With Theocast On Spiritual Disciplines

Theocast-Spiritual-Disciplines-part-2It is widely held among evangelicals (of various stripes) that the private reading of Scripture and prayer (“the quiet time” or devotions), Bible memorization, and meditation is the very essence of Christian spirituality and piety. The emphasis is on activity (one prominent writer on spiritual disciplines explicitly contrasts them with attitudes). The repeated claim is that these activities are biblical. Perhaps but in the spirit of sola Scriptura we have a right to query that claim. The Reformed confessing churches have tended to talk less about spiritual disciplines and rather more about the “due use of ordinary means,” by which we mean the preaching of the gospel, the use of the sacraments, and prayer. Piety begins with public worship and continues through the week but it starts with God coming to us in the preached gospel, in the gospel made visible (sacraments), and in corporate public worship. Piety is hard but it is not complicated: dying to sin and living to Christ (Heidelberg Catechism 88–90).

Last month I had the privilege of spending a few days in Nashvegas with my friends at Community Bible Church. As part of that visit I joined the Theocast guys to talk about spiritual disciplines.

Here is the episode.

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  1. Excellent show!

    I was given such spiritual disciplines and pietism not from dispy, fundy, non-reformed seminaries, etc., but from two Reformed seminaries. Very discouraging.

  2. Dr. Clark, could you comment on the Westminster directory for family worship relative to this topic? It seems to me that not only family worship but also individual secret worship is pressed upon pain of discipline.

    • Jordan,

      I don’t think it’s correct to speak of the “Westminster Directory for Family Worship.” To the best of my knowledge, the Directions for Family Worship (DFW) were not a product of the Westminster Assembly. They were created and adopted by the Scottish General Assembly in 1647 as a supplement to the 1644 Directory for Public Worship.

      There is much good advice and instruction in the DFW. There is considerable difference between the spiritual exercises of the Jesuits or those being urged upon us by the evangelicals and the Directions for Family Worship.

      1. I do not see any clear indication of frequency regarding family worship. The only time in the DFW it is clearly indicated is on the Christian Sabbath (e.g., art. VII). Re private worship, it does instruct morning and evening prayer/worship.

      2. What it directs regarding family worship/devotions, e.g., reading of Scripture, prayer, catechizing of the family is salutary.

      3. If someone refuses to pray with his family or read the Scriptures to and with his family, that is certainly problematic and worthy of investigation. That said, is it clear in the DFW what sanctions were attached to failure to meet the standard? E.g., how long were was family worship to last? Is 10 minutes of reading of prayer and scripture reading sufficient or is 20 minutes necessary? On what grounds? Who says? (again, on what grounds?) So, I want to affirm the general intent of the DFW but I stand by what I said about sola scriptura and Christian liberty.

      4. The DFW recognizes that not everyone could read and makes accommodations. The DFW also recognizes clearly a distinction between family and private worship and public worship and between laity and ordained ministers.

      5. When elders visit the first question should be about attendance to the due use of ordinary means in public. Typically, however, the first question is about private and family worship. That said, it is fair for the elders to ask about and encourage private and family worship but I don’t think that the church has authority from Scripture or from our confessions to stipulate, upon pain of discipline, exactly what that worship must be or its frequency (see number 3 above).

      6. Even among Presbyterians, who are descended ecclesiastically from the Scottish Kirk, the DFW (like the DPW) has no official standing. It is not part of the OPC tradition. I don’t believe it has any standing in the PCA or even in the RPCNA, which has arguably the clearest lineage among the American Presbyterians back to the Scottish Kirk of 1647 (since they are among the few that have preserved the original understanding of the RPW and who have a tradition of upholding the national covenant), the DFW is not listed among their constitutional documents. So, its standing is ambiguous.

      7. On one hand, my impression is that family worship has fallen on hard times. On the other hand, the imposition of the DFW was part of a broader socio-religious program, which included the national covenant, from which most of us dissent. We can and should learn from the DFW about personal and family piety but we ought to be cautious about sanctions. After all, when was anyone last disciplined for persistently skipping the 2nd service? We should start there. Let us use persuasion and grace to promote the growth of family and personal worship.

    • You mentioned several times the term “national covenant” that I have not heard of previously (I don’t live in a region that had considerable english or puritan culture impact), could you please link some fair articles on it?

    • Interesting subject, as I looked into it, to me it seems highly unlikely that the Westminster Confession could have been made the way it was if there are no Covenanters. I mean God used them, biblically can’t see nothing wrong with uniting for the advancement of our common goals of purity, sanctification, etc. as a nation. Being a Hungarian I see the lack of such a national covenant for the truth of the Bible as the main reason for why the establishment of Presbyterianism among Hungarians didn’t work out and why a great majority of Hungarians had turned back to Rome, having a catholic national covenant with Rome’s Mary since the foundation of the Hungarian Kingdom… and biblically nations were wiped out, have fallen because of their ungodliness, there are sections where the word of God talks about covenants with different nations as well.. and for me the idea that a country shouldn’t be a national state, rather it should act just as a super hotel is strange.. Probably in the US it is more difficult to relate as a nation as its culture is very mixed and fragmented. Do you have an article in which you elaborate on your view of state or nation and religion? In our fragmented societies positioning from pluralism seems to be the way but is that a problem if true religion dominates in a nation and if some get together to sustain and advance it?

      • Laszlo,

        There was no national covenant in the NT. It expired with the death of Christ. The Mosaic covenant, the national people, the types and shadows (religious ceremonies, civil laws) were all fulfilled and expired at the cross. Look at the apostles. Where do they address Claudius or Nero or Domitian as if those Caesars were the King David of their era? The early church in the 2nd century knows nothing of a national covenant. On the way they typically looked at the pagan culture in which they lived, see Digonetus (ch. 5). Christian writers don’t begin thinking about civil magistrates as if they were the new David until the 4th century, after the legalization of the church.

        In the 16th and 17th centuries the Reformed had a conflicted view of the magistrate. On the one hand they affirmed the spirituality of the church and its distinction from the civil magistrate, on the other, they were heirs of 1,000 years of Constantinianism and had a hard time imagining a situation in which the magistrate did not enforce Christianity.

        Even some of the 17th-century orthodox Scots demurred from the national covenant. See David McKay, “From Popery to Principle: Covenanters and the Kingship of Christ” in The Faith Once Delivered ed. Anthony T. Selvaggio. See also this essay where a Reformed Presbyterian pastor re-thinks the notion of a “national confession.”

  3. Really enjoyed the Theocast on this topic! Thanks for sharing. I could not find any links that tell more about the source of spiritual disciplines being the Jesuits. Can you provided links for that? Thanks so much.

  4. I can corroborate the experience of the Theocast guys that the overemphasis on ‘Spiritual Disciplines’ is ubiquitous in broad evangelicalism. They got it at the Master’s Seminary. I got it via InterVarsity & Gordon-Conwell.

    See the writings of the 2015 Moderator of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church:

    See this article from the alumni magazine of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary:

    From my vast experience in broad evangelicalism, I have have concluded that it has three ‘means of grace’ (though it doesn’t use that term): the dramatic conversion experience, the personal quiet time, and the small group bible study.

  5. These guys rock! I listened to the three parts series “Simple Faith” on their CBC website. I knew of Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises, and had heard of the counter reformation, but the real spiritual battle never dawned on me. The Puritans’ devotionals made more references to Roman Catholics than Martin Luther and John Calvin, even plagiarizing without references to the Romanists. Jonathan Edwards, John and Charles Wesley, George Whitefield~all influenced by the Puritans. Moody and Finney quoted the Puritans. For hundreds of years what was slowly embraces was NOT a Reformational view. By the time Foster wrote his book, the pump had been primed to accept this.

    I’m listening to all the Theocasts and posting links on facebook. The comments: “This is amazing.”

    • Carmen,

      I wouldn’t use the expression “the Puritans” that way, as if they were a monolith. They weren’t. It was a diverse movement. To use that adjective that way ignores the differences in polity (congregational, presbyterian, episcopalian, state-church, dissenting), soteriology (Baxter v Owen), covenant theology, law/gospel and sacraments. We may also distinguish between the orthodox English/Scottish Reformed and the neo-England congregationalists, who seemed to be either antinomian or neonomian.

      I tried to explain some of the difficulties of speaking about “the Puritans” here.

      “The Evangelicals” is a fair analogy. Darryl Hart has argued that “Evangelicalism” (see Deconstructing Evangelicalism) doesn’t even actually exist. “The Evangelicals” constitutes a truly diverse group unified by almost nothing. Better to say that some English (or Scottish or Welsh) who identified as Reformed, in the 16th and 17th centuries, did x or y.

  6. Dr. Clark,

    Could you offer some insight as to what was intended in the Fifth Point of the Canons of Dort, Article 2, where the Synod speaks of putting “the flesh to death more and more by the Spirit of supplication and by holy exercises of godliness”? Were the “holy exercises of godliness” exercises of a corporate and churchly nature (regular attendance upon the ministry of the Word and the Lord’s Supper)? Did they mean private prayer, Bible reading, and fasting? Or was it some combination of the two?

    Many thanks for your labors.

    • Hi Neil,

      Good question. It seems most likely that they had in mind a combination of these. That believers should pray and read their bibles was, as I tried to indicate in the episode, taught widely by the Reformers and their orthodox successors. In the episode the brothers and I were trying to re-set priorities, however. A good analogy would be the 16th-century Reformation as the Reformers tried to help people re-calibrate their piety after Monasticism.

      Here’s a post on the priority of the objective, public worship in our piety. David Clarkson, who succeeded John Owen, addressed the rising tide of subjectivism, prioritizing the private over the public here.

      I think Clarkson’s comments catch the piety of the Synod of Dort. Two or three decades after Dort, there would be a significant move among those we might call “Dutch evangelicals,” among whom we could count adherents of the Nadere Reformatie and others. The emphasis among the NR would dovetail (think of a Venn Diagram) with a turn in some quarters to prioritize the private meetings (small groups, conventicles) over public worship. The synod knew about this internal, subjective turn in the Anabaptists, those whom we might call Erasmian pietists, who favored private spiritual exercises over public worship. One way we know what Dort was thinking is by looking at the church order adopted by the Synod (after the external delegates had departed). It mentions only public worship and the sacraments specifically. It mentions catechism instruction specifically. This is typical. In other words, in our time, after Pietism, after revivalism, we tend to be specific about private exercises of piety. In the classical period, we tended to be specific about public acts of piety and vague about the private. This ism’t say that pastors and theologians did not write about the necessity of prayer and devotions, they certainly did. The NR was deeply committed to private piety but when the church as church, writing in official documents (as distinct from the personal opinions of pastors and theologians expressed in books and pamphlets).

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