Reader Alex Tang posted to my “Ask Dr. Church History” page: “What is your current assessment of the ressourcement or spiritual formation movement? I believe you have written earlier that you think it is ‘stalled.'” The assessment Alex mentions is not mine–or to be exact, it is mine, but I take it from conversations I had with Dallas Willard, Richard Foster, Eugene Peterson, and James Houston.
I had those conversations while preparing the following article, “The Rise, Frustration, and Revival of Evangelical Spiritual Ressourcement” for the Journal of Spiritual Formation & Soul Care 2009, Vol. 2, No. 1, 113–121:
The Rise, Frustration, and Revival of Evangelical Spiritual Ressourcement
Chris Armstrong, Bethel Seminary (St. Paul, MN)
It started in the 1950s and 1960s. It “broke out” in 1978, with the publication of Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline. But today, evangelicalism’s recovery of spiritual traditions from past centuries—led by such popularizers as Richard Foster, Dallas Willard, Eugene Peterson, and James Houston—seems to have reached an impasse. What opened evangelicals to the riches of spiritual tradition? Why has this movement seemingly stalled out? Are there grounds for hope that it will soon move forward again?
There is no denying that by the time Foster’s Celebration hit bookstores in 1978, the conciliatory, culture-engaging “new evangelicals” (represented by the National Association of Evangelicals [NAE], Christianity Today, and Fuller and Gordon-Conwell) had already begun to initiate themselves into the world of traditional Christian spirituality. They were using contemplative prayer techniques, attending retreats, sitting under spiritual directors, and reading Catholic and Orthodox books.
This new openness emerged out of two decades of radical change and barrier-crossing within evangelicalism. The Age of Aquarius saw evangelicals hungering for genuine spiritual experience. If this meant breaking out from the narrow biblicism and constrictive intellectual boundaries of their fundamentalist roots, then so be it. They sought a deeper Christian wisdom both about what makes disciples truly Christ-like and, simply, about what makes people tick.
Baseline: The “Sanctification Gap”
Among the leaders of this movement to Christianity’s spiritual taproots we find four men: James Houston grew up Plymouth Brethren in England, taught for years at Oxford University, led in Intervarsity Christian Fellowship, and then in 1970 was called to Vancouver, British Columbia to become the founding principal of a new evangelical graduate school: Regent College. Eugene Peterson, raised Pentecostal, attended a holiness college and then served for decades as pastor of a Baltimore-area Presbyterian church before joining Houston at Regent and penning his famous Bible paraphrase, The Message. Dallas Willard, Southern Baptist by upbringing and ordination, trained in philosophy, has taught for decades in that field at the University of Southern California, and has written an acclaimed series of books on the spiritual life. Richard Foster took a new-minted doctorate from Fuller to the pastorate of a small evangelical Friends church in Southern California, where he met and was influenced by Willard, and now leads an interdenominational ministry in the area of spirituality.
In recent interviews with these four men, each spoke of both the historical rise and the current stagnation of this impulse toward traditional spirituality. In their own journeys through the ferment of the 1960s, each had discovered what they were looking for in the historical spiritual traditions of the Christian faith. Each one eagerly began to teach that the spiritual resources of the past are a much-needed medicine, potent to heal us from a serious disease. This is the disease Gordon-Conwell historian Richard Lovelace labeled “the sanctification gap.”1 Bluntly, it is the dismal failure of American evangelicals to mature spiritually—a failure with roots in early twentieth-century fundamentalism.
Despite progress during the intervening decades, each of these men has also expressed a sense that evangelicals have “come so far but no farther” along this road to spiritual ressourcement. This essay records and extends their reflections on where we have been, where we are now, and where we are going on the road toward traditional spirituality within the ranks of evangelical Christians in America.
The movement represented by Foster’s Celebration was one of reaction. The fundamentalist movement of the 1920s–1950s had dedicated itself to defending important doctrines such as the divinity and personal return of Christ against liberal modifications. In so doing, it had come to identify the Christian life with cognitive belief. What that meant, says Willard, is that “if you believe the right things, you go to heaven when you die—and in the meantime, there’s not much to do.” Discipleship, or growth in spiritual things, took a back seat. This was one seed of the “sanctification gap” in fundamentalism’s evangelical progeny.
Another seed was fundamentalism’s essential pragmatism. D. L. Moody’s cry echoed down the decades: “This world is like a wrecked vessel. . . . God puts a life-boat in my hands and says ‘Rescue every man you can.’”2 A rescue mission allows precious little time to engage in contemplation or protracted disciplines. This unreflective pragmatism was intensified both by fundamentalism’s inherited anti-traditionalism and its dispensational eschatology. If elite theology grounded in the traditions of the historic church served only to confound the ordinary believer and lead them away from spiritual vitality,3 and if the world is not our home and it is only getting worse and worse until the Rapture,4 then why delve into historical documents or work through arcane disciplines? In the words of the bumper sticker: “Jesus is coming! Look busy!”
Along with this anti-traditionalist pragmatism, a theological misunderstanding about the nature of grace also contributed to the loss of healthy spiritual formation among evangelicals. Foster likes to quote Willard on this: “Many people are not only saved by grace, they are paralyzed by it.” In other words, from its fundamentalist beginnings evangelicalism has been infected with a kind of “cheap grace” theology—a misunderstanding of Reformation teaching that has tagged all moral effort as works-righteousness. By these lights, grace is only for forgiveness from guilt; it has nothing to do with spiritual growth. Says Willard, “all you have to do is open the pages of the New Testament and you see that this is far, far from the truth.”
Challenge and Hunger
In 1947, NAE co-founder and future Christianity Today editor Carl F. H. Henry sounded the alarm with his Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism. Evangelicals could no longer deny the stark reality: the character of professing Christians was misshapen. Willard recalls that as early as the 1950s, younger Christians especially ransacked their fundamentalist heritage and found little there to satisfy their hunger for teachings and practices that would address not just salvation and the hereafter, but spiritual depth, integrity, and personal growth in the here-and-now. The search took some to the religions of the East. Others stuck it out within Christianity but went beyond evangelicalism. The desire was to find “some kind of spiritual reality—not just some sort of performance from the church.” The intense, pragmatic activism of evangelical culture was taking its toll. Church seemed little more than a dizzying round of activities and programs. Peterson remembers his Presbyterian church in suburban Maryland: “I can’t tell you how many people came to me and said, ‘Pastor, don’t ask me to do anything.’ And I’d say, ‘Take as long as you’d like.’ People were al ways being treated kind of as a recruit for a cause . . . I think that burned out a lot of people.”
Jumping the Barriers
The solution to all of this was not immediately obvious. Blocking the way back to traditional spiritual resources was the problem of evangelicalism’s deep-rooted anti-traditionalism,5 which continues today. “Americans in particular,” remarks Foster, “jump from the early church of the Book of Acts, to us today. For a few, there may be a little blip at the Reformation, but that’s it. And they miss that whole wonderful sense of the communion of saints.”
Second, there were the seemingly insurmountable barriers between Protestants and Roman Catholicism and Orthodoxy. Such explicitly Catholic practices as monasticism, spiritual direction, and contemplative prayer were beyond the pale for most mid-twentieth-century evangelicals. Almost all practices and beliefs that dated from before the Reformation— including all the great spiritual resources of the medieval and early churches—seemed somehow “Catholic,” too, though of course they are the heritage of all Christians.6
How were these barriers to the classical spiritual disciplines overcome? First, printed material from the older traditions trickled through: Willard remembers his own discovery of the Methodist-published Upper Room daily devotional guides during the 1960s, excerpting everyone from Augustine to Jeremy Taylor. These were printed in the millions. Another key disseminator of classical Christian spirituality was A. W. Tozer, the Christian and Missionary Alliance pastor and author who quoted freely from many great medieval and early church “saints.” Peterson discovered Tozer as a teenager in the late 1940s and early 1950s, and says, “I got my taste for the nature of the holy life from him.”
For all but a few evangelicals, such writings would have been off-limits were it not for the breakdown of traditional denominational barriers. It is hard for us to remember now how radical a change this “opening” was, because we do not remember today how unyielding denominational boundaries once were. Willard tells the story of a teenage couple who lived not long before this loosening of boundaries. She kept getting pregnant, but every time, she had an abortion, as they could not get married because they were of different denominations. But by the late 1950s, “people were beginning to understand,” Willard recalls, “that what the particular denomination prescribed for their members was not necessarily what Christ prescribed.”
A number of trends built bridges across denominations: First, in America’s increasingly mobile social environment, people were frequently meeting members of other denominations and thinking “These people are OK!” Second, the charismatic movement arose in the late 1950s, the Holy Spirit giving gifts that made it clear, as Willard puts it, that “I’m over here where you thought I was not.” Third, Billy Graham was unapologetically committed to working with all Christians. “He would be seen,” says Willard, “around the world preaching in all kinds of contexts, including Eastern Orthodox, and at first there was great criticism of him for doing this—even from the new evangelicals.” His example, however, opened “a kind of practical ecumenism” among evangelicals—the upside of a breakdown of Protestant denominations whose effects we are still seeing today.
The downside of this breakdown is that despite the anti-traditionalist tendencies of the old fundamentalists, their denominations had taught some helpful spiritual practices. “If you said, for example, in the 30s and 40s, that you were a Baptist,” says Foster, “it meant certain things about the way you approached the Bible—your study, evangelism, and so forth. You look back at the history read by Baptists—some of those great pietist people, Lottie Moon, David Brainerd, Jonathan Edwards—you’d read that stuff, and there was practice that these folks did in their lives.” Willard reminds us that the United Methodist Church still to this day has a Book of Discipline, enjoining such practices as Christian conference, Scripture memorization, and fasting. But increasingly, as denominations became less important in the life of individual Christians, the remnant of historical spirituality built into their structures was lost.
Crossing the Rubicon—to visit
What took the place of this denominational spirituality was at first “just nice evangelistic church services” (Willard)—lacking the kind of rigor and maturity embodied in the term “discipleship.” Committed evangelicals who recognized that lives were not changing in their churches increasingly began to peer across the Great Divide into Catholic traditions. Willard, who attended a Southern California Evangelical Friends church pastored by the young, fresh-from-Fuller Richard Foster, remembers that in the late 1960s, Foster discovered “a little Catholic nun who played the guitar and sang,” and invited her to perform at their church. “A lot of people were worried by this, because they had been raised in opposition to Catholicism. Some people, though, were touched.”
In fact, the door to Catholic spirituality was opened for American Protestants by a number of events and influences. 1960 saw the election of America’s first Roman Catholic president. Vatican II opened the windows of ecumenical dialogue. Henri Nouwen came into the consciousness of lay evangelicals, opening up the desert tradition to them. The charismatic movement crossed confessional boundaries too.
By the 1970s, evangelical Protestants began going on retreats at monasteries where they experienced Catholic spirituality on the ground. They would come back refreshed, Willard remembers, and others would worry about their orthodoxy. An evangelical speaker at one of the movement’s better-known colleges exemplified the confusion: “Why are all these people going to Catholic monasteries,” he asked, “when we have all these good books here?” The truth was supposed to take care of everything. The trouble was, it did not.
The trend of engagement with Catholic spirituality continued, and of course Foster’s 1978 Celebration would become a great part of that. Nor did the trend stop with the Catholic Church. Though the defection of Campus Crusade leaders in the 1960s to Orthodoxy was more an isolated event than a bellwether, Willard says that today, “I constantly find pastors who discover the Philokalia—the great treasure on the Christian life of the Greek and Russian church—and people wallow in the riches of it.”
What Was Recovered, And What It Meant
What, then, has really been “recovered” by those who have found sustenance in historical Christian spirituality? Willard offers this theological definition of the term “spiritual disciplines”: “Doing what we can do with our body, mind, spirit, to receive from God power or ability to do what we cannot do by human effort.” Peterson offers a different slant, less focused on activities that we do or perform: “There’s a certain learned passivity about the spiritual life that is hard to program and hard to make popular. People who give leadership in spiritual direction, the good ones, that’s basically what they’re doing: they’re trying to train us and teach us how not to be in control of our lives; to enter into what God is doing already.”
Of course, for most of us, experience has preceded definition. “People would experiment with solitude or silence,” says Willard, “and they would find themselves becoming less angry, or no longer contemptuous.” A quick check with the gospels would reveal these practical values, hidden there in plain sight. Discipleship, which for many evangelicals had meant nothing more than a certain kind of evangelism or Bible memorization, would suddenly come into focus as “a way of living with Jesus so that the fruit of the spirit begin to work their way into our system” (Foster).
A key element of the evangelical recovery of spirituality has been the return to history. As models for imitation, the “communion of saints” is an untapped power among Protestants. This is what Foster describes as he first encountered such figures as A Kempis, Saint Patrick, Francis, Teresa, and Augustine—and among these, Protestants such as Bonhoeffer and Hudson Taylor, his heroes as a young man. Foster describes his encounter: “I saw a vision for a way of life that can produce a truly good person—that is, a person penetrated throughout by love, a person who can see everything in the light of God’s overriding governance for good, a person who can stand in the most difficult of circumstances, a person who has the power to overcome evil and do what’s right.”
Hitting a Wall
Despite the popularity of such historical resources since the 1970s, the evangelical move toward spiritual ressourcement seems to have stalled out. Discipline requires, by definition, submission. Still marked by the antitraditionalism and pragmatism of their fundamentalist roots, evangelicals seem by and large unwilling to submit their spiritual growth to anything that looks like a mediating practice or tradition. They start from the assumption of unmediated access to the throne of God and rush ahead in fevered activism. Evangelical leadership is not helping. Foster observes that the ABCs of evangelical ministry are still “attendance, buildings, and cash” rather than the basics of discipleship. True, many evangelicals have been opened to the riches of Christian spiritual tradition, but we have barely scratched the surface.
At its heart, the failure seems one of theological formation. Evangelical theological education has in many ways, reflects Houston, “failed as an educative process for the soul.” Overwhelming the crucial impulse to spiritual formation has been the tendency of many evangelical seminarians to “play to the gallery of academia—seeking intellectual respectability.” In other words, modern evangelical seminaries are still engaged in the famous medieval debate between the mystic Bernard of Clairvaux and the scholastic Peter Abelard: “Is knowledge for knowledge’s sake or for the love of God?” The burden of their response seems to have fallen on Abelard’s side.
The fault is not often that of the students. A syndrome of disconnection between theology and spirituality marks most seminary programs. Willard observes, “most of the programs of spiritual formation in evangelical seminaries remain outside the theology departments, marginalized from the mainstream of seminary life and thought.” As a result, although evangelical seminarians have dabbled in the “spiritual classics,” their theology has not caught up to their practice. Spiritual formation teachings have not been rooted in theological understandings about who God is and how we relate to him.
Emblematic of this disconnect is the fact that the most notable champions of evangelical spiritual ressourcement have come from outside the theological guild. Foster and Peterson are pastors, Willard a philosopher, and Houston a geologist. We owe them much, but without theologians willing to embrace broader definitions of “being saved”—definitions that go beyond “going to heaven” to the “living out” of a graced life on earth—spirituality would seem destined to languish, an orphan among the disciplines of our seminaries.
A Cloud The Size of a Man’s Fist
Yet, there is a glimmer of change. We see it in Wheaton College’s Sixteenth Annual Theology Conference, held in April of 2007. Under the guidance of the late Robert Webber, this annual meeting of evangelical theologians took as its theme “The Ancient Faith for the Church’s Future.” The tone was set by the call for papers, which rejoiced that “one of the most promising developments among evangelical Protestants is the recent ‘discovery’ of the rich biblical, spiritual, and theological treasures to be found within the early church.” Evangelicals, it said, are beginning to “reach back behind the European Enlightenment for patterns and models of how to faithfully read Scripture, worship, and engage a religiously diverse culture.”
The titles of some of these papers indicate this awakening. Paul Kim examined “Apatheia and Atonement: Christology of Cyril of Alexandria for the Contemporary Grammar of Salvation”; Darren Sarisky explored “Basil of Caesarea on Theological Exegesis”; John Witvliet advocated for “Recovering the Genius of Ancient Liturgical Forms and Patterns: Some Instructive Fourth Century Models of Prayer and Liturgical Catechesis”; Bradley Nassif looked to “The Ecumenical Councils (C.E. 325–787): The Untamable Life of the Spirit in the Orthodox Reception of Truth.”
The energy of these and other papers indicates an evangelical trend not just among scholars but also among graduate students. Conference presenter D. H. Williams, author of the illuminating Evangelicals and Tradition (2005), testified to the recent upsurge of evangelical commitment to the theological study of patristics (the study of the “church fathers” in the first seven centuries of the church): “Who would have thought, a decade ago, that one of the most vibrant and serious fields of Christian study at the beginning of the twenty-first century would be the ancient church fathers? There has been an opening of new avenues, especially among free-church Protestants, by the almost overnight popularity of bishops and monks, martyrs and apologists, philosophers and historians who first fashioned a Christian culture 1500 years ago.”7 One is reminded of Thomas Oden’s observation, “The sons and daughters of modernity are rediscovering the neglected beauty of classical Christian teaching. It is a moment of joy, of beholding anew what had been nearly forgotten, of hugging a lost child.”8
Admittedly, these signs still amount to a cloud the size of a man’s fist on evangelicalism’s theological horizon. But could the evangelical movement toward traditional spiritual disciplines be poised to receive a much-needed theological makeover? Is evangelical theology about to catch up with evangelical spiritual practice?
Hope is both a theological virtue and a spiritual discipline. It seems not out of place to exercise it now, in this matter of evangelical spiritual ressourcement.
1 Richard Lovelace, “The Sanctification Gap,” Theology Today 29:4 (January, 1973): 363–369.
2 D. L. Moody, “The Gospel Awakening” (Chicago: Fairbanks and Palmer, 1885), 667.
3 See Nathan Hatch, Democratization of American Christianity (Yale University Press, 1991) and Richard Hofstadter, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (Vintage, 1966).
4 See the Left Behind series by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins.
5 Hatch, Democratization.
6 On the history of evangelicalism’s anti-Catholicism, see Mark Noll and Caroline Nystrom, Is the Reformation Over?: An Evangelical Assessment of Contemporary Roman Catholicism (Baker Academic, 2008).
7 D. H. Williams, “Similis et Dissimilis: Gauging our Expectations of the Early Fathers,” paper given at the Sixteenth Annual Wheaton Theology Conference, April 12–14, 2007. Note that this and other papers from the conference have been published in Ancient Faith for the Church’s Future, ed. Mark Husbands and Jeffrey P. Greenman (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2008). My brief review of that book may be found at http://www.christianitytoday.com/ch/booksandresources/reviews/alexandriawheaton.html.
8 Thomas Oden, After Modernity . . . What? (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1992), 14.