Mysticism And Scholasticism

As Bavinck compares scholasticism and mysticism in the middle ages, I can’t help but see parallels to modern denominational differences. I wonder if it is possible to ever hold these two mentalities together. I certainly hope it is.

We are thus led to a distinction between orthodox and pantheistic mysticism. The former, it must be said, though not opposed to scholasticism, was, however, distinct from it–in the first place, in method. Following Aristotle’s analytic method, scholasticism attempted by reasoning to ascend from finite things to God. Mysticism followed the synthetic method of Plato and attempted to gain insight into the truths of faith from the perspective of the higher view that the soul attained by grace. Second, there was a distinction in origin. Above all, scholasticism originated form Aristotle’s writings becoming know and had Lombard’s Sentences as its object. Mysticism, on the other hand, originated especially as the works of Pseudo-Dionysius–which in the West were read in Erigena’s translation–found acceptance. Finally, there was a difference in essence. Scholasticism is the attempt, with the help of philosophy, to gain scientific knowledge of revealed truth. The object of mystical theology, however, is the mystical communion with God granted by special grace to a small number of privileged persons. Mysticism described how and by what way the soul could attain to such communion with God and what light could be shed on the truths of faith from that vantage point. In that sense mysticism has always had its representatives in the Christian church and occurs in greater or lesser measure in all the church fathers. It is most intimately bound up with the monastic ideal and proceeds from the assumption that there is a twofold knowledge of God, that of the mind and that of the heart’s experience and communion with God. In the Middle Ages mysticism linked up especially with Augustine, who, as the first to do so, examined the depths of the life of the soul and conveyed his findings in inimitable language. It also utilized Pseudo-Dionysius, who had outlined the steps and mileposts by which the soul could climb up from finite existence to the infinite God. By practical exercises such as those of asceticism, purification, self-torture, world flight, etc., or by theoretical [theoria, a viewing contemplation] reflection, such as listening [for the voice of God] reading [Scripture], prayer, logical thought, contemplation, and meditation, the soul on earth could already enter a state of beholding or enjoying God. This is how mysticism is conceived and described int eh various works of Bernard of Clairvaux, Hugo and Richard of St. Victor, Bonaventure, Aquinas, Gerson, and Thomas a Kempis. But it was natural, given mysticism’s accent on contemplation, that it would disparage knowledge. In the enjoyment of the heart, clarity of mind and the value of knowledge were lost. Often mysticism fell under the influence of neoplatonism and, in the case of Eckhart (d. 1327) and others, acquired a pantheistic flavor. [Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics vol. 1, 148-149