In contemporary America, many people describe themselves as “spiritual, not religious.” They are interested in God, prayer, and spiritual disciplines, but not in dogma or denomination. They are critical of religious people who, to them, seem concerned only with the finer points of doctrine and weekly attendance at a specific type of Christian church.
Evangelical Christians—including Pentecostals—need to listen to this critique, even as they disagree with it. The disagreement part is easy: Spirituality and religion cannot be separated so easily because what we believe and how we live are inseparable. The listening part is harder, however, because it involves recognition that many American churches—including, too often, our own—are spiritually dead. This deadness, which often manifests as persnickety dogmatism and denominational pride, in turn feeds the desire for a spirituality decoupled from organized religion.
Authentic renewal requires us to recouple religion and spirituality, faith and life, and doctrine, ecclesial communion, and vibrant experience. The 1978 publication of Richard J. Foster’s The Celebration of Discipline signaled the desire of many evangelicals to do precisely that. But given how Foster drew on spiritual classics from across Christian history, it also signaled the need for evangelicals to pay ecumenical attention to the best of what Christians have said and written about spirituality across the ages.
This poses a dilemma for evangelicals, however. As a movement, we are part of the “Great Tradition” of Christianity, which affirms the Trinity, Incarnation, and Atonement, among a host of doctrines held in common. Within that tradition, however, we are critical of some of the doctrinal emphases and spiritual practices of our fellow traditioners. As Western Christians, aspects of our doctrine and spirituality are distinct from and stand in tension with those of Eastern, i.e., Orthodox, Christians. As Protestants, we are critical of aspects of Catholicism: e.g., papal authority, soteriology, Mariology, sacramentalism. As evangelical Protestants, we have our own disagreements with mainline Protestants. And within evangelicalism, we have running disagreements too: Arminianism vs. Calvinism, credobaptism vs. paedobaptism, Pentecostalism vs. cessationism.
How, then, can evangelical Christians appropriate the riches of the Christian tradition without compromising our own contributions to and critique of it?
Answering that question is the agenda of Reading the Christian Spiritual Classics: A Guide for Evangelicals, edited by Jamin Goggin and Kyle Strobel. As the editors note in their Introduction, they have organized authors’ contributions around four themes: “why should spiritual classics be read, how should spiritual classics be read, what are these spiritual classics and who are the people behind them” (p. 11).
I will not review each of the chapters in the book, lest I simply recapitulate the book’s contents and make this review too long to be useful. However, by way of evaluation, I will say that I learned something from each chapter, found the book as a whole to be quite excellent, and was motivated—by reading it—not merely to read further in the spiritual classics but also to love God more, which is the ultimate and unifying point of all Christian spiritual classics.
Having said that, however, I will focus on Fred Sanders’s contribution, “Reading Spiritual Classics as Evangelical Protestants” (pp. 149–166), which directly addresses the dilemma I raised above. Sanders counsels evangelicals to read Christian spiritual classics with an “open but cautious” attitude (p. 149), what he later terms “principled eclecticism” (p. 160). This is nothing new, for as Sanders notes, “The evangelical book-recommending network is as old as evangelicalism itself; the evangelical movement seems to have been born in a flurry of literary recommendations” (pp. 151–152). This included not only Protestant, Puritan, and Pietist spiritual classics, but also classics from other Christian communions, such as the Puritans’ recommendation of Bernard of Clairvaux’s works on the Song of Songs, or John Wesley’s recommendation of The Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis.
Sanders summarizes a specifically evangelical reading of Christian spiritual classics as being “for the gospel” (p. 150). Here’s his longer description:
We read widely in the classics, presupposing the gospel in the sense that we know what it is before we start reading, and we will recognize it when we come across it in a spiritual classic. We are guided by the gospel, so that we will immediately know when it is missing from what we are reading. We seek out the gospel, meaning that we read in such a way that can find the good news even when it is present in a fragmentary, disguised or distorted way. And we are jealous for the gospel, meaning that we cannot be satisfied by any disguised, distorted or otherwise deficient presentation of the gospel. If we are to go shopping in the spiritual classics with this kind of attitude of freedom and potential criticism, we had better be appropriately humble about how much we have to learn, but also appropriately bold about confessing that we know what an evangelical reading of the classics would look like (p. 160).
This humble-and-bold approach should characterize an evangelical reading not merely of Christian spiritual classics, but also our life as Christians more generally. We know what we know, but there is much that we don’t know and need to learn. Therefore we engage the Christian tradition—an the world more generally—in conversation, both listening and speaking, learning and teaching, so that the gospel may be experienced and lived out in ever-increasing measure.
Given the anti-historical stance of many of my fellow Pentecostals, who sometimes give the impression that the Spirit jumped over the centuries from the Day of Pentecost directly to Azusa Street, this humble boldness is a necessary lesson, even if hard to admit. But it must be learned if we are to affirm the truth of Scripture itself: “[the Father] will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever—the Spirit of truth (John 14:16–17). As Pentecostals, to deny that we can learn from Christian spiritual classics is tantamount to denying that God kept his promise.
I thoroughly enjoyed and highly recommend Reading the Spiritual Classics: A Guide for Evangelicals. In addition to 14 topical essays, it includes an extensive list of suggested readings, both primary readings of spiritual classics and secondary readings about them. My only complaint is that the two-page subject and author index is too short and woefully incomplete.
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