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.