The book I have been reading and blogging about, Four Views on Christian Spirituality, has an evangelical audience in mind. So it is fitting that the last and longest of the view essays is by Evan Howard presenting evangelical Protestant spirituality.
His essay is the longest because he takes the space to quote a number of historic figures. He talks a lot about the history of evangelical spirituality. He traces this from its roots in the Protestant reformation, which broke not just with Roman Catholic polity and doctrine, but with Roman Catholic spiritual practice as well. Protestants rejected, for instance, prayer to the saints and the use of the confessional.
So Protestants developed their own spirituality largely disconnected from the authority of the church. They stressed spirituality at home and at work, but allowed communal spirituality to take form in a variety of church and parachurch settings. Nevertheless, evangelicals remained orthodox in that they centered on the gospel and accepted the creeds as summaries of the scriptural truths about Christ.
Evangelical spirituality makes conversion its central element. Spirituality is lived conversion. Conversion is how we enter into union with God. It begins with justification by faith and continues with sanctification through the Holy Spirit as Christ. We experience Christ doing a work in us.
Many of the hot debates within evangelicalism are about just how all this works.
“Calvinists debated Arminians, revivalists simplified Puritans, Methodists questioned Moravians, holiness Christians argued with Pentecostal Christians, and postmillennial and premillennial evangelicals crossed swords.” (Demarest, Bruce A. (2012-05-01). Four Views on Christian Spirituality (Counterpoints: Bible and Theology) (Kindle Locations 3097-3098). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.)
The intensity of these debates, however, just shows how important conversion is for evangelical people.
Here is something that struck me:
“Evangelical identity and spirituality have often been comprehended in terms of a nested set of institutions. First, there was the closet, the life one lived in solitude with God. Second, there was the family, with its own set of responsibilities and devotional practices. Next, there was one’s local congregation, and with it a number of gatherings. And finally there was the town, with its days of prayer and its duties of propriety. Alongside town life were the various societies with which one might associate.” (Demarest, Bruce A. (2012-05-01). Four Views on Christian Spirituality (Counterpoints: Bible and Theology) (Kindle Locations 3283-3286). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.)
The town as part of this is going away as society becomes more diverse. But there are still towns in Missouri that encourage the church bells to ring out a daily call to prayer.
Another distinction Howard notes is the importance of song in evangelical spiritual practice. Singing gives life to spiritual aspiration. This has been true of Puritan and Wesleyan singing and continues in contemporary music and praise songs today.
Evangelical spirituality developed over against Roman Catholic spirituality and often defined itself by its differences from Rome. Yet in recent years there has been more and more emphasis on expropriating what was good from the Catholic tradition.
In response to Howard, Bradley Nassif laments that evangelical laity know the Bible better than their Orthodox counterparts. He hopes to borrow from evangelicals a more disciplined Bible study as part of Orthodox spirituality. But he thinks that the use of icons and the prayer-book along with the Bible makes for a more holistic spirituality.
Scott Hahn says that there are aspects of the evangelical tradition that appeal to Catholics. There is much in the spirituality of John and Charles Wesley. Jonathon Edwards, and even Billy Graham that Catholics can resonate with and affirm. Many evangelicals have a false perception of Catholic spirituality. He says,
“I teach at a Catholic university noted for its “evangelical” zeal and “charismatic” worship — with vibrant music, fervent preaching, hands-in-the-air worship, and small prayer groups. And this is not an isolated phenomenon.” (Demarest, Bruce A. (2012-05-01). Four Views on Christian Spirituality (Counterpoints: Bible and Theology) (Kindle Locations 3556-3558). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.)
As Roman Catholic convert he doesn’t think he has had to leave behind the good things that evangelical spirituality also embraces.
But both Nassif and Hahn see the danger of anarchy and chaos in the disconnection of evangelical Protestantism from the authority of the church. According to Nassif this has destroyed the visible unity of the church and fostered the rise of thirty thousand denominations.
From the progressive Protestant side, Joseph Driskill values the common historical roots of the mainline and evangelical churches in the Reformation, the Puritans and the Pietists. Both seek to recover the spiritual vitality that arises from these roots.
Driskill sees dividing points about the Bible and activism. In regard to the Bible, evangelicals tended to treat the Bible as an inerrant book to be read literally. Progressives took a more historical and rational approach and saw the evangelicals often misrepresenting the Bible.
Both progressives and evangelicals think the spiritual life leads to activism. But that primarily meant soul winning for evangelicals. It primarily meant social action for progressives.
After reading this essay and the responses, I have an observation about how evangelicalism works. Some see the confusion of many denominations, ministries, and independent congregations as the essence of evangelical polity. However, evangelicalism exists in networks that cross those lines. There are networks involving cross-denominational colleges and seminaries, bookstores, radio stations, TV stations, political alliances, women’s movements, men’s movements, youth movements, home schooling movements, and many more.
Evangelicalism is an ethos as much as an institution, and we are all caught up in it, at least in the Midwest and South. Many of us, who are not members of an evangelical church, still connect through at least one of these networks.
The criticism about anarchy can still apply. Strange stuff, like the left-behind business or the health and wealth gospel, can spread along these networks. Orthodoxy cannot be imposed from above. Over time though, corrections can also spread the same way the aberrations spread. A correction has occurred, for instance, in the nasty anti-Catholicism that used to prevail.
Bruce Demarest contributes a final, integrative essay to this book. I still have to deal with that.