An Evaluation of Thomas A Kempis’ The Imitation of Christ -- By: Lorne Zelyck

Journal: Journal of the Grace Evangelical Society
Volume: JOTGES 18:35 (Autumn 2005)
Article: An Evaluation of Thomas A Kempis’ The Imitation of Christ
Author: Lorne Zelyck


An Evaluation of Thomas A Kempis’ The Imitation of Christ

Lorne Zelyck

I. Introduction

Originally named Thomas Hemerken, Thomas A Kempis (1379/80–1471) joined the Brethren of Common Life in 1392. The monastic order had been founded eighteen years earlier by Gerard Groote1 , a lay preacher who adamantly spoke out against the corruption and declining spirituality of the Roman Church.2 After being ordained in 1413, A Kempis spent his entire monastic life at the monastery of Mount St. Agnes at Zwolle, except for a three-year exile. The Brethren devoted themselves to doing charitable work, nursing the sick, studying and teaching the Scriptures, as well as copying religious and inspirational works. Their undogmatic form of piety became known as the devotio moderna.3

The works of A Kempis exemplified the ideas of the devotio moderna, and stressed the example of Christ in seeking a spiritual lifestyle.

While writing several literary works, he is best remembered for one devotional: The Imitation of Christ. The four sections which comprise the book were written sometime between 1420 and 1427. Immediately, the book experienced success within the Christian community, and printing began in 1472. Prior Pirkhamer enthusiastically commended its publishing in 1494 by claiming: “Nothing more holy, nothing more honorable, nothing more religious, nothing more profitable for the Christian commonwealth can you ever do than to make known these works of Thomas A Kempis.”4 Throughout the years, this book has been translated into over fifty languages. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, was so certain that this book was the best summary of a disciplined Christian life that he translated it for his followers.5 The popularity of The Imitation of Christ has remained throughout the centuries. One recent edition even considers it, “the best-loved book of Christianity, after the Bible.”6

It has widespread popularity in Christendom. However, Protestants have accepted A Kempis’ teachings without regard for his mystical and unorthodox doctrine.7 He has perpetrated and sustained doctrinal errors which deviate from the teachings of Christ on four important issues: 1) the value of a disciple, 2) the call to discipleship, 3) the possibility of perfection, and 4) the assurance ...

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