What is Evangelical Mysticism?

See also: Evangelical Mystics in Church History

In order to answer this question adequately, I will define the word “Evangelical” and “mysticism,” and then merge the two to give a composite definition. My definition of the word Evangelical is in reference to the modern Protestant tradition. Evangelicalism began with the 17th and 18th century movements of Puritanism, Pietism, Methodism, and the Great Awakenings. Its historical luminaries have been John Wesley (the founder of Methodism), Jonathan Edwards (Puritan), George Whitefield, Charles Finney, Charles Spurgeon, and D. L. Moody. In the early 1900s, Pentecostalism introduced a stronger emphasis on miraculous gifts, such as tongues, into the Evangelical tradition. Early Pentecostalism was basically an outgrowth of Methodism; and was led by a black minister named William Seymour.

As liberal theology had begun to overtake many of the Methodist churches in the mid-1800s, there was a conservative reaction against this called the Holiness movement. This was primarily led by a woman named Phoebe Palmer. Holiness churches grew out of this movement; and William Seymour was a Holiness preacher. It was in this context that the Pentecostal movement developed in 1906. Soon enough, Pentecostal denominations organized such as the Pentecostal Holiness Church and the Assemblies of God. Holy living, Charismatic worship, and tongues were their emphases. Meanwhile, the Fundamentalist movement was taking shape, and in 1910, conservative theologians came to agree on what the Bible taught with regards to fundamental Christian truths that liberal Christianity was trying to undermine. Among these truths were the divine inspiration of the Bible, the virgin birth of Christ, His atoning death on the cross, His bodily resurrection, and His miracles. In 1909, R. A. Torrey edited the four volume work called The Fundamentals, which was a comprehensive conservative theological response to the liberal high criticism of the Bible, “Christian Darwinism,” and many other heresies.

Originally, the Fundamentalists not only rallied together around theologically conservative beliefs, but also practiced a kind of separatist anti-social holiness. They were very separatist and legalistic in the way they approached life; and there were no gray areas or freedom for the conscience in ethical matters. No going to the movies…ever. No drinking alcohol. No coffee. Dress up for church. No long hair on men. All liberals are evil no matter what. And many other such condescending attitudes. While we have much to be thankful to the Fundamentalists for formulating orthodox Christian theology in an age of heresy, we would also do well to receive with moderation their suggestions on what they felt it meant to live a holy life. This is where Neo-Evangelicalism came in. This phrase was originally used by the theologian Harold Ockenga in 1947. Other theologians such as Carl F. H. Henry and evangelist Billy Graham joined the new Evangelical movement. The book that really seemed to start it all was Henry’s The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism (1947). Eventually they just came to be called Evangelicals. After being Fundamentalists for a number of years, many of these new Evangelical ministers expressed that they did not want to isolate themselves from the world or the culture around them. They wanted to be relevant in their Christian witness and engage the culture. This led to the founding of the National Association of Evangelicals, a network of denominations that affiliated themselves with the shared beliefs of the Evangelical cause.

Today, most conservative Protestants are called conservative Evangelicals—as “Fundamentalist” has turned into a pejorative term. Liberals are called “mainline” or simply liberal; Evangelical is a term that is still synonymous with conservative Christian beliefs and opposes false doctrines, heresies, and cults. For example, Walter Martin’s The Kingdom of the Cults (1965) is now considered a classic Evangelical work against the cults and heresies of our times. However, Martin was also a Charismatic.

In the 1960s and 70s, the Charismatic movement brought the miraculous gifts of the Spirit to both liberal and Evangelical churches. As the liberal churches didn’t have the discernment or the theology to handle such an outpouring of spiritual experiences, they eventually turned into “New Age” Christians, and adopted Yoga, Zen, and Transcendental Meditation practices from the Far East. This happened especially in the Roman Catholic Church, the Episcopal Church, the United Methodist Church, the Religious Society of Friends, and other mainline liberal denominations. The Catholic monks Thomas Merton and Thomas Keating popularized “centering prayer” as they incorporated Zen and Yoga into Christian meditation. However the Evangelical churches, although bitterly split over the issue of tongues, had more of a theological foundation to discern against being deceived by New Age influences.

Eventually in the late 1970s during the Charismatic movement, an Evangelical Charismatic denomination emerged called the Vineyard, which also had roots in the Jesus movement. The Vineyard was unique as a religious organization, because unlike the Assemblies of God and other Pentecostal denominations before them, the Vineyard’s emphasis was on restoring the ministry of healing to the church. By the late 1980s, the Kansas City prophets emerged out of a Vineyard church, restoring the modern experience of dreams and visions to the Evangelical world. Slowly but surely, the Vineyard leaders Mike Bickle and John Wimber caught on to contemplative prayer or soaking, as did John Arnott of the Toronto Blessing. And as the Vineyard developed, they looked kindly on Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline (1978), which was written by an Evangelical Quaker, and had a helpful chapter on contemplative prayer.

In my opinion, this is historically where modern Evangelical mysticism had its beginning. Anywhere between 1975 and 1978 during the Charismatic movement. But it really began with Richard Foster’s influence on the Vineyard and other Evangelical churches. While it is true that A. W. Tozer’s The Pursuit of God (1948) was an Evangelical work on contemplative prayer, it was a book written largely before its time when it first came out. It was pre-Charismatic movement, but soon enough Charismatics began to latch on to Tozer’s words as well.

In my definition, mysticism is a form of spirituality that uses the practice of contemplation in order to experience the presence and revelations of one’s god. Evangelical mysticism is believing like an Evangelical, but behaving like a mystic. Evangelicals believe, among other things, that Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life; and that there is salvation in no other Name but His (John 14:6; Acts 4:12). Evangelicals believe in the one true God of the Bible and they will have no other gods before Him (Exod. 20:3). Therefore, they oppose the New Age movement and its practices of Yoga, Transcendental Meditation, and Zen that have crept into the mainline liberal churches. Nevertheless, unlike classic Evangelicals who believe in sola Scriptura or “Bible only” kind of thinking, Evangelical mystics not only believe that God’s voice can be heard today through experience, but that it can be actively pursued through the practice of contemplative prayer.

In short, Evangelical mysticism is a form of Christian spirituality that adheres to all of the classical conservative beliefs of Evangelicals except for sola Scriptura, and is fervently pursuant of God Himself through the practice of contemplation—as the Holy Spirit inspires. That is Evangelical mysticism; it is Evangelical Christianity with a prophetic fire burning in the quiet of divine contemplation. It has had its predecessors such as Isaac Ambrose, Andrew Murray, F. B. Meyer, William Seymour, John G. Lake, and A. W. Tozer. But it wasn’t until the late 1970s and early 80s, that the Evangelical mysticism I speak of really started to take shape theologically. This was through the writings of Richard Foster, and the practice of contemplative prayer in the Vineyard, and other Evangelical Charismatic churches.

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