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The Spirituality and Theology of William Law (1686-1761)

May 12, 2010

Spirituality is a phenomenon that has touched both the Protestant and Catholic branches[1] of Christianity.  Spirituality is hard to define accurately,[2] but in both Protestant and Catholic circles particular characteristics are common.  The characteristics of prayer, meditation, contemplation, mysticism, asceticism, and a drive for perfection accompany all forms of Christian spirituality.  Protestant spirituality can be generally categorized into mystical or “meditative”spirituality, and energetic or “missionary” spirituality.[3]

This essay will inspect eighteenth century English meditative spirituality, as found in the works of the greatest writer of this tradition, William Law (1686-1761).[4] In doing so I will first give a brief sketch of William Law’s life; then, secondly, explain and review his doctrine of the atonement and union with God.  I must point out that these two doctrines are ultimate to all forms spirituality because they configure the paradigm for their doctrine of the Christian life; a life of disciplined self sacrifice, which was epitomized by Jesus on the cross, and a life of the here-and-now experience of complete love in oneness with God.

 

The article is by Rev. Henry Bartsch, minister of the Trinity Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church in Chatham Ontario, Canada.  He is currently pursuing an M.Th. degree at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary, Grand Rapids, Michigan. He is husband to Tammy and father of six children.

Click here to read the entire article.


[1]There are numerous schools of spirituality within Roman Catholicism today. Cistercian, Carmelite, Marian and Jesuit spirituality make up the majority of the Roman Catholic preoccupation with spirituality.

[2] Many equate pietism with spirituality, and to some degree this is justified, particularly in Protestantism where the term has been widely used.  However, one must keep in mind the difference between “pietism” and “piety”.  Pietism in Protestantism is associated with meditative mystical spirituality.   Pietism began in seventeenth century Germany and distinctively expressed itself in the Moravians of the eighteenth century.  Piety, however, is not a philosophy but a Christian way of life.  The Puritans, for example urged Christians unto piety, but it was not couched in meditative mystical spirituality, but in the objective Word of God and gospel.

[3] David Lyle Jeffrey divides spirituality into the “meditative” and “missionary” categories.  But he is quick to point out that “a missionary oriented spirituality [like that of Isaac Watts, and the Wesley’s] has almost always had its origin in a profound encounter with meditative spirituality – an emphasis on the workings of the Spirit in the inner life, on the psychology of spiritual response, and on the intimate experience of the personhood of Jesus.” David Lyle Jeffery, English Spirituality.  (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1987). Pg, 25.  In my observation, meditative spirituality is always mystical, and is usually accompanied with perfectionist doctrine.

[4] Jeffrey comments on Law’s significance.  “William Law…is the outstanding spiritual writer of the nonjuror right wing of the Anglican church, and perhaps the outstanding spiritual writer of the age.”  Jeffrey, 27.  Jeffery also records what Aldous Huxley said about Law’s writings.  “He [Law] is one of the greatest masters of devotion and philosophical theology is passed over almost in silence.”  Jeffrey, 120.  William Law falls into the category of mystical or “meditative” spirituality.

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