Wisdom from Hodge: Mysticism (And More Importantly How to Avoid It)

Many people will be intimidated by Charles Hodge’s three-volume Systematic Theology. There’s good reason to be. I’ve often opened my copy to consult Dr. Hodge on one issue or another, and, to my dismay, found that much of that particular section was quoting other sources…sources not written in English…sources which Dr. Hodge chose not to translate. He apparently thought it was good for his students to have to translate from Latin, or German, or whatever other language it was. It was the 19th century. As my Greek professor in seminary would say, “That was when men were men.”


Difficulties aside, I think there is still very good reason to attempt a reading of Hodge. He’s one of the foremost minds in American Presbyterianism. You can draw an almost straight line from Alexander, through the Hodges, to Warfield, to Machen, to the founding of Westminster Seminary, to much of conservative Presbyterianism today. He’s certainly not the only important voice from the past, but all of us, whether we’re PCA, OPC, ARP, etc., all of us owe a great debt to Dr. Hodge. That’s why I’m trying to work my way through Hodge’s Systematic Theology. I’ve had it on my bookshelf for years. Now I’m finally going to read it, rather than simply using it as a reference work.


At the beginning of the first volume, Hodge lays out his “first principles,” what theologians call prolegomena. Before Dr. Hodge starts engaging the topic of theology, he must demonstrate how one should engage the topic of theology. In so doing, he first tells the reader the wrong ways. He lists several, but one method stood out to me as being very prevalent today: Mysticism. Dr. Hodge defines mysticism this way, “[Mysticism] is here to be taken in a sense antithetical to speculation…The one [speculation] assumes that the thinking faculty is that by which we attain the knowledge of truth. The other [mysticism]…teaches that the feelings alone are to be relied upon, at least in the sphere of religion.”[1]


Now, let me say that, as Reformed Presbyterians, we would say that both of these methods are wrong (as Hodge does). Neither our rational faculties nor our feelings are the ultimate arbiter of truth. That place belongs to the Scriptures. As the Westminster Shorter Catechism teaches us in question and answer #2, “What rule hath God given to direct us how we may glorify and enjoy him? The Word of God, which is contained in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, is the only rule to direct us how we may glorify and enjoy him.”[2] As Hodge will later say, when he states his own methodological position, “The Bible is to the theologian what nature is to the man of science. It is his store-house of facts; and his method of ascertaining what the Bible teaches, is the same as that which the natural philosopher adopts to ascertain what nature teaches.”[3] Just as the observable phenomena of the natural world determine the findings of the scientist, so the observable teachings of Scripture shape the statements of the theologian.


Yet I said that I believe mysticism is prevalent today, a problem against which I believe we should constantly be on guard. Why? Well, let’s look at how Dr. Hodge says mysticism may be applied to theology. He argues that it takes two forms: the supernatural and the natural. Supernatural mysticism is the view that “God, or the Spirit of God, holds direct communion with the soul; and by the excitement of its religious feelings gives it intuitions of truth, and enables it to attain a kind, a degree, and an extent of knowledge, unattainable in any other way.”[4] This view does not simply state that the Holy Spirit illumines the soul to better understand what Scripture teaches. Rather, “God by his immediate intercourse with the soul, reveals through the feelings and by means, or in the way of intuitions, divine truth independently of the outward teaching of his Word…it is this inward light [they argue], and not the Scriptures, which we are to follow.”[5]


How often do we unintentionally speak like this? We may not consciously say to ourselves, “I need God to reveal new truth to me because Scripture is insufficient,” but how often when we “seek God’s will” do we go to our own feelings rather than the Scriptures? We must always remember that Scripture is the only place where we find God speaking to us today. We do not believe in direct, “immediate” encounters with God. If we want to encounter him, we must go to his Word. We won’t find him anywhere else.


Yet there’s another form of mysticism, and I actually think this form is far more widespread. In fact, this “natural” form of mysticism describes, I think perfectly, the dominant religious view today, certainly the dominant view in Western society. Hodge writes,


According to the other, or natural form of the mystical method, it is not God, but the natural religious consciousness of men, as excited and influenced by the circumstances of the individual, which becomes the source of religious knowledge. The deeper and purer the religious feelings, the clearer the insight into truth. This illumination or spiritual intuition is a matter of degree. But as all men have a religious nature, they all have more or less clearly the apprehension of religious truth. The religious consciousness of men in different ages and nations, has been historically developed under diverse influences, and hence we have diverse forms of religion, – the Pagan, the Mohammedan [Muslim], and the Christian. These do not stand related as true and false, but as more or less pure. The appearance of Christ, his life, his work, his words, his death, had a wonderful effect on the minds of men. Their religious feelings were more deeply stirred, were more purified and elevated than ever before. Hence the men of his generation, who gave themselves up to his influence, had intuitions of religious truth of a far higher order than mankind had before attained. This influence continues to the present time. All Christians are its subjects. All, therefore, in proportion to the purity and elevation of their religious feelings, have intuitions of divine things, such as the Apostles and other Christians enjoyed. Perfect holiness would secure such perfect knowledge.[6]


So, on this view, Christianity shouldn’t be believed because it’s true, but rather because it aids in producing deep and pure religious feelings. Other religions can (and do) produce similar deep and pure religious feelings. The question is not, “Which religion is true?” The question is, “Which religion produces the greatest degree of ‘religious consciousness’?”


What are the consequences of natural mysticism according to Hodge? Well, (1) revelation and inspiration are meaningless terms. Revelation refers to “the supernatural objective presentation or communication of truth to the mind,” but natural mysticism denies that “truth” can be communicated to the mind. Truth is perceived, more or less clearly, when “religious feelings” are excited, but absolute truth cannot be clearly and objectively communicated. Inspiration refers to “the supernatural guidance of the Spirit, which renders its subjects infallible in the communicating truth to others.” Yet natural mysticism denies that such communication is even possible. Remember, it’s not a matter of “right and wrong,” it’s a matter of “more pure and less pure.” Because of this, (2) the Bible cannot be the infallible rule of faith since, “The doctrinal propositions therein contained are not revelations by the Spirit. They are only the forms under which men of Jewish culture gave expression to their feelings and intuitions.” People in different cultures could have produced statements just as pure, if not purer. Therefore, (3) Christianity isn’t about doctrine. It’s about living a “good life.” How is “good life” defined? That would be up to the “religious consciousness” of the person answering the question. Finally, (4) the job of the theologian is not to interpret Scripture, but rather to interpret his own “religious consciousness,” since that is the means by which truth is perceived.[7]


Now ask yourself how often natural mysticism rears its head in modern Western culture? How often is the response to biblical teaching on any number of doctrines met with the objection, “Well, yes, but that just reflects the culture in which the Bible was written.” How often do people object to the teachings found in the Pauline epistles, for instance, by saying something along the lines of, “Well, we can’t simply follow what Paul said. He endorsed slavery!”


Now, as a PCA minister, I feel compelled for a number of reasons to tell you that Paul (1) wasn’t necessarily condoning slavery, and (2) was not addressing the slavery that was later found in the American South. That being said, though, can you see what is assumed in the objection? The objection assumes that Paul’s writings are not inspired revelation. It assumes, then, that the Bible is not the infallible rule of faith. The objector will, no doubt, go on to make the case that “living a good life” is what matters, not the statements of a man who was (they contend) racist, misogynist, etc. This is the natural mysticism Hodge wrote about.


As Christians, we cannot use the methodology of natural mysticism when we do theology. And lest you be tempted to think, “I don’t do theology.” You do. Every time you make a statement about what you think about God, what he is like, what pleases him, etc., you’re engaging in theology. Remember, the Word of God, and by that we mean the sixty-six books of the Old and New Testaments, is the only rule to direct us how we may glorify and enjoy God. When our own “religious consciousness” runs contrary to Scripture, Scripture must win. Scripture must win because it is the only place where we can find God speaking to us. In Scripture we find God’s perfect law that revives the soul. We find his sure testimony that makes the simple wise. We find his right precepts, and our hearts rejoice. We find his pure commandments, and our eyes are enlightened. God’s Word is more desirable than gold, and it’s sweeter than honey to those who believe. So let us trust in God, and not lean on our own understanding.

[1] Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, in Three Volumes (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans; repr., 1982), 1:6.

[2] WSC 2

[3] Hodge, Systematic Theology, 10.

[4] Ibid. 7.

[5] Ibid. 7.

[6] Ibid. 7-8.

[7] All quotes in this paragraph taken from Ibid. 8-9.