A great deal of the spiritual formation literature abroad in the land is grounded in Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodoxy spirituality. Even when written by evangelicals, the authors’ training and sources are largely from those traditions. My own education was weighed heavily in the same way, and – lest I seem ungrateful – I benefited hugely from that inheritance. However, a throw-away comment from my seminary teacher Victor Shepherd in his Historical Theology course got me thinking about it critically. He lamented that evangelical students of Christian spirituality felt they had to consult Catholic and Orthodox sources because there was nothing in their own tradition that addressed spirituality. He insisted that the Evangelicals, and their historical “family tree” reaching back to the Protestant Reformation, developed a vast body of knowledge on the spiritual life that the modern reader can mine.
Ever since encountering that idea, I have become convinced that his critique was right. Book after book comes out each year on spiritual formation, and so often Catholic and Orthodox sources are referenced, whether explicitly or behind the scenes. Even worse, it is often the same old sources time and time again – usually selected for their accessibility and a vast body of secondary works on those sources. But the time has come for evangelicals to reclaim their own heritage! Instead of seeing the potluck supper of Christian spirituality to be something evangelicals only consume, they must recognize their own tradition’s riches and bring their own dishes to share with others.
Under the less familiar labels of “piety”, “practical divinity”, and “true religion” there are masses of council and edification for prayer proceeding from the pens of Protestant pastors of the past. Luther’s explication of the theology of the cross versus the theology of glory is a helpful discernment tool, as are his marks of the true church. His four-stranded garland of prayer is also first-rate model of Scriptural meditation that can stands well next to Benedict’s lectio divina and Ignatian gospel contemplation. The Puritans were diagnosticians of the soul without peer, demonstrated for example in their extensive spiritual warfare literature. The Quakers pioneered group spiritual direction, both in small groups (clearness committees) and at the congregational level and beyond (consensus meetings). Their “Advices and Queries” are similarly useful tools in spiritual direction. Jonathan Edwards literally wrote the book on discerning movements of the Holy Spirit, and A.W. Tozer laid out guidelines to discern mystical experiences. The Pietists invented small groups and John Wesley perfected them. The Moravians held a round-the-clock prayer vigil that lasted, non-stop, for over a century. George Mueller explored the heights of living by faith, while E.M. Bounds, Andrew Murray, and Ole Hallesby explored the depths of prayer. Bonhoeffer reflected profoundly on Christian community while Frank Laubach played his mystical Game with Minutes. To all this is added the great spiritual poetry and hymnody of John Milton, Isaac Watts, John Donne, Charles Wesley, George Herbert, and Fanny Crosby. In short, Protestants have a great heritage of contemplation and direction – but it much of it remains underutilized in modern spiritual formation ministry.
One of the goals of this blog is to bring some of the less-familiar treasures in the Evangelical storehouse – treasures old and new – to the light of day so today’s evangelicals can get to know and appreciate the spiritual resources of our own tradition. The aim is not to shut down our conversation with the Catholic and Orthodox traditions, but rather to enrich it by turning what has too often been a monologue into a true dialogue.