Is Protestantism Mystical?

In the late 19th century, Baron von Huegel wrote a 2-volume study on Catherine of Genoa in which he argued that religion's true basis is in mysticism. This comes at the end of a century which began with Schleiermacher's On Religion: Speeches to its Cultured Despisers, in which religion was defended not as God's intervention in human affairs, or as a creator who was the cause of the natural world, but rather as feeling. Schleiermacher wanted to relate religion to experience, and put it on a firm grounding. Huegel furthers this impulse, and sets the stage for the 20th century move that many people have made, from religion to spirituality, and its backlash, which is fundamentalism.


But it could be argued that all this began much earlier, at the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. The Reformation could be seen as a political or economic movement, but it cannot be ignored that there were changes in the religious temperament as well. Chief among these was an attempt to incorporate the rise of personal spirituality into a church structure. The Catholic church was perceived as being out of touch with personal or individual commitment. Of course, that's not really true - the mystics we have been studying are surely people who were personally engaged in spirituality. But those people were the exception, rather than the rule. And, movements which attempted to distribute spirituality, or support individual approaches, tended to be seen as a threat - the Beguines, Eckhart, the Rhineland mystics.

So, it might be that these individual approaches were extended to all the faithful, and that Protestant faith could be seen as essentially mystical in the sense that it made that extension possible. However, while there may be elements of truth to this, it would be too easy to overstate this case. Consider the difference between early and late Lutheranism, for example. By the time Luther was in his later years, Lutheranism had also become very wary of difference or diversity within its ranks. Anabaptists, for instance, were persecuted more by Lutherans than by anyone else. And there was an institutional form of Lutheranism that developed, which simply sought to solidify political gains. There were mystical Lutherans, but most of them were regarded with suspicion (see, for example, Boehme).


It is clear by this point in history that Protestantism is not necessarily mystical, and in many cases very anti-mystical. But there have also been intervening social, philosophical, and theological currents which could account for that. The fact of the general anti-mystical bent of Protestant faith now doesn't mean that there wasn't an element of mysticism in it at the beginning.


For those who are not familiar with theological history, it might be worth recapping what Protestantism is. The term is applied to several movements, not all of which are necessarily Protestant. Protestants protest something, but what is being protested, and when the term is usefully applied, is a matter of perspective. Here are some senses of the Protestant, going from narrowest to broadest:


1.
Lutheranism: Most strictly, one might argue that only Lutherans are truly Reformational, since Luther was the one who engaged in both the political and religious changes that we have come to know as Protestant. Unlike the Reformed church, for instance, Luther

2. The "Magisterial Reformation": This normally includes Lutherans and Reformed church (Zwingli, Calvin, Beza, etc.)

3. The German Reformation: This includes the Magesterial Reformation plus the Radical Reformation (Anabaptists). We could also recognize a broader version of the Reformation if we include the Catholic counter-Reformation, a series of reforms from within the Catholic church, but that can in no way be seen as Protestant. But the point is that Reformation happened within the Catholic church at the time, as well as in the break-away groups.

4. All of the above plus Anglicans/Episcopalians/Church of England and the Scottish Reformation: The Anglican church broke with the Catholic church before the German Reformation, of course, and was in full flower by the time of Elizabeth, which was more or less contemporaneous with the German Reformation. The reasons for the split were different than those of the Germans. The Scottish Reformation was in the 16th century (John Knox was an important figure), and bore theological resemblance to the Reformed movement (two of the great Calvinist theologies are in the Reformed church and the Presbyterian church).

5. All Christian non-Catholics: This is what many people think of as Protestantism, but it is not correct. The Eastern Orthodox church, for instance, is not Protestant in anyone's definition, but it is also not Catholic. The Coptic church, also Christian, is also not Protestant. And, there are other groups which bear some resemblance to Protestant groups (e.g., the Mormons), but which also cannot be called Protestant.