Reading the Christian Spiritual Classics, a Guide for Evangelicals, Ed. by Jamin Goggin and Kyle Strobel (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press 2013), 325 pp. paper $17.99
Fifteen scholars teamed up to produce this book which has as its goal “to create readers who are able to read theologically, historically, practically and spiritually for the glory of God” (p. 12). While all the authors would claim to be evangelical Protestants, all are sympathetic and supportive of classical Christian mysticism and spiritual formation spirituality as found in what they consider the ancient classics. Carl Trueman (Dean of Westminster Theology Seminary) endorsed this approach saying, “I think the medieval mystics should form a staple of the literary diet of all thoughtful Christians” (p. 9). And the editors look to and praise Richard Foster claiming he “was recovering a well-worn path of ancient wisdom that helped to defend evangelicalism itself” (p. 10).
I decided to read this work after finding a very favorable review on The Gospel Coalition’s website by Nathan Finn, a professor of historical theology and Baptist studies at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. He believes Reading the Spiritual Classics is an excellent resource for pastors, seminarians and other Christian leaders. Finn states that the authors were successful in their attempts “to help their fellow evangelicals mature in their faith through reading the spiritual classics.” I agree with Finn that Reading the Spiritual Classics is a superb source for understanding the backdrop and history of Foster’s Spiritual Formation Movement, but I strongly disagree with his suggestion that reading the spiritual classics will aid in spiritual maturity. Quite the opposite, I believe; if embraced, the classics will lead away from true maturity and into unbiblical mysticism.
Take first the fact that the vast majority of all the “classics” recommended are from Roman Catholic and Orthodox leaders. This flies in the face of the definition of a spiritual classic supplied early in the book: (1) Clearly attributable to a reborn follower of Jesus, (2) focuses on a biblical understanding of sanctification, and (3) a multitude of voices across church history attest to its value for Christian living (p. 16). While point three depends on what voices one wants to listen to, the first two points rule out most of the ancient classics cited. If the Reformation cornerstones of Sola Scriptura and Sola Fide are correct then the authors of ancient spirituality and their methodologies do not fit the definition. Bruce Demarest, former professor at Denver Seminary, writes his chapter in defense of reading Catholic spirituality even as he admits that Rome was and is in grave error theologically. Demarest identifies ten serious doctrinal heresies, which cut to the core of biblical Christianity, yet he inexplicably highly recommends ancient Catholic classics. Fred Sanders, professor of theology at Biola University, admits that nonevangelical spiritualities and traditions spoil the gospel (pp. 157, 160); nevertheless we “should be open but cautious” (p. 149) as we feast on ancient classics, which in fact are often heretical. By open but cautious the reader of the classics must weed out not only rank error, but also extreme asceticism (see pp. 125-126, 207-214), and constant extrabiblical revelation and visions (see pp. 240-242) upon which this form of spirituality is founded.
There are two threads that run throughout mystical spirituality from the second century to today. The first is allegorical hermeneutics, or the four-fold interpretation of Scripture (see pp. 102-106, 199, 227). Going back at least as far as Origen the Scriptures have not been interpreted literally (at best normal hermeneutics was deeply minimized). Instead allegoricalism became the norm in which hidden meaning, meaning not actually found in the text, was sought. Secondly, the sine qua non of ancient spirituality was the tripartite pursuit of mystical experience with God. The three divisions were purgation, illumination, and union (pp. 82-83, 126, 188-189, 239). By contrast the Reformation emphasized the historical-grammatical hermeneutic, even though the Reformers were often inconsistent, especially with eschatology and the Song of Solomon (pp. 276, 280, 284, 296-297). And evangelicals have always understood union with God as the beginning of the Christian journey, not its end or earthly goal (p. 275). Spiritual formation derived from these classics turn the Christian life on its head and would have the believer embark on a search for what he has already been given—union with God through Christ.
Reading the Christian Spiritual Classics is an excellent resource and the “go-to book” for anyone seeking a good understanding of the roots, teaching and attraction of mystical spirituality. Each author is knowledgeable of his subject and provides a wealth of information and insight into the teachings of the ancients (as well as a few moderns). However, it strongly promotes an unbiblical spirituality. To paraphrase one of the authors—read for the information, but read with great caution.
Reviewed by Gary E. Gilley, Pastor-teacher, Southern View Chapel