Great Suspicion

Our weekly post From the Shepherd’s Nook by John Frye

A Great Suspicion

While at Fuller Theological Seminary studying the history and practice of the spiritual disciplines, an opening statement by Dr. James E. Bradley, church historian, jolted me by its simplicity and frankness. “Most Christians think that true spirituality began with Martin Luther and John Calvin.” Bradley went on to explain a deep-seated suspicion in the church about anything to do with Christian formation prior to the Reformation. Bradley’s statements are not hard to comprehend, but the truth of them is utterly staggering. The frisky theological wars between Catholics and Protestants caused many in the evangelical church to unwittingly jettison the vast treasure of pre-Reformation literature penned by deep lovers of God, i.e., books by women and men who dared to keep Jesus and his Way the focus of their lives. The Protestant Church began its own gallery of “saints” (heroes) including John Wycliffe, John and Susanna Wesley, David Brainerd, Hudson Taylor, Richard Baxter, George Herbert, Jonathan Edwards, Charles Spurgeon, Charles Finney to name just a few.

I remember reading Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth in the late 1980s and thinking “This is just too ‘Catholic’ for me. It feels like works-righteousness.” Foster is a Quaker which puts him in the Protestant camp. I had been so conditioned by sola fide that any cooperation with God in Christian formation was a ‘Catholic thing.’ I am embarrassed to write this, but I will because I think I represent hundreds or more evangelicals who don’t even know who these folks are: Teresa of Avila, Antony the desert father, Julian of Norwich, Bernard of Clairvaux, Catherine of Genoa, Benedict of Nursia, to name a few. As I recall, the only pre-Reformation writer I knew of and read was Thomas a Kempis and his Imitation of Christ. How he squeezed through the sola fide filter I do not know. Had I known he also wrote Imitation of Mary, I probably would have gone apoplectic.

What pre-Reformation writers have influenced your spiritual formation?

By the time I came to faith in Christ in the late 1960s (in Junior High school), a virulent strain of “justification by faith alone” prevailed in the more conservative evangelical churches. There was an intense grace/law, faith/works, Protestant/Catholic divide and to “do” anything seemed to be an ungodly denial of salvation by grace and faith alone. Bible books like Ephesians were bifurcated—doctrine (chapters 1-3) / duty (chapters 4-6) or position/practice, yet the emphasis was always on the doctrine-position side of truth. Faith in Jesus became, as Dallas Willard points out, simply a barcode God scans to let you into heaven when you die. As long as you affirmed your “position” in Christ, you could live as a habitual gossip, but not drink beer; a blatant racist, but not dance; a liar, but not go to movies; a mean-spirited person, but not play cards. I was engulfed in a shallow, boundary-marker spirituality. Because any emphasis on how we actually lived was considered the dreaded “works righteousness” error, we could ignore the biblical call to Christian formation. It’s funny now, but back in those days reading your Bible and praying was for Protestants the equivalent to the Catholics’ once a week Mass: you do it and the slate is cleared for another week or day of self-centered living.

A good teacher pointed out to me one day the object of the judgment seat of Christ in 2 Corinthians 5:10—“…the things done in the body.” What?! Things done? I thought the judgment seat was about “things believed in the head.” You know, right doctrine. The teacher, then, pointed me to a phrase in Paul’s first letter to Timothy, “…rather, train yourself to be godly” (1 Tim. 4:7). Train myself? I thought godliness was positional, imputed by faith! Why, Paul even calls me a “saint” positionally. All this was a skewed, Americanized, self-centered justification by faith theology that probably would horrify both Luther and Calvin. Any theology that deceives you into thinking you are OK with God and allows you to live an unloving and unserving life is a theology unknown to God whether it is Catholic or Protestant (evangelical) theology. Pre-Reformation Jesus-followers believed in loving God and loving others.

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  • Rick

    Good post.

    I do think Protestants have neglected pre-Reformation writings. However, you seem to indicate that just because many pre-Ref. writers had wonderful things to say, that what they said should be fully accepted. I think we can appreciate much of what they wrote without accepting all of it.

    C. Michael Patton touched on this in a post he had this week at Parchment and Pen. He wrote:

    “…we all need to realize is that while the faith was once for all given to the saints, this does not mean the saints had the faith once for all figured out.”

  • Nathan

    “I think we can appreciate much of what they wrote without accepting all of it.”

    As we should for all post reformation writing…right?

  • Rick

    Nathan #2


    I lean strongly towards paleo-orthdoxy, so I actually give more weight to the old.

  • T

    Great post, John. Totally gonna swipe this for regular use for our church.

  • John,

    Great post! Thanks for naming a very real issue and for honestly and authentically unpacking it. We need this.

  • This post feels very nostalgic. I know for myself and many of my friends, exposure to Foster and Willard in the late 90’s, followed by engagement with pre-reformation writers, is what catapulted us into an understanding of Christianity as a life of practice rather than merely a life of belief. I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say there would have been no emerging/Emergent without that shift among so many gen-x Protestants during roughly the same decade.

  • Rob Dunbar

    Ironically, that great Protestant Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote the same complaints in that Protestant classic, “The Cost of Discipleship.” As for the pre-Reformation writers who influenced me, count Tertullian (though I wish his writing were not so caustic), Augustine, and John Chrysostom, who sparked an interest in Orthodox writings.

  • Randy Gabrielse

    Thank you Scot, for sharing this very important insight. I like Jason Corker’s statement about “a life of practice rather than a life of belief.” I have long wondered why people are so concerned about “works righteousness.” I hear people say that they cannot or ought not do some of those things are clearly part of “love your neighbor as yourself” because “it could be works righteousness.”

    Sometimes it seems to be a guise for not engaging in certain “justice” causes, but sometimes I encounter people who just seem genuinely afraid that DOING something could be magically transformed into an expression of wrong belief.

  • Scot, just so you know: I can habitually gossip AND drink beer. At the same time.

  • Thank you very much for this essay, John! I can’t tell you how frustrating it was to have right-thinking orthodox folks cavalierly dismiss the love-enacting folks I knew who served the poor, women, sick and immigrants who were powerless and disenfranchised in our society. How tragically misguided their condemnation was. It’s like breathing fresh air to be among fellow followers of Christ who are willing to love alongside others who think differently than do we!

  • Jack Brown

    I’m not sure I see the division as clearly–I wonder if we have set up a false dichotomy. To me, faith is not belief. Anyone who says righteousness is based on “right belief” is clearly wrong. However, righteousness is clearly linked to faith. But faith, in my opinion, is more than belief–it is belief that takes on life-changing power. As such, it motivates us to good works (“training in righteousness”).

    It all seems very chicken and egg-ish to me. Why can’t we celebrate the righteousness that comes by faith as well as the good works that faith engenders in us without trying to figure out which is the one that puts us right positionally before God? Why does it have to be one over the other?

  • Steve Robinson

    If one is familiar with it, one realizes much of C.S. Lewis’ best material is from the first 10 centuries, dare I say the first 7 centuries of spiritual writings by church Fathers and monastics. 25 years ago I read a short book called “Sayings of the Desert Fathers” from the first few centuries and it floored me in its simplicity and depth on how to live in Christ.

  • Steve

    I had the chance to take seminars with Dr. Bradley while a Th.M. in history at Fuller. He’s a true scholar/pastor . . . whatever sources he’s working with, it’s bearing fruit!

  • Robert

    Thank you for this post. Having been raised in an AARB Baptist church, all of the teachings outlined here are all to familiar. I have told numerous people I came to know Jesus because I had Hell scared out of me, not because of being invited into a loving relationship. Recently my wife and I attended a conference sponsored by the Catholic church on church formation. As part of our preparation we read “Early Christian Fathers” by Richardson, Cyril C. What a blessing to read accounts of those who defended the faith that I hold dear today. Way before anyone knew about any Reformation.