After these transforming seasons with Christ, I was directed outward to share these treasures with my seminary community and local church. Students gathered in our home to process these discoveries. I began to offer courses on spiritual formation and mentoring at the master’s and doctoral levels. At Denver Seminary we launched a program in Christian formation and soul care that has matured and equipped shepherds for the church. I also took groups of students to the Pecos community for weekend workshops and retreats. During one retreat with second-career students, uplifting worship and formative teaching in the dimmed light of the chapel culminated in a service of healing and reconciliation. During that liturgy, Christ’s presence and working were palpable: buried resentments were confessed; students were anointed with oil and prayed over; and some reposed on the floor, powerfully moved by the Spirit. Following the service, the mature seminary students insisted, “We’ve got to talk about this!” and so we processed this gracious visitation into the wee hours of the morning. Most of these seminarians had not experienced before such an immediate sense of God’s awesome and holy presence.
I am arrested by the fact that God used the Christian tradition I vigorously opposed earlier in life to renew and transform my life further along the journey. While I must confess the bias that I still believe “we evangelicals” possess the better theology, I came to believe that the Anglicans and Catholics I encountered seem to have retained more effective protocols for nurturing vibrant spiritual life. Perhaps in their overreaction against patent excesses in the late medieval church, the Protestant Reformers threw out soul-nourishing elements of classical spiritual wisdom with the doctrinal and ecclesial bathwater. The Reformer Zwingli, for example, stripped churches of religious art, dispatched the organ, and whitewashed the walls, judging that these sensible forms detracted from the pure worship of God. As a result,
the aesthetic, sacramental, and mystical dimensions of the Catholic tradition were put aside for the sake of a Bible-based rationalism, which was to affect many parts of the Reformed tradition, including . . . much of American Protestantism to the present day.Bradley P. Holt, Thirsty for God: A Brief History of Christian Spirituality (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2005) 103–104.
While I remain governed by the Word and the Gospel, my new vision and passion is to connect with the life-transforming wisdom of the historic Christian church. By grace my pathway has become less sectarian, more classically Christian, and, I trust, more generous and compassionate. I believe that God is strategically using the current revival of spiritual formation and direction not only to renew the church, but also to bring together His redeemed people, long held at arm’s length from one another by suspicion and fear. May we all sense the burden of Jesus’ heart when He petitioned the Father,
I pray also for those who will believe in me . . . that all of them might be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me (John 17:20–21, NIVScripture quotations marked (NIV) are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV®. Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. www.zondervan.com The “NIV” and “New International Version” are trademarks registered in the United States Patent and Trademark Office by Biblica, Inc.™).
Heartily, I concur with the judgment of the evangelical church historian Richard Lovelace, who writes,
We need to listen to other kinds of Christians. Mainline Protestants, Roman Catholics, and Orthodox believers have preserved biblical values that we lack. And they often have clear insights about our faults that could help us toward repentance. . . . We need to listen to . . . the body of tradition that has nourished other movements. The early fathers, the medieval mystics, the spiritual doctors of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, the leaders of the awakening eras, the uneven prophets of liberal social reform—all of these can force us back toward biblical balance and authentic spirituality.Richard F. Lovelace, “Evangelical Spirituality: A Church Historian’s Perspective.” JETS 31/1, March 1988, 35.
And with Richard Foster I insist that our nurturing ventures into the world of spiritual formation and direction must remain impeccably orthodox: “We need a vision that welcomes the rich diversity of the body of Christ while being absolutely clear on the essentials of Christian life and faith.”
“Lord, You are the Light of my heart, and the Bread in the mouth of my soul.”Augustine. Confessions, 7.10.
Bruce Demarest serves as professor of Christian formation at Denver Seminary. He holds a PhD in historical theology from the University of Manchester (England) and an MA from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. In addition to books on theology, he has written Satisfy Your Soul and Soul Guide (both NavPress), and most recently, he teamed up with James R. Beck in writing The Human Person in Theology and Psychology: An Anthropology for the Twenty-First Century (Kregel, 2005).