Re-rooting spirituality in theology: a book worth reading


Alister McGrath and Timothy George’s book For All the Saints came out a few years ago and didn’t get nearly the attention it deserved. As a historian, I am not deterred from lauding something just because it is a few (or a few hundred) years old, so here we go:

You should read this book if you are concerned with the “sanctification gap” in evangelical culture–that is, if you think evangelical thought and evangelical life have become woefully separated, favoring either thought over life or life over thought, to the detriment of both:

Christian History Corner: For All the Saints
A fascinating book reminds us to get our heads and hearts together, in the company of the cloud of witnesses.
By Chris Armstrong

“Evangelicals,” gather round. Fellow-travelers and outsiders, lend an ear. For we are about to talk about evangelicalism’s “dirty little secret.” It’s what historian Richard Lovelace has called “the Sanctification Gap.” And it was the subject of a conference held in October, 2000 at Beeson Divinity School, Birmingham, Alabama, which has now resulted in a book worth reading.

The book, like the conference, is titled For All the Saints: Evangelical Theology and Christian Spirituality (Westminster John Knox, 2003). Its editors, Timothy George and Alister McGrath, were also key players at the conference.

In their introduction, George and McGrath remind us that evangelicals are famously focused on conversion. As insider historian Grant Wacker likes to quip, an evangelical is someone who gets on a bus and asks “Is this seat saved?” and then, quickly, “Oh, by the way … Are you?”

But this attention to the born-again experience has not always been matched by a similarly strong emphasis on a disciplined, holy Christian life—or to use the fifty-dollar theological word, “sanctification.” (One exception in the modern era is the subject of Christian History’s current issue: Phoebe Palmer and the Holiness Revival.)

The core of the problem, say George and McGrath, is this: the crucial experiential reality of “union with Christ” has gone missing from evangelicals’ description of what salvation means: “These two realities, justification by faith alone and union with Christ” must be seen as “indissolubly bound together—as two distinct but inseparable aspects of the same saving event.”

One of the most telling signs that these two halves of the Christian life have come apart—but are coming back together—is a recent re-visioning among evangelical seminaries. About a decade ago, in response to graduates who complained of a hyperfocus on intellectual theology and a paucity of spiritual formation in their schooling, many seminaries began turning their attention to models of “integrated” theological education. Now common in these schools’ curricula are self-assessments, accountability relationships, and courses focused on spiritual health and Christian living. One such new-look program may be found at Bethel Seminary, with its “three centers” approach. Another school that has in fact been integrating attention to spirituality in its program since its founding is Regent College.

The For All the Saints conference was sponsored by Wycliffe Hall, an evangelical Anglican school affiliated with Oxford University, and Beeson Divinity School, an evangelical interdenominational school affiliated with the Baptist-related Samford University in Alabama. According to organizers, the attendees met to seek out a healthy balance between two extremes: “an evangelical theology divorced from the life of faith” and “a trendy spirituality unrooted in the rich soil of historic orthodox teaching.”

In the course of that search, seven themes emerged. Just seeing these listed in the book’s introduction set my heart beating a little faster: How desperately do I need to live these realities! And how lovingly does Christ offer to give me the grace necessary to do so!

There is real spiritual food in these seven themes, so I want to share them with you:

  1. Spirituality is about the whole person. Not the mind alone, nor the emotions alone.
  2. Spiritual theology is about the Trinitarian God of love and grace. What does that mean? That God is himself a community, and that his essential nature is love.
  3. We are sustained in the journey of faith by the “means of grace.” This is a historical term used by John Calvin, John Wesley, and others to indicate the ways we meet God and are progressively transformed by him. These ways include Baptism, the Lord’s Supper, preaching, Scripture reading, prayer, and (at least for Wesley and his heirs) potentially many others.
  4. The spiritual life is the journey from achievement to rest. We need to recover the gentle disciplines of “being” and “listening” in the midst of lives that tend to major on “doing” and “going.”
  5. Spirituality is about obedience. We can’t have a Savior who is not also our Lord.
  6. The cauldron of an enduring spirituality is suffering and conflict. In the tough-minded spiritual realism of the Reformed tradition, the authors emphasize that we are not “promised a rose garden,” and that God works to shape us through affliction.
  7. We are not alone on the journey.

It is this final point that resonates most for me. Because this is why I got into the field of Christian history in the first place, as a young convert in the mid 1980s. As George and McGrath put it,

There is no such thing as a table for one at the banquet of the Lord. This is a wonderful, encouraging thought. We travel with a company of God’s pilgrim people, with all the saints. We are surrounded by “a great cloud of witnesses,” those who have come before us, weathered the storms, and emerged triumphant into the presence of the Lord. From their better vantage point they say to us, and to all pilgrims who travel with us: “Fear not the depths or the storms or the streams. Trust boldly that vessel and that faithful Pilot. We trusted him and none of us have miscarried. All of us here have landed safe.” Who would not follow such a multitude of excellent persons?

The authors conclude by pleading with evangelicals not be content merely with Luther’s “priesthood of all believers”—our common, equal experience of redemption—but to go on to “the sainthood of all believers.” Say George and McGrath,

We are called to live lives that reflect the character of Christ in a world that knows all too little of God’s love and grace. Evangelical spirituality is “for all the saints,” that is, for all who know Jesus Christ and wish to make him known to others, even if we acknowledge with Martin Luther that we are saints and sinners at the same time (simul iustus et peccator) and thus ever in need of God’s mercy and forgiveness.

If we begin to recognize and embrace the saints from many ages who have not looked much like us, yet have lived for the same Lord, say these authors, then our own spirituality and theology will be renewed, and we will foster the spirit of Christian unity.

Amen, brothers. May your book be widely read and your tribe increase.

Chris Armstrong is managing editor of Christian History & Biography, a Christianity Today sister publication.

One response to “Re-rooting spirituality in theology: a book worth reading

  1. A good word in needful time…

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