« Prev 5. The Mystical Theory. Next »

§ 5. The Mystical Theory.

The fifth theory on this subject is the mystical. This agrees with the moral view (under which it might be included), in that it represents the design of Christ’s work to be the production of a subjective effect in the sinner. It produces a change in him. It overcomes the evil of his nature and restores him to a state of holiness. The two systems differ, however, as to the means by which this inward change is accomplished. According to the one it is by moral power operating according to the laws of mind by the exhibition of truth and the exercise of moral influence. According to the other it is by the mysterious union of God and man, of the divine with the human nature, i.e., of divinity with humanity, brought about by the incarnation.

This general idea is presented in various forms. Sometimes the writers quoted in favour of this mystical view teach nothing more ihan what has ever been held in the Church, and what is clearly caught in the Scriptures.. It is true that there is a moral and spiritual union between God and man effected by the incarnation of the Son of God and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. He and his people are one. Our Lord prays to the Father, John xvii. 22, 23, that those given to Him “may be one, even as we are one: I in them, and thou in me.” And the Apostle Peter does not hesitate to say that we are made “partakers of the divine nature.” This, and no more than this, is necessarily implied in the oft-quoted language of Athanasius in reference to Christ, αὐτὸς ἐνηνθρώπησεν, ἵνα ἡμεῖς θεοποιηθῶμεν. But besides this Scriptural doctrine there has prevailed a mystical view of the union of God and man to which the redemption of our race is ascribed, and in which, by some of its advocates, it is made exclusively to consist. So far as the fathers are concerned, a clear distinction was made between redemption and reconciliation; between the objective work of Christ in delivering us from the curse of the law and from the power of Satan, and the subjective application of that work. 582Both were ascribed to Christ. The former (our redemption), was effected by his bearing our sins, by his being made a curse for us, by his giving Himself as a ransom, and by his obedience being taken as a substitute for the obedience which we had failed to render. Our reconciliation with God, including restoration to his image and fellowship, was effected, not, as the Church has ever taught, by the work of the Holy Spirit, but according to the mystical theory, by the union of the divine nature with our fallen nature, brought about by the incarnation. In all ages of the Church there have been minds disinclined to rest in the simple statements of the Bible, and disposed to strive after something more philosophical and profound. Among the early fathers, Münscher says, there was an obscure and peculiar notion that in some way the coming of Christ had produced a physical effect upon our race to ennoble it and render it immortal.458458Dogmengeschichte, II., vi. § 122, 2d edit. Marburg, 1818, vol. iv. p. 285. At times this idea is advanced in general terms and without any attempt to explain philosophically how this effect was produced. As Adam was the cause of the seeds of death and corruption being introduced into human nature, so Christ was the means of introducing a principle of life and immortality which operates as leaven in a mass of dough. Or, as any affection of one member of the body, especially of the head, affects the whole system, so the resurrection of Christ and his life has a physical effect upon the whole mass of mankind. They regarded the human race as one mass which, inasmuch as Christ had united Himself with it by his incarnation, was restored to its original perfection and made immortal.459459Gieseler’s Kirchengeschichte, iv. III. ii. 5, § 97, edit. Bonn, 1855; vol. vi. p. 384. Münscher’s Dogmengeschichte, vol. iv. p. 286. This idea was more perfectly worked out by the realists. They held humanity to be a generic substance and life, of which individual men are the modes of existence; and they also held that it was this generic humanity, and not merely a true body and a reasonable soul that Christ assumed into personal union with his divine nature; thus an element of divinity was introduced into humanity, by which it is restored and ennobled, and according to some, finally deified.

Among the Platonizing fathers, however, the mystical operation of the incarnation was connected with their doctrine of the Logos. What the real doctrine of the fathers and of Philo their predecessor and master in his matter concerning the Logos was, has ever been a matter of dispute among the learned. It is not at all even yet a settled matter whether Philo regarded the Logos as a person 583or not. Dorner, one of the latest and most competent authorities on this point, takes the negative side of the question. According to him Philo taught that the Logos was (1.) A faculty of God, the νοῦς or understanding, and also the power of God. The two are united; thought and power. (2.) The Logos is the activity of God; not merely the power of thought and of creating, but also the actual activity of God in thinking and creating. God first created by thinking an ideal world, after which the actual world was to be fashioned. As a builder forms in his mind the plan of a city in all its details, before he carries that plan into execution; and as the dwelling-place of that ideal city is the understanding of the builder, so the ideal world is in the mind of God, i.e., in the Logos. (3.) According to Philo the Logos is not only the thinking principle which forms this ideal world, but the ideal world itself. (4.) This plenitude of ideas which constitutes the ideal world is the reality, life, and intelligence of the actual world. The latter is (or becomes) by the union of the ideal with matter, what it is. The κόσμος νοητός is realized in the κόσμος αἰσθητός. The Logos, therefore (or the divine intelligence and activity), is the life and intelligence of the actual world. He is the reason in all rational creatures, angels and men.460460See Dorner’s Entwicklungsgeschichte der Lehre von der Person Christi. 2d edition. Stuttgart, 1845. Introduction, pp. 26-42. According to Philo the Logos was on the one hand identical with God, and on the other identical with the world as its interior reality and life.

In the hands of the Platonizing fathers this doctrine was only modified. Some of them, as Origen, held that the Logos was a person eternally begotten of the Father; according to Clemens Alexandrinus, He was, as the Logos ἐνδιάθετος, eternally in God as his wisdom, and therefore impersonal; but as the Logos προφορικός, or united to the world as its formative principle, He became a person. In applying these philosophical speculations to the explanation of the doctrine concerning the person and work of Christ, there is no little diversity among these writers, so far as the details are concerned. In substance they agree. The eternal Logos or Son, became truly a man, and as such gave Himself as a sacrifice and ransom for the redemption of men. He also by his incarnation secures our recovery from the power of sin and restoration to the image and fellowship of God. How this latter object is accomplished is the mystical part of the theory. The Logos is the eternal Son of God; but He is also the interior life and substance of the world. Rational creatures included in the world, are endowed 584with personality and freedom. Some of them, both angels and men, have turned away from the Logos which is their life. A renewed union of the divine with the human restores them to their normal relation. The original creation of man was imperfect. The divine element was not strong enough to secure a right development, hence evil occurred. A larger infusion of the divine element corrects the evil, and secures the restoration ultimately. according to Origen, of all rational creatures to holiness and God. The Logos is the Mediator, the High-Priest between God and man (or rather God and the world). One with God, He is also one with the world. He unites the two, and they become one. The system has a pantheistic aspect, although it admits the freedom of rational creatures, and the separate existence, or an existence as self of the world. The whole universe, however, God and world, is one vast organism in which God is the only life and the only reason, and this life and reason are the Logos. And it is by giving the Logos, the rational or spiritual element, renewed power, that the world of rational creatures, who in the abuse of their freedom have turned away from God, are brought back not only to a real or substantial, but also to a cordial union with God, so that He becomes all in all.

In the beginning of the ninth century John Scotus Erigena anticipated most of the results of the highest modern speculation. Schelling and Hegel had him for a predecessor and guide. With him “Creator et creatura unum est. Deus est omnia, et omnia Deus.” The creation is necessary and eternal; the incarnation is necessary and eternal; and redemption is necessary and eternal. All is process. An eternal unfolding of the infinite in the finite, and return of the finite into the infinite. Erigena, from his place in history and his relation to the Church, was forced to clothe his philosophy as much as possible with the drapery of Christianity this secured for him an influence which continued long after his death over later speculative theologians.

During the Middle Ages there was a succession of advocates of the mystical theory. Some of them following Erigena adopted a system essentially pantheistic; others were theistic. The one class strove to reduce Christianity into a system of philosophy. They adopted the principle of Erigena, “Conficitur inde, veram esse philosophiam veram religionem, conversimque, veram religionem esse veram philosophiam.” The two sources of knowledge are recta ratio and vera auctoritas. Both are divine as coming from God. Reason however, as first, is the higher, and nothing is to 585be admitted as true which reason does not authenticate.461461De Divisione Naturæ, I. 56, 66, 69. The other class strove after fellowship with God. Both assumed that what Münscher and Gieseler call the physical union of the divine and human natures, was the normal and ultimate state of man. Whether this identity of the two was effected by a perfect development of God in man and nature; or by the elevation of the human until it is lost in the divine, the result is the same. Man is deified. And therein is his salvation. And so far as Christ was recognized as a Saviour at all, it was as the bond of union between the two, or the channel through which the divine flows into the human. The incarnation itself, the union of the divine and human natures, was the great saving act. Christ redeems us by what He is, not by what He does. The race, say some, the consummated Church, say others, is the God man, or God manifest in the flesh. Almost all this class of writers held that the incarnation would have been necessary, had man never sinned. The necessity arises out of the nature of God and his relation to the world, and out of the nature and destiny of man.

Mystical Theory at the Time of the Reformation.

At the time of the Reformation the same mode of apprehending and presenting Christianity was adopted. While the Reformers held to the great objective truths of the Bible, to a historical Christ, to the reality and necessity of his obedience and satisfaction as something done for us and in our place, i.e., to an objective redemption and justification, a class of writers soon appeared who insisted on what they called the Christ within us, and merged the objective work of Christ into a subjective operation in the souls of his people; or at least subordinated the former entirely to the latter. A work, entitled “Die Deutsche Theologie” (German Theology), was published during the lifetime of Luther, which contained a great amount of important truth, and to which the illustrious reformer acknowledged himself greatly indebted. In that book, however, the mystical element was carried to a dangerous extreme. While the historical facts respecting Christ and his redeeming work were allowed to remain, little stress was laid upon them. The real value of the blessings received from Christ, was the change effected in the soul itself; and that change was not referred to the work of the Holy Spirit, so much as to the union of the divine nature with our nature, in virtue of the incarnation. The book teaches that if it were possible for a man to be as pure 586and obedient as Christ, he would become, through grace, what Christ was by nature. Through this obedience he would become one with God. Christ is not merely objective, isolated in his majesty, but we are all called that God should be incarnate in us, or that we should become God.


Osiander and Schwenkfeld, two contemporaries of Luther, were both advocates, although in different forms, of the same theory. Men are saved by the substantial union of the divine nature with the nature of man. According to Osiander justification is not by the imputation, but by the infusion of righteousness. And the righteousness infused is not the righteousness of Christ wrought out here on earth. What Christ did centuries ago cannot make us righteous. What we receive is his divine nature. This is the specific doctrine for which Osiander was denounced in the Form of Concord. Man, according to him, was originally created not after the image of God as such, nor of the Son as such, but of the Son as He was to become man. Manhood was eternally included in the idea and nature of the Son of God. His incarnation was, therefore, due to his nature, and not to the accident of man’s sinning. The idea of the incarnation is eternal, and in reference to it the whole universe was created and all things consist. Christ’s human nature is only the vehicle for conveying to us his divine nature. In the vine, he says, there are two natures, the one is the nature of the wood, which it retains, even if it should be withered up; the other is “plane occulta, fructifera et vinifera natura.” And as the clusters of grapes could not have the vinous nature, unless they were wood of the wood of the vine; so neither can we partake of the divine nature of Christ, unless we, by faith and baptism, are so incorporated with Him, as to be flesh of his flesh and bone of his bone. But the human nature of Christ, without the divine (si sine Deo esset), would be of no avail.462462De Unico Med. Jes. Christo et Justif. Fid. Confessio, Königsberg, 1551, by count, pp. 144, 145.


While Osiander makes the divine nature of Christ as communicated to us our righteousness and life, and regards his humanity as only the means of communication, Schwenkfeld exalts the human into the divine, and regards this divine human nature as the source of life to us. He agreed with Osiander in making justification subjective, by the infusion of righteousness; and also in teaching that 587the righteousness which is infused is the righteousness of Christ; but instead of depreciating the human nature and making it only the channel for communicating the divine, he laid special stress on the humanity of Christ. The human nature of Christ was not a creature. It was formed out of the substance of God; and after its sojourn on earth, was even as to the body, rendered completely or perfectly divine, so that whatever can be predicated of God, can be predicated of the humanity of Christ. Nevertheless, the human nature was not so absorbed into the divinity, that Christ had but one nature. He continues God and man, but as man is God. And this divine human, or human divine nature, is communicated to us by faith. Faith itself is the first communication of the divine essence, the final result of which is the complete deification of man. The substance of God is not communicated to the race of men, so that God becomes thus identified with men in general. It is in the regenerated that this union of the divine and human natures is consummated. It cannot escape notice, that the views of this class of writers, so far as results are concerned, differ but little from those of the modern speculative theologians of Germany and their followers in England and America. The obvious objection, that if salvation depends on the union of the divine nature with ours, and if this union be due to the incarnation of Christ, those living before his advent in the flesh must be excluded from the benefits of his theanthropic nature, is very unsatisfactorily answered by the modern theologians referred to. Schwenkfeld had no hesitation in cutting the knot. In a Sendbrief written in 1532, in which he treats of the difference between the Old and New Testament economies, he says, that under the former there was no saving faith, and no justification, and that all the patriarchs had therefore perished forever.

Schwenkfeld’s followers were numerous enough to form a distinct sect, which continues to this day. Some religionists, both in Germany and in this country, are still called by his name. All the writers on the history of doctrine give the authorities for the statements concerning the doctrines of Osiander and Schwenkfeld derived from sources not generally accessible in this country.


The prominent representative of the mystical theory during the eighteenth century, was Friedrich Christopher Oetinger, a distinguished theologian of South Germany. He was born in 1702, and died in 1782. He enjoyed every advantage of culture 588in science, theology, and philosophy, which he diligently improved. After his death it was said, “When Oetinger died a whole academy of science died.” Very early in life, he says, he adopted and avowed the purpose, “to understand whatever he learnt.” By this he meant that he would receive nothing on authority. All that the Scriptures teach as doctrine, must be sublimated into truths of the reason and received, as such. He avowed it to be his purpose to furnish a philosophia sacra as a substitute for the systems of profane philosophy. For this purpose he devoted himself to the study of all previously received systems, extending his researches to the cabala of the Jews, and the mystical writers of the Church; to alchemy awl to all departments of science within his reach. He professed special reverence for Jacob Böhme, the great unlettered theosophist of the preceding century, to whom even Schelling and other of the leading modern philosophers bow as to an acknowledged seer. Oetinger examined the several systems in vogue before or during, his own period. Idealism and materialism, and realistic dualism were alike unsatisfactory. He assumed life to be the primordial principle. Life was the aggregate of all forces. These in God are united by a bond of necessity. In things out of God the union of these forces is not necessary; and hence evil may arise, and has, in fact, arisen. To remove this evil and bring all things back to God, the eternal Logos became man. He adopted the old Platonic idea, that in the Logos were the originales rerum antequam exstiterunt formæ: omnia constiterunt in ipso arehetypice sive actu. This plenitude of the Godhead dwells in Christ and renders his humanity divine. The union of the divine and human natures in Christ, secures the complete deification of his human nature. The hypostatical union of the two natures in Christ is the norm of the mystical union between Christ and his people. “Ut ibi adsumta caro consistit ἐν λόγῳ per participationem ὑποστάσεως, ita hic nostra subsistit in Christo per consortium gratiæ et θείας φύσεως,” etc.463463See Dorner, Person Christi, 1st edit. Stuttgart, 1839, pp. 305-322. The second Adam having assumed humanity, says Oetinger, “Traxit carnem nostram in plenitudinem Deitatis,” so that our race again becomes possessed of the divine nature in Him and in us; i.e., “unione tumu personali tum mystica.464464Ibid. p. 317. It is indeed plain, as Dorner says, that we find in Oetinger the ideas which are the foundation of the philosophy of the present age. The nature of God and the nature of man are so homogeneous that they may be united and constitute one, which is divine human or human divine. We are saved not by the work of Christ 589for us, but by his work in us. The eternal Son is incarnate not in the man Christ Jesus, but in the Church.

The Modern Views.

In the present period of the Church’s history, this mystical theory of the person and work of Christ is probably more prevalent than ever before. The whole school of German speculative theologians, with their followers in England and America, are on this ground. Of these theologians there are, as remarked above, two classes, the pantheistic and the theistic. According to the former, the nature of man at first was an imperfect manifestation of the absolute Being, and in the development of the race this manifestation is rendered complete; but complete only as an eternal progress. According to the other, man has an existence and personality, in one sense, outside of God. Nevertheless God and man are substantially the same. This identity or sameness is shown perfectly in Christ, and through Him, is realized more and more perfectly in the Church as some teach, or, as others say, in the whole race.465465On these views see above the chapters on the Person and Work of Christ.

« Prev 5. The Mystical Theory. Next »
Please login or register to save highlights and make annotations
Corrections disabled for this book
Proofing disabled for this book
Printer-friendly version


| Define | Popups: Login | Register | Prev Next | Help |