A Response to T. A. McMahon’s Article: “Evangelical Mysticism?”

Dave Hunt and T. A. McMahon are modern-day examples of the Ulrich Zwingli mentality. Anti-mystical Evangelicalism. Why? Bible. Bible. Bible. Pure and simple. Sola Scriptura. “Come now, and let us reason together, saith the Lord” (Isaiah 1:18) is their rally cry. They want Christianity to be “Biblical” and not mystical at all. They view their theology as “solid” and not “tossed about by every wind of doctrine” (Ephesians 4:14). But there is a problem with that kind of religion. You can’t very well have a direct encounter with Jesus Christ can you? You’ll have to wait until Heaven for that. To Hunt and McMahon, Christian faith is essentially about Bible study, praying for needs, and going to church to hear more Bible teaching. It is very intellectual, rational, and philosophical. Spiritual gifts and experiences are shunned to the utmost extreme. Although I disagree with Hunt and McMahon’s perspective of Charismatic and mystical Christianity, I still think they are members of the Body of Christ by faith, and I think they wrote a great book called The Seduction of Christianity (1985). This book documents very clearly how New Age influences have crept into the church through prominent Charismatic teachers such as Morton Kelsey, Agnes Sanford, and others. Now they have a ministry site called http://www.thebereancall.org.

In 2008, McMahon posted an article on their website called “Evangelical Mysticism?”–where he attempted to attack Evangelical mysticism by showing how wrong the Roman Catholic Church is about spiritual practices. By doing this, he implied that Evangelicals would be wise not to borrow spiritual practices from the Catholics. I am going to respond to some of McMahon’s main ideas and statements that he has made in this article.

Firstly, he defines an Evangelical as someone who accepts “the Bible alone as their authority” (sola Scriptura). It looks like to me that McMahon only believes that Cessationist Reformed Protestants, such as conservative Presbyterians and Baptists, are truly “Evangelicals.” Makes sense. Dave Hunt is Plymouth Brethren–and I know they are not Charismatic. If you’re Pentecostal or Charismatic, then that apparently disqualifies you as an Evangelical in his mind. Of course, this contradicts what the National Association of Evangelicals thinks, which includes Assemblies of God, the Vineyard, and other Spirit-filled denominations. Evangelical Charismatics believe that both the Bible and the Holy Spirit/angels can speak to men, but that the Bible is the final authority on spiritual discernment.

Secondly, he attacks all Roman Catholic liturgies and sacraments as demonic superstitions and spiritual bondages. He is an ex-Catholic, as I myself am also. However, he is ex-Catholic more so by choice. My parents chose for me when I was nine, but I eventually came to see in the end that Roman Catholicism leads to Mary worship. So I too am also ex-Catholic by choice. But I think it is a bit overboard for him to demonize all of their liturgies. I think it is well within the realm of reason to say God’s Spirit can speak through liturgical music, and especially during the Scripture readings, and the sermons of the priests.

Thirdly, he attacks the “Gospel of Rome” as he calls it, which is performing Catholic devotions in order to earn one’s entrance into Heaven. By this he means praying to Mary and the saints, trusting in baptism, rosaries, Lent, the Eucharist, confession to a priest, etc. As an Evangelical I agree with McMahon that this is no Gospel at all, and completely contradicts the New Testament message of salvation by faith in Jesus’ substitutionary death on the cross for the sins of mankind; and of the Holy Spirit’s role in producing good ethical behavior in the life of a Christian. However, what McMahon is doing at this point in his article is trying to build up the reader’s resistance to any and everything that comes out of the Roman Catholic Church. And what it will eventually lead to is condemning contemplative prayer, which has been the intellectual property of Catholic monks for centuries. I cannot and will not agree with McMahon when he starts condemning contemplation on Jesus Christ just because “Catholics did it.”

Fourthly, he attacks Vatican II’s ecumenical program to reach out to liberal Protestants and conservative Evangelicals. He lists many Evangelical leaders, including Billy Graham, as being deceived by the Catholic Church’s ecumenism. McMahon believes it is part of a conspiracy to draw the Protestants back to the Catholic fold and under the authority of the pope. He’s probably right about the conspiracy thing, because all denominational ministers essentially want others to come to “their” church. But I do believe that there are Catholics that are members of the Body of Christ just as much as there are Evangelicals that are part of the Body of Christ. I have met some Catholics that don’t worship Mary and believe the Gospel just like Evangelicals do! Still, McMahon has not gained any ground against Evangelical mysticism yet. All he has done so far is attempted to discredit the Roman Catholic Church as an evil institution. Contemplation, which is the essence of mysticism, has nothing to do with any of this.

Fifthly, he attacks the influence of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ on the Evangelical church. Apparently, to McMahon this movie was so “obviously Catholic” to many Evangelical youth, that they were suddenly inspired to engage in Catholic liturgies and practices. When I first saw this movie, I was not under the impression that it was obviously a Catholic interpretation. I read and heard some things later that pointed out certain subtleties in the movie, such as Mary’s occasional role, but that was it. McMahon is right when he said that Gibson’s movie was based off of the visions of a certain Catholic mystic in the 18th century. That was Anne Catherine Emmerich; and the title of her revelations was called The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ. McMahon condemns all of this as depicting “(1) numerous scenes based upon the imagination of an 18th-century Catholic mystic, (2) the portrayal of Mary as co-redemptrix in the salvation of mankind, and (3) a very Catholic gospel that has Christ atoning for sin by suffering the unrelenting physical tortures of the Roman soldiers.” (1) Based upon her imagination? I think that’s a pretty rash conclusion; more like received into her imagination. Ms. Emmerich was a visionary, and claimed that her visions were revelations from the Lord. Whether or not one believes her visions were divine in origin, one must admit that she claimed they were visions–not merely visualizations coming out of her imagination. (2) The portrayal of Mary as co-redemptrix? There are times in Gibson’s movie when Mary is portrayed as suffering from sorrow as her Son is tormented. And yes, I will admit, this does play into the Catholic gospel–and is not Biblical. (3) A very Catholic gospel of Christ’s whippings from the soldiers? What’s so “Catholic” about that? If it is Catholic, it’s not un-Biblical. Jesus didn’t only atone for our sins on the cross. He also atoned for them as He was whipped by the soldiers. “By His scourging we are healed” (Isaiah 53:5, NASB). Jesus was not scourged on the cross; He was scourged by the soldiers as Ms. Emmerich and Mel Gibson so unreservedly portray. There is nothing so “Catholic” about this that Evangelicals should be forbidden from meditating on it.

Sixthly, he criticizes the emerging church movement for accepting Catholic contemplative practices, and calls them “occult techniques.” I have several responses to this statement. (1) While it is true that the emerging church has adopted Evangelical mysticism, I want to say right now that I am not a part of the emerging church movement. It is a heretical, liberal, postmodern, relativistic house church movement. I believe in house churches, but not the emergent type. (2) After all that McMahon has said of the Catholic Church so far–condemning their doctrines of salvation and so forth–he has not yet provided one proof that the Catholics’ practice of contemplation is wrong. But it is here that he simply assumes that it is wrong. Why? Because it comes from the evil Roman Catholic Church. Here I see a bias against contemplation without any evidence. (3) Occult techniques? Like the kind associated with spiritism in Deuteronomy 18:9-14? That’s pretty far fetched. What he’s really saying is that contemplation is the exclusive property of the occult. It is off limits for all Christians. That contradicts Hebrews 12:2 and Psalm 46:10a which command Christians to contemplate Jesus.

Seventh, he states that Catholic mysticism’s parent is Eastern mysticism (New Age/Hindu). This is an assumption completely without foundation. It is true that New Agers and Hindus practice their own versions of contemplation–called Transcendental Meditation, Yoga, Zen, and other things. It is also assumed by liberal theologians that Catholic saints borrowed the practice of contemplation from the Neoplatonists. This is also without any historical merit whatsoever. Especially since Origen, who was a Neoplatonic church father, was officially condemned as a heretic by the Catholic Church for these very beliefs. And because the Desert Fathers, the first visible contemplative Christians, were anti-Neoplatonist and opposed their doctrine of reincarnation. The true origin of Catholic mysticism goes like this: contemplation originated with Old Testament prophets, the Essenes, John the Baptist, Jesus, the apostles, the disciples, the apostolic fathers, early church prophets, the Desert Fathers, and Catholic monasticism from there on out. Eastern mysticism is not the parent of Catholic mysticism. Eastern mysticism is from the Far East in India. Catholic mysticism is from the other side of the Mediterranean Sea–in the West.

Eighth, he says that Catholic mysticism “claims that God can neither be known nor understood through human reason but only experienced subjectively through various techniques.” Actually, McMahon is distorting the apophatic tradition of Eastern Orthodox mysticism. The only Catholics to really catch onto this idea of contemplation are the author of The Cloud of Unknowing and St. John of the Cross. And actually, what they really say is that God cannot be understood through reason in the ecstatic state of contemplation. But when one is not in a state of contemplation, but in a rational state of mind, it is perfectly okay to delineate the attributes of God, and understand His personality traits by employing one’s reason (which McMahon likes to emphasize). But when one is rapt up in ecstatic contemplation of God, the mystic is only conscious of the pure presence of God, and nothing else. In such a condition of mind, he is unable to employ deductive reasoning, discursive logic, and methods of intellectual understanding. He just sits in awe of the holy presence of God and tries to take it all in.

Ninth, he says “the goal of mysticism is union with God, i.e., the merging of one’s soul into God. This is an impossibility that reveals mysticism’s pantheistic and panentheistic roots, that God is everything and is in everything. No. God is infinite and transcendent, absolutely separate from His finite creation.” McMahon is right when he says that goal of mysticism is the merging of one’s soul with God. In ecstatic contemplation, the human soul actually immerses its conscious mind into the presence of God and gets sort of absorbed into it–this is perfect peace. But in Evangelical mysticism, the creature remains distinct from the Creator. It’s just that both spirits are touching one another very delicately in pure peace, joy, and love. I feel sorry for McMahon that he believes this is impossible; boy is he missing out! He also confuses pantheism with panentheism. Pantheism is the New Age/Hindu teaching that God is the universe and the universe is God. Panentheism is the Biblical teaching of the omnipresence of God couched in new terminology–that God is in the universe and that the universe is in God (but they are still separate and distinct, yet closely touching one another). Deism is the teaching that God is so transcendent and separate from His creation that He is only to be thought of as far away, a billion million miles away in Heaven. McMahon seems to be an Evangelical deist that doesn’t believe in the omnipresence of the Holy Spirit.

Tenth, he condemns centering prayer. With McMahon, I too condemn centering prayer, but not because it’s a contemplative practice. I condemn it because it is taught from the perspective of Thomas Keating and M. Basil Pennington that it’s okay for Christian contemplatives to borrow contemplative practices from the Far East. There is nothing inherently Far Eastern about centering prayer itself. In fact, it’s just simply contemplation on a holy word like “God.” But it is taught from a New Age Christian perspective–and that is detestable (Deut. 18:9-14). It is contemplating on the wrong god.

Eleventh, he condemns the Jesus Prayer as a vain repetition and act of nonsense. In Matthew 6:7-8, Jesus said that Christians are not to use vain or meaningless repetitions when they pray to God, because God already knows what you need. However, Jesus was referring to petitionary prayer, not meditative prayer. The Jesus Prayer is a meditative prayer of the heart. “Lord Jesus, have mercy on me” (Luke 18:13) is to be mentally or verbally repeated thousands of times a day. It is a repetition, but a meaningful repetition, not a vain or nonsensical act. The purpose of this practice is to fulfill Paul’s command to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thess. 5:17); and through this unceasing prayer, to train the spirit and mind to concentrate on Jesus, and thus prepare the will for a prolonged and quiet contemplation of God.

Twelfth, he condemns Lectio Divina, but doesn’t say why. Lectio Divina is the practice of slowly reading the Bible in a meditative mindset so as to allow God to speak private revelation to you through the text and reveal deep and mystic revelations from the Scriptures. McMahon implies that this is bad simply because it’s not “normal Bible study.” Then he jumps to say, “It’s clear from God’s Word that the spirit with which [the Catholic saints] had a “mystical union” in their contemplative altered state of consciousness was not Jesus.” Huh? This has no bearing upon whether or not Lectio Divina is good or bad, but he seemed to think it did. He provides no proof texts to demonstrate how “clear from God’s Word” this really is to him. Also, note how he uses the phrase “altered state of consciousness.” This is a standard New Age phrase for ecstasy or trance. McMahon must be unaware of Acts 10:10 and other Biblical instances of the word “trance.” He probably thinks, like most Evangelicals do, that all trance experiences are demonic–hence the pejorative use of the phrase “altered state of consciousness.”

Thirteenth, he condemns the Ignatian Examen as an occult visualization. St. Ignatius’ The Spiritual Exercises is one of the classic handbooks on Christian spirituality. It teaches one to close the eyes, and visualize oneself with Christ in various scenes from His life in the Gospels. This opens up one’s spirit to the Spirit of Jesus and a contemplative state to receive revelation from God. McMahon believes that this sort of visualization is adding to the Scripture, and consequently sinful (in keeping with sola Scriptura). Even though Ignatius’ visualizations don’t add to the Gospels, but rather focus on images found in them, this still sounds too occultic to McMahon. And while I will admit that New Agers practice visualization in order to contact their spirit guides, there is nothing sinful or un-Biblical about visualizing Jesus. Rather the opposite is true: “I have set the Lord always before me” (Ps. 16:8). David visualized the Lord in front of him.

Fourteenth, he condemns prayer labyrinths, simply because the Catholics used them to “get out of Purgatory.” A prayer labyrinth is a sort of maze that you walk and meditate on as you imagine yourself on the Via Dolorosa, suffering with Jesus in His passion. Why McMahon finds fault with this I don’t know. His only reason seems to be that Catholics at one point used it as a legalistic work to get out of Purgatory. I say…so what? In itself, there is nothing wrong with walking and meditating on sharing in the sufferings of Christ. Philippians 3:10 says, “I want to know Christ and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in His sufferings, becoming like Him in His death.”

Fifteenth, he concludes with saying that Evangelical mysticism is all a bunch of New Age occultism. Of course he does! If McMahon is willing to believe sola Scriptura and that St. Ignatius’ The Spiritual Exercises is a handbook of Catholic occultism, then he’s going to believe EVERYTHING ASSOCIATED is occultic and New Age. I’m sorry, but I don’t think McMahon sees what I see. It’s not about embracing Catholic dogmas or any New Age gods or practices. Evangelical mysticism is Evangelical Christianity melded to the practice of contemplation on Jesus. It might be open to Ignatian visualization or the Jesus Prayer–but it all comes back to “fixing our eyes on Jesus” (Hebrews 12:2).

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