The Biblical and Historical Problems with Spiritual Disciplines Part 2

The Biblical and Historical Problems with Spiritual Disciplines Part 2

Over the last 400 years Christianity has slowly slipped away from a reformed understanding of sola fide, or a life lived by faith alone in Christ, as it concerns our sanctification and have embraced a hybrid of Roman Catholic theology and Evangelicalism. It is commonly believed that we are saved by grace through faith alone, but we are then handed the responsibility of our own sanctification achieved through external effort. The aim of this second article (adapted from my lecture series) is to demonstrate a gradual shift back to Roman Catholicism through the subtle teaching of spiritual disciplines.

During the protestant reformation of the 16th century, the Roman Catholic Church (RCC) responded by starting what was called the “counter reformation.”1 Ignatius of Loyola founded a group called the Jesuits (also known as the Society of Jesus) who were the main thrust behind the movement. Most of Ignatius’ writings were attacks against the protestant teachings of Luther and Calvin.

Ignatius is most famous for his book The Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius of Loyola (composed 1522–1524). Ignatius leads his readers through a series of mystical ascetic practices believing they will lead to greater spiritual awareness and growth.

Ignatius’ theology was rejected by the reformers because it openly attacked the doctrine of sola fide. As mentioned in the first article, many of the confessions and writings of the reformers charted a course steering their readers far away from this traditional RCC view of spiritual growth.

Martin Luther wrote a staunch warning against ascetic theology,

Yet all these seeming holy actions of devotion…are nothing else but works of the flesh. All manner of religion, where people serve God without his Word and command, is simply idolatry, and the more holy and spiritual such a religion seems, the more hurtful and venomous it is; for it leads people away from the faith of Christ, and makes them rely and depend upon their own strength, works, and righteousness. In like manner, all kinds of orders of monks, fasts, prayers, hairy shirts…are mere works of the flesh.2

So how did Ignatius’ theology and other RCC teachings on spiritual growth find their way back into popular evangelicalism? It only took 100 years before protestants began to embrace the very theology against which the reformers protested. Pastor and American church historian Charles E. Hambrick-Stowe observed,

Puritans knew and used classic Catholic devotional works. The most popular, judging from the number of editions, were the works of St. Augustine, St. Bernard of Clairvaux, Thomas à Kempis’s perennial The Imitation of Christ, and the primers…It was not unheard of for a Protestant to pirate the work of a Catholic writer and present himself as the author…Perhaps most important, excerpts and phrases from medieval classics and Church Fathers worked their way silently into Protestant devotional manuals, sermons, and treatises and so were passed on to the laity.3

The church historian Richard Lovelace wrote,

It is not surprising that Puritan writings are saturated with references to patristic authors. There are more references to the fathers than to Luther and Calvin. Puritanism is thus a bridge movement in which modern evangelicals and Roman Catholics may find spiritual common roots. Cotton Mather’s omnivorous spiritual appetite smuggled in many Catholic devices: short ejaculatory prayers, vows and intentions of piety, and day- and night-long vigils (depriving one’s sleep).4

It is noteworthy to mention that the early writings of the reformers never mention spiritual disciplines or spiritual formation. The puritans of the 17th century are the earliest protestants I could find who embraced spiritual disciplines and taught them to their congregations.

Richard Lovelace believes that many of the practices we have today originated from puritan theology.

Modern evangelical spirituality has retained many instruments pioneered during this era. The “quiet time” at the outset of the day springs directly from the Scripture reading and reflection prescribed for Puritan laity. The Puritans added graces at meals, prayer with spouses, and household devotions at the evening meal. Beyond this they recommended continual short prayers during the day, and also “occasional reflections”—mystical insights drawn from the symbolic meaning of events and objects, a devotion tracing back to the medieval Victorine theologians. Puritans invented the use of spiritual diaries as a kind of Protestant substitute for the confessional.5

I do not believe that any of these actions are sinful or unbiblical. We are commanded to pray and encouraged to engage God’s word. However, many Puritans were creating new practices (spiritual disciplines) and placing the value upon performing them instead of trusting in the promises already given to them in Scripture.

I will admit that it can be difficult at times to see how Puritan teaching is harmful or wrong. Most Puritan theology is not misleading or unbiblical. I’m not warning against all Puritan teaching.  I simply want to point out the subtle shift back to RCC influence in their writings concerning how we grow spiritually and how we view our daily responsibilities before God.

As we continue to move through history, the concept of external effort leading to spiritual growth gains traction, but Roman Catholic theology is never overtly embraced.  Puritan writings do not promote Catholic resources as do authors like Richard Foster and Dallas Willard.6

During the 18th century, American Christians became deeply influenced by the mind of Jonathan Edwards. Edwards’ 70 resolutions has had a large impact on how Christians think about their daily life in Christ. I would encourage you to read his resolutions and note where Edwards talks of placing his trust in the Spirit’s power to accomplish these resolutions. You will be hard pressed to find him mention faith, belief, or trust when it comes to Christ’s work on our behalf to accomplish these resolutions.

I would consider Edwards to be a solid believer who trusted and taught the gospel faithfully. When it came to sanctification, Edwards was deeply influenced by Puritan theology and had embraced a Roman Catholic understanding, perhaps unknowingly.

Two brothers that helped the evangelicals shift away from a faith-driven sanctification were John and Charles Westley. These men emphasized personal holiness by means of methods leading to the founding of the Methodist movement. Methodist professor Randy Maddox wrote in Christianity Today that John Wesley,

…championed pursuit of holiness through spiritual disciplines, typically describing the Christian’s goal as “perfect love.” Simultaneously, he issued denials of any “perfect” holiness in this life.7

I would not describe Wesley’s view of spiritual formation as the same as Foster or Willard. Wesley did, however, start a trend of confusion because of his emphasis on personal holiness that leads to perfection. The emphasis of the Christian life became more about achieving “perfect love” then about living by faith in Christ.8

Finally, in the 19th century we see the rise of revivalism in America. Charles Finney has been described as “The Father of Modern Revivalism.”9 I mention Finney here because of his strong influence away from historical biblical theology. In his systematic theology Finney asks, “Does a Christian cease to be a Christian, whenever he commits a sin?” He answers,

Whenever he sins, he must, for the time being, cease to be holy…The Christian, therefore, is justified no longer than he obeys, and must be condemned when he disobeys; or Antinomianism is true…In these respects, then, the sinning Christian and the unconverted sinner are upon precisely the same ground.

Many other influential preachers would follow Finney’s theology and tactics throughout the rest of the 19th and into the early 20th centuries. Two of the most well know men were Billy Sunday and D.L. Moody. They too would attempt to change America’s lack of godliness through moralistic preaching. By this time in American history, reformed theology was on the decline, and morality-driven sermons were on the rise.10

Conclusion: This was a quick demonstration of how Americans have been conditioned to accept moralistic teaching and self-effort improvement over the past several hundred years. The further we move away from the reformation the closer we are to returning to a Roman Catholic theology concerning spiritual growth and piety.

In part three of this series we are going to examine the modern day promoters of spiritual disciplines and their source material. What was once rejected by the reformers in the 16th century is now openly being promoted as helpful and evangelical in the majority of spiritual disciplines material.

Recommended Resources: 



2 Tabletalk, 1626 AD

3 Hambrick-Stowe, Charles E. (1982-01-01). The Practice of Piety: Puritan Devotional Disciplines in Seventeenth-Century New England (Published for the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture, Williamsburg, Virginia) (Kindle Locations 596-602)

4 Lovelace, 31

5 Ibid, 30.

6 I will give examples of this in my next article.

7 Maddox, Randy L. Be Ye Perfect? The evolution of John Wesley’s most contentious doctrine.

8 Ibid.

9 Hankins, Barry (2004), The Second Great Awakening and the Transcendentalists, Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, p. 137, ISBN 0-313-31848-4.

10 For further reading on this point in history. Marsden, George M. Fundamentalism and American Culture. New York: Oxford UP, 2006.


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