Keller and the mystics

Keller recommends Catholic mystical meditation

There is a deep fault line that runs through the New Calvinist movement. A leading spokesman for New Calvinism, Dr Tim Keller, who co-founded The Gospel Coalition with theologian Don Carson, has for many years been promoting Roman Catholic mysticism. In his lecture entitled, What is meditation? (1998), Keller mentions “two streams that are filled with good, helpful material on meditation—the Catholic stream and the Quaker stream.” He refers to the ‘great stuff’ that emanates from Roman Catholic mystics, and mentions Ignatius Loyola (founder of the Jesuits), St Francis de Sales, St John of the Cross and St Teresa of Avila. Keller endorses Catholic mystical writings with these words:

‘The best things that have been written are by Catholics during the Counter Reformation. Great stuff!’

Keller also promotes the mysticism of Quaker Richard Foster, who founded Renovare. Please view the video.

 Ignatius Loyola

Here we have the remarkable event of a Presbyterian minister promoting The Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius Loyola, the founder of the Jesuit Order who devoted his life to the destruction of the Reformation.

It is important to for us understand that the Jesuit Order, given papal authority in 1540, was committed to the restoration of the authority of the Roman Catholic Church by ruthlessly destroying the Protestant Reformation. With their vows of total obedience to the Pope and their strict military style training, the Jesuits became feared across Europe as the “storm-troopers” of the Catholic Church. They correctly perceived that the Protestant doctrine of Scripture, which teaches that the Word of God is the sole basis of spiritual truth and sufficient for all matters of doctrine and conduct, fatally undermined the dogmas and traditions of Rome. And so a fierce antagonism has always existed between Bible-believing Christianity and Roman Catholicism.

The Roman Catholic Inquisition reached its height in the 16th century to counter the Reformation. Their strategy was to challenge, pervert and where possible destroy the Word of God. Opposition to the Bible, even before the Jesuits, resulted in the martyrdom of Tyndale and the public burning of the New Testament to keep it from the people. The Bible was even put on the Roman Catholic Index of Forbidden Books. Many godly men, because of their work in making the Scriptures available to ordinary people, perished in the flames of the Inquisition. The atrocities of the Jesuits are a matter of historical record. They stopped at nothing – torture, assassination, the stake, political intrigue and more – in their determination to destroy the Reformation and the light of God’s redeeming grace that comes from knowledge of the Bible.

 Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises

By his reference to Catholic writings on meditation as ‘good stuff’, Keller is pointing his listeners to Loyola’s The Spiritual Exercises.

According to the Society of Jesus website:

‘The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola are a month-long program of meditations, prayers, considerations, and contemplative practices that help Catholic faith become more fully alive in the everyday life of contemporary people. It is set out in a brief manual or handbook: sparse, taciturn, and practical. It presents a formulation of Ignatius’ spirituality in a series of prayer exercises, thought experiments, and examinations of consciousness—designed to help a retreatant (usually with the aid of a spiritual director) to experience a deeper conversion into life with God in Christ, to allow our personal stories to be interpreted by being subsumed in a Story of God…’[1]

According to Jesuit Father John A. Hardon, an essential feature of The Spiritual Exercises is:

‘Believing and acting on one’s faith that the Bishop of Rome is the Vicar of Truth in the world. It is no wonder that St. Ignatius, when he founded the Society of Jesus, told his professed members to take a fourth vow besides the standard vows of consecrated chastity, poverty and obedience, a vow of obedience to the Bishop of Rome.’[2]

 Saint John of the Cross

St. John of the Cross (1524-1591) was a major figure of the Counter Reformation, a Spanish mystic, Catholic saint and Carmelite friar. He studied the humanities at a Society of Jesus (Jesuit) school. His poem, the ‘Dark Night of the Soul’, is at the summit of mystical Spanish literature. In 1726, he was canonized as a saint by Pope Benedict XIII. He is one of the thirty-three Doctors of the Church of Rome.

 Saint Teresa of Ávila (1515-1582)

Saint Teresa of Ávila was a prominent Spanish mystic, Roman Catholic saint, Carmelite nun, writer of the Counter Reformation, and theologian of contemplative life through mental prayer. She was canonized by Pope Gregory XV, and in 1970 named a Doctor of the Church by Pope Paul VI.

Teresa’s mystical thought involves the ascent of the soul in four stages.[3] An article in Wikipedia, describes the fourth stage, known as the ‘devotion of ecstasy or rapture’, as a time when memory and imagination are absorbed in God. ‘Body and spirit are in the throes of a sweet, happy pain, alternating between a fearful fiery glow, a complete impotence and unconsciousness, and a spell of strangulation, intermitted sometimes by such an ecstatic flight that the body is literally lifted into space. This after half an hour is followed by a reactionary relaxation of a few hours in a swoon-like weakness, attended by a negation of all the faculties in the union with God. From this the subject awakens in tears; it is the climax of mystical experience, productive of the trance.’ (The Interior Castle St Teresa Of Avila translated by Mirabai Starr.)

 Implications of Keller’s promotion of Roman mysticism

Here we should note that Keller’s series of lectures on meditation are still available from The Gospel Coalition website. Yet the Gospel Coalition has some of the biggest names in Reformed Christianity as council members. For example, Dr Albert Mohler, president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, is a Coalition council member who is firmly reformed in his theology. In a discussion on New Calvinism with Kevin De Young and Ligon Duncan, Dr Mohler says:

‘If you are a theological minded, deeply convictional young evangelical, if you’re committed to the gospel and want to see the nations rejoice in the name of Christ, if you want to see gospel-built and structured, committed churches, your theology is just going end up basically being Reformed, basically something like this new Calvinism…’

 The two faces of the Gospel Coalition

Here we have clear evidence of the fault line that runs through New Calvinism—its failure to separate from false teaching. We have seen one prominent leader of New Calvinism, Dr Tim Keller, openly promote Roman Catholic mysticism, while another leader of New Calvinism, Dr Albert Mohler, openly promotes the doctrines of the Reformation. And both are council members of the Gospel Coalition. But how can this be? How can truth and error walk side by side? The Apostle Paul instructs the Church: ‘Now I urge you, brethren, note those who cause divisions and offenses, contrary to the doctrine which you learned, and avoid them’ (Romans 16.17). This verse refers those who teach doctrines contrary to biblical truth. This undoubtedly applies to the mysticism of the Roman Catholic Church.

Yet the Gospel Coalition, flagship of New Calvinism, not only does not oppose false teaching, rather it seems to glory in bringing truth and error together in one organisation.  Hence the ridiculous situation of the Coalition promoting both Tim Keller’s Catholic mysticism and Albert Mohler’s reformed Protestantism. While the Coalition professes to proclaim the doctrines of the Reformation, by its actions it has denied the Reformation. We can be certain that neither John Calvin, nor Martin Luther, nor Jonathan Edwards, nor Charles Spurgeon would be joined in fellowship with an organisation that promotes Roman mysticism.

You can learn more about Dr Tim Keller, Pastor Mark Driscoll and Pastor John Piper in the book, The New Calvinists (2014), published by The Wakeman Trust and Belmont House Publishing. The book is available from The Metropolitan Tabernacle bookshop or from Amazon  More on John Piper and his Christian Hedonism at The Real John Piper website



[2] Sanctity Through the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.