Question: I’ve been given a couple of books by Brennan Manning, and although I had some trouble with A Ragamuffin Gospel, I was shocked by The Signature of Jesus. My impression is that he is a Catholic mystic in evangelical “wool.” Is he trying to pull that wool over our eyes or what?
Response: The Signature of Jesus (SoJ), it seems, is an emotionally charged primer for attracting Christians to the contemplative way of spirituality. The modern contemplative approach has its roots in the Catholic and Orthodox mystics from the fourth century through the Middle Ages. While its theology is foundationally Roman Catholic, the emphasis of contemplative prayer is on experiential methods rather than the more common devotional activities of Catholicism. For example, where most Catholics stress liturgical acts in order to draw nearer to God (pray the rosary, make novenas, attend Holy Hours, perform acts of penance, etc.), contemplatives emphasize techniques of practicing silence before God in order to experience His presence. Through his books and speaking, former Catholic priest Brennan Manning has taken contemplative concepts and techniques (along with his Catholic beliefs) to increasing numbers of evangelicals, who are his main audience.
His many unbiblical teachings are powerfully written and compelling, primarily because they are seasoned with some biblical truth. Nevertheless, the book’s antiscriptural content undermines the faith for which Jude exhorts believers to contend earnestly (Jude 3).
Throughout SoJ, Manning takes biblical tenets and spins them in the direction of his mystical worldview. Faith, for example, is seen as a “journey...across the chasm between knowledge and experience” (p. 18), with the experiential being preferable. Faith is advocated as belief in one’s subjective spiritual experiences, and denigrated as belief in biblical doctrines, the objective content of the faith. An antidoctrinal attitude pervades his book: “I develop a nasty rash around people who speak as if mere scrutiny of [the Bible’s] pages will reveal precisely how God thinks and precisely what God wants.... Instead of remaining content with the bare letter, we should pass on to the more profound mysteries that are available only through intimate and heartfelt knowledge [read “experience”] of the person of Jesus” (p.189).
Manning’s own “salvation” testimony reflects his contemplative perspective: “...on February 8, 1956, I met Jesus and moved...from belief [meaning Catholic doctrine] to faith [meaning trust in his experience]....In this first-ever-in-my-life experience of being unconditionally loved...in one blinding moment of salvific truth it was real knowledge calling for personal engagement of my mind and heart. Christianity was being loved and falling in love with Jesus Christ” (pp. 28-29). He offers no declaration of the gospel which must be believed for salvation. Many have “fallen in love” with Jesus (Ghandi, et. al.) while rejecting the gospel. Unfortunately, this is where Manning leaves his readers.
Abusing the Genesis account and lean- ing on Thomas Aquinas, Manning claims that man is “flawed but good” (pp.100,126-127, 178). This unbiblical belief is then developed into a gospel of universal acceptance and love based upon people realizing “their own belovedness” (p. 171). A key aspect of this gospel includes realizing the “divine” within everyone, to which the “prayer” technique will lead its practitioners: “The task of contemplative prayer is to help me achieve the conscious awareness of the unconditionally loving God dwelling within me” (p. 211).
Manning makes apparent the ecumenical and universal prospect of his contemplative gospel: “Many devout Moslems, Buddhists, and Hinduists [who] are generous and sincere in their search for God. ...have had profound mystical experiences” (p. 170). That God dwells within them and everyone else he makes clear by quoting (Catholic priest and spiritual mystic) Thomas Merton’s answer to the question, “How can we best help people to attain union with God?...We must tell them that they are already united with God” (p. 211).
Although in A Ragamuffin Gospel Manning gives lip service to the biblical doctrine of justification by faith alone, it is indisputable that his “unconditionally loving” God and “universal gospel” are devoid of God’s justice. He writes, “We experience the forgiveness of Jesus not as the reprieve of a judge but the embrace of a lover” (p. 212). His “lover,” however, is not the “just God” whose conditions for salvation must be satisfied. God’s justice demands that the death penalty for sin be paid; yet because of God’s infinite love, He gave His only begotten Son to die in our place. Furthermore, our love relationship with Him is not unconditional: “He that believeth on the Son hath everlasting life: and he that believeth not the Son shall not see life; but the wrath of God abideth on him (Jn:3:36).
Limited space prevents covering all the unbiblical teachings in SoJ; however, those who have his book can check out the following: He credits the “Spirit of Christ” with inviting people “across the land” to (the occult technique of) centering prayer (p.149); and leads the reader in an exercise of “centering down” (pp. 94,112,218-19); his large cast of supporting characters throughout the book are nearly all Catholic mystics, ancient and contemporary; he presents psychological fallacies such as “genetic predisposition to alcoholism” (p. 61), self-forgiveness, self-acceptance, and the humanistic classic, “If you love yourself intensely and freely, then your feelings about yourself correspond perfectly to the sentiments of Jesus” (pp.105- 107,128,174-75); psychospiritual inner healing is affirmed (p. 62,233); visions of his Jesus are described (p. 181, 235); and vain repetitions in prayer are introduced before the One who condemns such a practice: “...the overhead spotlight...shines on the crucifix, and [I] stare at the body naked and nailed. Prostrate on the floor, I whisper ‘Come, Lord Jesus’ over and over” (pp. 47, 218). Finally, we are to “seek within” ourselves this indwelling God about whom he speaks, which includes in our prayers and worship (p. 94-95,111,150).
No. True believers are indeed temples of the Holy Spirit, but never does the Bible direct man to look within himself to find God.
The Signature of Jesus contains this quote: “Maybe it sounds arrogant to say we come to know Christ as we persevere in contemplative prayer.” This enterprise is far more tragic than arrogance—it is simply not God’s way!