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A Sketch of Christian Spirituality: From the Patristic Period to the Evangelical Era (Part 1 of 5)

January 28, 2013

Christian Spirituality: An Introduction, by Alister E. McGrath (Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishers, 1999); 204 pages.

The Spirit of Early Christian Thought: Seeking the Face of God, by Robert Louis Wilken (New Heaven: Yale University Press, 2003); 368 pages.

The Law of Love: English Spirituality in the Age of Wyclif, ed. and trans., David Lyle Jeffrey (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988); 404 pages.

Puritan Reformed Spirituality, by Joel R. Beeke (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2004); 475 pages.

What A Friend We Have In Jesus: The Evangelical Tradition, by Ian Randall (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 2005); 230 pages.

 

In the course of the history of the church, from the patristic period to the present, various patterns of spirituality have been developed. Each of the books above, with the exception of McGrath’s Christian Spirituality: An Introduction, represents a certain type of spirituality. There are four major kinds of Christian spirituality that have evolved from the early Christian church to the present: patristic, medieval, Puritan Reformed, and Evangelical. Before I survey these various forms of spirituality, it is important to define the word “spirituality,” especially as this term is understood in diverse ways. For this task, McGrath is very helpful—a reason why his text has been included in this review article.

 

Definition of Spirituality

In the introductory chapter of his book Christian Spirituality, McGrath, head of the center for theology, religion and culture at King’s College, London, has done a remarkable job in defining and clarifying the complex term “spirituality.” McGrath first explains the term “spirituality” by stating that “Spirituality is the outworking in the real life of a person’s religious faith—what a person does with what they believe.”[1] Following this definition, he elucidates the more particular term “Christian spirituality,” writing that “Christian spirituality concerns the quest for a fulfilled and authentic Christian existence, involving the bringing together of the fundamental ideas of Christianity and the whole experience of living on the basis of and within the scope of the Christian faith.”[2]

While some writers use the terms “mysticism” and “spirituality” interchangeably, McGrath prefers to utilize the latter because the former “has so many unhelpful associations and misleading overtones that its continued use is problematic.”[3] Some Protestant writers, on the one hand, tend “to use terms such as ‘piety’ or ‘godliness’ to refer to what is now generally designated as ‘spirituality.’”[4] In this present essay, I will employ synonymously the terms “spirituality,” “piety,” and “godliness.”

As the title of his book indicates, McGrath deals with the types of spirituality that “ultimately flow from the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.”[5] Any form of spirituality not rooted in Christ is therefore excluded in this book. However, since McGrath’s approach is neutral and inclusive, he presents certain kinds of spirituality that are not necessarily biblical such as that of the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches. Yet this rightly serves the purpose of his book as an introduction to Christian spirituality. It should be noted that the book does not claim to be an introduction to biblical spirituality, but Christian spirituality.[6]

Chapter two discusses how the spirituality of one Christian can be affected by his personal character, geographical location, historical background, theological persuasion, and religious or denominational identity. For example, if one’s religion is Roman Catholic, his spirituality will be distinctly sacramental as the Catholic Church places considerable emphasis on the sacraments.[7] This truth is evident in the definition of spirituality by a prominent Catholic author William Reiser. For Reiser, spirituality “refers to the unfolding, day by day, of that fundamental decision to become or remain a Christian which we make at baptism, repeat at confirmation, and renew each time we receive the eucharist.”[8]

Spirituality may be distinguished from theology in that the former is about the experiential or practical aspects of faith, while the latter is about the theoretical aspects of faith. Yet, in chapter three, McGrath shows how these two are closely related: theology gives substance to spirituality; and spirituality gives life to theology. What a person believes (theology) affects the way he lives (spirituality). In chapter four, McGrath explores seven facets of Christian theology that he thinks have great effect on spirituality. They are: creation, human nature and destiny, the Trinity, incarnation, redemption, resurrection, and consummation.

McGrath’s book is an outstanding introduction to Christian spirituality. It is well-organized and easy to read. While especially designed for undergraduate students, advanced readers will also find it helpful. It is filled with quotes and references from patristic to modern Christian writers, showing McGrath’s great familiarity of the subject. One of the admirable features of the book is its aim to be fair in presenting various types of Christian spirituality. Hence, even if McGrath’s religious stance is Anglican, Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant readers can still appreciate his work.

Nevertheless, the author’s desire to produce a neutral and inclusive introduction to Christian spirituality inevitably entails a problem. For instance, he is forced to use the biblical term “Christian” to apply to people who do not truly believe in the biblical doctrine of justification by faith alone. Such people are members of the Catholic and Orthodox religions. Moreover, by trying to be impartial and ecumenical in his approach, he leaves some unorthodox forms of spirituality unrefuted (e.g. asceticism and monasticism). He also leaves some key elements of biblical spirituality unemphasized (e.g. the Bible, the cross, personal conversion, and evangelism).

 


[1] Alister E. McGrath, Christian Spirituality: An Introduction (Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishers, 1999), 2.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., 6.

[4] Ibid., 13.

[5] Ibid.

[6] For an excellent introduction to biblical spirituality, see Michael A. G. Haykin, The God Who Draws Near: An Introduction to Biblical Spirituality (Darlington, England: Evangelical Press, 2007).

[7] The Catholic Church has seven sacraments: baptism, confirmation, eucharist, penance, anointing of the sick, holy orders, and matrimony; whereas the Protestants have only two: baptism and Lord’s Supper. For the Catholics, these sacraments are a special means for experiencing God’s saving grace. This Catholic teaching is rejected by the Protestants who believe that the only means of God’s saving grace is faith in Christ alone.

 [8] Cited in McGrath, Christian Spirituality, 15. The quote is taken from William Reiser, Looking for a God to Pray: Christian Spirituality in Transition (New York: Paulist Press, 1994), 2.

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