There is a deep need among many Evangelicals today to absolve themselves of a less-substantive religion and investigate something more profound. There is a longing for something more spiritual, mystical and overpowering. We see this manifested as more and more Evangelicals leave the fold for Rome, the East, or elsewhere. In a new book edited by Jamin Goggin and Kyle Strobel we find something of a start in attempting to provide something filling for the spiritually hungry Evangelical.
The editors have assembled an impressive list of contributors, with themselves taking the opportunity to write only the introduction. Contributors include Fred Sanders (The Deep Things of God: How the Trinity Changes Everything); James R. Payton, Jr. (Getting the Reformation Wrong); and Timothy George (Dean of Beeson Divinity School; Theology of the Reformers). The impressive intellectual might assembled herein to argue for the value of ancient Christian classics is enough to convince even hardened skeptics.
The book is divided into four parts. Part 1, Approaching the Spiritual Classics, begins with a theological argument put forth by Steve L. Porter for the allowance to read something other than Scripture. As one who has ingested the spiritual classics for several years, much of this argument was surprising to me, but nevertheless it was an argument will founded in Scripture and provide insight I had not previously considered. Closing out this three chapter section is Betsy Barber who writes on the value of the classics in soul care, a common theme in the book. She argues for the use of the classics in spiritual formation and discipleship, but only in a graduated sense. Barber provides as powerful a theological argument for the Evangelical use of the classics as Porter.
Part 2 provides a general overview of the tradition of the classics, focusing on the different schools of thought (do not confuse the Carmelites with the Benedictines!), their theology, and how to engage them. I find it odd John Wesley is listed throughout the book (noticeably on p77) with Catholic and Orthodox schools as if he was somehow not a part of Protestantism, although he would consider himself an Evangelical. But, this should be a warning to those who read the book — names, opinions, and points of view of others change over time.
Change is what Greg Peters seems to assign as the origin of spirituality. He opens his essay with a short history of the genesis of the movement, citing the conversion of Constantine as a marked change in how Christians approached spirituality. Why? Because after Constantine’s conversion (which is hardly a conversion), the Church “began emerging from an extended period of persecution.” According to Peters, this nixed the many opportunities of martyrdom Christians could avail themselves (80). Thus, they had to find a new way to be Christian. This is, at least, Peters’ thesis and one which I heartily disagree with. Spirituality is not the new martyrdom, but something long found in Christianity (and other religions of the time) with little or nothing to do with the lack of opportunities of martyrdom. I do not mean to imply his essay is one that shouldn’t be read, because it does encapsulates the beauty of the Christian spiritual classics and their use in pedagogy.
Part 3 concerns itself with reading the classics as Evangelicals. James Payton provides us with an exceptionally beautiful account of Orthodox Spirituality. He, in a few words, takes his experience and knowledge of the Greek Church and with a certain aesthetic profundity delivers a warm invitation to explore the East. Payton draws us into Orthodox spirituality noting it takes more than a casual glance to understand and grasp the fullness of the East. Oddly enough — and if nothing else, this is extremely important — Payton’s remarks about the East’s view on orthodoxy v. -praxy is something we must first understand before we can assess the East. We in the West know our doctrines, Payton tells us, while those in the East live their doctrines. This is why Payton can write of Orthodox spirituality without the warnings accompanying Catholic spirituality Demarest felt we needed in the previous chapter. Instead, he explains some basic precepts of Orthodoxy and why it as an ecumenical body holds to such tenants. He is able to then invest some credit in recommending Orthodox spirituality.
The final chapter provides a more of a what-to-read framework for each of the areas of Church History. Each author provides basic details of the time, a hermeneutical framework, short biographies of the major writers, and how such writings can be useful for the Church today.
Will this book provide a panacea for the lack of deep spirituality among Evangelicals? Hardly, but it does write the prescription. The editors and contributors provide a sustained regime for reading the spiritual classics in order to develop our soul. Except for one essay, I believe these contributors have made a concerted effort to be fair and accommodating to differences in doctrines without sacrificing the heart of modern Evangelicalism. Not only should this appeal to Protestants, but it must appeal to Catholics who have forgotten the richness of spiritual formation found in their ancient tradition. We are not simply talking about discipleship (or church care, usually summed up as: witness, tithe, attend) but about spiritual formation. This is about reaching the inner person to bring them closer to God and building from the inside out a Christian. By taking to heart and head what these essayists write, the modern Evangelical will find a new world awaiting them, a world with a deeper connection to God than they have known before.