Reading the Christian Spiritual Classics

The spiritual classics are an elusive category of works that span the history of Christianity. For some, they are celebrated for their notoriety and mysterious nature but in practicality are read only in passing quotes and snippets. For others, the mention of such works results in a rolling of the eyes and scoffs that such esoteric works, and at times contrary to orthodox theology, would be meaningful for today. Perhaps for the majority of us, the spiritual classics have been woefully neglected simply due to our unfamiliarity and hesitation towards them.

Reading the Christian Spiritual Classics (IVP, 2013) is an apologetic for the continued reading of the spiritual classics. In its four sections the work sets out to answer the why, how, what, and who of the spiritual classics. More than merely opening the door for readers to peruse the classics, the authors exhort readers to examine them as formative to contemporary theology, soul care, and edification.

Given the various historical, theological, and confessional diversity it is not surprising that there is a certain level of culture shock when first reading the classics. Initially, they may seem unpalatable to our modern sensibilities. The mystical language may be off-putting. Theological differences may discourage prospective readers. However, the authors of this volume instruct a reading of the classics with charity. They do much to dispel the misnomers of the spiritual classics and teach how to read them as documents of historical endeavors to encounter God on biblical and authentic grounds.

However, the authors are not suggesting that we should approve everything that comes from the spiritual classics. We are to read with charity but also discernment. As the subtitle stipulates, a guide for evangelicals, the authors seek constructive and critical methods of interpretation. There are theological boundaries that should not be crossed, such as when reading the Catholic classics. Bruce Demarest warns, evangelicals must be weary of Catholic spiritual writers when tradition is established as authoritative as scripture, the role of the pope and Mary are elevated, and when the doctrine of justification by faith alone is not present (120-128). Others caution readers of unrestrained elements of mysticism which seek revelation apart from scripture.

I will not attempt to recount each article included in the volume, though each is worth of careful attention. Instead, a summary of the sections must suffice. In “Approaching Spiritual Classics” the authors set out theological and existential reasons for reading the spiritual classics. “The Spiritual Classics Tradition” outlines the various schools and categorizations of the classics. “Reading Evangelically” offers insights into reading Catholic, Orthodox, and Evangelical classics. Finally, as an exercise in evangelical reading, “How to Read the Spiritual Classics” introduces patristic, desert fathers, Medieval, Reformation, Puritan and Pietistic sources for further consideration and meditation.

It is no small matter when a collection such as Reading the Christian Spiritual Classics can be recommended in its entirety. The chapters are well-written and complementary of each other. Whereas I have recommended an à la carte approach to some collective volumes, this particular one should be read front to back. Finally, the volume ends with a helpful list of primary and secondary resources for further reading. The extensive list cannot be included in this review but here is a sample:

Anselm of Canterbury, Prayers and Meditations of St. Anselm
Johann Arndt, True Christianity
Athanasius, The Life of Antony and the Letter To Marcellinus
Augustine, Confessions
Basil of Caesarea, On the Holy Spirit
Bernard of Clairvaux, On Loving God
Bonaventure, The Soul’s Journey into God
Brother Lawrence, Practicing the Presence of God
John Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress
John Cassian, Conferences
Catherine of Siena, The Dialogue
John Chrysostom, On Living Simply
Jonathan Edwards, The Religious Affections
Gregory of Nyssa, The Life of Moses
John of the Cross, Dark Night of the Soul
Philip Jacob Spener, Pia Desideria
Thomas à Kempis, The Imitation of Christ

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