Reading the Christian Spiritual Classics — A Guide for Evangelicals

If you’ve spent any length of time in evangelicalism, you’ve no doubt heard some version of the standard self-hating-evangelical rhetoric. There’s lots of reasons evangelicals give for this masochistic rhetoric, but one of the most common is that ours is a tradition that actually isn’t much of a tradition. Where Rome, Constantinople or even Canterbury seem to offer centuries of depth and experience, evangelicalism can often seem fad-driven and consumeristic, captive to whatever trend hits the church market next. (You’ve seen Sunday’s Coming, I trust.) And while that criticism does exist for a reason, I’ve come to believe that in many cases it is dramatically over-stated. In fact, I’d even say that often times when a jaded evangelical is criticizing our lack of history, that criticism may be more a commentary on their ignorance of church history than on an actual problem with evangelicalism. (I say that as someone who at one time made that criticism with some regularity.)

As one example of the surprising depth of evangelicalism, I’d warmly commend a recent release from Intervarsity Press titled Reading the Christian Spiritual Classics: A Guide for Evangelicals (disclosure: IVP sent me a copy of the book). I only received the book this past Saturday, so I’ve not read the whole thing yet, but Fred Sanders’ essay on reading the classics as an evangelical is worth the price of the book. In it, Sanders shares advice on spiritual reading from a great Christian of the past. Savvy readers will read these quotes and say, “Oh, that’s a lot like lectio divina.” Here’s a few excerpts:

“Prepare yourself for reading, by purity of intention, singly aiming at the good of your soul, and by fervent prayer to God, that he would enable you to see his will, and give you a firm resolution to perform it.”

Be sure to read, not cursorily or hastily, but leisurely, seriously, and with great attention; with proper pauses and intervals, that you may allow time for the enlightenings of divine grace. To this end, recollect, every now and then, what you have read, and consider how to reduce it to practice. Farther, let your reading be continued and regular, not rambling and desultory. To taste of many things, without fixing upon any, shows a vitiated palate, and feeds the disease which makes it pleasing.

Work yourself up into a temper correspondent with what you read; for that reading is useless which only enlightens the understanding, without warming the affections. And therefore intersperse, here and there, earnest aspirations to God, for his heat as well as his light.

Now let’s play a game of “guess who said it?” The answer is below the jump.

John Wesley, that’s who. In other words, one of the most fundamental evangelical thinkers wrote a warm commendation of a type of reading that bears a striking resemblance to lectio divina. Not only that, much of the above excerpts come from a preface that Wesley wrote for… wait for it… Thomas a Kempis’s The Imitation of Christ. Again, you must read all of Dr. Sanders’ essay. My only point here is that a lot of the laments that evangelicals have about the poverty of our own tradition actually betray a surprising level of ignorance about what our own tradition actually is. As you’ll see from reading this book, there’s actually significantly more depth in evangelicalism than most people (evangelicals especially) usually realize.

  • I am looking forward to reading this as well. But I think that while many of the great lights of evangelicalism and Protestantism more generally were literate in the spiritual classics, that is not being passed on. So I do not think it is inappropriate to say evangelicals are lacking in tradition because part of evangelicalism is skepticism of tradition.

    That skepticism of tradition is also supported by the traditionally anti-catholic posture of much of older protestantism, especially more conservative wings of protestantism.

    So as I was looking at James Stewart Bell’s book “From the Library of AW Tozer” (on sale right now on kindle for $1.99), all of the negative reviews were from people with clear anti-Catholic biases.

    And it is not only less informed people. The highly influential reformed blogger Tim Challies (who is not a theological slouch) has repeatedly commented in his book reviews that he would recommend the book except that it quotes a Catholic. And by that I mean a single quote of a Catholic is enough for him to re-consider recommending a book he otherwise likes.

    I am highly encouraged that books like this new one and Bell’s and others are coming out and Evangelicals are gaining a new interest in spiritual classics. But I think that movement will only gain ground, and Evangelicals will only start embracing the tradition that their forebears embraced, if the anti-catholic bias is adequately addressed by a wide swath of Evangelical teaching.