This summer I had the privilege of taking Dr. Tom Schwanda’s class on Puritan Spirituality at Regent College. What struck me most about Dr. Schwanda was that it was obvious he really believed and practiced what he taught. Just like I’d never trust a hairdresser with bad hair and always pass by the makeup artists in the Bay with weird makeup, so am I suspicious of those who have a lot to say about the Christian life but don’t really seem like they’re striving to do it.
It was so helpful to learn from someone who was cultivating spiritual practices that were championed by the Puritans and other gurus of Christian spirituality throughout church history because it gave a real-life example of how this kind of life plays out.
More than this, Dr. Schwanda’s calm and contemplative attitude helped facilitate spiritual reflection during class time. As an introvert, I wasn’t excited about meditating in class and then talking about it with people I had just met, but Dr. Schwanda made it seem normal to open up about spiritual experiences and helped us do the same. I hope you enjoy Dr. Schwanda’s reflections on his personal and classroom experiences with Puritan spiritual practices.
This is a guest post from Tom Schwanda, PhD, FRHistS, who teaches Christian spirituality at Wheaton College. He is the author of numerous books, book chapters and journal articles on the Puritans and early evangelicals. His book on Isaac Ambrose is Soul Recreation: The Contemplative-Mystical Piety of Puritanism(Pickwick, 2012). He is currently working on a biography of George Whitefield that will highlight the importance of Puritans in his ministry.
How did you get into studying the Puritans?
I began my vocational ministry as a pastor. I was fortunate that I had received my master of divinity training at Gordon–Conwell Theological Seminary. Richard Lovelace, my church history professor, had introduced me not only to many of the key church leaders but also the rich devotional literature of Christian spirituality. After about four years in my first church I became thirsty for a deeper awareness of the presence of Jesus Christ. The resources I knew were helpful but the challenges and questions of pastoral ministry were beginning to wear me down. This was during the 1970s and Protestants who were interested in spirituality were typically reading Richard Foster and especially, Henri Nouwen.
Despite the wisdom and guidance of these insightful writers I realized I needed more. There were few Protestant spiritual directors so I did what most people did and that was visit my local Roman Catholic priest. I knew Father Ray well since he served the parish just down the street from the congregation that I pastored. We had developed a close friendship since he was part of the monthly Bible study of other ministers from the small town in which we lived. While over 35 years ago I can still vividly recall our conversation. I asked him what he could teach me about the spiritual life and staying fresh in one’s relationship with Jesus. He confirmed that although he had been formed in the life of prayer during his seminary training, he now was so overwhelmed by the demands of his large parish that he had no time to practice what he had learned. His response shocked and saddened me. But he continued and surprisingly encouraged me to discover the roots of my own spiritual tradition. Therefore, the reason why I became interested in Reformed spirituality and the study of the Puritans was due to my Roman Catholic pastor friend. As I began searching out the Puritans I was particularly attracted to Isaac Ambrose (1604-1664) because of his deep love for Jesus and the inviting manner in which he wrote. He also addressed the importance of spiritual disciplines or the means of grace and how to guide Christians into maturity through sanctification and a growing intimacy with our Triune God.
What is your favorite thing about Puritan spirituality?
First, I appreciate that the Puritans were solidly grounded in the word of God. This biblical foundation is clear even from a cursory glance at their sermons or other writings. They recognized the necessity of not only reading but meditating on Scripture. Significantly, the Song of Songs or Canticles, as they often called it, was a Puritan favorite. They shared this with many earlier Christians, but in particular, Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153). The Song of Songs reminded them that Jesus Christ, the divine Bridegroom, desired to live with ever deepening love with his spouse. This was understood both as the church collectively but also individual believers.
Secondly, I appreciate that Puritan ministers saw themselves as physicians of the soul. They were very intentional about this practice that is often known as spiritual direction or guidance. This was a critical dimension of their ministry because if Jesus desired to love his creation then people needed guidance in knowing how to deal with sin, rebellion, divided hearts as well as accepting God’s incredible grace for hard-hearted stubborn people. Additionally this meant that Puritan ministers were constantly attentive to preach, teach and address the importance of union and communion with Christ.
Something else that I value about the Puritans is their insistence upon integrating a deep biblical knowledge of the head with an equal emphasis of heart-felt experience of these truths. Unlike some Christians today who either stress a strong cognitive or affective nature to the faith, the Puritans were constantly proclaiming the critical need for balance of both. This was often referred to as experimental piety. Today we call this experiential learning. But the Puritans wisely recognized that those who had their heads stuffed with knowledge and had not experienced the practical nature of that truth were no different than the Pharisees of Jesus’ day. In other words, these earlier spiritual guides wanted people to live out the truth of the gospel. Isaac Ambrose asserted this truth in this way: “Study therefore, and study more, but be sure thy study and thy knowledge, be rather practical than speculative; do not merely beat thy brains to learn the history of Christ’s death, but the efficacy, virtue and merit of it: know what thou knowest in reference to thyself” (Isaac Ambrose, Looking Unto Jesus, (Sprinkle Publications, 1986), 375).
Have the Puritans ever convinced you to start a new spiritual practice in your life?
A key spiritual principle of Puritan theology is preparation. They understood that people were distracted just as much in the seventeenth century as we are today in the twenty-first. They realized it was unrealistic to expect worshipers to come to church and be attentive to the reading and preaching of Scripture. Instead they spoke of the importance of preparation of one’s heart and head long before a person entered the sanctuary. Again Isaac Ambrose provided instruction for the preparation before, during and after the sermon as the best ways to hear and apply the word of God. The same is true for observing the Lord’s Supper. I have benefited in my own life from the steps I can take to better prepare myself for the celebration of the Lord’s Table.
Meditation on heaven is one other practice that is rarely ever mentioned in any of our contemporary books on spiritual disciplines. Our North American culture that is saturated with the message of consumption and satisfaction of our own desires before considering anyone else needs to realize that there is an eternal life after our sojourn on earth. By meditating on heaven I can recalibrate my heart and mind on the biblical truths and seek to correct the distorted message of our culture.
What do you think the Puritans would tell Christians in North America today about improving or maintaining their spiritual health (e.g., advice, correction, encouragement)?
This is a great question and I could easily write a book in response. But I will limit myself to five thoughts. I think the first message the Puritans would articulate to us is to get serious and stop making excuses. People are busy today but we are no different than earlier generations. Our spiritual fathers and mothers would encourage us to create greater intentionality and discipline. We allow social media to consume inordinate amounts of time that is often devoid of healthy benefits for us or others.
Second, the Puritans would remind us that life and especially the spiritual life is not about us. They would be shocked by what appears to be the ever escalating tendency towards narcissism. We would be healthier if we could learn the painful but necessary benefits of self-denial and minimizing our ego-centric culture.
Next, Puritan ministers and lay people alike would be deeply saddened to discover the increasing level of biblical and theological illiteracy. Because people tend to spend little time with God they have little awareness of the Bible’s message. Interestingly, it was not uncommon for Puritan lay people to write major theological and spiritual books. That is unlikely to happen today. In fact, it is not uncommon to find pastors who make excuses that they can’t answer questions because they are not a theologian. I pity the congregation whose pastor doesn’t understand the importance of being a theologian.
Fourth, they would strongly encourage us to return to our first love and deepen our love for Jesus. Many of the best Puritan writings call us to the practices and experience of meditation and contemplation and enjoyment of God. Cultivating a deeper love for Jesus would go a long way in decreasing our ego-driven and self-absorbed culture. Closely related to this would be a warning for us to wake up and recognize the prevalency of idolatry in our daily lives. Again a deeper desire to practice heavenly meditation would be a strong corrective to our inclination to misplace our love for Jesus with the things of the world.
And fifth, I am certain that the Puritans, and especially my dear friend Isaac Ambrose, would want us to recognize that the Church of Jesus Christ has been alive for other two thousand years. While not every author was as intentional as Isaac Ambrose he helpfully includes many references to the sources that inspired and shaped his writings. The average Puritan education introduced them to the early church fathers or patristic writers such as Augustine, Tertullian, Origen, Ambrose, Chrysostom, Basil, Gregory, Jerome, etc. Medieval authors such as Bernard of Clairvaux, Anselm, Jean Gerson, Thomas à Kempis and many others were household names for them. One of the great gifts of this communion of saints is to challenge us in our thinking and protect us from making many of same of the mistakes of these earlier Christian writers. I should acknowledge that reading the Puritans can be difficult for us. John Owen, for example, known as one of the greatest Puritan theologians is not an easy read. His lengthy sentences and excessive prolixity challenge one’s patience. But other Puritans, and I would suggest, Isaac Ambrose, Thomas Watson, John Flavel and John Bunyan are more inviting and accessible for those interested in discovering the rich treasures of the Puritans. They will bless and refresh both your mind and heart.