Tracts for the Times
ON THE MYSTICISM ATTRIBUTED TO THE FATHERS OF THE CHURCH
by John Keble
§ v.Ancient Mysticism as applied to the Interpretation of New Testament.
The object of this section is, allowing the fact, that the ancient interpreters did apply the mystical principle very largely to the New Testament, to point out some of the rules by which they conducted that process, the limits within which they confined it, and the good purposes, which, under such rules and limits it was calculated to answer.
But the very mention of mystical interpretation, as applied the Christian Scriptures, suggests in limine a plausible objection, which it may be as well to anticipate in some measure, before proceeding any further. It may and will be said, "Whatever one may think of the degree and manner in which they allegorized the Old Testament, all must allow that to a certain extent they were borne out by Scripture in so doing. But to allegorize the New Testament at all, what is it but turning the substance into a shadow, and by consequence unsettling the very foundations of the religion ?" Those accordingly, who wish to be very severe upon the Fathers, have thought proper, in treating of this head, to make mention of the wild and cloudy dreams of the early Quakers151, and other modern enthusiasts ; as if the two things admitted some kind of comparison.
Again, taking another point of view, it may be argued that such a line of interpretation coincides too nearly with that which St. Paul so earnestly deprecates in the Epistle to the Galatians. This, it may be said, is the very essence of the Law, that it had but a shadow of good things to come. By allegorizing the Gospel, you are so far making it also a shadow ; and what is but going back to the Law, and incurring at once all the anathemas which the zealous Apostle pronounces on all such disturbers of Christian perfection.
This way of objecting would be as just as it sounds plausible, if either the truth of the New Testament history, or what we may call the completeness of the dispensation, were impugned by the mystical interpretations current in antiquity. But such is by no means the case. As to the truth of the history ; something was said in a former section, to shew that even Origen and his followers who are most censurable on that head, never thought of denying or doubting the main facts ; and that even where they speak most freely of minor details, as though the apparent discrepancies of the evangelical narrative could only be reconciled by supposing an admixture of allegory, it is not so much real contradiction, which they impute to the sacred historians, as an appearance of contradiction, which they assume to be intended and providential.
Again, as to the other point, of completeness ; the danger of sweeping negatives is proverbial, yet I suppose one might safely challenge the production from any orthodox writer, or from any of the school of Origen who had not been condemned as a heretic, of a single passage, tending to make out the Gospel scheme imperfect, in the sense here alleged,Judaically imperfecta shadow and forerunner of better things to come even on this earth ; or as any other than the last and best of Gods appointed ways of preparing His banished for restoration. Those blasphemies were reserved for such as Manes and Mahomet, and for that kind of infidelity, so current in our days, which allowing that the Gospel was well enough in its time, expects more however, in this and in coming generations, from the spirit of the age, than from the Spirit of the Church. We do not find even Origens licentious disciples who incurred Church censures in the fifth general council, stigmatized with any opinion of the kind.
History then does not warrant our attributing either of the supposed ill tendencies to the mystical way of expounding the New Testament ; and a little consideration will show that in reason and argument they are quite separable from it : as will be presently evident, on proceeding to inquire calmly, what this Mysticism, which has such an ill name, really amounts to ; and on what great principles it is grounded.
(2.) The nature and amount of it may be best understood, by producing a few examples ; which will serve also incidentally to shew, how early it prevailed in the Church of God, and by what high authorities it was undoubtingly sanctioned. Hear, for instance, St. Clement of Alexandria, descanting on the circumstances of the parable of the Good Samaritan. "Which of the three," says our Lord, "was neighbour to the sufferer?" The other answering, "He that showed mercy on him;" Says Clement152 :
"Who then is our neighbour, rather than the Saviour Himself ? To whom, rather than to Him, are we indebted for pity, all but slaughtered as we were by the rulers of darkness of this world, with so many wounds, with fears, desires, angers, griefs, deceits, pleasures ? Of all these wounds the only healer is Jesus, cutting out entirely every passion by the roots, not as the Law did, the produce merely, the fruits of the pernicious plants, but laying His own axe to the roots of iniquity. This is He who pours the wine, the blood of the vine of David, into our wounded souls ; who from the tender mercies of the Father brings oil, and that in abundance : this is He who makes known to us the indissoluble bands of health and salvation ; charity, faith, hope ; this is He who hath enjoined angels and authorities and powers to minister to us for a great reward : i. e. for the deliverance which themselves also shall receive from the vanity of the world at the revelation of the glory of the Sons of God."