Faith Misguided: Exposing the Dangers of Mysticism

     Many truths of Scripture are being distorted by a philosophy that places experience and emotions above the inerrant Word of God. That philosophy is called mysticism. Unfortunately, says Arthur L. Johnson, the misunderstandings spawned by mysticism have gained respectability within the evangelical community.
     Because mystics rely on subjective, private, spiritual experiences for guidance and wisdom, they diminish the authority of Scripture. Visions and spiritual encounters become more important than the truths found in God's Word.
     Though mysticism sounds like a cult, far removed from Christianity, it has had a profound effect on many Christians who have never heard of it.
     Dr. Johnson reveals how several fallacies prevalent in churches today have originated from mysticism. He will help you understand what mysticism is and how it started. And he will show you why it cannot be mixed with God's Word.
     Most important, Faith Misguided will help you identify the possible influence of mysticism in your church and in your life. And it will convince you of the importance and the sufficiency of God's Word (from the back cover).

     Moody Press, the publishing house of the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, has graciously permitted this ministry to publish at this Website a significant portion of the sixth chapter of Arthur L. Johnson's Faith Misguided. It has been posted to assist visitors to this Website to better understand the mystical influence Watchman Nee had upon Witness Lee, and subsequently, upon Witness Lee's entire Local Church movement.

Voice of Misdirection

     We have seen in chapter 2 that certain doctrinal concepts that appear harmless, notably the distinction often made between "head" and "heart" knowledge, are not as innocuous as they may appear. In this case, as well as in some other parallels, a psychological theory is implied about man that is contrary to what the Bible teaches. If our view of man is wrong, then much of our theology will be distorted. Our beliefs about ourselves, salvation, and the Christian life will all be affected. But how significant are such distortions? Are they important enough that they deserve the degree of attention we are giving them here? Because of widely held viewpoints presently flourishing in new religions in the West, I believe they are.

Misdirected Philosophy of Education

     Watchman Nee, a Chinese Christian who died in 1972 in a communist prison camp in China, is described by Dana Roberts as "one of the most popular contemporary theologians."1 Nee's writings have exerted a great deal of influence in evangelical circles.

A man of immense ability as a preacher and writer, his ministry was not hindered during his twenty-year incarceration for being an apolitical and independent religious leader. No longer in the position to preach openly, his messages were published before his death in over thirty volumes in many languages. Through the printed media his books continue to influence the in­terpretation of the Bible within the global evangelical movement.2

     Watchman Nee has been, and still is, held in high esteem as a spiritual leader with deep insight. Yet his theological position is deeply mystical. Roberts is certainly correct when he says, in the passage quoted above, that Nee's books continue to influence the interpretation of the Bible in evangelical circles. Unfortunately, they have been a significant force in the growing mysticism in evangelical circles, precisely because they do influence the way many interpret the Bible. However, rarely does one hear a voice of caution when Nee is mentioned. In fact, I find many sincere Christians shocked and offended when I suggest that Nee's writings should be read and scrutinized carefully for major errors. Yet, as we shall see directly, Nee is often far from the mark. Nor is his mystical theology innocuous. It has already born some tragic fruit.

     There is currently abroad in the United States a teaching* that is growing rapidly, largely by drawing members from evangelical groups. This movement should be of special interest to us here for several reasons. First, it has grown by drawing people who already claim to be Christians. Second, many of its teachings are far from biblically correct, yet they grow directly from Watchman Nee's position. Finally, the foundation upon which the erroneous mystical views rest is that same mistaken view of man we discussed earlier.

     Although there is much that is unscriptural in this teaching, I intend to concentrate on what I believe to be a root source for most of the other errors: the view of revelation. Adherents deny that the Bible is God's completed and sufficient revelation to man, insisting that it only contains revelation for those who can pierce through the words to gain the true "meaning" behind them - a meaning that is not conceptual at all. How they arrive at this conclusion we will examine in a moment. First, however, we should remind ourselves of something that is basic to historic Protestant Christianity, including evangelicalism.

     Scripture alone is seen as the final authority, because it alone, of all written or spoken statements, is the revelation of God. This has both positive and negative implications. First, it means that the written Word of God is the final criterion by which all claims to truth must be tested. Although there are many elements of nonbiblical information that may be important to us (for example, that radioactive materials may be dangerous to our health), any interpretation of a fact that contradicts clear scriptural teaching must be rejected as false. In other words, this claim is not that the Bible contains all true information, but rather that all information it does contain is true.

     Second, to say that Scripture and Scripture alone is the final authority is to say that anything that claims authority equal to the Bible is making a false claim. We have no right to attribute to God doctrine that is not contained in His Word. Hence, such extrabiblical views are not binding on us. We are morally bound to obey only the Word, but not the ordinances of men unless these fall under the biblical admonition to be subject to those "higher powers" ordained of God.

     Finally, implicit in the Bible-supreme principle is the claim that, although some knowledge of God is possible through nature (Rom. 1:18-20), the bulk of knowledge of spiritual things is gained through the written Word. Further implications include two thoughts: the mind is the indispensable, divinely ordained tool of spiritual growth; and revelation (in the theological sense of new information from God) is already complete in the Scriptures.

     All this lies at the heart of Protestant Christianity and is involved in the claim that the Bible is the final authority in matters of doctrine. It is tragic that many Christians fail to realize the centrality of this issue. Because of this blind spot, they are vulnerable to some of Satan's most successful attacks on their faith.

     On the basis of Watchman Nee's views concerning the nature of man, some groups will deny that the Scriptures are the sole revelation of God. Instead they insist that since the Spirit of God dwells in the spirit of man, God communicates directly with man. Thus we can receive direct revelation from God.

     As we have already seen, Protestant Christianity has always (at least until quite recently) denied this kind of truth claim. Here, again, there is serious confusion among Christians regarding "revelation" and "illumination." Revelation is God's giving new information to man about Himself or about His universe. Thus, because God created the universe and mankind in a certain way, we are able to learn about God's "eternal power and divine nature" by examining ourselves and the rest of His creation (Rom. 1:18-20). This is called "general revelation." When creation was finished this kind of revealing was completed, although its edifying effect continues through the ages.

     But when God chose to speak more specifically to mankind, He selected prophets and apostles as His instruments. By them God revealed conceptual information in propositional form. This act of God is called "special revelation." Protestantism has always insisted that this revelation was completed when the writing of the Bible was finished.

     Completed revelation does not mean that God is uninvolved in what happens in the present. The Holy Spirit is actively involved in helping us to understand the Word when we read it or hear it read. This is not revelation, but rather illumination. It is God's continuing work in the mind of the hearer of the Word, whereby He helps him to grasp the actual meaning of what He said long ago through the apostles and prophets.

     Any denial, on the other hand, that the Bible is the completed revelation of God implies that God is continuing to communicate with man now as He did in the time of the writing of the Bible. This, of course, results in the position that this present-day revelation is authoritative in a way equal to or superior to the Scriptures. Actually, such a position often is tantamount to insisting that such current revelation is significantly superior to the written Word. After all, if it is truly God who is speaking to us, how can it be anything but authoritative? And if what He is now saying to us is different from what He said to Moses or Peter long ago, how do we dare to reject His present statement in favor of an old and obviously outdated earlier statement? Consequently, such a view must finally result in the position that current revelation is superior to the written Word. And this is exactly what some are teaching today.

     However, they do not teach that God speaks to individuals in language that can be rationally understood. Rather, this "revelation" is in our spirits and is a mystical experience, rather than something grasped by the mind. It is a direct, immediate revelation, not mediated through the written Word. Ordinary knowledge of all kinds is scorned as inferior and unspiritual because it depends on the mind. On the other hand, that which is nonrational is praised as spiritual.

     Many Christians fail to see that God's revelation is in propositional form. It is in language comprehendible only with the mind. This fact proves that the redeemed mind is God's chosen tool for relating to man. Thus, rather than rejecting rational processes, we should act as good stewards of His gracious provision of rationality. In humility we should seek to develop our mental abilities to their greatest capacity. The anti-intellectual attitude one often finds among Christians is not spiritual but is instead dishonoring to God.

Misdirected Doctrine of Man

     I have said that these tragic and clearly unscriptural views are the direct result of Watchman Nee's teachings. To understand how such an unfortunate position is arrived at we must examine Nee's erroneous view of man, or, as I have chosen to call it, his psychology. As I will show, this psychological theory is not drawn from Scripture, but rather is forced onto it. Once the Bible is read from this position it is understood to say what it does not really say at all.

     If I am correct in saying that Nee's theory of man is unbiblical, it is not surprising that the results would be serious. Falsehood is always dangerous. "But," someone may object, "how can Nee's position be said to be unbiblical? He sounds so spiritual and is respected by seemingly mature evangelical leaders. Surely he is not wrong."

     A quote from Nee's The Release of the Spirit will serve to acquaint us with his position in his own words:

When God comes to indwell us, by His Spirit, Life, and power, He comes into our spirit which we are calling the inward man. Outside of this inward man is the soul wherein functions our thoughts, emotions and will. The outermost man is our physical body.... We must never forget that our inward man is the human spirit where God dwells, where His Spirit mingles with our spirit.3

     It is important to notice that Nee here distinguishes three parts to man, something that is not unusual in itself. In fact, this division of man into body, soul, and spirit can be found rather clearly in Scripture. What is puzzling is that Nee then sets out to do what the biblical writers nowhere attempt to do, namely, to define each of the latter two "parts." We should notice that Nee clearly sees the spirit as something distinctly different from either the mind, the will, or the emotions. These he calls the soul. On the other hand, in The Spiritual Man, Nee explains what he believes the spirit of man to be:

According to the teaching of the Bible and the experience of believers, the human spirit can be said to comprise three parts; or, to put it another way, one can say it has three main functions. These are conscience, intuition and communion. The conscience is the discerning organ which distinguishes right and wrong; not, however, through the influence of knowledge stored in the mind but rather by a spontaneous direct judgment.... Intuition is the sensing organ of the human spirit.... Intuition involves a direct sensing independent of any outside influence. That knowledge which comes to us without any help from the mind, emotion or volition comes intuitively. We really "know" through our intuition; our mind merely helps us to "understand".... Communion is worshiping God. The organs of the soul are incompetent to worship God. God is not apprehended by our thoughts, feelings or intentions, for He can only be known directly in our spirits. Our worship of God and God's communications with us are directly in the spirit. They take place in "the inner man," not in the soul or outward man.4

     We should notice, then, that for Nee the spirit of man functions in a noncognitive, nonrational way. Its actions are mystical actions. Nee makes clear that it is the spirit that relates us to God, rather than the soul. "God is a Spirit. Our spirit alone is of the same nature as God."5 "Our spirit is given to us by God to enable us to respond to Him. But the outward man is ever responding to things without, thus depriving us of the presence of God."6 Thus, it is only through mystical activity that we relate to God. The mind has a place, but merely as a tool for the spirit. Man's rationality has value only when it is controlled by his spirit.

Each element has its own particular use. The spirit is employed to know the heavenly realities. Now we are not trying to disparage the use of the soul's faculties. They are useful, but here they must play a secondary role. They should be under control and not be the controller. The mind should submit to the spirit's rule and should follow what intuition fathoms of the will of God.7

Notice that Nee is not saying that man's mind has value only when it is controlled by the Holy Spirit, but rather when it is controlled by his human spirit.

In His dealing with man, God's Spirit never bypasses man's spirit. Nor can our spirit bypass the outer man.... As the Holy Spirit does not pass over man's spirit in His working in man, no more does our spirit ignore the outward man and function directly. In order to touch other lives, our spirit must pass through the outward man.8

What is meant by being a spiritual man is that he is under the control of his spirit which has become the highest organ of his whole person.9

     What, then, is Watchman Nee's position? Briefly stated, he claims that man consists of three parts: body, soul, and spirit. The soul consists of the mind (or intellect), the will, and the emotions. The spirit is something totally different from these, consisting rather of the conscience (which is seen as a nonintellectual aspect), intuition, and a capacity for fellowship with God. Without these nonrational elements we could not relate to Him. Implied in all this is the idea that God is not in any sense "mental." He is Spirit, and all spirit is noncognitive. Thus, all relationship to God is necessarily mystical.

     It should be evident by now that Nee's view is a totally mystical picture of man and his relationship to God. If Nee is correct, the only conclusion we can draw is that Christianity is a form of mysticism. In fact he goes so far as to say that one who is not mystical is not a Christian: "Man's soulical faculties cannot perceive God: nothing else can be a substitute for intuition. Except a man receives a new life from God and has his intuition resurrected, he is eternally separated from God" (italics added).10 Nee is wrong. But, unfortunately, some Christian leaders have failed to see his error, possibly because of their own failure to understand Scripture adequately.

     Although the Bible refers to man as having three parts, which it identifies as body, soul, and spirit, it never defines any one of these. So when Watchman Nee teaches that the soul is made up of the intellect, the will, and the emotions, he is saying something that the Bible does not say. Of course, the fact that the Scriptures are silent on this subject does not in itself prove Nee wrong.

     The biblical writers use the terms soul and spirit interchangeably at times.11 This fact should make us suspicious of any attempt radically to distinguish the soul from the spirit.

     A careful examination of Scripture will reveal an interesting fact: although the Bible does refer to man as body, soul, and spirit, it makes little or nothing of the distinction between soul and spirit. In fact, there are only two biblical statements that refer to both soul and spirit. In 1 Thessalonians 5:23, Paul prays that the entire person, spirit, soul, and body, will be kept from sin. Nothing more is said about the various components of man. In the other reference we find a suggestion exactly opposite from what some seem to believe it implies. Hebrews 4:12 speaks about a dividing between soul and spirit, and compares this to a dividing between "joints and marrow." The point of the verse is not to suggest that such a division can easily be made. Rather, because the joints of the body are largely bone, and marrow is a part of bone, such a dividing is virtually impossible. Likewise any dividing between soul and spirit is practically impossible. However, the Word of God is so powerful that, were a division to be made between soul and spirit, as between bone and marrow, the Bible would be the only instrument for making that division. This is a rhetorical device for emphasizing the power of God's Word, not a statement that can be used to prove we are capable of distinguishing between soul and spirit, as Watchman Nee tries to do.

Misdirected Interpretation of Scripture

     By now it should be clear that the source of Watchman Nee's psychological picture of man is certainly not the Bible. The constant emphasis in Scripture is on knowing God's Word, and then on doing what we know. There is not even a hint to suggest that we can know with anything other than our minds. Yet Nee insists that "to perform God's will a Christian needs simply heed the direction of his intuition" 12 and that "when the Holy Spirit discloses the matters pertaining to God He does so not to our mind nor to any other organ but to our spirit."13 The Bible says nothing of man's having or needing an intuition to relate to God, and it certainly does not make the result of salvation a quickening or resurrection of some intuitive function. All these claims are foreign to God's Word. They are ideas that Watchman Nee needs, however, in order to develop his unique kind of mystical theology of the "deeper Christian life."

     What Nee does is to draw on his own experience for the standard of the Christian life. Apparently, his experience has involved strong mystical elements. At least some of his claims are openly stated to rest on experience:

Though we may muster many arguments against it, even overwhelming it with reason, nevertheless this inner small voice still insists that we are wrong. Such experiences inform us that our intuition, the organ for the working of the Holy Spirit, is capable itself of distinguishing good from evil without any assistance from the mind's observation and investigation.14

In his attempt to see the Bible through the grid of his own experience, he begins to do something very strange to the Scriptures themselves. To what degree his thinking has influenced others to treat the Word of God in a similar manner I cannot tell. However, unfortunately, other evangelical leaders also occasionally abuse the Bible in the same way.

     Examples of Nee's unusual treatment of Scripture are easy to find. In volume one of The Spiritual Man he lists three groups of references he says show "that our spirits possess the function of conscience .... the function of intuition (or spiritual sense), and the function of communion (or worship)."15 Whereas some of the verses listed in the groups referring to conscience and worship do indeed refer to these things, none of those that he claims for intuition in any way speak of such a thing. They refer instead to such things as being "fervent in spirit" and the spirit's being willing, but there is no hint of some nonrational, intuitive function.

     Another significant case of Nee's interpretive approach appears in his little book Spiritual Reality or Obsession, where he says, "What is spiritual reality? 'God is a Spirit, and they that worship Him,' says the Lord, 'must worship in spirit and truth.' The word 'truth' means 'trueness' or 'reality.' "16**

     However, truth is not the same as reality, although the two concepts are related. A true statement is one that gives us some accurate information about reality. However, to claim that the two concepts are synonymous is to distort the meaning. If this were merely a slip or an unimportant point, then kindness would demand that it be ignored; unfortunately, it is neither. It is this misinterpretation of a key word that allows Nee to claim that much of what he wishes to teach in the rest of this book is in accord with Scripture when it is not.

     However, disregard for the correct meaning of the biblical words chosen by the Holy Spirit is not the only problem apparent in Nee's handling of God's Word. At key points, instead of showing that his argument is biblical, Nee simply states that something is fact, totally without any scriptural evidence. This leaves the reader with only two choices: either accept the claim on Nee's authority alone, or else reject it. This allows Nee to make some very questionable claims, which the uncritical reader will tend to believe came from Scripture.

     One example of such faulty interpretation will serve to show the dangerous direction this takes in Watchman Nee's writings:

A wonderful thing happens after you touch reality. Whenever you encounter someone who has not touched, or entered into, reality, you immediately sense it. You know he has not touched that reality because he is still following the mind, the law, the rule or regulation. Before God there is something which the Bible calls "true." It is nothing other than "reality." In relating to this trueness - this reality - one is delivered from doctrine, letter, human thoughts, and human ways.17

     What has Nee said? It is rather difficult to answer that question, mainly because he does not give us a clear definition of his word reality. However, several things stand out in this quote. He claims that the person who has "touched reality" now has the ability to sense things about others immediately. In this example what is sensed is that the other person has not "touched reality." From other examples in the same book we see that this "sensing" extends to other things as well. For example, something may not be as it appears when one man forgives another. "Now sometimes you see a brother forgiving another brother who has offended him.... judging by outward appearance, he really forgives most generously; yet somehow you do not feel right inside."18

     In The Release of the Spirit, this sensing ability is said to result from the "release" of our spirit. It is said to be something that happens when one has "touched reality." It is described as our spirit touching the spirit of the other person.

Furthermore, we may most spontaneously contact the spirit in others by our spirit. Whenever one speaks in our presence, we can 'size him up' - evaluate what kind of person he is, what attitude he is taking, what sort of Christian he is, and what his need is. Our spirit can touch his spirit.19

     Much could be said about these claims, most of it negative. But suffice it to point out that such activity is never taught in the Bible to be the proper function of all Christians. This ability is clearly not a cognitive one that involves judging by applying biblical principles. Rather, it is described as "feeling" without understanding why, a totally subjective, intuitive response.20 Yet Nee claims that every Christian should experience the "release" of his spirit so that he will be able to touch the spirit of others. He sees it as a proper function to be sought. Again he makes claims, not taught in Scripture, about what is proper for Christians.

     There is another, even more serious, claim in the Nee quotation we've been discussing. He says that "in relation to this trueness - this reality - one is delivered from doctrine." Typically, the context does not make clear just what is meant by "doctrine." However, a statement made later seems to indicate that Nee means the teachings of Scripture, in other words, biblical doctrine.

How very vain it is for man to act on the basis of doctrine, for all he has is nothing more than an outward conduct. He does not have the true article - the reality.

Sometimes we are close to being false simply because we know too much and act according to doctrine, instead of following the leading of God's Spirit. Whenever we act on the basis of doctrine we are not touching reality.21

     Nee does not say that we are wrong because we believe what is false. Rather we are wrong because we act on the basis of what we know and understand rationally. Therefore, whatever we do is wrong, not because the action itself is wrong, but because the action is not the result of the "release of the spirit" or of "touching reality." He who is what he should be before God is "delivered from doctrine." He no longer needs to concern himself with gaining rational knowledge of God's Word.

     This is, of course, a typical mystical position. Doctrine implies a rational grasp of principles, an understanding by the mind of information about objective reality. Nee's radical separation between the soul and the spirit, between the rational and the intuitive, and his elevation of nonrationality requires just such a rejection of doctrine. It is interesting to notice that this rejection is occasioned by his own rational conclusions. Logic leads him to be consistent with his rejection of logic, which is something of a contradiction in itself. But in fairness to Watchman Nee, we remember that he does not totally reject the mind, but subjects it to the intuitive urges. The claim that reason should somehow be the servant of intuition or imagination is common among mystics.22

     In insisting on a secondary place for doctrine, Nee is setting up a conflict between the written Word of God and what he takes to be the work of the Holy Spirit within us. Because according to him the Holy Spirit is indistinguishable from our spirit,23 and because our spirit consists of noncognitive elements, therefore, Nee teaches, the work of the Holy Spirit within us does not have a cognitive dimension. However, Scripture is God's written Word, present in propositional form and available to, us through the mind. Watchman Nee's position rejects the true significance of the Bible.

We must recognize two very different ways of help before us. First, "there is a way that seemeth right" in which help is received from the outside - through the mind - by doctrine and its exposition.

Second, we must see that God's way is the way of spirit touching spirit. Instead of having our mentality developed or acquiring a storehouse of knowledge it is by this contact that our spiritual life is built up. Let no one be deceived; until we have found this way we have not found true Christianity.24

     Does Nee mean that knowledge of the Word of God that is not acted on is insufficient for spirituality? This is clearly not what he is saying, and the rest of his book makes this clear. He means just what he says: that he who is not functioning in this subjective, mystical, intuitive way he calls "spirit touching spirit" has not "found true Christianity." This same theme is emphasized over and over in The Spiritual Man. Notice, for example, the following statements:

We do not sense God and the realities of God by our intellect; else eternal life would be meaningless.25

To be led by the spirit is to follow its intuition. All spiritual knowledge, communion and conscience come via the intuition. The Holy Spirit leads the saints by this intuition. They need not themselves figure out what possibly is spiritual; all that is required is to abide by their intuition. In order to listen to the Spirit we must apprehend His mind intuitively.26

Nothing else can be a substitute for intuition. Except a man receives a new life from God and has his intuition resurrected, he is eternally separated from God.27

In other words, true Christianity is a form of mysticism. The person who is not functioning on the basis of intuition is not a Christian.

     The biblical teaching, on the other hand, is that the Holy Spirit's tool in doing His work in us is the written Word.28 In fact, I find no basis in Scripture for suggesting that He ever works in us apart from our knowledge of God through His creation or the written Word. The Scriptures know nothing of a tension between the written Word of God and the work of the Holy Spirit within us, as Nee suggests.29

Misdirected Elevation of Mysticism

     We have, in a sense, come full circle. Nee's psychology leads him to give an deficient position to Scripture - a place in the life of the Christian that is inferior to that given it by the Bible itself. This explains to some degree the carelessness with which he treats scriptural statements. But this is just what we would expect from one who sees the mind as an element in man that is inferior to intuition in knowing and relating to God. His careless treatment of biblical statements, in turn, makes possible his claim that his view is scriptural, since such loose interpretation allows him to read into Scripture what he believes to be the truth and to "find" it there. This, then, frees him to use his own mystical experiences as the standard by which to judge what is proper in the Christian life.

     Doubtless, Watchman Nee is sincere in his beliefs. I do not believe that he knowingly distorts biblical truth. Unfortunately, sincerity is not enough. If he is wrong as I have claimed, and if careful examination of Scripture reveals this error as clearly as I have implied, why would someone as capable, dedicated, and sincere as Watchman Nee not see the problem himself?

     Any complete answer to that question is complex and outside the scope of our concerns here. However, one important fact is clear. Nee believes that the person whose spirit has been "released" has a unique, effortless means for seeing the "true" or "hidden" meaning in Scripture.

We touch the spirit of revelation in the Bible. Without effort we can use our spirit to receive divine revelation.30

The world cannot understand that there is a spirit in God's Word, and that that spirit can be released just as it is manifested in prophetic ministry. Today if you are listening to a prophetic message, you will realize that there is a mystic something other than word and thought present. This you can clearly sense, and may well call it the spirit in God's Word.

There is not only thought in the Bible; the spirit itself comes forth. Thus, it is only when your spirit can come out and touch the spirit of the Bible that you can understand what the Bible says.31

     What is Nee saying? At least two distinct things are clear. First, one can receive direct revelation from God. It is not clear whether this is factual information with the authority of Scripture, but it seems doubtful that it is. Instead, it is probably some inner, subjective experience, not something cognitive. Of this "revelation" Nee says, "When God opens our eyes that we may know the intent of our heart and the deepest thought within us in the measure that He knows us - this is revelation."32

     Second, there is the claim that the Bible has more to it than thought. There is also a "spirit." It is important to notice here that Nee is definitely not speaking of the Holy Spirit. Each time he refers to the Holy Spirit he either calls Him by that name or uses the capitalized personal pronoun, or capitalizes the word spirit. In this passage, he does none of these. What he means is something else, more closely related to the idea of a mood, something felt or sensed about the words. A biblical passage or a prophecy has about it what Nee calls a "mystic something." "This you can clearly sense," he says, "and you may call it the spirit in God's Word."33 It is only by one's spirit "touching" this "spirit" that he can really understand what the Bible says.

     What Nee is saying, in his own unique way, is not at all new. This is the old Gnostic idea that there is a hidden meaning in the Bible.34 This hidden meaning is not discoverable by studying the words of Scripture. Instead, it is something discovered in a mystical way, through his "inner sensing." How does the Christian whose spirit has been "released," "test all things"? By this inner, subjective, "spirit-touching-spirit." How does Nee know he is right and others are wrong? By this same mystical test. With this, then, as the basis for determining the meaning of Scripture, it is easy to understand why Watchman Nee would fail to see the problem. From a mystical position, his view cannot be wrong.

     Fortunately, Watchman Nee does not carry his position to its logical extension. He does not elevate his own pronouncements, based on these mystical elements, to an authoritative position equal to or greater than Scripture. However, he has clearly laid the foundation for such an equation. Others, however, have taken that inevitable step, as we saw earlier in this chapter. And it does seem inevitable that once we see our own inner states as the voice of God we should view them as having final authority. Then these urgings seem to us to be binding on us, and perhaps on others also.

     The elevation of the subjective experience to the place of final authority occurs at nearly every level. When Watchman Nee speaks critically about one who is "still following the mind, the law, the rule or regulation," and says that he who has "touched reality" is freed from "doctrine, letter, human thoughts, and human ways," in the passage we quoted earlier, this can easily be seen to mean that one is freed from all moral principles that are not dictated to him by his own conscience. When he claims that the intuition alone, without "the mind's observation," is capable of distinguishing between good and evil, he is saying that we need not know the dictates of Scripture. Again, Nee does not himself go so far as to say so. He believes biblical principles are binding on us. However, he has laid the foundation; others have built on his position carrying it to its logical conclusion. They have taught that biblical precepts are binding only if, and when, they are in accordance with the dictates of one's own conscience. Since conscience is understood to operate totally on the basis of intuition, and to be the tool of the Holy Spirit in controlling our behavior, this results in the view that one may do anything that feels right. Some have gone so far as to maintain that God has told them to divorce their mates in order to marry someone else, in direct violation of clear biblical prohibitions against divorce.

     This situation comes about, almost necessarily, from making inner urges and intuitions a source of authoritative truth. These inner factors have no independent criteria outside themselves by which they are to be tested. Then, when a conflict arises with the dictates of common sense, reason, or even Scripture, primacy is given to the mystical revelations. This takes on a special degree of legitimacy when one identifies these inner states with the Holy Spirit, as Nee does. Unfortunately, this tragic mistake is also made by a great number of other sincere Christians.


Summary and Conclusion

     The key to Watchman Nee's position is: the nonrational, intuitive functions of man provide a special "organ" for relating to God.35 Once this is accepted, the door is open for all sorts of nonbiblical views. If God speaks directly to us apart from the written Scriptures, then such inner speaking must be authoritative. The Scriptures are no longer the final authority. We have examined the example of a respected author whose writings have had a profound influence in evangelical circles, even though his writings are dangerously mystical. As such an important influence, Nee's position has been a major force toward mysticism in many groups. In the next chapter, the impact of mysticism on the charismatic movement will be demonstrated.


  1. Dana Roberts, Understanding Watchman Nee (Plainfield, N.J.: Logos International, 1980), p. ix.
  2. Ibid., p. ix.
  3. Watchman Nee, The Release of the Spirit (Cloverdale, Ind.: Ministry of Life, 1965), p. 10.
  4. Watchmen Nee. The Spiritual Man (News York: Christian Fellowship Publishers, 1968), 2:31-32.
  5. Nee, The Release of the Spirit, p. 24.
  6. Ibid., p. 25.
  7. Nee, The Spiritual Man, 2:93.
  8. Nee. The Release of the Spirit, pp. 32-33.
  9. Nee, The Spiritual Man, 2:32-33.
  10. Ibid., 2:83.
  11. W E. Vine. An Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words (Westwood, N.J.: Revell, 1940), pp. 54-55 and 62-64. Compare the way the two words spirit and soul are used in the New Testament.
  12. Nee, The Spiritual Man, 2:74.
  13. Ibid., 2:88.
  14. Ibid., 2:75.
  15. Ibid., 1:32-33.
  16. Watchman Nee, Spiritual Reality or Obsession (New York: Christian Fellowship Publishers, 1970), p. 6.
  17. Ibid., p. 13.
  18. Ibid., p. 23.
  19. Nee. The Release of the Spirit, p. 23.
  20. Nee. Spiritual Reality or Obsession, pp. 14-15.
  21. Ibid., pp. 27-28.
  22. Sheldon Cheney, Men Who Have Walked with God (New York: Dell, 1945), pp. xi-xii.
  23. Nee, The Release of the Spirit, p. 20. Nee says. "One remarkable thing is that God does not mean to distinguish between his Spirit and our spirit." Nee is clearly wrong here. There is no biblical basis for this claim.
  24. Ibid., p. 89.
  25. Nee. The Spiritual Man, 2:83.
  26. Ibid., 2:133.
  27. (bid., 2:83.
  28. For some biblical examples see John 17:17; Eph. 6:17; Col. 3:16; and 1 Pet. 1:23.
  29. For a discussion of this point, see Jerram Barrs, Shepherds and Sheep (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 1983), pp. 27-38.
  30. Nee. The Release of the Spirit, p. 23.
  31. Ibid., pp. 52-53.
  32. Ibid., p. 72.
  33. Ibid.
  34. Lucius Waterman, The Post-Apostolic Age, vol. 2 of Ten Epochs of Church History, ed. John Fulton (New York: Scribner's, 1898), p. 200.
  35. Nee, The Spiritual Man, 1:32.

Arthur L. Johnson (B.A., M.A., Ph.D., University of Nebraska) is associate professor of philosophy at West Texas State University. He and his wife, Marilyn, have two sons.

Taken from Faith Misguided by Arthur L. Johnson, Moody Press, copyright © 1988. Used with permission.

Webmaster's Notes

Changes to the content structure were made to enhance online readability.

* According to the author, Witness Lee's Local Church movement was to be named, but because it was not the focus of the topic, its name was omitted - to avoid the possibility of a lawsuit.

** The original 1985 bound edition of the Recovery Version New Testament translated John 4:24 "...in spirit and reality."