Monday, February 8, 2010

Isn't it Dangerous to Read From, and Quote, Christian Classics from Other Traditions?

After I preached at one church, an earnest young man came up to me and said, “What you shared is so important for the church to hear; it was truly inspired. But why did you have to quote enemies of the Gospel to make your point?”

I had quoted Francis of Assisi and an Eastern Orthodox monk.

“Francis couldn’t very well have been a Calvinist with a Calvinist’s system of thought, could he?” I asked, knowing I was in a Presbyterian church, “Seeing as how Calvin wasn’t even born until Francis had been dead for almost three hundred years. And while evangelicals certainly have disagreements with certain points of Eastern Orthodox theology, do you really want to write off the wisdom this wing of the church has gained over the past two millennia? The Orthodox claim to historicity is as strong, if not stronger, than any other branch of the church!”

I have gained so very much from reading widely and seeing how different generations and different Christian perspectives have broadened my understanding of the journey of faith, which is why I believe it is silly for us to avoid the devotional writings of ancient Roman Catholics (many of whom wrote before the Protestant church was even born) or Eastern Orthodox Christians (because they’re writing from an eastern perspective). My persistent use of quoting them is deliberate and intentional. God has used them in my life, and continues to use them, in ways it would be difficult to overstate.

If you give the classics a fair reading, you’ll be surprised by how much they agree on. For example, Lorenzo Scupoli, who worked in the Counter-Reformation in the 17th century, often sounds suspiciously like John Calvin, the innovator of the Reformed system of thought, in a surprisingly large number of areas when both talk about relating to God, growing in character, and cultivating the life of Christ in our souls.

Keep in mind, I don’t read the classics for training in systematic theology or doctrine; I read them for the passion and understanding they bring to the spiritual life. In the classics I have witnessed a beautiful tapestry of common truth that gives stunning witness to the accepted faith of the wider Christian Church—elements of the Christian life on which the most zealous and thoughtful adherents speak in virtual unanimity.

I don’t agree theologically with everything that John of the Cross or John Climacus writes. I certainly do not accept Julian of Norwich’s Revelations as true revelations, treating her work more as poetry than divine showings. But in total, their devotion fans into flame the burning embers of my faith.

Ralph Venning, a renowned Puritan preacher from the seventeenth century, actually urged his church members to read John Goodwin’s A Being Filled, even though Goodwin was a thoroughgoing Arminian (and thus at odds with Venning’s theological Calvinism). Venning’s defense of this advice is similar to my own approach when recommending the classics: “Though I confess myself not to be of the same mind and opinion with the learned author in some other controverted points, yet I cannot but give my testimony concerning this piece, that I find an excellent spirit moving on the face, and acting in the heart of it, to promote the glory of God, the power of godliness, and consequently the good of men, especially of Christian men.”

R. Somerset Ward, the Church of England’s most influential spiritual director in the 20th century, puts it this way: “Herein lies the great justification of the practice of devotional reading. It is, in fact, the use of, and cooperation with, the great process of inspiration which is forever going on in the world: a process whereby the power and wisdom of God is continually flowing out into the world to aid the growth and development of man’s soul.”

Wisdom forgotten is wisdom lost, which is why I doubt I’ll ever write a book without quoting widely from the great works of the Christian faith.

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