For the next five Mondays, I’m going to be uploading 20-minute church history videos to YouTube on the theme “Spiritual Disciplines and the Expansion of Christianity.” The first video in the series is now up, covering an introduction to the series and Christianity before Constantine:
This is the first in a five-part series looking very quickly at the history of Christianity. I’d like to acknowledge the technical support from Pastor Ben Spears that made this possible — expect better videos as I get more practice!
I do two things in this week’s video:
First, I introduce my theme: spiritual disciplines and the expansion of Christianity.
Second, I run through church history from Acts to around the year 300.
If this were a university course, I would assign the following readings (all available online):
Every once in a while I try to think about the connections between the different aspects of classic Christianity I blog about — between theology and spiritual disciplines, usually, although sometimes between different aspects of theology. One of the common teachings we find in books about worldview is that our worldview shapes how we live.
If this is true, most of us are atheists, materialists, and deniers of hell.
In the last point, I think David Bentley Hart once pointed out that if other Christians really believed in the hell of everlasting punishment that they profess, they wouldn’t waste any of their time, would they? Wouldn’t Hart’s intellectual opponents be out on the street preaching, giving away their money to mission work, turning conversations to evangelism, that as many would be saved as possible?
But most Christians don’t live like that, don’t live with any urgency that hell is an immediate possibility for ourselves and our neighbours.
In his cutting book, The Golden Cow, John White (author of the children’s fantasy The Tower of Geburah as well as several non-fiction Christian books for adults) says there are two kinds of materialist. There are the secular materialists who say that matter is all that is. And there are those who say that matter is all that matters. Many evangelical Christians, he contends, fall into this second category. We live the same lives as our neighbours. We strive for more money, for more comfort, etc., etc.
For most of daily life, most of us are what I’ve heard called “practical atheists”. We do not live as though the God of the Universe indwells us, as though any insignificant event may actually have eternal significance. We hardly set aside time for prayer. When we make non-moral decisions, we usually simply choose what is easiest or what we like best, not what is most spiritually beneficial. That latter may require discernment — but how many of us even try to discern anything in our lives?
So, if worldview impacts lifestyle, most of us don’t really believe Gospel, do we?
I, myself, attach my mind quite easily to high ideals. Nevertheless, having read Cassian and Jeremy Taylor about gluttony, I still sat down the other day and drank a bottle of sugary pop and ate 125 g of gummy candies. High ideals are nice unless I actually have to change how I live, right?
My main problems are probably acedia — listless despondency — and not even wanting this enough. That is to say, when it actually comes upon me that I should make some sort of decision for spiritual discipline rather than ease, acedia comes upon me. I feel tired. I feel soooo weary so much of the time. I do not wish to add another burden. So prayer, Scripture reading, disciplined eating …. these are set aside. Just for now. Don’t worry — I’ll do it tomorrow.
Some people say a Rule of Life is a cure for this. (Obviously besides the Holy Spirit seizing us.) Maybe that. Probably also community and spiritual friendship.
I’m thinking about how to make a Rule of Life, so maybe you’ll hear from me on that before too long.
What do you think? How can we cure our practical atheism in comfortable western Christianity?
I just finished reading Clifton Wolters’ 1961 translation of The Cloud of Unknowing for Penguin Classics. Since 1961, there has been a new Penguin translation by A. Spearing. I see on Amazon at least six other translations into modern English besides Evelyn Underhill’s popular edition. Reviews of this book are almost all pure adulation and recommendation. People love The Cloud of Unknowing.
Now, I am not anti-Cloud of Unknowing. But I do wonder how many of us are its target audience.
Although the book has some practical advice for contemplative prayer, it is also clear that the person who is urged to beat at the cloud of unknowing is seeking to enter into the higher of two levels of contemplative life, to which few ever ascend. It is also clear that most people live in the active life, and that entering this higher level of the contemplative life is a gift of grace. Not everyone is called or suited, and you can meet God in other ways and be holy in the active life as well as in the lower level of the contemplative life.
Now, the author of The Cloud is right in saying that since this is the result of grace, not of our own doing, it may require only a moment of work. We may, the instant we begin, receive the grace in contemplation that so many of us seek. But the author also describes what sounds like a more common journey — from a life of discipline and charitable works up to the lower level of contemplation — which is also the higher level of the active life — before ascending to this highest level of the ascetic-contemplative life.
I suppose I fear that many of us, many of the writers of glowing reviews, set aside some time for what we call “contemplative prayer” and follow some of the advice given in The Cloud without pursuing fasting, long periods of meditation on Scripture, giving away excess personal goods, wearing a simple wardrobe, eating plain food, following the advice of a spiritual director/father, engaging in acts of mercy and charity, et cetera.
If we are not pursuing the active life, are we ready to try the contemplative life?
Now, maybe more people are doing these things than I suspect. If so, this is great. And maybe more people receive the grace of contemplation without effort than I imagine. If so, this is great. However, if I am right, I hope that we will all start taking seriously the disciplined life as much as the contemplative life. There are no short cuts to holiness most of the time. There’s no such thing as “40 days to mountain top experiences of God.” God lives with us in the valleys and he helps us climb those mountains.
Remember that a likely original audience for this work was a person considering becoming a Carthusian! The guys who take a vow of silence. Remember that most of the great mystical works of the Middle Ages were written by monks and hermits like St Bernard, St Bonaventure, Julian of Norwich, Richard Rolle, and St Thomas of Kempen. Whatever flowering of mysticism they may have encountered, they also lived the disciplined life of asceticism.
So, although there is profit in The Cloud of Unknowing, and I would recommend it to people interested in the western mystical tradition, I think most of us need to read some more ascetic books because, as easy as this one feels sometimes, I think it is beyond us.
It is a common refrain from those of us who observe the liturgical calendar this time of year: Advent is a time of waiting. We remember Israel’s waiting for Jesus to come. We prepare ourselves for Christmas. We wait for His coming again in glory. It is not an extended Christmas, but a season of its own.
Never has this come home to me more than living with a two-year-old!
On the First Sunday of Advent, we lit the candle on the Advent wreath at home.
‘Light the other candles, Mummy?’
My wife explained that we were only going to light one for the week. If only the concept of a ‘week’ were in his vocabulary.
Then the Advent calendar.
‘Open another window?’
Not until tomorrow.
By now, he has adjusted to the progressive lighting of candles. But yesterday, he wanted the Advent calendar more than once. He likes opening the doors, I guess!
Aren’t we all two-year-olds? And I don’t just mean those lead singers of bands at church who greet us with, ‘Merry Christmas!’ on the First Sunday of Advent. We want everything at once, now, immediately. We want our paycheque now. Cooking is an obstacle to eating. We pay extra for Amazon Prime to get stuff quicker. Who wants delayed gratification in a culture of overabundance?
Likewise spiritually. I want to be mature, but I don’t want to go through with the disciplines. I want holiness, sure. But I want it now, not after hours or years at prayer.
The people of God waited 2000 years from Abraham to the Incarnation of God the Son.
And now we have waited 2000 more for His return.
God moves slowly (or so it seems to us).
Maybe we should, too. Let’s take some time this Advent to slow down and wait for God.
Whenever (like last post) I think about the idea of reintroducing some sort of period of training or waiting for new Christians before (and even after!) getting baptised — catechesis or even the catechumenate — I start thinking about two things:
What educational resources could I make? What already exists?
Information is not enough. We need to make this about people entering into the school of the Lord
There is lots of stuff out there for Number 1 (would my own Anglo-Patristic catechesis be superfluous, then?), both in terms of basic introductions such as Alpha and Christianity Explored and in terms of spiritual growth like the Church of England’s Pilgrim Course (depending how you cut it, all three of those are from the C of E!). There are also readable books for topics you might want new Christians to get into, and I’m sure a lot of pastors and parishioners who read could work on getting these sorted for one’s own congregation.
What I don’t think we can really plan in any such endeavours, however, is the growth of people who take the course and their developing commitment to Jesus. And that’s really what matters. Who cares if you are well-informed about Christianity and its doctrines if you aren’t abiding deeply with its Lord Christ?
What we can plan, however, is what any committed disciples do in terms of discipling the undiscipled. Say your church is running a course for new believers either as a preparation for baptism or some other membership event. Something beyond just volunteering on a Wednesday night, right?
People first and foremost need to be deeply invested in the person and work of Jesus Christ. And then all-in in terms of seeing new disciples made. And then invested in the knowledge being imparted in the course. And then — pray!
Actually, let’s backtrack a bit.
Prayer and Scripture-reading are the two bedrock spiritual disciplines. Let’s assume these as daily practices for the people coming alongside the catechumens.
What if everyone involved in a catechetical course was also fasting as part of their intercession for the new believers? And praying for them every day. Or, even bigger, what if a congregation went through a big shift so that everyone had a rule of life and was committed to spiritual disciplines, and then catechesis of new believers grew out of that?
Well, there’s a new gap to fill in Christian educational material, then. How to help ‘mature’, committed Christians get a grip, grow spiritually, and live out spiritual disciplines. Maybe that’s where my Anglo-Patristic work can go…
Many have found themselves and their faith unsettled as the West entered, enters, dwells in, the state of late modern existence called ‘postmodern’. As well, whether the ‘postmodern’ has had anything to do with it, in the same decades since I heard my father proclaim the death of Christendom in a 1998 sermon, many have found discomfort with the church of evangelicalism for many a reason.
Some left to the liberal side of the mainline. Others left to Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy. Some of us stayed put as best we could but found ourselves slowly transforming into something different from what we once were. For example, last year, I was venting to my brother some frustrations with the church I attended (Reformed, biblicist, low church, evangelical, pseudo-Anglican). I said I didn’t think I was an evangelical anymore (even though my commitment to historic orthodox theology and ethics is as strong as ever), and he said I sounded like a catholic Anglican.
After all, at the time I was reading Alexander de Hales (1185-1245) on grace in the original Latin for comfort in my plight (a friend had sent it to me).
Of course, I have only stayed put ecclesially (-ish?). What I have been doing for most of my (as yet brief) adult life has been lunging into ancient, mediaeval, Byzantine, and Orthodox Christianity as my solace, alongside the English poets and the Prayer Book. Perhaps you, too, find yourself in an awkward place at your church — you affirm historic orthodoxy but rankle at the pulpit, shudder at things other evangelicals say, and don’t know if you’re becoming a liberal or an Anglican. (Become Eastern Orthodox, it seems the best option right now.)
If so, here are some reasons, regardless of where your ecclesiastical home lands, why theologically conservative Protestants should get to know ancient Christianity.
1. The New Testament
No ecumenical council determined which books are in the canon of the New Testament. And if you understand the way western canon law works, the 397 Council of Carthage with its canon is maybe not as important as it looks. Anyway, this is a thing we should all know. What happened instead was an unofficial growing consensus that manifested itself over centuries through the guidance of the Holy Spirit so that the 397 canon of Scripture was not controversial, nor was Athanasius’ in 367, nor would that of Innocent I be in the early 400s. This is very brief and not meant to be a historical investigation of the question of how or when the NT canon settled; please don’t troll me, I’m never in the mood.
What I want to say is: If these people were attuned to the Holy Spirit and filled with His grace to be able to discern between the inspired revelation of God and everything else (however valuable to the church’s life), shouldn’t we pay attention to what they have to say on other subjects?
2. The Doctrine of the Holy Trinity
The ancient church fathers articulated with ever greater precision and beauty the doctrine of the Most Holy and Life-giving Trinity, finding a way to use human words that is both biblically faithful and philosophically sound. Read their writings on the Trinity, such as St Gregory of Nazianzus’ Five Theological Orations.
If you believe the Trinity is an essential doctrine for Christian orthodoxy, doesn’t it make sense to get to know it from the people who had to think through these dangerous new waters?
Moreover, reading the ancient theologians on the Trinity, not only does your appreciation for this doctrine grow, so does your love and awe of God. You want to praise and worship so wonderful a Persons as these.
Furthermore, the Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses are still out there, alongside Oneness Pentecostals, Christadelphians, and Richard Rohr. The beauty, elegance, and logic of these teachings, coupled with their biblical fidelity will help you navigate any future encounters with such as these. I enjoy bringing up St Athansius with Jehovah’s Witnesses, myself.
3. The Person and Work of Jesus
Alongside the Most Holy Trinity, the ancient church thought through what it believed about the person and work of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, the God-man, who trampled down death by death. If you believe that Jesus Christ is one person who is at once fully human and fully divine, why not read the writings of the people who articulated this belief and wrestled with how to phrase it? Why not go and read the Chalcedonian definition of the faith right now?
Again, knowing how and why the church has come to its belief in Jesus Christ as one person existing in two natures, fully human and fully divine, will help you with Mormons, Richard Rohr, et al., but it will — once again — also bring you to your knees in worship of Christ Our God who was crucified for us.
Furthermore, maybe Brian D. McLaren and others who say that penal substitutionary atonement theory is ‘divine child abuse’ are getting to you — not necessarily that they annoy you, but that you fear they are right. Well, let me tell you something about ancient views on the atonement: None of them is penal subistitutionary atonement, for this was not articulated until the masterful work of St Anselm, Cur Deus Homo (c. 1100). Being a catholic Anglican, I agree with Anselm, but since I increasingly lean East, I also see that this is not the only way to view the atonement, which is an act of God like a diamond, casting forth different colours in different directions depending on the light.
What you will find is a central home for the cross (crucicentrism being integral to evangelical identity) alongside an embiggening of your vision to see that the Incarnation is a Big Deal, that when God answered the prophet’s call to rend the heavens and come down (Isa. 64:1), nothing could ever be the same. If atonement is an issue for you, the Fathers will bring you to your knees in worship of the suffering immortal God.
One of the Most Holy Trinity was crucified and died for us. Hallelujah!
You read the New Testament. You believe in the Trinity and the two natures of Christ as well as his atoning work on the Cross. These are great reasons to get to know the Fathers. And as you get to know them, you’ll realise that they inhabited a world without the distractions of Twitter, Facebook, Game of Thrones, Avengers films, or the Kardashians. They did, however, inhabit a world with the distractions of chariot races, imperial pomp, occasional persecutions, the theatre, gladiatorial combats, brothels, singing competitions, banquets, and more.
And you’ll find that many of them kept themselves grounded through spiritual disciplines.
Many of us have found (stereo)typical evangelical piety and pietism shallow. We want to love God more and go deeper and see real transformation in our lives. So did the Fathers. And they took to hear the exhortations to pray without ceasing and to love one another and to care for the poor and oppressed.
If you take seriously what they believed, shouldn’t you take seriously how they lived?
These are just the four that came to me tonight. What reasons do you have for reading the Fathers?
This Sunday, our minister preached about learning about the practice of lectio divina helped him go deeper with the Scriptures, enjoy them more, and profit more from his reading — more so than the advice he had been given over and over again, ‘Read your Bible and pray’, which he found singularly unhelpful. Anyway, he didn’t actually give any details as to how on earth one does this, but…
Our Bible studies are based on the sermon! And I, not knowing this would be the topic and for reasons entirely unrelated, volunteered to lead this week’s study for my group.
So now I get to lead my small group in a discussion about lectio divina as well as a guided session of reading.
As a trained ecclesiastical historian and enthusiast about pre-modern Christian spiritual practices, I don’t know what to do.
For example, is it really worth talking about how the set procedure we (post)moderns call lectio divina isn’t what even St Benedict meant? That, out of Christians who write in Latin (and thus may have used the pair of words lectio divina), most of them before the High Middle Ages used the phrase to mean sacred reading in a broad sense, including prayerful and meditative reading as well as what we today would distinguish as ‘study’ and sometimes not reading the Bible at all but commentaries on it or spiritual writers of acknowledged richness?
The fact is, if I do say that, it may not really affect the way any of us in the room practise the reading of sacred Scripture. The procedure our minister has outlined for us in preparation for Thursday will help us ruminate upon the word in a quiet, prayerful manner, and, even if it is not absolutely and precisely ancient has its roots in ancient Christianity.
Then again, I feel like history matters. The modern practice of lectio divina is itself part of tradition as a living thing. We are seeking the same God with the same Scriptures, and we engage with the practices of our predecessors in making something like this, something that does utilise ancient and medieval beliefs about Scripture and about how God talks as well as about prayer and the relationship between the individual Christian and Scripture and whatnot.
But I am excited about trying something different from standard Bible study group fare. I am not the most generous person, and I often find the takeaway from Bible studies fairly low. There are times I would rather have read a commentary on my own and simply had coffee with my Bible study people. Okay, so it’s not yet been bad at this church, but this week will only be my fourth time making it to Bible study.
I am also excited about getting people into any of the older spiritual practices. This one is a good entry point — something about Scripture (evangelicals rightly love the Bible) with ancient and medieval roots, tweaked for today’s Christian. It’s probably an easier sell than St Ephrem’s Hymns on Paradise or 100 communal Jesus Prayers.
A conversation I was having with a student today reminded me of the importance of that unpopular, old-fashioned idea of ‘evangelism’. The conversation headed in the direction of a belief that people of the far-right, hate-mongers and suchlike, should be stopped from assembling. I expressed my belief that no speech, excite incitement to violence, should be outlawed. I feel this way partly out of a concern that if they stop the racists from speaking and assembling, who will be next? And when will they come knocking on Father Raphael’s door?
I also expressed, in the course of this conversation, my belief that the problem isn’t legislation but the human heart. You can’t legislate evil away.
And so my thoughts about the need for mission arose from this context in two main ways.
First, how can we speak the truth of Gospel into a culture that thinks ‘dangerous speech’ should be banned?
Second, how can we, as Christians, actually see the transformation of the wicked human heart that we all desire?
I no longer know the answer to the first, for I have grown frozen in speaking Gospel.
The second relates to actually making disciples, so is related to the first.
Nonetheless, I was reminded of the need to bring the Gospel to a hurting, broken world.
And all of this ties into the title of this post because I sometimes get a feeling from some corners of the Interwebs that Christians can be drawn into the mystical, contemplative, liturgical traditions of the Church as part of a reaction against some of the spiritual toxicity that is out there in some parts of evangelicalism.
And what I feel like I see sometimes is a retreat not simply from things like politics (which may be a good thing) but from God-talk altogether. Christian spirituality becomes therapy for me, and is spoken of as therapy for a broken world, but without actually engaging in the dreaded discipline of talking to other humans about the Gospel and God of grace, how are we really healing that broken world?
I am guilty of this to some degree, although I resist ‘mysticism as therapy’ as best I can.
My theory has always been that if we engage in spiritual disciplines, we will love God more, look like Him more, and be more comfortable as who we are. As a result, we will be able to speak Gospel to a broken, hurting world, a world that includes both racists and those who want to legislate against dangerous speech.
Question: Can someone give me evidence of this working for them?
I realise I’ve just mixed metaphors, but I hope you don’t mind. In response to my post about how I’m having trouble getting things rolling again, I got some good tips and refreshing perspectives. Keep the bike upright is one of them. As someone who cycles to work, I understand that. Momentum is necessary, you need to keep pedalling.
But how to keep pedalling?
Well, I need to realise that part of the martyrdom of parenthood is not having the free time to pray all the offices. But that’s okay — taking care of my son, my household, is an act of love, and is itself part of the disciplined life. Thus, a little twist on the Benedictines — ‘laborare est orare’.
As I’m working through what disciplines I can reasonably and prayerfully engage, I’m also reading Lisa Deam, A World Transformed. This book is ostensibly about the spirituality of medieval maps. But a lot of it is about pilgrimage, and the pilgrimage of the heart.
We are all headed to Jerusalem, to the heavenly city.
Along the way, we need to watch out for the many perils on the road. Robbers, thieves, hunger, thirst, cold, shipwreck when sailing from Venice, snow in the Alps. Unbelievers at the gates restricting our access. Medieval pilgrimage wasn’t all just a happy trek through Spain in the summer. It was death-defying and life-transforming.
I once walked two hours of a pilgrim route in Germany, to a little pilgrims’ chapel. As I walked, I realised that, while we think of these chapels and the destinations as defining pilgrimage, there is a lot of open countryside. That’s where you meet with God.
That’s where you meet with danger.
So here I am, on my pilgrimage, trying to make the pilgrimage of the heart to Jerusalem in the midst of finishing up one job, taking care of a feverish and sick one-year-old, preparing to take up another job, sorting out a transatlantic move. There are dangers everywhere on this road.
This is why setting in motion manageable goals of discipline is essential — prayer, Scripture, study.
In my new job, I am acquainting myself with the works of the monk-historian Simeon of Durham, who died around the year 1129. In his History of the Church of Durham(Libellus de Exordio atque Procursu istius, hoc est Dunelmensis, Ecclesie), Simeon writes:
Imitating the blessed apostles, the venerable Cuthbert adorned with good works the episcopal office which he had assumed; for by his continual prayers he protected the people committed to his charge, and called them to mind the things of heaven by his wholesome exhortations. (Book 1.10, trans. J. Stevenson)
A great many of our ancient and medieval ascetics believed themselves to be imitating the Apostles, or living the apostolic life, or living according to the Gospel, living ‘evangelically’ (gospelly). A century after Simeon, Franciscans will make much of ‘evangelical’ poverty.
This is in strong contrast with how most Protestants view asceticism. Indeed, asceticism tends to be associated with body-hating, unbiblical extremism; it is even used with such connotations by Richard Foster, author of Celebration of Discipline. Moreover, it is in contrast with how the apostles are viewed; the only disciplines usually even considered in relation to the apostles are prayer and the study of Scripture.
Now, what might Simeon have in mind for St Cuthbert? Certainly, as the context makes clear, prayer and preaching — these are the chief apostolic virtues of St Cuthbert’s Scots-Irish predecessors, Sts Columba and Aidan. St Cuthbert, like those two, was an evangelist before he was a bishop.
He was also what one might call a prayer warrior. Of course, we might not go for his version of what continual prayer looks like. It is one thing to promote the daily office and cultivate silence, as St Cuthbert (who promoted the Rule of St Benedict amongst the monks of Lindisfarne) would have. It is another to stand in the freezing waters of the sea for an all-night vigil or to try and become a hermit.
Nonetheless, there may be something to the disciplined life being ‘apostolic’. It is clear from the biblical testimony that the apostles prayed at the Jewish hours of prayer; they fasted; they renounced worldly possessions; some of them forewent the joys of marriage for their apostolic mission; they studied and prayed over Scripture.
Many believe that St Paul’s time in Arabia was spent in prayer and communion with God before entering into ministry. Jesus certainly spent 40 days fasting on the cusp of his ministry.
As we saw a few months ago, in fact, Bede relates the story of the Roman mission to the Anglo-Saxons, headed by Augustine at Canterbury, in terms of them living as the apostolic community did according to Acts 2. These were certainly monks.
Later in the Middle Ages, it was the canons regular who claimed to be living the apostolic life. These were not, by a strict definition, monks, but clergy who lived together in community, lived a disciplined life, prayed a version of the daily office, and were active in their local communities, preaching and tending to the poor.
It is worth thinking about and pondering seriously — what does the apostolic life look like? It may not look like the cloister, but does it look like the comfortable pew?