I once had a professor tell a story about a girl on a college campus who would go around collecting pine cones. She did this because, in her mind, God was in the pine cones. His point: you can’t just say “God” to someone and expect them to have the same definition as you. If you walked up to her and said, “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life,” she would have thought, “Pine cones love me and have a wonderful plan for my life? Well isn’t that delightful.” In this present age of no-rules religious exploration, it seems like anything goes–pine cones included.
This same thought applies to spirituality and spiritual texts. Many people throughout the centuries have written various spiritual works with certain definitions in mind–definitions which may or may not square with interpretations forged in the fires of the Protestant Reformation. To recommend some of these texts may be potentially confusing at best and capable of shipwrecking one’s faith at worst. The point of the pine cone scenario applies to Christian spiritual texts: terms must be defined in order to be properly understood. So this raises an important question to consider: should evangelicals read Catholic spiritual works?
Let me first define what I mean by “spiritual works/texts.” Theses are texts regarding the lived Christian life and can include writings on spiritual disciplines such as prayer and fasting, or stories of experience such as conversion or spiritual transformation, or even allegorical tales meant to convey deeper spiritual realities. In this category fall Roman Catholic works such as Teresa of Avila’s Interior Castle or Thomas Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain. Protestant offerings include John Bunyan’s Pilgrim Progress or John Piper’s Desiring God: Meditations of a Christian Hedonist.
So what about the original question? The answer: perhaps. The answer can’t be a universal “no” nor should it be an indiscriminate “yes.” The answer must be conditioned by evaluating one’s own spiritual maturity. Here are a list of five questions to ask oneself before diving into Catholic spiritual works.
1) Do you understand justification?
The doctrine of justification is the starting point towards answering this question. Certainly this was the watershed issue among Luther and the early reformers. Are we saved my grace through faith alone or do our works somehow contribute to the salvation process? The reformers of the 16th century, responding to late medieval soteriology led by the likes of William of Occam and Gabriel Biel, emphatically proclaimed the supremacy of Christ’s atoning work as the only legitimate basis for man’s salvation. This is what Martin Luther called “the great exchange” (that is, Christ’s righteousness for our sin). This exchange, commonly termed penal substitutionary atonement, declares man to be righteous before God apart from any works. Sola Christi (“Christ alone”), Sola Gratia (“Grace Alone”) and Sola Fide (“Faith alone”) became the banners of the reformation soteriology. This justifying work, in turn, leads one to love for God and neighbor. Works naturally flow from the wellspring of justification. In reading Catholic spiritual texts, Protestant Christians must understand the nature of justification as taught by the reformers and those who faithfully followed in their footsteps. Many Catholic texts convey a synergistic view of justification (man working with God in order to accomplish salvation). Brother Lawrence affirms ideas of atoning for his own sins through penance, the reality of purgatory, and a general understanding of meritorious acts as part of one’s justification (The Practice of the Presence of God, trans. Salvatore Sciruba, OCD., pgs. 61, 75, 77). While this should not cause us to dismiss such works, understanding the basis of justification will help one properly evaluate various Catholic texts.
2) Do you understand sanctification?
While justification is a work of God alone (monogerism) sanctification is synergistic (man working together with God to mortify sins). This means that upon receiving the Spirit, believers are to be about the business of destroying sin in their lives while setting forth Christ as their example. God has provided various means for the Christian to do this. First off he has provided His own Spirit which guides the believer into all truth. This, in turn, leads the believer to the fellowship of body of Christ, where the gifts of the Spirit are used to encourage one another towards Christlikeness. In this fellowship the word is read, taught and preached–exhorting the faithful to greater godliness. Ordinances such as baptism and the Lord’s Supper further encourage the body to love and good works, as they are a symbol of Christ’s work and a testimony to the goodness of God. Prayer, both corporate and private, further carry the pilgrim of faith along the pursuit of godliness. Spiritual disciplines of fasting and meditating on Scripture also contribute to this process. Catholic spiritual texts, while not dismissing these practices, assume a sacramental view of sanctification–relying upon the bestowal of grace as a substance through the various sacraments. Merton questions, “What is the good of religion….[w]ithout sacraments, without any means of grace except a desultory prayer now and then, and an occasional vague sermon?” (The Seven Storey Mountain, p. 59).
3) Do you understand the authority of Scripture?
Sola Scriptura! The cry of the battle cry of the Reformation returned the focus to the primacy of Scripture over tradition. This was not Scripture contra tradition, rather it was tradition brought under the microscope of God’s revealed word. Scripture is to be the “norming norm” of faith meaning that doctrine and experience must conform to the pattern of biblical truth. All additional claims outside the scope of Scripture must remain suspect. Catholic faith, while upholding the prime place of Scripture in the life of the church, gives equal credence to the authority and doctrinal decisions of the magisterial church (that is the pope and bishops in conformity with Rome). The authority of church is imposed upon Scripture, not the reverse. In many Catholic spiritual texts, this view of church authority (and the doctrinal decisions deemed worthy by this authority), stand in the distance as a guide for spiritual exploration. Thomas Merton remarks, “I had not the faintest idea that there existed such a thing as the Blessed Sacrament…the Christ living in our midst, and sacrificed by us, and for us and with us, in the clean and perpetual Sacrifice…” (The Seven Storey Mountain, p. 41). While the ordinance of the Lord’s Supper is certainly biblical, a Roman Catholic doctrinal stance on the sacrament of Eucharist derives its understanding more from church councils rather than biblical witness.
4) Do you understand the nature of religious experience?
Experience is vital to Christian faith and devotion, but it is not the sole arbiter of truth. Personal religious experience has been used to vindicate numerous theological aberrations, making experts out of seemingly ordinary people. I may have a moving experience in my car while listening to Bach’s Brandenburg concertos, but this does not automatically make me a renown composer or accomplished concert pianist. While the Christian faith is indeed a personal experience, it must be undergirded and guided by God’s word. Here the church also plays a vital role, confirming and verifying experience and calling to task those who’s experience does not match the established pattern of faith and practice. Spiritual works (both Catholic and Protestant) can give authoritative weight to experience which is unwarranted if not explicitly confirmed by Biblical justification. When reading any spiritual text you need to ask yourself, “How much weight is this person giving to personal experience? Is this experience grounded in the authority of Scripture, or is it given a greater measure of authority?” Sometimes spiritual works can be read as, “I experienced this, therefore you to should imitate what I do.” A Catholic example of this would be Julian of Norwich in her Revelations of Divine Love. An evangelical example of this might be various texts from the victorious life movement promulgated by Charles Trumball or Hanmer William Webb-Peploe.
5) Have you read protestant spiritual works first?
When we think of spiritual texts, I want to encourage us to first think of protestant offerings before exploring the realm of Catholic spiritual writers. What about beginning with Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan? Try reading through a series of hymns by Charles Wesley. Dive into the (later) poetry of John Donne. These works, all easily accessible and from the pen of early evangelicals, provide a wealth of spiritual treasures for any reader. Not to mention the numerous contemporary offerings from the likes of J.I. Packer, A.W. Tozer, and John Piper among others.
So the question remains: should evangelicals read Roman Catholic spiritual works? Perhaps. Perhaps if you have first understood the foundations of an evangelical orthodox faith. Perhaps if you grasp the weight of biblical authority and the need to gauge personal experience with the foundations of Scripture. Perhaps if you have taken time to first meditate upon and invest time in protestant evangelical works. Only then would I suggest taking up a Catholic work such as The Imitation of Christ, Practicing the Presence of God or The Seven Storey Mountain to see what they can offer you after your foundation has been built. Only then will you be equipped to discern the value (and various theological issues) within these spiritual texts. There are many things to learn from Catholic spirituality, but evangelical Christians should exhibit caution in taking up such texts. God has gifted the church with a rich treasury of spirituality, both from the pens of Roman Catholics, evangelicals and others. However, as evangelical Christians, we have a responsibility to discern what comes from those pens based on our convictions and theological foundations established during the Reformation. May we read discernibly for the glory of God.