A False False Teacher

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There is a series of posts I have recently discovered entitled The False Teachers. I had actually been meaning to interact with one of the previous installments (and still plan to eventually), but in reading the most recent entry I was struck by what I consider a rather shallow critique.

The ‘false teacher’ in question is Teresa of Avila, perhaps most well known for her writings on the mystical life, including The Way of Perfection and the Interior Castle (both of which, incidentally, I highly recommend.)

The essence of the critique centers around Teresa’s ‘mystical’ proclivities and teachings on the mystical nature of and progress in one’s prayer and spiritual life; namely, as the opening paragraph concludes:

“She represents the false teaching of mysticism.”

Immediately I am inclined to call foul, in that the term mysticism- without further distinction or clarification- is an overly broad term that could (within such a general meaning) encompass such a wide range of practices as to be nearly useless as a term. At bottom is the notion that the soul desires to have union with God, and thus seeks out the means of obtaining that in one form or another. Importantly, mysticism is not exclusively a religious endeavor; philosophy can have as a systematic process such a goal, and in fact certain philosophical systems (e.g., that of Plotinus) could rightly be characterized as a form of mysticism.

Leaving that aside, however, the falsity of mysticism would need to be cashed out to avoid simple question begging. After the historical information we arrive at the beginning of the critique:

Teresa was a mystic. Donald Whitney says mysticism refers to “those forms of Christian spirituality which attempt direct or unmediated access to God.” Mystics are those who expect to experience “a direct inner realization of the Divine” and an “unmediated link to an absolute.”

There is perhaps a bit of equivocation here in that whereas the post began with mysticism as a general description, we have now moved to mysticism within a more specifically Christian program. There is nothing necessarily objectionable about this, as long as the term as clarified is kept within the bounds of such a clarification. This is crucial, since it touches upon the substance of the critique, the kernels of which we see in Challies’ appropriation of Whitney’s characterizations.

It is crucial to note, contra any equivocation on mysticism, that while Christian mysticism shares something in common with all forms of mysticism, it also differs severely in many important respects, differences and distinctions which are perhaps more marked than what it shares in common.

For example, Whitney’s characterization of Christian mysticism as attempting direct or unmediated access to God is perhaps accurate on one level, but unless placed within a specifically Christian context can be just as misleading. What one is to make of the term ‘unmediated,’ for example, is open to question. One major distinction between specifically Christian mysticism and that of earlier pagan schools of philosophy was the centrality of grace in the quest of the soul for God. Integral to this was the foundational concept of man’s inherent inability to attain union with God by his own lights or under his own effort. Thus, while the mystical programs share a somewhat superficial similarity, the actual way in which each system is cashed out (both theoretically and practically) is marked by an even greater dissimilarity.

What follows is essentially the Wikipedia entry on Teresa’s four stages of the ascent of the soul. Immediately after is more historical information, notably Teresa’s followers and modern adherents.

The final section more fully develops the critique of Teresa’s teaching, more specifically exactly why the author considers her to be a false teacher (that is, beyond simply the fact that she was a mystic).

The critique begins as such:

At the heart of mysticism is the primacy of experience over Scripture. Mystics seek to experience God directly rather than through the mediation of the Bible.

Again, I would be inclined to call foul here. The danger of equivocation once again rears its head, although perhaps in a bit of a different guise. For while it has been established that we are talking about specifically Christian mysticism, the question now more reasonably falls along whether this understanding of Christian mysticism is a reasonable one, and if so, whether or not this description is something which meaningfully applies to Teresa’s thought and teaching.

Firstly, is this a reasonable description of Christian mysticism? I am inclined to say no, in that the description itself introduces an unnecessary dichotomy between experience and Scripture, as if one can only exist in a necessary exclusion of the other. Further, what evidence exists that Christian mysticism understands such a dichotomy or asserts such a primacy? If Teresa is being taken as representative of Christian mysticism, do we find this particular strain of thought in her teachings?

On the contrary, Teresa on numerous occasions affirms that any progress in the spiritual life or any experiences undertaken in the pursuit of God must be firmly within the framework and under the auspices of “Sacred Scripture.” In reference to the locutions that are sometimes part of the ascent of the soul, Teresa advises the one who experiences them that they can come from many sources and must be subject to discernment:

Returning now to what I was saying about locutions, these may come from God, in any of the ways I have mentioned, or they may equally well come from the devil or from one’s own imagination. I will describe, if I can, with the Lord’s help, the signs by which these locutions differ from one another and when they are dangerous. For there are many people given to prayer who experience them, and I would not have you think you are doing wrong, sisters, whether or no you give them credence, when they are only for your own benefit, to comfort you or to warn you of your faults. (Teresa of Avila, Interior Castle, 6.3)

And since locutions can come from many sources, they should not be accepted simply because they are experienced but only in as far as they are strictly in agreement with the Scriptures:

In such cases it matters little from whom they proceed or if they are only fancies. But of one thing I will warn you: do not think that, even if your locutions come from God, you will for that reason be any the better. After all, He talked a great deal with the Pharisees: any good you may gain will depend upon how you profit by what you hear. Unless it agrees strictly with the Scriptures, take no more notice of it than you would if it came from the devil himself. (ibid.)

Thus, as only a brief sample of Teresa’s work makes clear, the project of the mystical ascent of the soul to union with God is not something (within a properly Christian mysticism) either opposed to scripture or that sets itself in primacy to Scripture, but rather submits the process (and any accompanying experiences and illuminations) to the authority and guidance of Scripture.

Relatedly, the context of Teresa’s life places this harmony of the mystical life and scripture into perspective. As a Carmelite nun, the rhythm of Teresa’s day would have been punctuated by the scriptures; for example, the divine office provides a clear example of the way in which the scriptures were integrated into the daily life of the consecrated life.

Secondly, there is a further potential misnomer in that Christian mysticism need be necessarily characterized as the seeking of an experience of God. No doubt some streams of Christian mysticism could probably merit this characterization, but as the post in question concerns Teresa of Avila and her particular brand of mysticism and the influence thereof, it is certainly debatable whether this characterization applies.

A characteristic of Teresa’s thought vis-a-vis the ascent of the soul is that is is most certainly not about the experience nor about seeking an experience. In the Interior Castle she constantly cautions against seeking God’s favors and consolations, but rather pursuing the union with divine love as an act of love itself. This flows from the specifically Christian understanding of any union between God and man as being enabled and actuated only by means of grace. Within such a framework the project of the mystical life is to seek union with God which, since grace undergirds the process of growing in love towards God, entails that the soul which ascends to divine love will as a consequence seek to attune and submit its own will more and more completely to the will of God. Thus, any consolations or favors or experiences which may be received are wholly gratuitous, meted out according to God’s good pleasure. And since they are wholly gratuitous, they are not necessary indications of God’s favor or one’s own progress; in fact, seeking them out is one means of stalling in one’s growth in love, since union with God is not sought for God’s own sake but rather for the benefits it may confer.

Needless to say, a cursory examination of Teresa’s thought wholly dismantles this notion that mysticism is characterized as seeking out an experience of God directly over against the primacy of scripture. Rather, the mystic such as Teresa would understand the scriptures as so fundamental to the rhythm of one’s life as to make such a characterization somewhat nonsensical.

Scripture demands for itself a unique place in the Christian life and church and mysticism threatens to supplant it.

In and of itself this statement doesn’t really say anything. After all, anything that isn’t scripture could potentially supplant Scripture, including the Scripture itself by means of a misunderstanding of its nature, purpose, role, etc. The interesting question here would really be what about mysticism makes it a particularly viable threat? Presumably the answer has already been given in that it seeks a direct experience of God over against the mediation of Scripture. However, as has been shown, one of the most prevalent and archetypal streams of Christian mysticism does not reasonably fall under this critique.

Will we affirm the sufficiency of Scripture—that the Bible is all we need for life and doctrine—or will we demand that God reveal himself to us in other ways, such as mystical raptures?

Again, while this statement might be accurately applied to some brands of mysticism, it belies a fundamental misunderstanding of Teresa of Avila’s approach to the mystical life. A cursory examination of her works will not provide any evidence of demanding revelation from God; on the contrary, she takes up the theme of the utter gratuity of any consolations, locutions, experiences, etc., that may result from the soul’s ascent. This refrain is taken up so often as to border on redundancy; even the language Teresa employs orients the nature of the relationship between the soul and God: God is addressed in royal terminology, afforded the dignity of majesty at every turn. A recurring theme of the Interior Castle is that God is free to do what he will and to bestow favors on whom he will; he is not one who can be coerced or one who must repay a debt. Rather, a constant reliance on grace forms the bedrock of the mystical life.

In the next paragraph Challies reiterates an understanding of sola scriptura as interpreted by Whitney, in which “the authority for our spirituality claims its sufficiency as the director of our spirituality.” Challies understands this to mean that

The Bible will guide us not only in what we know of God but also in how we know God.

As far as Teresa of Avila is concerned, while no doubt she would not have been on board with this notion of sola scriptura, it is hardly the case that her understanding of the mystical life would fail to understand the Bible as guiding us in what we know of God and how we know it. That in fact would seem to be why she cautions the sisters to submit any experiences, locutions, etc., to the strictures of scripture, so that they will not be led astray by the devil nor by their own imaginations. Seen in this manner, the mystical life cannot supplant the scriptures but is regulated by them, since whatever the mystical life might portend must be examined in light of the scriptures.

Challies then moves on to quote from Whitney again, this time on two different ways to cross the boundary of sola scriptura. In the first,

we seek an experience with Him in a way not found in Scripture… And all these have in common the presumption of the ability to experience God apart from the forms He has selected, and/or the presumption of the ability to experience Him immediately, that is, unmediated by God’s ordained means of revealing Himself to us.

This critique seems wildly out of place since it does not seem to have any particular teeth in regards to Teresa of Avila’s particular approach to the mystical life, as has already been demonstrated, since she explicitly advises those who seek God to submit all their experiences and such to the strictures of the Scriptures.

The second boundary is as follows in that mysticism is

seeking to experience God in a way not inaugurated, guided, or interpreted by Scripture. Scripture should inaugurate many of our experiences with God, for the Scriptures are the clearest revelation of God. This is why He gave His Word to us, so that we would experience Him. And in a real sense we might say that all true experiences with God are ultimately inaugurated by Scripture.

There is little to disagree with here, in that no Christian would be likely to argue with the notion that ‘Scripture should inaugurate many of our experiences with God.’ Teresa of Avila would no doubt agree. But the strength of any potential critique here is mitigated by its being completely misplaced since, for Teresa of Avila, the point of the mystical life is not to experience God but to attain union with God. As aforementioned, the experiences of God that may accompany the ascent of the soul are entirely gratuitous and by no means the signs and portents of having achieved any particular progress. In fact, as St. John of the Cross so poignantly noticed, the soul which draws closer to divine love may in fact find itself with no experience of God, his famous dark night of the soul. But for both Teresa and John the goal is not to an experience but rather a union.

When we understand the unique position Scripture demands for itself, we also understand the danger inherent in mysticism.

In the end, the critique seems to revolve around a particular understanding of sola scriptura vis-a-vis mysticism that does not even really apply to the ‘false teacher’ in question. After all, the main critique is that mysticism sets an experience over the primacy of scripture, but this is something that Teresa of Avila simply does not do or teach.

As such, it seems we have a false false teacher on our hands.

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Jason Watson

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