Tag Archives: sanctification

Why we need something like monasticism again today – part III: The moral argument concluded


Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1932)

Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1932) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

 

 

This post continues the series from a section of my forthcoming Medieval Wisdom: An Exploration with C S Lewis that argues monasticism is part of our “usable past.” Part 1 is here. Part 2 is here.

To recap, my argument in this chapter has been that we will continue to be both disinclined and incapable of the effort necessary to practice ascetic disciplines unless we, first, have something of the passion for Christ that animated the monks and, second, have a strong traditional foundation on which to build our practice. I have been trying in this book to describe the foundation the medievals had, in their passion for theological knowledge, their understandings of Incarnation and Creation, the balance they held between Word and world, their whole-person devotion, and so on. We need both the passion and the tradition if we are to do the discipline.

In particular, the morality chapter speaks to the argument of this one: If we, like my pastor whose question is described at the beginning of that chapter, do not know how to put a Christian ethic into practice[1] – that we are paralyzed by grace—or rather, by misunderstandings of Reformation teachings on grace. We are kept from applying the practical insights of medieval monasticism by a dimly understood sense that whatever the Reformation was about, it was about destroying monasticism (and it did end up doing that in some European countries). But with nothing to put in place of that practical monastic wisdom—though the Pietists tried to replace it, as did the Puritans—we will fail to practice spiritual disciplines as the monastics did.

Deep down we have counter-rationalizations, arguments in our heads that say “Oh no, that’s not something we need to do. We can achieve virtue in other ways besides spiritual disciplines. Continue reading

Why we need something like monasticism again today – part II: Moral flabbiness


monks (1)

Following on from part 1:

We need something like monasticism because we have a problem with ethics

One genius of monasticism is the way it actualizes virtue ethics—Aristotle’s description of ethics, which recognizes that without long practice so that something becomes a habitus, virtue cannot become effective in our lives. Medieval monks read Scripture all the time, and they focused on its moral sense. But a man who reads Scripture and goes away and does not do it is like a man who looks in a mirror and goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like—it’s not an effective use of the moral understanding of Christianity.

And so monastic discipline went beyond just reading and became a training ground for the virtues. And whether we adapt monastic ways of doing this or find some other modes, some sort of spiritual-ethical discipline is crucial, not optional. This is because our interactions with our desires and with the material world are so fraught and so difficult, because we fall to temptation in so many ways. To give just one modern example: Continue reading

Paralyzed by grace? What we can learn from monastic discipline


discipline-of-prayer-the

We wonder today why we are spiritually anemic. This post from the monasticism chapter of my forthcoming Medieval Wisdom: An Exploration with C S Lewis moves on from the first of the “principles of mastery”–passion–to the third–discipline:

Holiness is not optional, and it requires effort

All this talk of passion may make us think that what is required it the single big, heroic action: casting ourselves into harm’s way for the sake of our loved one. But wise teachers of the spiritual life have reminded us of something we have sometimes forgotten: our lives as Christians are not all about single crisis experiences—single events that change our lives. The imagery of sawdust-trail conversions and emotional “altar calls” may sometimes lead us to think in that way, seeking a sudden, emotional experience as the solution to all our ills—but it just ain’t so.

John Wesley, to take just one example, reminded us that those powerful moments of repentance and coming to faith are just the “porch” or the “door” into the Christian life. The substance of the Christian life, which lasts as long as we live, is holiness. Wesley had a favorite phrase to explain holiness. Continue reading

How can John Wesley help us find social forms geared to human flourishing?


wesleyAs I mentioned in a previous post, back in April of this year (2013) I spoke twice at an event centered around a new book by Indiana Wesleyan University Provost David Wright, How God Makes the World A Better Place: A Wesleyan Primer on Faith, Work, and Economic TransformationI was invited to introduce a couple of the meetings at the conference with some remarks tied to David’s work and to Wesley’s thinking on work and economics.

This is what I said at a lunch event with a roomful of SPU professors:

“How God Makes the World a Better Place: Wesleyan Contributions to a Social Framework for Human Flourishing”

Introduction

First, I want us to understand the service that David has done to the church by opening the conversation on Wesley and economics in this little primer.

When I first knew that I’d be here today with you to think together about this topic, I contacted the smartest scholar of Wesley and things Wesleyan that I know: Randy Maddox, who is now at my alma mater, Duke University. “Randy,” I said, “A group is getting together in your old stomping grounds in April to talk about what Wesley can teach us about work and economics. Can you point me to some sources on that?”

Now I had full expectation that Randy would set me in a good direction. After all, this was the man who decades ago, in a chance conversation on an airplane, basically gave me an entire starting bibliography for my dissertation on the American Wesleyan holiness movement.

Instead, Randy said: “That’s great. So glad you’ll be talking about this. But this is a seriously understudied area. Almost nobody has written about this. There just aren’t that many sources I can point you toward.” Shocking! One of the world’s leading experts on Wesley not only couldn’t tell me much about this topic, but he couldn’t even point me to scholarly sources on it. That’s when I knew I had my work cut out for me. Continue reading

What should Protestants think about the Catholic sacrament of penance (confession)?


“The Confession,” by Giuseppe Molteni (19th c.)

Despite my attempts to clarify (what I understand of) Roman Catholic doctrine and practice in my lectures, I always get papers and exam essays from students at my Baptist seminary showing that they are impervious to correction of Protestant stereotypes.

In a paper on the sacrament of reconciliation (penance), a student wrote, “Being founded on a works-based righteousness . . .”

My response:

You haven’t demonstrated this. It is the typical Protestant stereotype. RC theology is officially Augustinian (grace-based), with the allowance that humans participate with God’s grace in that dimension of salvation that we call sanctification. Protestants agree with this point (except for some Lutherans). What we disagree on is the inclusion of sanctification in our understanding of salvation. In other words, RC theology is certainly not “works-based.” In practice, it sometimes leans that way, granted. But we need to be careful that we are dealing with a real (and I agree, flawed) theological stance, not a straw man. Continue reading

A conversation with Dallas Willard, Richard Foster, Eugene Peterson, and James Houston on the “ressourcement” movement in evangelical spirituality


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. Continue reading

“A religious genius.” “One of the most massive figures of the late 17th and early 18th centuries in Europe.” Ernst Stoeffler on August Francke


As far as I can tell, evangelicalism right now, here in America, could really use a re-infusion of the spirit of the 17th- and 18th-century German Pietists. And it is up to a school like Bethel University (truth in advertising: my employer), whose founding denomination is a Pietist one, to position itself under the fountain of historical Pietism and get a good, thorough soaking in that movement’s spirit. For though Pietism is our heritage, we don’t know what it was any more. That’s a sad loss.

Specifically, we stand to learn from such Pietist leaders as August Hermann Francke, the subject of this post, how to overhaul education, social action, and the Christian life along Pietist lines. If this sounds intriguing, then read on . . . Continue reading