Warfield and Contemplative Spirituality
“There is a way which seemeth right unto a man, but the end thereof are the ways of death.”
As endorsed by various leaders and authors, the “Be Still” DVD indicates that evangelicals are promoting and embracing mystical religion. Because parachurch ministries and local church pastors encourage it, contemplative spirituality, with its practices and disciplines, is being naively engaged in by increasing numbers of persons. These devout souls desire to draw closer to God by using spiritual techniques they hope will provide experiences that will open new doors and vistas of spirituality.
In keeping with the spirit of postmodernism, the current and popular philosophy of life that denies truth on the one hand while affirming “personal spirituality” on the other, the emergent, or emerging, church movement embraces both the philosophy and practices of contemplative spirituality which promotes itself to be a path to cultivate a personal and experiential walk with God.
For Bible-believing Christians, significant questions arise in the face of this growing mystical “super-spirituality.” Do the experiences of contemplative spirituality originate from below, from the flesh, or from above, from the Spirit? Are the experiences self-induced or Spirit-inspired? Absent mediation by the Holy Spirit as He witnesses to Jesus Christ through the inspired Scriptures (John 15:26; 5:39), do the methods of the new spirituality leave room for the influence of evil spirits in the lives of those who engage those practices? Do intentional spiritual exercises such as meditating into “the silence,” prayer labyrinths, lectio divina, Taizé worship, and so forth, fit the paradigm of works spirituality, as opposed a paradigm of grace spirituality? As the Apostle admonished the Galatian churches, “This is the only thing I want to find out from you: did you receive the Spirit by the works of the Law, or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?” (Galatians 3:2-3, NASB).
Benjamin B. Warfield’s writings on mysticism help to orient Christian believers to understand the implications of contemplative and mystical spirituality’s challenge to orthodox and biblical Christianity.[ii] Faddish approaches to and methods of spirituality are seldom original. What is currently working itself up into a popular religious fervor is but a modern version and adaptation of what Warfield labeled the old “theosophical mysticism,” the feelings of which he described as “the footprints of Deity moving in the soul.” To the mystic, these footprints become “immediate sources of knowledge of God,” knowledge that can be “obtained by simple quiescence and rapt contemplation.”
Who among us would not desire to experience God walking within our souls? By appealing to the deepest longings and sentiments of the human spirit, the sensus divinitatis as Warfield called it, self-acclaimed and appointed gurus of “enlightenment” promote and peddle their “mysteries of godliness” by lectures and seminars, on talk shows, in books, and via video presentations. And literally, a mass of the Christian populace is “buying” into it.
To seduce the gullible and to define the “seeking of God from within,” elitist teachers recommend and promote the mystical practices of ancient Christendom, spiritual disciplines such as “contemplative prayer,” “lectio divina,” “entering the silence,” “expanded imagination,” “spirit visualization,” and more. Masquerading as means of grace, these recommendations bait naïve Christians to engage in these novel spiritual exercises. But as Paul warned, such spiritual practices may possess, “to be sure, the appearance of wisdom in self-made religion . . . but are of no value against fleshly indulgence” (Colossians 2:23).
Christian believers must therefore ask critical questions like these: Where might mystical practices lead those persons who engage them? Are there spiritual risks that accompany the disciplines of contemplative spirituality? Can these practices be wrong when they might feel so right?
When engaging Warfield’s argument, readers will discover a watershed distinction the theologian made between “external authority” which lies at the core of revealed religion, and “internal authority” which serves as the basis of unrevealed religion. Mysticism, Warfield noted, belongs to the latter category while Christianity is bonded to the former. With its emphasis upon “internal authority,” contemplative and mystical spirituality is averse to and therefore at odds with the idea of “external religious authority,” authority deriving from the divinely initiated revelatory and redemptive events of salvation history that are recorded, interpreted, and proposed in the words, sentences, paragraphs, and books of Holy Scripture. Mysticism “in-sources” authority to the human spirit while contrarily, biblical Christianity “out-sources” authority to the Triune God and the divine Word of Holy Scripture. In short, as they worship at the shrine of personal experience, contemplative spiritualists fixate upon “the authority within” and thereby separate themselves from “the authority without.”
If the movement continues to gain popularity and ascendancy, where will contemplative spirituality, with its passion for individualized spiritual experiences, lead the evangelical movement? As Warfield reasoned:
"Above all other elements of Christianity, Christ and what Christ stands for, with the cross at the center, come to us solely by “external authority.” No “external authority,” no Christ, and no cross of Christ. For Christ is history, and Christ’s cross is history, and mysticism which lives solely on what is within can have nothing to do with history; mysticism which seeks solely eternal verities can have nothing to do with time and that which has occurred in time."
Warfield thus argues that spirituality absorbed in mystery will eventually deny history, and consequently will jettison the salvific truths witnessed to and stated in the Bible. In their focus upon the “internal authority” of the present, mystics will be led to inevitably deny the “external authority” of the past.
If historical precedent teaches us anything at all, contemplative spiritualists, all their denial not withstanding, probably will eventually apostatize from a historic and orthodox faith which involves Jesus’ incarnation, substitutionary atonement for sin, and physical resurrection. To repeat, in their embrace of mystery, mystics do not need history. While claiming to love God, contemplative or mystical spirituality will in the end deny the “external authority” of Jesus’ Person and Work. And such a denial will imperil their souls, for as the Apostle John wrote:
"Who is the liar but the one who denies that Jesus is the Christ? This is the antichrist, the one who denies the Father and the Son. Whoever denies the Son does not have the Father; the one who confesses the Son has the Father also" (1 John 2:22-23).
Mysticism corrupts Christian hearts and minds “from the simplicity that is in Christ.” (2 Corinthians 11:3, KJV). By affirming the search for a divinity within, mystical contemplators will eventually be led to deny the sin and the Savior who died for it (1 Corinthians 15:3-4).
James explains there to be two opposite sources of wisdom: one that is “from above” and another that “is not . . . from above, but is earthly, natural, demonic” (James 3:15-17, NASB). Though Warfield does not address the potential darker side and consequences of applying mystical wisdom to one’s soul through engaging man-made spiritual exercises—possible demonic deception, then influence, and finally, control (1 Timothy 4:1-3)—his essay does expose the anti-historical and therefore the anti-Christian nature of contemplative spirituality.
Every believer ought to pause and know that religious experiences must be experienced according to conditions designed and set by God, and not upon methods and practices of human invention. As Paul wrote to the Corinthians:
"For what man knoweth the things of a man, save the spirit of man which is in him? Even so the things of God knoweth no man, but the Spirit of God" (1 Corinthians 2:11, KJV).
If not experienced on God’s terms, then supposed divine encounters are really not divine at all. At best, they may be self-induced delusions. At worst, they may lead to the deception of demons and the deification of the “self.” As Warfield saw it, “The history of mysticism only too clearly shows that he who begins by seeking God within himself may end by confusing himself with God.”
It is my conviction that if the current trend of seeking God within continues and grows, then, as with devotees of eastern religions, personal experience will eclipse a faith regulated by the Word of God, a Word which, ironically, the “spiritual” Spirit inspired (2 Peter 1:21; 2 Timothy 3:16).
Unregulated spiritual chaos will reign as this and future generations seek ecumenical oneness with spiritual contemplators of other religions—Jewish Kabbalists, Muslim Sufis, Hindu and Buddhist mystics, and whomever. Cardinal and foundational Christian teachings will drown in a sea of religious subjectivity created by personal experiences and demonic influences (1 Timothy 4:1). Professing Christians will believe only that which seems right in their own hearts as they seek confirmation from and unity with those of like precious experiences.
As Warfield concluded:
"We may be mystics, or we may be Christians. We cannot be both. And the pretension of being both usually merely veils defection from Christianity. Mysticism baptized with the name of Christianity is not thereby made Christianity. A rose by any other name will smell as sweet. But it does not follow that whatever we choose to call a rose will possess the rose’s fragrance."
The movement of contemplative spirituality must be discerned. For that purpose, Warfield’s writings are more relevant today than when they were first composed a century ago. Though they do not answer all of the questions raised by contemplative spirituality, his writings do provide an excellent theological framework by which to evaluate and discern mysticism. As for other issues raised by contemplative spiritualists, we say, “To the law and to the testimony: if they speak not according to this word, it is because there is no light in them” (Isaiah 8:20, KJV).
Pastor Larry DeBruyn is the author of Church on the Rise: Why I am not a Purpose-Driven Pastor. Reprinted with permission. The original article appears as "Benjamin B. Warfield (1851-1921) and Contemplative Spirituality" as Appendix Four in his book.
 B. B. WARFIELD (1851-1921), A Biographical Sketch
Born into a devout Christian home near Lexington, Kentucky, and inheriting his mother’s maiden name as his middle name, Benjamin Breckenridge Warfield was a Presbyterian theologian and educator who twice served as president of Princeton Theological Seminary, 1902-1903 and 1913-1914. Tutored with the Westminster Confession of Faith and afforded a private education during his youth, his special interests grew to be in mathematics and physics during his university years.
But while studying in Europe during the summer of 1872, Warfield wrote home announcing his call to the Christian ministry. He enrolled at the Theological Seminary at Princeton in the fall of 1873, graduating from that institution in May, 1876. Thereupon, a Presbytery in Kentucky licensed him to preach.
After further education in Europe, he accepted an appointment to be an instructor in New Testament at Western Theological seminary in Allegheny, Pennsylvania in 1878. He spent nine years there studying, teaching and writing. Warfield’s belief in the plenary inspiration of the Scriptures, it must be noted, guided his scholarship for his entire life.
Upon the death Archibald Alexander Hodge, Warfield moved to the Chair of Theology at Princeton in 1886, where he served that institution until his death on February 16, 1921.
Harold Lindsell noted that, “Perhaps no theologian of that age is as widely read and has had his books kept in print as long as Warfield.”
 Originally appearing in The Biblical Review in 1917, “Mysticism and Christianity” is reprinted in the ninth volume of The Works of Benjamin B. Warfield, 10 Volumes (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 2003) 649-666. An electronic version of his works is available as Volume 14 of the Christian Library Series, “The Benjamin B. Warfield Collection,” produced by Ages Digital Library, P.O. Box 216, Rio, WI 53960 USA. Available online at www. ageslibrary.com