The final view of sanctification addressed in Christian Spirituality is that of the contemplatives. The Church has a long history with contemplatives, or mystics, that transcends geography and denominations. Some well-known names were contemplatives: Bernard of Clairvoux, St. John of the Cross, Teresa Avila, Thomas Merton and more. In my younger days as a Christian I read Brother Lawrence and The Great Cloud of Unknowing. How does E. Glenn Hinson describe contemplative Christianity?
Contemplatives try to balance the inner and outer life. They usually assert that being will result in doing (which is a far more biblical idea than doing will result in being). They do spend most of their time addressing the inner life: being. Its focus is on communicating, communing and contemplating with God internally. Like Wesleyian sanctification the focus is on one’s love for God. Instead of gaining this thru a second blessing, one pursues it, so to speak, through a series of activities that leads one thru the stages of increasing communion with God. I’m trying to do this justice on its own terms.
“Contemplation has to do with this loving attentiveness to God.”
In contemplation there is an assumption that God is immanent in the created order. He is inescapably near to us. There is no disputing this, the question is “how is He near?”.
In Hinson’s description, there is a “naturalness” to this pursuit of the Divine Lover. He does not clarify and it can sound awfully Pelagian to many ears. Since contemplatives typically eschew theological distinctions, lots of things are vague enough to be misunderstood. Or properly understood.
At the very best, it is typically Arminian. God is a gentleman who never knocks our door down but respects the freedom He gave us. There is a resistibleness to this “grace.” Let me clarify: in Reformed Theology God does not violate the will of the creature, but in regeneration changes the character/nature of the creature so the person’s will is changed. We cannot thwart God’s purposes and plan. In most contemplative theology we, not God, are in the driver’s seat.
He talks much of grace. Instead of pursuing the appointed means of grace, there is an openness to God’s gracious energies. Contemplation is, in large part, surrendering yourself to God (you will find a great deal of this in Bono’s lyrical theology). This is different than “submitting yourselves to God” which we do find in Scripture. Submission is more objective since we are submitting to His revealed will (typically) and not subjectively opening ourselves up to God. Similar to Pentecostalism, this is very experience driven but a more passive experience than Pentecostalisms active experience. But both seek experience.
“It is a fundamental conviction of contemplatives, however, that we may see God or be united with God, though fleetingly, while we are still living in this present state of existence.”
Their desire is essentially the beatific vision and union with God. Historically, the first is viewed at happening at glorification, not in our earthly pilgrimage. The second has historically been understood as happening early in the ordo saludis. It is not something we seek, but is given to us. Indeed there is no salvation apart from union with Christ.
One of the most famous contemplatives, St. John of the Cross, wrote about the dark night of the soul. This is an important part of the process which recognizes physical and spiritual affliction as part of the purification process. While Reformed Theology notes difficult providence, and even a loss of assurance, as part of our maturing in Christ and weaning us from the world, St. John means something else. This is part of the process of perfection, of attaining a higher level. This cannot help but produce an understanding of 1st, 2nd and 3rd class Christians. While we affirm differences in maturity among Christians, we don’t put them on different levels. We recognize that some have greater understanding and application of the gospel but all Christians have the same benefits in Christ. None of those benefits are born of stages which ascend higher. On the other hand, this acceptance of suffering as “normal and necessary” is a good counterbalance to much of American Christianity that seeks to avoid suffering at all costs. All Christians should experience “growing pains.”
“God loves you; love him back.”
Another aspect of contemplative theology is the ladder of love. The focus, again, is on the love of God (all other attributes of God seemingly vanish in comparison). Love, he says, is “a natural affection God has poured into you.” Again there is a lack of qualification. When Paul speaks of the “love of God poured into our hearts” (Romans 5) I understand this to mean His love for us, but he seems to take this as our love for God.
Bernard of Clairvoux speaks of the stages or steps of love: love of self for self’s sake, love of God for self’s sake, love for God for God’s sake, and love of self for God’s sake. Most mystics spoke of the first 3, but Bernard added the final one. In light of this, contemplatives follow Origen (rarely a good move) in seeing the Song of Songs as a love story between God and man (that essentially sexualizes our relationship with God which is NOT helpful in my opinion) rather than human love which points us to divine love.
The main activity for the contemplative is prayer. It is not intercessory prayer so much as a seeking after God. Far too few of us spend adequate time adoring God in prayer. But contemplatives also make this into stages: knowing God cognitively, knowing God more intuitively (heart instead of head), and then contemplation or “love on fire with contemplation.” This is the experience that is too amazing for words- the communion with God they seek. There is in all this, as many of the responses note, a moving beyond the authority of Scripture into dangerously subjective territory. They make the “unique” experiences of Paul, John and the prophets which were a function of their calling normative for Christians without that calling. Contemplatives seem to revel in the subjective, the irrational. They fail to appreciate Calvin’s favorite verse:
29 “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law. Deuteronomy 29
Bottom Line: Sanctification is surrendering to God’s love and loving Him in return.
Forde, as to be expected, is put off by talk of a scheme. And, in my opinion, there are schemes and there are schemes. This would be a particularly bad scheme. He positively notes that “love is the ultimate motor and goal of sanctification.” This he and I think they have right. But he addresses a few flaws. First the fact that if it doesn’t work,the problem is with me or grace. If I don’t move thru the stages either God’s grace is insufficient or I haven’t tried rightly or hard enough. Neither is a really good option which results in unhealthy introspection and possibly depression. He also notes the “practical Pelagianism” I mentioned above. The other big problem is that it wants us to look in instead of looking out to Christ. Luther noted that one of humanity’s problems from the Fall is that man is “curvatus in se.” We are always turned inward. This is a problem, a function of our sinfulness. It is not the answer to our sinfulness nor a healthy part of our sanctification. I’m not saying we never examine ourselves or seek to understand our motivations. But the answer to our inner sinfulness is always outside of us: Christ and His work for us. The Pelagian problem re-emerges in minimizing that atoning work, reducing it to a display of love (though it obviously is that but not only that).
Ferguson, in response to Hinson’s mention of the Puritans, sets for the distinctions between the Puritan’s understanding of contemplation and the mystics. While we recognize the incomprehensibility of God we affirm that the Scriptures give us real and true knowledge of God, that He lisps to us so we can understand what wants us to know about Him. We affirm that God came near, in Christ. Our contemplation is rooted in objective truth, and Christ’s work for sinners. We approach God thru the historical Christ whom we find in Scripture. Our understanding of the gospel is not simply “God loves you, love Him back.” But God loved sinners and reconciles them to Himself in Christ. Big difference. God’s love, as John asserted , expresses itself in an atoning sacrifice.
While Wood notes some similarities with the Wesleyan tradition (entire sanctification was also called perfect love) he warns of the subjectivism of the contemplative tradition that arises from departing for Word and Sacrament. Wesley, from his perspective, represents the synthesis of the contemplative ideal of holiness and the Reformation view of justification by faith alone.
Spittler’s response is very short and not profound. The bottom line is that the Pentecostal quest for experience does not result in devotionals and journals. It looks out, not in, for its experience.