther from the (now) Roman Catholics was interpreting the medieval church as part of the realm of Law. Law meant Nature and could not therefore have anything to do with Grace.

In Paul’s Letter to the Galatians, Paul rails against Jewish-Christians who tried to convince Paul’s Gentile converts to Christianity that they had to become Jews to become Christians. Paul writes a brutal letter explicitly denying this. For Paul, Christ Crucified and Resurrected abolished the distinction between Gentile and Jews–or if you like, more positively as in Paul’s Letter to the Romans, extended the gift of Salvation offered to the Jews to the Gentiles.

So Luther re-interprets Paul’s words about Jewish/Gentile arguments to Catholic/Lutheran ones. The Medieval Papal Catholic Church in other words were the new “Jewish-Christians” telling the new Gentiles (the Protestants) that they had to become “Catholics” to become “Christians’ (or saved presumably). When in fact they did not–God’s gift was freely given. A pretty ingenious move, until of course Luther tried to make everybody Lutheran (or Calvin Calvinist) at which point it was hard to tell how they were different from the Pope. [More on that at the end–it’s a key point to understanding the almost-Absolute insight of Protestantism].


Some more background on Medieval Scholasticism is necessary here before we get to the main point on Luther. It might not be immediately clear what the point of all this metaphysical excursion is, but I hope it will be by the end. [If not skip to the next set of hyphens —].

Luther came at the end of the Medieval Era, which philosophically had come to be dominated by nominalism.

Nominalism arose in opposition to realism (especially Aristotelian realism). The big name in Medieval Catholic Realist Scholasticism was Thomas Aquinas.

Thomas accepted Augustine’s separtion of nature and grace. For Augustine, though nature and grace while (ontologically) separate were never separated in day-to-day existential life.

For Aquinas, following Aristotle, Grace was the form of Nature. Aristotle’s forms (as opposed to Plato’s) were immanent in materiality. This gave Aquinas’ philosophy and theology a very concrete feel. But it also assumed that the human mind (nature) could directly proove the existence of Grace. It could never existentially lift us up to God, nor could it ever directly proove the existence of Christian elements of theology (like the Incarnation, Trinity), but it could prove the existence of God through the effects of the natural world (the famous 5 Ways argument).

So Nature had its own agency in Aquinas not found in Augustine. It had its own sphere of influence, its own truth value, and all of the natural mental truth-sphere could directly prove (though not connected with) the realm of Grace.

Then came along John Duns Scotus, a Franciscan (not a Dominican like Thomas). He criticized Thomas for over-stressing the role of intellect. Thomas, Scotus thought, under appreciated the role of will.

Everything Thomas wrote about grace/free will could be true (and more or less was from Scotus) and yet it was not enough. Necessary but not sufficient. The sufficiency came from will alone. The intellect might “prove” God’s existence, but that meant nothing unless the will desired God. If the will did not seek God, it would not find him.

Then lastly William Ockham (famous for his “Razor”). Occkham took this turn to its finale. The intellect (particularly the Divine Intellect) no longer mattered, everything was dependent on the will.

The human mind was not “realistically” depicting the things in the outer world or the world above. It was simply giving them “names” (hence nominalism).

All Protestant theologies, consciously or not, assume a nominalistic viewpoint. That is very important because with the loss of realism, there was a movement to emphasize the will alone (as in Ockham). Luther would do this as well (Grace over Law). The German spirit that arose in the Romantics and sadly later in the Nazis (pure voluntarism) had its roots, both positive and negative, in this nominalistic-voluntaristic outlook. Instead of seeing a way in which Spirit would bring about a transcendent mind and will.

Nominalism does not provide a wide enough lens for mysticism. It leads to a typically secular outlook, at least as regards humans and the natural world (science, politics, etc.). To the degree there is any notion of divnity it tends to be a deistic or totally separate theistic God, out there somewhere who possibly from time to time overturns the natural order from without. Nominalism cuts out the intermediate states (like the subtle) and weakens the concept of meditation–both from God to us and from our higher states to embodiment in this world. Realims unfortunately no longer holds philosphically and can not therefore support mysticism either. [Only a post-metaphysical philosophical construct will support Christian mystical theology for the 21st century, what I am advocating in these writings].


Luther also read Dionysius, father of the 3-fold mystical path of purgation, illumination, and union. Luther though he initially seemed interested in Dionysius, misinterpreted him badly. For Luther apophatic theology (via negativa, causal consciousness) meant that all theological statements refer to the Cross.

All theologies are crucified and implode at the point of the Cross. That’s not a bad point of view, he seems to have been the first to say that explicitly, but that is definitely not what Dionysius meant by apophatic theology. For Dionysius, apophatic theology–saying what God is not rather than what God is–is a meditation practice to open us up to the causal state-stage of unification. Apophaic theology though it uses “negative” language (God is not comprehensible), it is in actuality a “positive” experience. It is the experience of God in the darkness.

Luther also, due to his views on the priesthood of all believers, destroyed an ancient (now forgotten) notion in Catholic theology between the commandments and the counsels. The commandments applied to all Christians. The counsels were only for the “perfect”. The counsels involved things like celibacy, religious vows–basically monasticism. Luther, recall was originally a monk. The “perfect” being a code-word for mystics of the union stage in the Orthodox Church. In the Catholic Church the “perfect” became the clergy or whoever took the vows without necessarily having to transform to sanctity.

So Luther was only half-right. He was right about the arrogance of the medieval Church abrogation of the perfect being clergy and monastics. He was wrong insofar as those practices acted as supporters of a mystical path. Given the socio-cultural constructs of the premodern world, msyticism was (across religious boundaries) almost the exclusive perserve of monks.

[Generically it was the Medieval Catholic Church Luther revolted against, but the Medieval Catholic Church was not the only form of the Catholic Church. Ideally Protestantism should have transcended and included Roman Catholicism structure-stage wise, but ended up splitting, causing weakness on both sides].

Luther certainly had a strong devotional life. His thesis that apophatic theology meant that everything referred to the Cross led to his emphasis on God’s Power being God’s weakness. Luther had a deep devotion to creches for this very reason (still big in Lutheran churches as the huge, plain, wooden cross in every Lutheran Church I’ve ever been inside). He also believed strongly in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist–good Medieval Catholic monk that he was–which was sadly, for the most part lost in Lutheran circles.

Luther also had his famous “tower experience” while in hiding from the Pope and Catholic Princes of Germany. The Tower experience helped him to his insight regarding the Law/Gospel distinction and brought ease of mind to his previously anxiety-filled, neurotic soul.

But he never understood the traditional three-fold path, nor the even more daring four-fold nondual path of indistinction.

Luther famously said that the saved human soul was shit covered in snow. Damned souls were just shit. The snow (justification/salvation by grace through faith) was the snow layer. But notice the snow in Luther’s mind never really cleansed the shit. It was still shit.

And this tendency in Protestantism through Luther is to see salvation as almost like an innoculation against damnation. One shot and you’re “saved” for everlasting life. But nothing inside seems to change much.

In Catholic thought, salvation is salvation from damnation and to sanctification. Its only the first step in a process, not the rubber-stamped end. The shit covering snow involves a complicated Catholic versus Protestant understanding of Original Sin, which I won’t go into, but sufficed to say, for mysticism, the shit needs, as Lama Surya Das would say, to turn into manure.

The shit part needs to be purified and made to help the embodiment of the snow layer into the world. This is the neglected element of “good works” the Catholics maintained. It can’t just be an “outside” job as in evangelical Protestantism.

So again, what I’m saying is that certainly Protestants have mystical experiences, moments of profound intimacy with God, but there is not a systematic, theological mainframe to support those experiences nor yet a path setup to realize the state-stages of purgation, illumination, and union.

Lastly Luther argued against the ancient (Catholic and Orthodox) notion of scripture and tradition, arguing instead for scripture alone (sola scriptura). All Protestans would likewise accept this notion–as with Luther’s (mis)understanding of apophatic theology and counsels/commandments.

The Scripture/Tradition, boiled down, goes like this–the Church wrote the Bible, not the Bible wrote the Church.

From historical sources we know that the earliest New Testament documents come from Paul in the 50s C.E. The Gospels Mark (70), Matthew/Luke (80-90s), John (100). Jesus being crucified in the late twenties/early 30s of the Common Era. Paul tells the Corinthians regarding the Eucharist: I told you what was handed onto me (tra-ditio, “handed-over”).”

So by the 50s, only 20 years after Jesus, communities are practicing similiar forms of worship and already refer to a “tradition.” This tradition would also be the ones to choose which books went into the Bible (the Canon) and which did not. Luther unsurprisingly choose the same books–there’s sola scriptura for you.

Luther unfortunately missed the boat on this one as well. Probably he’s biggest mistake in my book. The modern wave (of which Luther was a forerunner) was caught in the so-calld Myth of the Given. The truth, the real world was considered to just be lying out there for everyone to simply notice.

Postmodernism in contrast sees all knowledge as inherently interpretative, which is to say part of a tradition.

Sola Scriptura, is like all modern fallacies, an interpretation that claims it is interpretation-less. There is no such thing as “Scripture”, but “Scriptures” read at all different levels, states, in many different contexts. There is a way (injunction, praxis) of reading Scripture for mystics. And Luther, and Protestantism, missed this truth.

For many Protestant theologies, mysticism is suspect (or outright heretical) because it is not “Biblical.”

Now, as I argued in the earlier posts there are explicit references to Union with Christ in the New Testament, but Paul or John are not as explicit as will be later Hesychast and Bridal Mystics.

A parallel from Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism) will help here.

In the Book of Kings the prophet Elijah is taken up by a Chariot. The prophet Ezekiel also has a vision of Chariot descending from Heaven. The word for chariot is merkavah.

Later Kabbalistic masters (zadiks) would meditate on this chariot. A whole school of Kabbalah arose around these stories–known as merkavah mysticism. Now, the Kabbalist would ascend through levels of the chariot until being “enraptured” like Elijah into heaven. That is the master would move from subtle (God with form, Chariot) to the Causal (Heaven, nameless, imageless, Cloud of Unknowing).

Now a metaphysical, premodern Kabbalah master would tell you he was having the exact same experience as Elijah. A modern Biblical scholar would show how the texts serves to assert a theological agenda or support a social vision. The “mystical” thesis thereby being invalidated.

But that criticism is only half-right. The Kabbalah master is wrong insofar as it is not possible to make the statement that one is having the EXACT SAME experience as Elijah (who may be a literary amalgamation, or possibly not even a historical figure, a literary type if you will). But the experience is valid.

From a post-metaphysical standpoint, we need not argue that mystical experiences are explicitly the same as the Biblical precedents—Moses on the mount, Jesus Transfigured, Paul, Elijah, whoever. In a Post-Meta. frame, we understand that we are co-constructing (tetra-constructing) the contours of Creation by enacting certain injunctions, in this case mystical ones.

The practice is “Biblical” insofar as the seeds, the genesis of the practice are there–both for Kabbalah in the Hebrew Scriptures and Christian Mysticism in the Christian “New” Testament. While the seeds are there, the way in which this mysticism will manifest depend on our current situation and will not therefore be “exactly” the same as the ancient predecessors. Thereby cutting through the premodern/modern debate labeled above.

Which is to say mysticism is part of the tradition—part of how we interpret the Scripture. Obviously as a Christian, I believe the tradition is open to the voice of the Holy Spirit and has been guided by the Spirit and is therefore to be believed as trustworthy, in its essentials. But that doesn’t mean the interpretation of the tradition (the interpretation of the interpretation) is itself divine or to stand for all time. The tradition can and does develop.

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Published in: on February 28, 2006 at 9:59 am  Leave a Comment  

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