Spiritual Formation and Devotional Intimacy - Lesson 10

Historical Overview of Christian Spirituality (Part 1)

In this lesson, you learn about the historical overview of Christian spirituality. The speaker explains the two approaches to understanding the history of Christian spirituality: one approach is through the lens of different movements in Christianity, and the other approach is a chronological approach. You also learn about the Desert Experience, marked by personal renunciation and led by figures such as Anthony of Egypt and Desert fathers, who believed that in order to have a genuine spiritual experience, they had to retreat from the affluence and worldly elements that had entered the church under Constantine, and seek authenticity in simplicity and poverty in the desert. Additionally, The speaker also mentions the forms of prayer throughout Christian history such as the Jesus prayer, Francis of Assisi's "My God and my all" and Eastern Orthodox approach to spirituality which emphasizes on deification.
Gary Thomas
Spiritual Formation and Devotional Intimacy
Lesson 10
Watching Now
Historical Overview of Christian Spirituality (Part 1)

I. Introduction

A. Overview of the history of Christian spirituality

B. Two approaches to understanding the history of Christian spirituality

1. Through the lens of different movements in Christianity

2. Chronological approach

II. Desert Experience

Personal renunciation

B. Impact of Constantine's establishment of Christianity

C. Retreat to the desert in search of authenticity

D. Role of figures such as Anthony of Egypt in leading the movement

E. Emphasis on simplicity, poverty and solitude

III. Forms of Prayer throughout Christian history

A. The Jesus Prayer

B. "My God and my all"

C. Eastern Orthodox approach to spirituality

D. Emphasis on Deification

IV. Challenges for Western-minded Christians

A. Difficulty understanding Eastern Orthodox approach

B. Differences in theology and practices

V. Conclusion

A. Summary of key points

B. Recommendations for further reading and study

VI. References

A. Source of the information

B. Additional reading material related to topic

  • This lesson focuses on the concept of spiritual formation, which is the process of growing in one's relationship with God and becoming more like Christ. You'll learn about the role of historical figures such as Perpetua and Francis of Assisi in spiritual formation, the importance of more than just belief in doctrine, the need to cooperate with God and surrender to his will, and the challenges and opportunities of spiritual formation.
  • This lesson discusses the distinction between static and dynamic holiness. You will learn about the importance of being available to God and the potential for transformation in one's relationship with him.
  • In this lesson, Gary Thomas discusses the societal pressure to conform to a certain physical standard and how this can lead to insecurity and self-doubt. He contrasts this societal view with the Christian view of the body, which holds a respect for the aging process, and acknowledges that our bodies have a purpose because they were created by God and that God incarnated himself in human form in Jesus Christ and how our bodies will also be raised on the last day.
  • This lesson focuses on the transformation of our physical bodies to become spiritually alive, and the idea that worship is not limited to singing and music, but encompasses all aspects of our lives. An example of Madame Galen Jean, a historical figure who lost her physical beauty but found spiritual depth and wrote books that inspired others, is used to illustrate the idea that surrendering oneself to God can lead to spiritual growth. The class also suggests that individuals can bring Jesus to others by approaching them with love and understanding, and by focusing on bringing Jesus to others rather than personal ambition and people pleasing.
  • The lesson highlights that God desires a personal and intimate relationship with each individual and that different people will have different ways of relating to him. It is emphasized that there is no one right way to connect with God, and that we should be open to exploring different ways that resonate with us personally. Throughout scripture, various forms of worship are celebrated and it's encouraged to find the way that works best for us.

  • The lesson discusses the idea that spiritual growth does not happen by accident and that it requires purposeful and intentional effort. The main focus is on humility and gentleness as two important qualities necessary for spiritual growth. The lesson cites Proverbs 3:34 and James 4:6 as biblical references to the idea that God opposes those who let pride reign in their lives, and that humility is not thinking less of oneself but thinking less about oneself and putting others first, and gentleness is the way of being like a mother caring for her children.
  • This lesson delves into the idea of spiritual formation, discussing three paths through which one can grow: practicing virtues, experiencing difficulty and suffering, and practicing spiritual disciplines. One of the virtues discussed is thankfulness, which is counterintuitive to the way the world thinks, and that maturity in faith is marked by being malleable in God's hands and surrendering our own desires. It is emphasized that when difficult times come in our lives, it is a opportunity to grow spiritually, but it can also be used as an opportunity by Satan to create bitterness and resentment in our souls. The lecture also provides several suggestions for books that can help deepen the understanding and practice of spiritual disciplines in one's life.
  • Marriage can be a powerful tool for spiritual growth and holiness as it can help reveal and work through one's sin and selfishness. However, we need to understand and accept that all people stumble in many ways, and that it's important to adopt God's agenda for our marriages rather than trying to impose our own expectations and desires on it. This way we can have a healthy and fulfilling marriage.
  • In this lesson, it is discussed how marriage and parenting can be used by God as tools for spiritual growth and personal development. It is shown that by putting the needs of others first, as in caring for a spouse when they are sick or teaching and guiding children, individuals can learn to become more like Jesus Christ and grow in their faith. The speaker emphasizes that despite the challenges and mistakes that may come with these roles, they present opportunities for personal and spiritual growth.
  • This lesson covers the historical development of Christian spirituality including the Desert Experience, various forms of prayer, Eastern Orthodox approach and challenges for Western-minded Christians.
  • The lesson covers historical movements in Christianity, including monasticism, Puritanism, and Pentecostal/Charismatic, and their emphasis on asceticism, scripture, and the Holy Spirit.

In this class, you will learn about the process of spiritual formation and the importance of developing a deep devotional intimacy with God. The lesson will explore the biblical foundations of spiritual growth, the role of the Holy Spirit, and the individual's personal responsibility in their own spiritual development. You will also delve into various spiritual disciplines and practices that help foster a closer relationship with God, such as prayer, meditation, Scripture reading, worship, and fellowship. Finally, you will examine common obstacles and challenges faced in the journey of spiritual growth and discover strategies to overcome them.


Dr. Gary Thomas

Spiritual Formation and Devotional Intimacy


Historical Overview of Christian Spirituality (Part 1)

Lesson Transcript

[00:00:11] In many ways, I feel like this should be the first session of this seminar rather than the last. The reason I didn't do it, it's the most academic. It's like going to school. I was afraid I would bore you and nobody would be here for the second hour. I figure if you've gone this far with me, you're going to stick around because you don't want to be impolite to get up in the middle of it. So I'm counting on you to hold me to that if I agree to end on time. But but it really is just kind of looking at the growth of Christian spirituality through the ages. There are really two approaches. The first one you see there on your sheet is, I think, a very noble approach by Richard Foster and Martin. Marty, they wrote a book. Many of you have probably read Streams of Living Water, celebrating the great traditions of the Christian faith, and they look at the history of Christian spirituality through the lens of different movements in Christian Christianity that could be described as a contemplative movement, the holiness movement. You'd certainly see Finney and Wesley in that the Charismatic movement, social justice, evangelical incarnation, all which is also sacramental. I think that's a wonderful way to look at spiritual. I think it's a helpful way. If we had six weeks instead of 6 hours, we would spend a good bit of time doing that. We don't. If it interests you, I'd certainly recommend this book. I think they do a fine job of expressing that. I wanted you to be aware of it, which is why I put it on your outline. What we're going to look at instead is more of an historical approach, a chronological approach, so that we can see how Christian spirituality has grown through the ages, how one movement led to another movement, how sometimes weaknesses can give birth to strengths and and how one emphasis would give birth to another so that we could see what God has done and perhaps where he's going.

[00:02:03] So the first one I want to look at, I think one of the first main emphases is speaking here, not theologically, not politically, but when we're looking at Christian spirituality, I think the first one would be called Desert Experience, the whole experience of the Desert Fathers. It was marked by personal renunciation. It was burned in Christians fleeing the worldly success of the church under Constantine. What happened is when Constantine set up Christianity as the faith in Constantinople and all of that that went on, instead of there being a time of persecution, there became a time of affluence, often a time of worldliness. You sort of had to be a Christian to go anywhere in government and in business. And because of that, what so often happens is that there was a nominalism to the faith, there was a compromise, there were worldly elements that were entered in. And so the desert fathers thought the only way we can have a true and genuine and authentic spiritual experience is to leave the place where Christianity is the thing to adopt just for the sake of social acceptance and go off into the desert. Well, we'll fight the demons alone. We're going to see poverty will seek simplicity, and we'll go there. It really was, more than anything, a pursuit of authenticity. They just felt like in the popular city centers, when Christianity was a thing to do, they couldn't find what they were looking for. Anthony was really the one who led the way. He's following Matthew 1921, retired to the desert in 305. So that kind of places it. When this began to happen. He lived in solitude for 25 years, and here's what gave a huge birth to the movement. It was said by those who witnessed him that when he emerged from the desert 25 years later, he looked fresher and younger and more full of life than when he retired to the desert.

[00:04:01] And that sort of gave it this romantic sense of there's life in the desert, There's almost a fountain of youth that somehow the transformation can be so real that by renouncing the world, you can actually reinvigorate yourself. The irony was about 100 or 200 years later, the desert became a very crowded place. They went there to find solitude, but so many thought it was a place to find solitude, that it became rather crowded. In fact, of the 15 000 of the 15 great church fathers in the fourth and fifth century, only one Ambrose had no experience of living in the desert pursuing the Lord. It was sort of what every Christian began to do if they were serious about their faith. In fact, half of the population of Egypt lived in the desert within one century of Anthony. It was really a sincere, earnest pursuit of seeking authenticity. The desert experience was marked by asceticism. That's a strict form of living, denying yourself sleep deprivation. That was one of the things that they would fast not. Just from food. They would fast from sleep. They would try to exist on less sleep. They thought sloth and sleepiness were signs of immature spirituality, and so they would seek a heroic physical approach by not sleeping as much as others of us. Solitude, self mortification, fasting. They would cultivate leeches on their body. Some would would build poles. They would live on top of the poles. Some would build cages where you couldn't stand up or sit down. Very uncomfortable. They would wear the the hair shirts that were very irritating. There was some severe penance. In some ways there were some emphases. I think most people today would say became very unhealthy, very unbalanced. But it was a search for authenticity that is given birth to a lot of what we've seen.

[00:06:01] Some of the leaders. Anthony Clement of Alexandria origin and some others. A second tradition that I have great respect for. And I've just sat at their feet. I speak to you today very much as an evangelical. I don't I'm not ordained in one particular denomination for one in the way I follow the closest, probably Baptists. This is sort of where I land. But I have learned so much at the feet of Eastern orthodoxy. I find great wisdom in their works that they've challenged me in their work on sanctification. I think there's some aspects of family life where they have really spurred my thinking beyond my own tradition. And so I want to speak of the Eastern tradition. The Orthodox tradition with with great respect, is buried in the churches of the Eastern Mediterranean and Eastern Europe. And if you've been through the history of the history of Christianity, courses have been taught yet, well, when you are, I'm sure to go through this, that they're that because of the political separation of the church, there was a form of Christianity that developed in the West and a form of Christianity developed in the East, and there really wasn't much communication. Now this shows the power of God. Then on the main theological points, there really was not much difference as far as the nature of God, Jesus Christ and nature of humanity. What's needed for salvation? I mean, little things they could quibble over. But but in general, the big picture is remarkably the same. But they had very different emphases in their spirituality, very different emphases in their ecclesiology in the church life. And it's fascinating. Some of the things that mark the Eastern tradition, spirituality is one the unknowability of God, the unknown, no ability of God.

[00:07:50] They call it the apathetic way, apathetic way. AP h0c Do I have that on your outline? What that means is that all theological statements must be negative. God is unchanging, He's immovable. It would be like it's almost inappropriate to say positive things about God. So you say what? He's not because you don't want to limit God. Here's what was very distinct, though, about the Eastern tradition. And you've probably seen some of this in my own teaching here today. In the Eastern tradition, spiritual experience is at least equal to rational thought and study. Now, that is very dangerous to the Western mind, is almost solely emphasizing thought, intellect and study. And I think it is dangerous to ever put experience above doctrine. I'm a person that believes spirituality must be rooted in doctrine, but I am challenged by the Eastern Orthodox notion that spiritual experience teaches us things that doctrine can't, not about theological points. If somebody has a spiritual experience, it leads them to believe that Jesus wasn't really God. We know that's not legitimate, but spiritual experience can teach us things about human nature and and God's ways with us. And the Eastern Orthodox seem to be more accepting of that than in the Western model, just so emphasized rational thought. And so because of that, they would seek to see people transform. And they said, the way you know that a person is really holy is after they die several weeks later, they don't think that they would get to the point where they would talk about and this is what really scares the West for some good reason. Okay. When I speak of these with respect, I'm not speaking uncritically, but they would talk about the deification of the believer that we'd become not a capital God, but a little.

[00:09:50] Athanasius said. God became man, that we might be made God. A huge, huge divergence from Augustine's judicial doctrine of salvation, where we are declared righteous and we aren't really righteous at all. You might not even see it. We're just declared righteous in Eastern orthodoxy. They were very much. Emphasizing there should be transformation, There should be change. There's much to be learned from spiritual experience. And the knowledge of God comes from illumination as much as from intentional study. And here's where the two Western and Eastern thoughts collide and where I've gotten into a little bit of trouble in Sacred Pathways. I describe the Eastern Orthodox practice of Centering Prayer, where the Eastern Orthodox will use a word to anchor themselves in God's presence, not to empty their mind, like in transcendental meditation, but to focus their mind on God so they don't waver. Because in the Eastern Orthodox model, the whole intention is spending time in the presence of God, and those in the West will say, Well, what's it good for? And they're saying it's not utilitarian. It's the reason for being to be aware of God's presence. It's its own reward. It's not the knowledge it gives us. It's not what it accomplishes. Being with God is its own worth. And so some in the West are very nervous of this. And I've had an organization that has attacked me for years for a paragraph and a half of one out of 12 books trying to say, I'm teaching transcendental meditation, and I just want to say that I've explained to them, describing Eastern Orthodox centering prayer as team, even though it predates it by a thousand years or more, and shows a gross ignorance of it. And I'm not going to throw a whole Christian tradition under the bus because some quirky New Age movement tried to mimic a few practices.

[00:11:51] If we can't do something as Christians that other groups do well, we have to stop praying. Other religions pray. The Muslims pray. We can't fast, Buddhists fast. I mean, if we can't meditate and stay in the presence of God because some new age is well, I'm just not willing to say, look, I don't practice centering prayer, but I respect how it's been expressed in the Eastern Orthodox tradition because I don't want to give up. So I don't mean to get into a whole dispute. The point I'm trying to make is that they highly valued spiritual experience for its own sake in the West. We're very suspicious of that. And again, there are some reasons to be, but I want us to gain from what they teach us. They would use icons again, very misunderstood in the West because people think of Eastern Orthodox Christians as praying to the icons. That's not what they're doing. They're trying to use the icons to center their thoughts on God in prayer. They're not praying to it. It's a prayer aid. It's a visual aid is the way they would look at it. They don't see it as an idol. Again, I don't use icons. Okay? I'm not advocating this. I'm describing what a whole tradition of the church in the East uses. The Jesus prayer came out of the Eastern tradition. It had various forms, but the whole purpose of the Jesus prayer is to root us in the awareness of the presence of God. God is always present. We always live in God's presence. The challenges that we forget, we go off. We forget that, oh yeah, God is in relationship with me. And so the Jesus prayer was developed to to remind the believer of that.

[00:13:35] And they called it the perfect prayer, the most popular form. There were different forms that you could read throughout history. The most popular form was Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God have mercy on me, a sinner. That's what was a Jesus Lord Jesus Christ. He prayed to Son of God, His identity have mercy on me. Our greatest need a sinner who I am. And they would say that sometimes thousands of times a day to root themselves in that one farmer one time had Francis of Assisi. Now we're back to the west, but sort of the same expression that came. He had him over and he wanted to know how Francis spent the evening. And Francis was too humble to be seriously pursuing spiritual exercises when he thought somebody might be listening. So the farmer pretended he was asleep, and once Francis was convinced he was asleep, he heard Francis get up. And all throughout the night, Francis's prayer was simply, My God and my all my God and my all. He wasn't trying to direct the world through intercession, as we are known to do in the West. He wasn't saying, God, you got to reorder my life like I want you to do like we do so often in the West. It was simply in God's presence, My God and my hope. It's that sense of an experiential resting in God and that I mentioned salvation is deification, becoming created as opposed to uncreated God's with with a little gee, that's perilous when you even talk. And we should have wide boundaries around that. If you want to read that, I don't want to deal with it in short treatment. I won't do I won't do justice either to the Western concerns or the Eastern expression.

[00:15:22] So I'll let you do that on your own. I think the text book of the Eastern Orthodox approach to spirituality is John Climacus that's written in the seventh century Ladder of Divine Ascent. I've probably read that book at least four times, maybe five. There's no soul rest in it. I want to go to some of those monks and preach the gospel of salvation by grace through faith. But there is much in there to challenge Western minded Christians.

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