Embracing Contemplative Spirituality?
John Coe and Kyle Strobel offer a measured approach to a hot topic in Christian spirituality
If Christian book publishing trends are any indication, contemplative spirituality is a hot topic among Christian readers — hot in the dual sense that it arouses intense interest as well as intense opposition. Proponents claim it is an ancient Christian practice capable of deepening a person’s love for God and neighbor. Opponents counterclaim that it is biblically subpar, smacks of medieval Catholicism, and opens the door to New Age mysticism.
In Embracing Contemplation, John H. Coe and Kyle C. Strobel assemble a team of theologians to assess the appropriateness of contemplative spirituality for evangelical Christians. These various authors examine the Bible, church history, and the writings of contemporary authors and arrive at a measured appraisal of contemplative spirituality. Coe and Strobel conclude: “Contemplation and the contemplative life is fundamental to the maturing Christian life.”
John H. Coe and Kyle C. Strobel conclude: “Contemplation and the contemplative life is fundamental to the maturing Christian life.”
This approval of contemplation should not be interpreted as a blanket approval of everything that calls itself “contemplative spirituality,” of course. In his chapter, “The Controversy Over Contemplation and Contemplative Prayer,” Coe identifies forms of contemplative spirituality that are “sub-Christian.” Similarly, in “A Distinctively Christian Contemplation,” Glen G. Scorgie differentiates authentically Christian contemplation from what is found in other religions.
Because contemplative spirituality is often seen as a Catholic practice, several authors show how Protestant Reformers and well-known evangelicals practiced a gospel-based form of contemplation. This includes three “Johns” whose evangelical credentials are not in dispute: John Calvin, John Wesley, and Jonathan Edwards. See Ashley Cockworth’s “Sabbatical Contemplation?” for Calvin and Tom Schwanda’s “To Gaze on the Beauty of the Lord” for Wesley and Edwards. Of particular interest to Pentecostal readers is Simon Chan’s chapter, “Contemplative Prayer in the Evangelical and Pentecostal Traditions.”
Throughout the book, the authors do a good job of placing evangelical theological commitments at the forefront of the conversation about contemplative spirituality. What is consistent with those commitments is allowed; what isn’t is discarded. This measured approach is better than a knee-jerk rejection or simplistic embrace of what passes for contemplative spirituality today.
John H. Coe and Kyle C. Strobel, eds., Embracing Contemplation: Reclaiming a Christian Spiritual Practice (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2019).
This article originally appeared in the May/June 2019 edition of Influence magazine.