A Sketch of Christian Spirituality: From the Patristic Period to the Evangelical Era (Part 2 of 5)

Different Forms of Spirituality

The discourse of Christian spirituality may be grouped denominationally into four categories: Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant, and Evangelical spiritualities. In this essay however, the following historical approach will be followed: patristic, medieval, Protestant, and Evangelical spiritualities.

 

Patristic Spirituality  

William Harmless, a member of the Society of Jesus and professor of historical theology and patristic studies at Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska, has noted: “The Church Fathers rarely discuss ‘spirituality’ separate from biblical interpretation or doctrinal debate or liturgical mystagogy. For them, Christian theology was all of a piece.”[1]

The eminent Catholic historian Robert Louis Wilken, an early Christianity expert, also supports this statement. In his book The Spirit of Early Christian Thought, Wilken contends that the essence of early Christian thinking was “Seeking the Face of God,” derived from Psalm 105:4, which is the subtitle of his book. Wilken observes that the intellectual work of the church fathers “was at the service of a much loftier goal than giving conceptual form to Christian belief. Its mission was to win the hearts and minds of men and women and to change their lives.”[2] In other words, the ultimate end of the pre-medieval thinkers in searching the Bible was not to produce a set of dogma, but to lead people “to holiness of life.”[3] For the church fathers life and doctrine were integrally connected and the “goal of life came to be understood as likeness to Christ.”[4]

Wilken’s purpose in The Spirit of Early Christian Thought is to show the spirituality of the church fathers through their apologetical writings. Wilken asserts that “[w]hether the task at hand was the defense of Christian belief to an outsider, the refutation of the views of a heretic, or the exposition of a passage from the Bible, their [the church fathers’] intellectual work was always in service of praise and adoration of one God.”[5] For instance, the Christian philosopher and apologist Justin Martyr, in his polemical piece First Apology, demonstrates his spirituality. Written to the government as a plea for justice on behalf of Christians who were mistreated because of their faith, Justin states that sound “reason directs those who are truly pious and philosophical [i.e. lovers of wisdom] to honour and love only what is true.”[6] Christians were being charged with crimes that were based on traditional and superstitious opinions and senseless rumors. Justin maintains that a truly pious person will not love such opinions and gossips, but the truth—and only the truth. For Justin, as well as for other church fathers, piety and truth are intertwined; they believed that piety is, in fact, rooted in the truth. In the last part of this treatise, Justin also stresses piety in worship, prayer, baptism and the Eucharist.

In his book, Wilken refers mostly to four church fathers: Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, Augustine, and Maximus the Confessor, because according to Wilken “in the early church these four stand out as the most rewarding, the most profound, and the most enduring.”[7] Wilken also quotes from the writings of the eighth century Christian authors such as John of Damascus, who is commonly regarded by some historians as the last church father.

When studying the church fathers, some patristic scholars are only concerned with the mind of these fathers, neglecting the heart of their spiritual life. As Wilken notices, “[T]he study of early Christian thought has been too preoccupied with ideas.”[8] Consequently, the reading of early Christian thinkers becomes boring to many. In contrast to these scholars, Wilken, while dealing with doctrines and debates, engages with the spiritual life of the church fathers. Wilken’s book is scholarly, and yet very devotional, doxological, and pastoral. Thus, this masterful piece can be read for both scholarly enrichment and spiritual enjoyment and profit.

Moreover, since Wilken, especially in the last two chapters of his book, gives special attention to patristic spirituality, it is a considerably useful resource for the study of the spirituality of the church fathers. In Wilken’s mind, one unique feature of patristic spirituality is thinking coupled with living. He singles out Gregory the Great for whom “union of life and thought, of contemplation and action, gives him an honored place among church fathers.” “For Gregory,” adds Wilken, “as for all the figures who have made an appearance in the pages of this book, thinking about the things of God, like grammar, was not an end in itself; its aim was the love of God and holiness of life. He [Gregory] did not construct a world of ideas for others to admire but one to live in.”[9] Further, Wilken mentions that often the treatises of the fathers “ended with a doxology to God, as in Augustine’s On the Spirit and the Letter: ‘to whom be glory forever. Amen.’” These early thinkers “wished not only to understand and express the dazzling truth they had seen in Christ, by thinking and writing they sought to know God more intimately and love him more ardently.”[10]

Despite the rich gleanings to be found in Wilken’s The Spirit of Early Christian Thought, it should be noted that Wilken is a former Lutheran convert to Roman Catholicism, and therefore, his interpretation and presentation of pre-medieval spirituality are shaded by his Catholic worldview. This Catholic bias does not mean, however, that protestant and evangelical readers cannot benefit from this great work. Rather, Wilken’s piece should be read with careful discernment.


[1] William Harmless, available from http://moses.creighton.edu/harmless/bibliographies_for_theology/Mysticism_2.htm; Internet; accessed 12 June 2012.

[2] Robert Louis Wilken, The Spirit of Early Christian Thought: Seeking the Face of God (New Heaven: Yale University Press, 2003), xiv.

[3] Ibid., xxii.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., 25.

[6] Justin Martyr , “First Apology,” in Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 1, eds. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, reprint, 1989), 163.

[7] Wilken, The Spirit of Early Christian Thought, xix.

[8] Ibid., xiv

[9] Ibid., 313.

[10] Ibid., 25-26.

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

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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Songs of Suffering and Sanctification: The Hymnody of Anne Steele

This paper will examine the life and work of one of the greatest hymn writers whose heritage makes her a product of this movement, Anne Steele. Her family roots grow from the Dissenting tradition; Steele was a Particular Baptists of the eighteenth century. After a brief biographical sketch, her hymns will be examined as a source for better understanding her theology and experience, both personally and as a part of the Particular Baptist denomination. Specifically, the themes of biblical authority, personal conversion, and suffering and the sovereignty of God will each be considered in Steele’s life and compositions. Through evaluation of her biography and works, Steele’s spirituality can serve as an example to other believers seeking to cultivate and maintain their own personal piety.

 

The article is by Jake Porter, Senior Pastor of Mont Belvieu First Baptist Church, Texas, and a Ph.D. student at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, Kentucky.

Click here, to continue reading his article.

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New Book on John Bunyan (1628-1688)

The Very Heart of Prayer: Reclaiming the Spirituality of John Bunyan

 

“Najapfour advances a well-researched thesis that Bunyan was in fact a sectarian Puritan. While Bunyan was not a Puritan in the sense of a reformer within the Church of England, Najapfour demonstrates that Bunyan embraced a Reformed and Puritan spirituality—godliness empowered by biblical truth. Not only does Najapfour bridge the gap between scholarly and pious readings of Bunyan, but he also explores Bunyan’s view of prayer, the Holy Spirit, and godliness in a way that enriches our minds and souls.”

—Dr. Joel R. Beeke, President of Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary, Grand Rapids, Michigan.

__________________________________________________

“Brian Najapfour has provided the church with a helpful introduction to Bunyan’s spirituality. I commend this book, and more importantly Bunyan himself, as a conversation partner for all evangelicals who desire a Word-centered, Spirit-led, gospel-driven spirituality.”

—Dr. Nathan A. Finn, Assistant Professor of Church History and Baptist Studies, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.

__________________________________________________

“This new study by Brian Najapfour opens up to us Puritan views on what it means to pray in the Spirit and how deeper godliness is to be sought. Here we have solid help from some of Bunyan’s lesser known devotional writings. Those who are seeking serious godliness in our own times will find a good deal to help them in this book.”

—Rev. Maurice Roberts, Minister of Greyfriars Congregation, Inverness, Scotland, and former editor of Banner of Truth magazine.

____________________________________________________

“A blend of history, biography, and practical theology, Najapfour’s book will be of profit to anyone who wants to learn more about either the life and times of the remarkable John Bunyan or about prayer.”

—Dr. Donald S. Whitney, Professor of Biblical Spirituality, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, Kentucky.

____________________________________________________

To purchase this book, click here.

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FORTHCOMING BOOK: The Very Heart of Prayer: Reclaiming the Spirituality of John Bunyan

Forthcoming book: The Very Heart of Prayer: Reclaiming the Spirituality of John Bunyan

“Najapfour advances a well-researched thesis that Bunyan was in fact a sectarian Puritan. While Bunyan was not a Puritan in the sense of a reformer within the Church of England, Najapfour demonstrates that Bunyan embraced a Reformed and Puritan spirituality—godliness empowered by biblical truth. Not only does Najapfour bridge the gap between scholarly and pious readings of Bunyan, but he also explores Bunyan’s view of prayer, the Holy Spirit, and godliness in a way that enriches our minds and souls.”

—Dr. Joel R. Beeke, President of Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary, Grand Rapids, Michigan.

__________________________________________________

“Brian Najapfour has provided the church with a helpful introduction to Bunyan’s spirituality. I commend this book, and more importantly Bunyan himself, as a conversation partner for all evangelicals who desire a Word-centered, Spirit-led, gospel-driven spirituality.”

—Dr. Nathan A. Finn, Assistant Professor of Church History and Baptist Studies, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.

__________________________________________________

“This new study by Brian Najapfour opens up to us Puritan views on what it means to pray in the Spirit and how deeper godliness is to be sought. Here we have solid help from some of Bunyan’s lesser known devotional writings. Those who are seeking serious godliness in our own times will find a good deal to help them in this book.”

—Rev. Maurice Roberts, Minister of Greyfriars Congregation, Inverness, Scotland, and former editor of Banner of Truth magazine.

____________________________________________________

“A blend of history, biography, and practical theology, Najapfour’s book will be of profit to anyone who wants to learn more about either the life and times of the remarkable John Bunyan or about prayer.”

—Dr. Donald S. Whitney, Professor of Biblical Spirituality, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, Kentucky.

_______________________________________________

Brian G. Najapfour holds a Th.M. in Historical Theology from Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary (PRTS). From 2001 until his coming to PRTS in 2006, Najapfour served as a pastor in the Philippines. He is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in Biblical Spirituality at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is co-editor (along with Joel R. Beeke) of Taking Hold of God: Reformed and Puritan Perspectives on Prayer. He is married to Sarah J. Najapfour.

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An Interview with Roger D. Duke about his co-edited book Venture All for God: Piety in the Writings of John Bunyan. Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2011, 194 pp., paperback.

Thank you so much for your willingness to be interviewed. As an admirer of John Bunyan, I am pleased to see a new book on Bunyan that especially highlights his spirituality.

Here are some of my questions for you about your co-edited work:

 

  1. The book focuses on the piety of Bunyan. What do you exactly mean by the word piety, especially since the term is rarely used today? Is this term different from the word spirituality? Also, what is central to Bunyan’s piety?    

Piety– We mean by piety, something very similar to the Free Merriam-Webster (online) Dictionary meanings: 1) The quality or state of being pious: a) fidelity to natural obligations (as to religions or God), b) dutifulness in religion, i.e. devotion to a religion or religious ideals, 2) an act of inspired by piety, 3) a conventional belief or standard such as orthodoxy.

Truly it is our belief that Bunyan was an orthodox Christian who was a totally devoted follower of our Lord Jesus Christ. One of the main purposes of our contribution to this Reformation Heritage Books series was the belief that Bunyan was one who demonstrated true piety towards God because of persecution in such a politically turbulent time. This is demonstrated by the extracted works in the second half of the volume.

Spirituality-Please allow me an anecdotal observation on this concept of spirituality. I have been in the classroom teaching World Religions for about fourteen years. There is spirituality in all of the major world religions. That is, there is a sense that most devotees have a sense of the “other” or the “divine” or a sense in which there is a spiritual realm or world beyond ours.

What I talk about in my classes, for I teach classes with person from all of the world religions in them, is that we are all spiritual.  We have a sense that there is a higher and better in humanity than the animal kingdom. This entire discussion is “teased out” under the Image of God Christian concept. Then I bring to the discussion that we are all made intrinsically to worship. And that we all do worship something or someone. But generally the object of our affection ends up looking like us, or something that can be seen with the eyes, or fashioned with our hands, or can be held in our hands. There is a sense in which “spirituality” has seen a recent revival. But it is not a Christian spirituality. This small Bunyan contribution, we believe, speaks to that.

What is central to Bunyan’s piety: Here I am speaking for myself alone. It seems to me that Bunyan was overwhelmingly concerned with being “right with God” and then “having an assurance” of that right standing with God. When one does just a cursory reading of his Grace Abounding this is so very easily seen. Secondly, the persecution of the non-conformist of his day put him in a position where he had to decide personally whether or not to pay the price for his convictions even to the point of spending years in imprison. This time of persecution defined and deepened, from my perspective, his deeply pious commitment to Christ and to preach his Gospel at whatever it might cost him.

 

Note: Roger D. Duke, a professor at Union University, would like to inform his readers that his answers do not necessarily speak for his co-editor Dr. Phil A. Newton.

To continue reading the interview, click here.

 

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Prayer in the Psalms: The Means to Intimate Communion in God’s Presence

Unity: Monists perplex Christians by claiming that an impersonal reality encompasses a personal deity and that we are all part of that one being. As a mechanical formula, unity seems better than a diversity of creatures in creation – after all everyone is looking for a unified theory in science. Atheism likewise seeks unity in matter. Scriptural truth, however, which provides a coherent whole matching reality, is diametrically opposed to the unity of Hinduism or Atheism or any other world system. This paper attempts to bring out how biblical prayer in the Psalms supersedes any pagan conceptions of divine union. It will hopefully correct and balance Christian appreciation of prayer as divine access to God, in an experiential rather than philosophical sense.

Spirituality: Common language often relates “spirituality” with elements of pagan mysticism. Biblical spirituality wrests that domain back to a true and genuine practice of man’s spirit in relation with God who is Spirit. This practice should be governed by God’s revelation.

Prayer: Prayer is central to the spiritual life of all Christians. In examining the practice of prayer in the Psalms, this paper will explore the connection between God and the believer. It will use the categories of religious experience from Caroline Franks Davis to focus on intimate prayer in the Psalms. Thus the non-Christian mystical impulse is contrasted against pure biblical intimacy. The goal is to isolate the legitimate, beneficial, and necessary aspects of spiritual intimacy in prayer. Such a study can elevate the enjoyment of God as much as scripture permits.

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The article is by Pradeep Tilak, a doctoral candidate at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, Kentucky. Focusing on apologetics, he regularly writes articles that engage the culture. He serves as an elder at Bethlehem Bible Church. You can contact Pradeep at ptilak@yahoo.com.

Click here, to continue reading his paper.

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