Evangelical Spirituality: A Church Historian’s Perspective -- By: Richard F. Lovelace

Journal: Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society
Volume: JETS 31:1 (Mar 1988)
Article: Evangelical Spirituality: A Church Historian’s Perspective
Author: Richard F. Lovelace


Evangelical Spirituality:
A Church Historian’s Perspective

Richard F. Lovelace*

About three decades ago, as I began to study movements of spiritual awakening in Protestantism, I had a scholarly awakening. I woke up to the fact that spirituality was a drastically neglected subject among scholars. Christian experience was treated as an optional dimension of Christian life, a sort of flavor additive that had its place in personal devotion and pastoral work but was marginal as a subject of serious reflection. Scholars focused on the outward shell of the Church’s theology and structures but overlooked the vital force that helped make the shell and determine its forms.

Evangelicals did not even have a category of spiritual theology, as Roman Catholics did, dealing with the historical theology of Christian experience. New life in Christ was supposedly the core of our tradition. Where had we mislaid our central heritage?1

Roman Catholics, on the other hand, produced mounds of pious literature but not much in the way of solid critical analysis and reflection. One might have expected Thomas Merton to trigger a movement of renewed interest in spirituality. But this did not happen immediately. Merton’s own spirituality became increasingly (and healthily) engaged with worldly issues, but the Christian world did not respond by giving greater attention to spirituality.2

Now, a generation after Merton, there is a growing crescendo of practical and scholarly reflection on this subject. In the last decade scores of works have appeared in spiritual theology from every perspective: Catholic, Orthodox, Lutheran, Reformed, anabaptist, Wesleyan, evangelical, Jungian, liberationist,

*Richard Lovelace is professor of Church history at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hamilton, Massachusetts.

and even liberal. Spirituality is finally getting the scholarly attention it deserves.

As a Church historian and spiritual theologian, I look at the values and the needs of modern evangelical spirituality against the background of its historical development from the Reformation onward. I see tremendous strengths in this heritage that we ought to recover, along with grievous current weaknesses that we should try to correct.

I. Reformation Spirituality

The spirituality of Luther and Calvin is a reaction against western Catholic spirituality. Let me first point out the features that aroused reaction.

The absence of justification as a theological category separate from sanc...

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