The Mystical Theology of the Pentecostal Church

As good Evangelical Protestants, the early Pentecostals were well aware of (and frequently warned of) the dangers of ‘false mysticisms, carnal visions and dreams’ (D.P. Williams, Herald of Grace 5.7, p.125; cf. 5.11, p.220). Yet, the rejection of false mysticism doesn’t mean the rejection of a mystical theology. This is a point made not only by early Pentecostals, but also by well-respected conservative evangelical figures such as Martyn Lloyd Jones, who wrote:

There are, unfortunately, even many evangelical Christians who deny that God has any direct dealings with men today, and who hold feeling and emotion at a discount. They frequently substitute for true emotion a flabby sentimentalism. They are afraid of the power of the Holy Spirit, and so afraid of certain excesses which are sometimes found in mysticism and in certain people who claim to have unusual experiences of the Holy Spirit, that they ‘quench the Spirit’ and never have any personal knowledge of Christ. Indeed, they often go so far as to deny the possibility of such a knowledge. (The Unsearchable Riches of Christ, p.247)

The Pentecostals, like their Puritan forbears (that might sound like an odd statement in a context like North America, but British Pentecostalism certainly traces its roots back, via the Welsh Revivals, to the experiential piety of many of the Puritans) sought to avoid the dangers of either a false mysticism, detached from the Word, or a purely speculative theology, which divided mind from heart. Neither a feeling of knowing by encounter, nor a mere knowing about God is enough. God is known neither by feeling nor by speculation, but only in Christ through the Holy Spirit, by the Word.

So, D.P. Williams warns: ‘There is always the danger of being deceived by being satisfied with the knowledge about God, and not attaining to the knowledge of His excellences in Jesus Christ.’ (Herald of Grace 5.11, p.220). He’s not disparaging theology, but warning against being satisfied with what he calls a mere ‘mental theology’, a theology which is limited to an intellectual activity and does not cross over into relationship with Christ. For, as contemporary Pentecostal theologian Simon Chan puts it, theology is ‘not a disinterested observation but a personal engagement with God and with God’s glory’ (Spiritual Theology, p.16).

Instead of this ‘mental theology’, what we need is not no theology (Williams never disparages or underestimates the importance of theology!), but rather a ‘mystical theology’. This is a theology which ‘is the outcome of divine acquaintanceship with God in Christ’, a ‘knowledge of the heart’ (as opposed to merely of the intellect) which ‘knows God with an intimate friendship’ and ‘produces sacred love towards Him’ (Herald of Grace, 5.10, p.199).

A mere ‘mental theology’ will not lead to spiritual growth, for it relies on our own natural methods, and ‘the best of our natural methods are only obstructions to spiritual growth’ (5.12, p.226). Instead, we need ‘the divine love of God [which] penetrates the soul where mere knowledge cannot’ (5.10, p.199).

Yet, such love is not found in a mysterious and ineffable mystic encounter, but only through the Cross of Christ (6.4, p.75). That means, this isn’t some extra-Scriptural thing reserved for a few special people, but rather a love which is openly declared in God’s Written Word and available to all those who trust in the Crucified Saviour. Our apprehension of this divine love comes as the outpoured Holy Spirit opens our eyes to the revelation of Christ in the Word (5.12), and through the sacrament of the Breaking of Bread (6.3).

Interestingly, this mystical theology of Pentecostalism doesn’t only have parallels in the contemplative-mystical piety of some of the Puritans (for a good example, read Tom Schwanda’s book on Isaac Ambrose – Soul Recreation: The Contemplative-Mystical Piety of Puritanism), but also with Patristic and Eastern Christianity.

D.P. Williams published the series of articles I’ve been drawing on in 1945, and only the previous year Vladimir Lossky had published his celebrated book, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church. (Of course, Lossky’s book was published originally in French, which D.P. Williams didn’t read, and only appeared in English translation after Williams’ death. So I’m not suggesting any dependence here, only noting the interesting similarity in emphasis.) Lossky defines ‘mystical theology’ as ‘no more than a spirituality which expresses a doctrinal attitude’ (p.7). For the Eastern church, Lossky tells us ‘theology and mysticism support and complete each other. One is impossible without the other’ (p.8).

Like Williams, Lossky is keenly aware of ‘mysticism in the bad sense of the word’ which is ‘a mingling of truth and of falsehood, of reality and of illusion’ (p.9). Yet, this false mysticism must not scare us aware from the mystical nature of true theology, for ‘there is … no Christian mysticism without theology; but, above all, there is no theology without mysticism’ (p.9).

The mystical or relationship aspect of Christianity – its spirituality to use a currently more popular expression – cannot be divided from or lived apart from Christian dogma. ‘Spirituality and dogma, mysticism and theology, are inseparably linked in the life of the Church’ (p.14). And so, we cannot choose between doctrine and spirituality – between theology and a relationship with Christ. Our relationship is doctrinally grounded. And so:

it is impossible to expound spirituality otherwise than in a dogmatic form, dogma being its outward expression, the only objective evidence of an experience which the Church affirms … Doctrinal tradition – beacons set up … along the channel of the knowledge of God – cannot be separated from or opposed to mystical tradition: acquired experience of the mysteries of the faith. Dogma cannot be understood apart from experience; the fullness of experience cannot be had apart from true doctrine. (p.236).

True theology should be mystical theology: a theology which isn’t satisfied with knowledge about God, but which leads to knowing God in Christ by the Spirit, and always rooted in the sacrifice of Calvary and the Written Word of Scripture.