Reading the Spiritual Classics of Evangelicalism

Charles Dickens’ famous line in A Tale of Two Cities—“it was the best of times, it was the worst of times”—seems well suited to contemporary western Evangelicalism. On the one hand, the last few decades have seen much to praise God for and much to rejoice about. In his goodness and grace, for instance, he has restored Reformed truth once more to a position of influence. And yet, as an increasing number of Evangelical authors have noted, there are still many sectors of Evangelicalism that are characterized by great shallowness and a trivialization of the weighty things of God. So much of Evangelical worship seems barren. And when it comes to spirituality there is little evidence of the riches that should be there, only poverty. As it was at the time of the Reformation, when the watchword was ad fontes—“back to the sources”—so it is now: the way forward is backward. We need to go back to the spiritual classics of Evangelicalism to find the pathway forward. We cannot live in the past. To attempt to do so would be antiquarianism. But through their writings our Evangelical forebears in the faith can teach us much about Christianity, its doctrines, its passions, and its fruit.

And they can serve as role models for us. As R. C. Sproul has noted of such giants as Augustine and Martin Luther, John Calvin and Jonathan Edwards: “These men all were conquered, overwhelmed, and spiritually intoxicated by their vision of the holiness of God. Their minds and imaginations were captured by the majesty of God the Father. Each of them possessed a profound affection for the sweetness and excellence of Christ. There was in each of them a singular and unswerving loyalty to Christ that spoke of a citizenship in heaven that was always more precious to them than the applause of men” [“An Invaluable Heritage”, Tabletalk, 23, No.10 (October 1999), 5-6.].

To be sure, we would not dream of placing these men and their writings on a level with the Word of God. As John Jewel (1522-1571), the Anglican apologist, once stated: “What say we of the fathers, Augustine, Ambrose, Jerome, Cyprian ? …They were learned men, and learned fathers; the instruments of the mercy of God, and vessels full of grace. We despise them not, we read them, we reverence them, and give thanks unto God for them. Yet …we may not make them the foundation and warrant of our conscience: we may not put our trust in them. Our trust is in the name of the Lord” [Cited Barrington R. White, “Why Bother with History?”, Baptist History and Heritage, 4, No.2 (July 1969), 85.].

When it comes to spiritual reading, the Bible occupies a unique and indispensable place. It is the fountainhead and source of the Christian faith. Anyone wishing to make progress as a disciple of Christ must be committed to regular reflection and meditation on the Scriptures. Blessed is the believer whose delight is in the Word of God, on which he or she “meditates day and night” (Psalm 1:1-2).

And as we seek to read the Scriptures meditatively, so the reading of these spiritual classics of Evangelicalism should differ from other types of reading. Whereas one reads a newspaper, dictionary or textbook for factual information or immediate answers to queries, in spiritual reading one seeks to inflame the heart as well as inform the mind. Spiritual reading, as Eugene Peterson has noted, should therefore be “leisurely, repetitive, reflective reading.” It should not be hurried, for attention needs to be paid to what the Spirit of God is saying through the text. And texts rich in spiritual nourishment beg to be re-read again and again.

We are not the first to read the Scriptures nor the first to meditate extensively on them. Christians of previous days also found strength and nourishment by meditating on the Word. And they recorded their wisdom for those who came after them in what we are in the habit of calling spiritual classics. Such classics thus have a way of sending their readers back to the Bible with deeper insight into the nature of the Christian faith and a greater desire to seek after Christ’s glory and blessed presence.