Spiritual darkness is something that affects – or at least can affect – all Christian believers. It may develop as a result of a particular affliction (Lord, why this?), or it may be difficult to link to any one issue in life. It comes in the form of seemingly inexplicable feelings of doubt, loss of joy, loss of clarity about spiritual matters and so on. It is likely running its course in the lives of quite a few in our own churches.
Thankfully, this is something addressed with specificity and pastoral insight by the Dutch Reformed minister Wilhelmus à Brakel (1635-1711) in his excellent work The Christian’s Reasonable Service (4 vols with Reformation Heritage Books). After serving churches for forty years, à Brakel published this gem that not only covers topics commonly found in systematic theologies but also addresses many of the Christian’s immediately practical concerns.
He defines ‘spiritual darkness’ in this way: it is a ‘spiritual disease of a person who has made some progress in the Christian life’ in which that person faces ‘the absence of the normal illuminating influences of the Holy Spirit’ and is ‘without joy, warmth, and direction’. Such a person ‘lives in fear and anxiety, causing him to wander about aimlessly, as in a desert’ (4:260). It’s difficult to provide more precision in defining this phenomenon, but I think, as they say, we’ll know it when we see it. According to à Brakel, spiritual darkness is manifested in sorrow, even in ‘fleeting atheistic thoughts’ and temptations to err in doctrine and practice. In another respect, it is like being cold: ‘During the winters and beneath the pole-caps everything becomes immobile due to the frost’ (4:261-2).
What are the causes for this darkness? Whether because he is dealing more narrowly with strictly spiritual darkness and/or because it simply wasn’t on his radar, à Brakel doesn’t deal here with depression influenced by bodily issues. Suffice it to say, for my part, I believe spiritual darkness, physiology and even what we often call ‘personality’ (or personality type) can be intertwined. In any event, à Brakel names several potential causes for spiritual darkness:
With Sanctified by Grace Kyle and I have in mind a vexing challenge for contemporary theology: the hyper-specialization of the academy which causes divisions unnatural to theology, such as between mind and heart, belief and action, dogmatics and spirituality, etc. Spirituality, the Christian life and Christian practice are all relegated to other disciplines and no longer flow from and speak back (prophetically) into theology. Rather than recognizing the death of spirituality when it is divorced from theology (and vice versa), the modern academy baptizes this separation with academic programs and books in which theology and spirituality rarely collide (let alone mutually influence).
In a modest way we hope the book addresses these temptations by providing a theological account of the Christian life in which doctrine and life, confession and practice are held together in the divine economy of grace. The approach is straightforwardly doctrinal – focusing the life of the Christian on the triune God who creates, elects, calls and redeems.
Part One—The Gracious One
1. The Triune God • Fred Sanders
2. The Electing God • Suzanne McDonald
3. The Creating and Providential God • Katherine Sonderegger
4. The Saving God • Ian McFarland
5. The Perfecting God • Christopher Holmes
Part Two—The Graces of the Christian Life
6. Reconciliation and Justification • John Burgess
7. Redemption and Victory • Christiaan Mostert
8. Communion with Christ • John Webster
Part Three—The Means of Grace
9. Scripture • Donald Wood
10. Church and Sacraments • Tom Greggs
Part Four—The Practices of Grace
11. Discipleship • Philip Ziegler
12. Prayer • Ashley Cocksworth
13. Theology • Ellen Charry
14. Preaching • William Willimon
15. Forgiveness & Reconciliation • D. Stephen Long
Though we did not edit the book specifically for classrooms (a publishing practice I sometimes despair over), we nonetheless hoped it will be a natural fit for courses in Systematic Theology, Practical theology, Spiritual theology, and those more narrowly focused on Ecclesiology or the Christian Life (such as the one I teach at HU).
In a fascinating essay on St. Augustine’s conversion, Thomas Finn argues for the importance of ritual. The narrative of Augustine’s conversion is sometimes told exclusively in terms of his garden experience at Milan in 386AD, and indeed Augustine himself calls that event his conversion (Confessions, 8.12.30). However, taken on its own the garden experience sets a pattern for understanding conversion that centers on an instantaneous decision of faith. Finn, however, argues that Augustine’s Confessions shows a conversion narrative in which a decisive moment initiates a long ritual journey. Augustine’s garden experience, on Finn’s reading, was part of a much larger narrative that began in his youth and carried forward into the ancient process of the catechumenate.
The central decision [Augustine] faced was not whether to believe but whether to present himself for initiation, which he decided to do in the summer of 386. Well before that…his mind was made up about the content of Catholic belief. No, the problem was to become, to enter. Although it is not customary to read the Confessions as the account of a ritual or liturgical journey, it is clear that Augustine’s conversion was neither sudden nor limited to the garden in Milan. Rather, it was a process that began with his inscription in the catechumenate as an infant in November 354 and ended when he laid aside his white baptismal garment on the Sunday after Easter, April 25, 387: a thirty-year journey from first-born to new born. To be sure, his journey was not the journey of every ancient convert, but the ritual process that assured Augustine’s conversion, mutatis mutandis, attended the conversion of everyone, at least every documented case, who become a Christian in late antiquity. The case of Augustine establishes with clarity that conversio goes beyond the turned of one’s mind to the turning of one’s self, for which, at least in antiquity, ritual was indespensable. The ritual process was the normal means in the religions of antiquity to form and to reform the self in a community whose ideal was transformation (“Ritual and Conversion: The Case of Augustine,” in John Petruccione (ed), Nova & Vetera: Patristic Studies in Honor of Thomas Patric Halton (1998), p. 161).
This is interesting to me because Augustine’s garden experience is often the paradigm for Protestant evangelicals. Continue reading
We promised some excerpts from our forthcoming book, Sanctified by Grace: A Theology of the Christian Life, so here we go. An obvious question is simply what we mean by the construction “the Christian life.” To what does it refer, what is its range of meaning, and from where does one draw to fill out its content? This is taken from the Introduction:
‘The Christian life’ is theological shorthand for redeemed human existence in communion with the triune God through union with Christ in the Spirit. That is, it names the temporal experience of God’s eternal purposes for fellowship as they are realized in human beings according to God’s grace. To state it yet another way, to address ‘the Christian life’ is to speak about the character of reconciled and renewed human existence. God’s gracious purpose to conform fallen people to the image of Christ takes shape and fulfills itself in time and space; this is the Christian life.
Putting it this way points out the rich doctrinal nexus within which the doctrine of the Christian life is situated. While the primary reference of ‘the Christian life’ is the lived experience of Christian identity, as a doctrinal locus it stands dogmatically related to other areas of Christian witness such as the doctrines of the Trinity, creation and providence, Christ, the church and the final consummation (to name a few). Being so related, the doctrine of the Christian life is informed and illumined by a whole series of theological claims about God, such as his relation to created reality, his reconciling works and the human activities which arise from them. In turn, those other doctrines are likewise informed and illumined through the doctrine of the Christian life. Our approach thus articulates a theology of the Christian life in terms of the whole of the Christian confession rather than just one dimension.
With the PhD thesis officially submitted, I’m hoping to eek out a few blog posts now. My wife recently gave me a copy of The Valley of Vision, a collection of Puritan prayers and devotional reflections. It has been a joy to read thus far for several different reasons.
Probably the most significant aspect of it for me is its way of reminding me of who God is and why it is such a blessing to have a place among the saints. Even when devoting oneself to the doctrine of God in systematics, one can never take in enough thoughtful pastoral statements about the goodness and wisdom of God. These nourish and stabilize our faith (certainly mine, at least).
The meaning of the name of the volume is glimpsed in the opening prayer:
You have brought me to the valley of vision, where I live in the depths but see you in the heights; hemmed in by mountains of sin I behold your glory….Let me learn by paradox…that the valley is the place of vision….Let me find thy light in my darkness…thy glory in my valley.
The book is excellent not only for personal reading but also as a resource for crafting pastoral prayers to be used in corporate worship. Here is a longer portion of the prayer entitled “The Trinity”:
O Father, I thank you that in fullness of grace you have given me to Jesus, to be his sheep, jewel, portion; O Jesus, I thank you that in fullness of grace you have accepted, espoused, bound me; O Holy Spirit, I thank you that in fullness of grace you have exhibited Jesus as my salvation, implanted faith within me, subdued my stubborn heart, made me one with him forever. O Father, you are enthroned to hear my prayers, O Jesus, your hand is outstreched to take my petitions, O Holy Spirit, you are willing to help my infirmities, to show me my need, to supply words, to pray within me, to strengthen me that I faint not in supplication. O Triune God, who commands the universe, you have commanded me to ask for those things that concern your kingdom and my soul. Let me live and pray as one baptized into the threefold Name.
The book of course isn’t designed for the lenten season, but it does include a series of morning and evening daily prayers as well.
Ben Quash’s 2013 Lent Book, Abiding, is a beautiful meditation on the Christian life. Here is an excerpt from the chapter, “Abiding in Relationships.”
Human relationships will sometimes fail – often in small ways and occasionally in big and terrible ways. The Christian confidence is that no failure that is enacted by the embroiled human will can outrun grace. The Christian belief is that our abiding in relationship with God and one another is a ‘work’ that prospers only because God first abides in relationship with us. And God can bind all things – including the times, the seasons, and our fractured lives – not because God is one solitary and almighty will, but because he is faithful, and makes covenants, and gives himself, making an ‘us’ that will abide for eternity because it is established in the power of this infinitely responsive love (p. 128)
Kyle and I have been working for several years on a theology of the Christian life. In fact, we started the project while office mates and quick friends at the University of Aberdeen. We are very happy to say it is done and will be published in the early summer by T&T Clark! (you can preorder here) In the meantime, we are going to post some excerpts to whet your appetite.
The following is from the book jacket:
Books on the Christian life abound. Some focus on spirituality, others on practices, and others still on doctrines such as justification or forgiveness. Few offer an account of the Christian life that portrays redeemed Christian existence within the multifaceted and beautiful whole of the Christian confession. This book attempts to fill that gap. It provides a constructive, specifically theological interpretation of the Christian life according to the nature of God’s grace. This means coordinating the triune God, his reconciling, justifying, redemptive, restorative, and otherwise transformative action with those practices of the Christian life emerging from it. The doctrine of the Christian life developed here unifies doctrine and life, confession and practice within the divine economy of grace.
Drawing together some of the most important theologians in the church today, Sanctified by Grace achieves what no other theological text offers – a shared work of dogmatic theology oriented to redeemed Christian existence.