Gleanings from Pre-Reformation Spirituality (Davenant Hall Course Preview)

This post is a preview of a forthcoming online Davenant Hall class, “Piety and Paideia: Gleanings from Pre-Reformation Spirituality”, running in the Fall 2021 Term (September – December), and convened by Michael Hughes.

If you wish to register for the module, you can do so here.

A professor I know often says that “true theology is the doctrine of living to God, through Christ, by the Spirit.” This provides a strong criteria to assess any theology. Can a theology ever be considered robust if it doesn’t lead to godly living? What does it mean to cultivate godliness? What does pious living look like in the average and ordinary life? 

Such questions were central for the Reformers. One clarion call of the Reformation was to tear down the wall between sacred and secular and emphasize that nearness to God was not reserved for a more spiritual class of priests and monks. 

Sometimes though, Protestants have made the mistake of rejecting all of the spiritual practices of those medieval priests and monks in an attempt to make something new. In particular, over the last century much ink has been spilled on practicing the spiritual disciplines – and many of those words have been very helpful. But as Gerald Sittser puts it in his book Water from a Deep Well:

“Every generation of believers faces the risk of becoming a prisoner to its own myopic vision of the Christian faith, assuming that how it understands and practices faith is always the best. C.S. Lewis cited this problem as a reason for reading old books… ‘The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds… People were no cleverer than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes.” (p. 18).

Examining the history of Christian spiritual practice and retrieving the good from each period will allow us to recognize our own wandering tendencies and overcorrections. Indeed, this is actually just what the Reformers were seeking to do. They didn’t set out to reject the spiritual practices of the past, but rather to bring the best of those practices to the laity. 

John Calvin in particular perhaps best captures the end and means of Christian spirituality. The end is piety, which Calvin would describe as “that reverence joined with love of God which the knowledge of His benefits induces” (Institutes, 1.2.1). He makes a compelling case for piety as a response of love and adoration to our kind and loving Father, rooting his definition in the likes of Augustine, Cicero, and Seneca. The means to this end is paideia, which is simply “formative education” or discipleship – an education that forms believers more into the image of Christ that they might better worship and honor the Lord in all He calls them to do. In order to best become pious, Christlike disciples ourselves, we do well to glean from the best of the riches of the church’s paideutic and pietistic practices throughout time. Which is where this course will begin. 

Pre-Reformation Spirituality – A Historic Overview

“History can be a valuable resource for us, especially in the spiritual life, for it provides examples of how believers who lived in other times and places understood what it means to seek, know, and experience God which captures the essential meaning of ‘spirituality.’”

(Sittser, Water From a Deep Well, p. 18).

In the Fall Term 2021 Davenant Hall course “Piety and Paideia: Gleanings from Pre-Reformation Spirituality”, we will conduct an overview of the history of the church’s spiritual practices, journeying through pre-Reformation spirituality with an eye primarily to the riches we can glean along the way. This will involve some recognition of negative examples we should not repeat, but overall we’ll focus on the positive ones we would do well to imitate. In the spirit of the Reformation, we should seek to be “always reforming” our practice, conforming it more to Scripture while also applying it faithfully and wisely to our current circumstances. This often means a return to something done well rather than doing something entirely new, while also taking care to apply it to our current context in a fitting way.

Stereotypes abound regarding the spiritual practices of saints at various times, particularly those of communities of faith at monasteries. While there are some truths in these, we will seek to get behind the facades that have been constructed to examine some of the real benefits that can be gleaned. Then we will take a closer look at how Calvin in particular gleaned from the spiritual practices that came before him, corrected others, and left a tradition that continues to this day.

A Problem of Accessibility, Spiritual Elitism

For much of the Church today, access to training and guidance in personal spiritual formation is more or less taken for granted as a normal part of discipleship. But this was not the case leading up to the Reformation. Common men and women had limited access to many of the things that would have led to greater knowledge of God, and growth in holiness. 

In fairness, the barriers were not all the product of church leaders’ neglect: widespread illiteracy and language barriers, combined with minimal printed materials and Scripture, made access difficult if not impossible for most. 

The Reformers also complained against barriers created by the church, including a cultural and institutional spiritual elitism in which relationship to God was reserved for a select few “professional Christians”: priests, monks, and the like. Bolton writes in his work Life in God

“Indeed, just as reformers rejected the idea that a priestly class properly mediated between the rest of humanity and God, they likewise rejected the idea that a ‘religious’ class properly had exclusive access to the paraphernalia and practices of living a life in God. In Calvin’s view, the key formative principles of the church’s padeutic tradition are indispensable to ordinary discipleship, and so should be available to all” (p. 58).

This lack of access for the common people was a great departure from the example seen in the New Testament epistles. The very purpose for which these were written was to instruct all believers in the churches, urging all believers to pursue holiness and spiritual growth in Christ. Their exhortations all come in the midst of formative instruction to all believers, helping them learn how to be faithful disciples of Christ in all they do, guiding them to the means by which they could experience deeper relationship to God and greater Christlikeness.

Additionally, by the Reformation piety and good works had become things done to merit God’s favor, including the indulgences and prayers for the dead tied to a belief in purgatory. One of Luther’s biggest complaints regarding his experience in the monastery was that could never do enough pious deeds to cancel all his missteps or evil thoughts, and he would feel God’s frown upon him so heavily that his sessions confessing his sins to the priest would drag on and on. For Luther and his contemporaries, God was an ever-angry father, impossible to please. 

Who Is My Father?

The term “father” likewise evokes negative connotations for many today – absentees, abusers, deadbeats. The good father who is responsible, honorable, truthful, and lovingly cares for his family is the seemingly rare exception. And many still experience abusive or harsh treatment in the church, and have felt God’s frown of disapproval the same way Luther did.

But what if that truly good father were your parent? What if he smiled upon you in Christ, and worked all things together for your good? For Calvin, this perspective, in conjunction with God’s providence for His children, was indispensable:

“Thus in Calvin’s view, if the Christian life does not include a robust doctrine of divine providence, it will be “cold and barren” for at least three related reasons: first, because a God who does not continually, tangibly provide benefits is no active, present, loving parent, but instead an idle monarch shut away in heaven; second, because if today’s good things are not actually gifts of God, then the grounds for daily prayer, praise, thanksgiving, and indeed pietas itself are effectively pulled out from beneath the church’s feet; and third, because, accordingly, the world is thereby drained of its color and character as an unfolding divine gift being given here and now… for Calvin, this flattened out version of the world is not only less lovely than the alternative, it is also less accurate, less true to how things really are. For in truth, the world in all its variety is an unfolding divine gift, an ongoing symphony in which ‘nothing takes place by chance’: ‘not one drop of rain falls without God’s sure command’ (1.16.4, 5).” (Bolton, Life in God, p. 88-89).

Join me in this upcoming course as we explore our Father’s loving care and formation of His people through the first 1500 years of church history and his subsequent use of the Reformation to restore wider access to the means of relationship with Him. May we faithfully glean the harvest for our own nourishment and spiritual formation and respond in worshipful obedience as we pursue Christlikeness together to our Father’s glory.

This “Church Hisory/Spirituality” course will be taught by Mr. Michael hughes. This course will run from September 10th through December 12th. The syllabus is available here. Register here.

Michael Hughes (ThM candidate, Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary) and his wife Lynette have been Directors of our Davenant House ministry since summer 2019. He holds a B.S. in Biology, Environmental Education, and Museum Methods, an M.A. in Theological Studies, and is currently working on a ThM. He previously spent the nine years serving with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship in his home state of Wisconsin, first as a campus staff minister, then a team leader, and finally as an Area Ministry Director and Regional International Student Ministry Champion. Michael and Lynette have been abundantly blessed with 5 children: Elizabeth, Isaiah, Malachi, Adoniah, and Eliakim.