The Celtic races have a bit of a reputation for mysticism! It is perfectly understandable why this is so, given our histories. Many Welsh people will be familiar with the legends of Pryderi fab Pwyll, the king of Dyfed, and the wizard Gwydion and other characters of our pre-Christian past. The Scots have similar characters like Fionn Mac Cumhail and his son Ossian. Whilst these were colourful characters and their tales are engaging, they emerged from a world view which was thoroughly pagan and which was transformed through the processes of reformation and revival. The advance of the gospel did not eradicate mysticism and in fact both the Welsh and Scottish Church had their fair share of men and women who lived in the realm of the supernatural. In Scotland one thinks of John MacDonald, the so-called Apostle of the north and in Wales we had William Williams of Pantycelyn, Islwyn and the fascinating Ann Griffiths of Llanfihangel-yng-Ngwynfa.
Our past reminds us of a present reality. This world is not blandly three-dimensional, there is the fact of the supernatural. One of the features of modernity was that it excised the supernatural from our consciousness. It could be argued that one of the more welcome effects of post-modernity was to bring us back to a sense of the supernatural. You may be familiar with the story of the medium who attended Sandfields, Port Talbot, in the Lloyd-Jones era and detected a supernatural power at work during the service. She detected that the power was real but described it as a ‘clean power’ in contrast to that which she had known in the Spiritists’ meeting. In mentioning Dr Lloyd-Jones it is fascinating that the Doctor said of Bernard of Clairvaux, ‘He was clearly mystical and yet we must grant he was evangelical.’
I think there are a number of interesting questions for the Church today. In the current awakening interest in expository preaching, could there be a danger of a denial of the supernatural? As we react against the Charismatic movement, I wonder have we gone too far and forgotten about that ‘clean power’ which is always at work. In terms of theology I think that many of us have misinterpreted B.B. Warfield’s position on the ending of the charismata as being the same as the end of the supernatural. Warfield in fact reminds us that, ‘the Christian is himself a living, walking miracle, the result of the supernatural workings of God.’
Examples of the supernatural
I think there are several areas where the supernatural is clearly seen today. I know of no branch of the Church which denies that God still heals today. At virtually every prayer meeting we attend and during every public ‘pulpit prayer’ petitions are expressed for healing. This is not vain repetition but an expression of our faith that God can still act in sovereign power today. In many of the most word-centred churches that I know, the elders will still come to anoint the sick with oil. The wonderful thing is that we have living examples of people who have had medical outcomes which deny rational explanation. God cannot be placed in a box. He is sovereign and he will act according to his own will. He has all-power over our lives in every realm. There are of course major questions in this whole area but the core truth remains, God still has the power to heal.
In the Scottish highland tradition there is also a strong experience of inexplicable dreams and what some of our friends would call, ‘words of knowledge’. In Scotland the name of Murdo Campbell is still revered. Campbell was minister in the Black isle parish of Resolis; he was also the father-in-law of the late Douglas MacMillan. He was known for his very powerful dreams and visions and he wrote several books in which he recorded his experiences. In ministry it is common to have a sense that it’s time to visit a particular person only to find out that the timing is remarkable. Some years ago I was travelling and I experienced a sudden urge to visit a man in my congregation who had been suffering from a long-term chronic illness. I arrived at the house to find two of my colleagues in the house. We all had the same experience at the same time! It may have been the case that we were all men with highly tuned emotional intelligence, but I think not.
A felt Christ
In preaching, whether we are the preacher or the listener we must appreciate that we are in a zone where the supernatural is active. There is no doubt that the Bible is God’s final revelation to us, the canon is closed and nothing may be added or subtracted from the Word. It surprises me that this position is more often articulated in negative terms. In preaching, as men open up the Word of God we feel the very breath of God himself. The rapier thrust of Spirit-anointed preaching changes lives as the Holy Spirit applies the Word with power to our consciences and hearts. The essence of unction is not a feigned holy voice or histrionics which would not be out of place in a West End theatre. It is that powerful breaking in from another world. If there was ever a misnomer it is ‘the ordinary means of grace’ – arguably there is nothing ordinary about them. Rather that which appears to be mundane is transfigured before us. Congregations ought to have a level of godly discontent as they desire to have a felt, heart-warming experience of Christ.
It is significant that there is a very strong tradition of mysticism and supernaturalism within historic Calvinism. In these days when Calvinism is undergoing something of a resurgence under the ‘new Calvinism’ it is important to note that Calvinism is not simply a system of soteriology but it is a dynamic and experiential faith that makes demands on the whole of our personality. One wishes that the revival of academic Calvinism was accompanied with a similar resurgence in experimental Calvinism. Is it too much to yearn for what the older people called ‘a felt Christ’?
This whole area of experience, the mystical and the supernatural is fraught with dangers as well as blessing. God often works with the ‘still small’ voice and employs that which is gentle and imperceptible. In the USA there are a number of people who chase tornadoes and enjoy the thrill. They love to place their video recordings on YouTube. In the spiritual sense there are also those who surf excitement. We meet with God just as much in the routine daily appointments with him in word and prayer. Our goal is not so much to be an excitement addict but to enjoy frequent intimacy with God. Times of heightened experience are possible and even enjoyable but they are not normal. Remember that the seeking of the rare as a daily experience will meet with frequent disappointment.
The best guidelines for the supernatural can be seen in 2 Corinthians 12:1-10 where Paul warns of the possibility of ‘visions and revelations’ making him become conceited. It is significant that his vision was 14 years old and even when he writes, he begins to write in the third person in order to distance himself from the experience. We have this propensity for self-praise and it’s easy to see how one person feels that they have to out-vision the next.
We are asking for an openness to the supernatural, not one which is simply emotive and which ignores the cognitive. The sign whether something is of God is unchanged through the ages – is Christ exalted, is the Bible fully honoured and is sin seen as treason against God.