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Christian Spirituality: From the Reformation to Contemporary Spirituality

by Dr Alex Tang


1.                  Christian Spirituality Timeline

1.1              Timeline: Protestant Reformation Movement



1.2              Timeline: Catholic Counter Reformation Movement




2.                  Protestant Reformation

The sixteenth century was another period of upheaval. Politically northern Europe has broken away from the east and west and there are powerful kings and vassals looking for wealth and power. There is also general agreement for reforms in the Roman Catholic Church where greedy and self-seeking men has seized power. The problem is that there is no general agreement on how these reforms are to be instituted.


Those Catholics who later become Protestants were of the view that not only does the church structure needed reforms but also theology, liturgy, sacraments and separation from the papacy. Those who remained Catholics managed to obtain support from the Council of Trent (1545-1563) for educational reforms for priests, correction of abuses by bishops and a more centralised administration of the church. Catholic Spain led the reforms in this era.


2.1              Martin Luther (1483–1546)

Martin Luther, the catalyst of the Protestant Reformation, was born of peasant parentage in Eisleben, Saxony, in 1483. The foundation of his theological thinking perhaps came when he was confronted by the need of divine revelation while a student at the University of Erfurt. Luther entered a Roman Catholic monastery, having promised St. Anne he would become a monk after he was spared during a violent thunderstorm.


However, during a trip to Rome, Luther became disillusioned with the Roman Catholic church as he saw its corruption. He returned to Wittenberg where he received the doctor of theology degree and subsequently taught the Bible. Through the study of the Bible, and particularly Romans 1:17, Luther came to a knowledge of justification by faith alone. This formed the foundation of his theology and opposition to the Catholic church.

On October 31, 1517, Luther nailed his Ninety-Five Theses on the door of the church at Wittenberg. These statements outlined his disagreements with the Catholic church. Luther stressed sola scriptura—the Scriptures alone are the authority for people—not the church and its councils.

Luther left an enormous theological legacy: he taught that only the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper were legitimate; he wrote prolifically, challenging the Roman church and establishing his own catechisms; he provided the church with some of the great hymns, such as “A Mighty Fortress” ; he established an educational system, teaching the people to read the Bible.

Martin Luther never intended to break away from the Roman Catholic Church but to reform it from within. His arguments can be summarised as:

§         as opposed to all the traditions, laws and authorities that have grown up over the centuries (especially papal infallible), Luther emphasized the primacy of scripture: “scripture alone”.

§         as opposed to all the thousands of saints and thousands and thousands of official mediators between God and man, Luther emphasized the primacy of Christ, “Christ alone,” who is the center of scripture and the point of orientation for all exegesis of scripture.

§         as opposed to all pious religious achievements and efforts by men and women (works) to attain salvation of their souls (which were ordained by the church), Luther emphasized the primacy of grace and faith: “grace alone” – the grace of a gracious God as shown in the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ and “faith alone”, the unconditional trust of men and women in this God.

Luther called for a ‘spirituality of the cross’ and ‘theology of the cross’. His spirituality is based on the suffering of Christ on the cross, which went against all human reasons and expectations. It was focussed in him finding freedom in receiving grace from God and justification by faith. Luther’s strength and weaknesses stemmed from Augustine. While he emphasised on sin, forgiveness and the cross, he did not place enough emphasis on healing, transformation and resurrection.

In him we are by faith, and he in us. This bridegroom [God] must be alone with the bride in his secret chamber, all the servants and family being put outside. But afterwards, when he opens the door and comes forth, then let the servants and handmaidens return, to fulfil their ministry. There let charity do her office, and let the good works be done.

Martin Luther

2.2              John Calvin

However, Luther started a Reformation with the northern part (Germany) of the Roman Catholic Church breaking away. The new leaders of the movement were Huldrych Zwingli in Zurich and John Calvin in Geneva. Luther started the movement but it was John Calvin who systemized the theology. His theology became known as Calvinism. All the Protestant churches embraced Calvinism. In Europe, these churches were known as Reformed churches. In Britain, these churches are known as Presbyterian churches. So when the Presbyterian churches spread to China and from China to Malaysia and started churches including HLCE, the main emphasis is on Calvinism. And the main emphasis of Calvinism: “scripture alone”.


Our wisdom…consists almost entirely of two things: the knowledge of God and our ourselves

John Calvin

                                    The Institutes of the Christian Religion


Calvin’s spirituality is the mystical union of the believer with Christ. He taught that humans are joined to Christ in baptism and that they grow in that union throughout life. This is different from the mystical union of the Christian mystics. Calvin taught that justification and sanctification (spiritual formation) are gifts of God. Unlike Luther, he emphasised more on spiritual formation, which he likened to union with Christ.


3.                  Catholic Counter-Reformation

3.1              Roman Catholic Counter-Reformation movement

At the same time when many Catholics were leaving the Roman Catholic churches to become Protestants, the Catholics were making many reforms. While many of the reforms were laudable, it was unfortunate that the Council of Trent (1545-1563) drew up doctrinal statements that defined Catholicism as distinct from Protestantism. The Supremacy of the Traditions of the Roman Catholic Church and the Infallibility of the Pope were reaffirmed against Protestants’ attacks.



3.2              Ignatius of Loyola (1491?-1556)

Ignatius was born into a powerful and wealthy Basque family living in the province of Guipuzcoa (Spain). Little is known of the boyhood of Inigo Lopez de Onaz y de Loyola. In 1506, through the help provided by Juan Velazquez de Cuellar, he was introduced to the court of King Ferdinand. His life of ease and luxury there abruptly ended with the king’s death (1516) and the invasion by French armies into Navarre-a territory claimed by Spain. While defending the city of Pamplona, Loyola was seriously wounded in the leg by a cannon ball (1521).

The subsequent painful surgery and recuperation were undertaken at the castle of Loyola. There he was given the Life of Christ, a devotional book by a fourteenth-century Carthusian monk Ludolph of Saxony. After reading that and other spiritual writings, Ignatius experienced a mystical vision of Christ and the Virgin Mary. His former desires for chivalric honor were transformed into spiritual desires to serve God. He envisioned companies of men-not knights but soldiers of Christ.

He then visited a monastery at Montserrat and secluded himself in a cave at Manresa. Influenced by other ascetics, he practiced severe mental and physical mortification, including flagellation and fasting. It was here that his Spiritual Exercises first formed in his mind, although the book was not published until later.

After a year of intense prayer, confession, and introspection, Ignatius was close to suicide. He decided to leave his hermitage (1523) and continue his spiritual exercises while on pilgrimage to Palestine. He then resumed the education he had abandoned, studying in Barcelona, Alcala, and Salamanca. He finally graduated (1535) with an M.A. from the University of Paris.

While studying, Ignatius had attracted considerable attention. Some faculty criticized his doctrines. A small band of students, however, impressed by his teaching, formed an association with Ignatius. They were dedicated to chastity, poverty, and making a pilgrimage to Jerusalem in order to serve the poor and sick there.

Ignatius then traveled to Rome (1537) to affirm his unqualified allegiance to the pope. He was soon joined by his company and in 1540 the association was constituted the Society of Jesus by Paul III (1534-1549). Recognizing their "prophetic spirit," the pope expressed his hope that they would "reform the Church." Ignatius then devoted himself to perfecting his Spiritual Exercises and compiling the order’s Constitutions. He served as superior general of the "company" from its inception until he fell ill in 1556. Two attempts to resign were thwarted by his Jesuit brothers. 

Ignatius wrote his Spiritual Exercises to be used as a manual by retreat directors for the Jesuits. The instructions are very flexible and but also very structured. It was planned that those taking the retreat will spend thirty days with the instructions divided into four ‘weeks’. During this time, a number of exercises will be carried out to help the person discern the direction of his life. The first ‘week’, the retreatant considers the purpose of life, God’s call and the seriousness of sin. The second ‘week’ opens with Christ’s call to service him as king and leads through the life of Jesus from the incarnation to Palm Sunday.  The third ‘week’ concerns the passion and the crucifixion and the fourth ‘week’ concerns the resurrection. It is an exercise in surrender to God and discernment of God’s leading.

Ignatius of Loyola and Martin Luther (1483-1546) were contemporaries whose divergent paths keenly illustrated their different approaches to the church’s reform. Both perceived the corruption of the church and both recoiled from the degradation of the Renaissance popes. Ignatius and Luther recognized that the secularism that had permeated the church could not be repelled without far-reaching "reform in head and members." Luther came to pursue his ideal outside the Roman Catholic Church. Ignatius, Luther’s junior, pursued his inside the church.

Ignatius saw church reform to be based upon individual reform. His Spiritual Exercises was written to foster union with God and unqualified allegiance to the church. The process of purgation, illumination, and union was borrowed from writings of medieval mystics. First, all "inordinate attachments" were to be "purged" and rejected. Second, the will of God would be "illumined" or made plain. Third, if one was obedient to that revealed will, one would experience union with God.



Lord, teach me to be generous, teach me to serve you as you deserve, to give and not to count the cost, to fight and not to heed the wounds, to toil and not to seek for rest, to labour and not to seek reward, save that of knowing that I do your will. Amen


Ignatius of Loyola


4.                  Contemporary Christian Spirituality

4.1              Reformed Spirituality

(1)               Reformed theology has always been understood in terms of covenant.

(2)               Has a distrust of human nature which is sinful

(3)               Affirms the sufficiency of God's Word.

(4)               Jesus Christ is the focus of interpretation Scripture.

(5)               Value of using the mind

(6)               Importance of community

(7)               Each person is responsible to God for all of life.

(8)               Spiritual formation is to bring all of life into Christlikeness.


4.2              Wesleyan Spirituality

Wesley and his brother, Charles formed a group for prayers, Holy Communion and prison visits in Oxford University. The group became ridiculed with names such as 'The Holy Club" and "Methodists". Their daily schedules and other strict requirements led to this charge of "Method-ism".

One day, on May 24, 1738 John Wesley was in Aldergate street for a meeting. Someone was reading from Luther's preface to the Epistle to the Romans.


About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation; and an assurance was given to me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.

John Wesley


 His new teachings led to John Wesley to be rejected by the Anglican church so he began preaching outdoors. He preached holiness and look for life changes. One example was the drinking of gin.

The main contention of his preaching is that 'entire sanctification' follows justification by faith as a second experience. This means that we can be perfect this side of heaven.


4.3              Lutheran Spirituality

The two aspects of Lutheran theology are (1) Christ-for-us of the Lutheran orthodoxy and (2) Christ-in-us of Lutheran pietism which is the experiential aspect. Down the centuries, the experiential and mystical aspect of Luther's life has been overshadowed by the Christ-for-us orthodoxy with its emphasis on the intellectual life through the study of the Word and justification for faith.


4.4              Creation Spirituality

The chief proponent of creation spirituality is Matthew Fox. He is a Dominican priest. Fox distinguished between the creation theme and the fall-redemption theme in the Bible and regarded the fall-redemption theme as myth. His creation spirituality is based on

(1)               creative word of God

(2)               original blessing (instead of the original sin)

(3)               the celebration of all beings

(4)               the unknown, unnameable God who is a non-God

(5)               the divinisation and deitification of humanity

(6)               spirituality as a spiral growth process

(7)               compassion and justice

(8)               Jesus as a reminder on what it is to be God's child

(9)               Laughter, newness, joy: an affirmation of pleasure.

(10)           Pantheism (all things are God)

(11)           Realised eschatology (eternal life begins now)


Matthew Fox seems to have rejected the central tenet of Christianity when he rejected the fall-redemption theme.


4.5              Liberation Spirituality

The Roman Catholic Church came to South America with the conquistadors and since then was the religion of the rich and powerful. In some countries 2% of the people owned 90% of the land. In the mid-twentieth century, 'base Christian communities' were started by the priests which involved the peasants in Bible study. The pleasants learn to read and begin to think critically about their lives. This leads to a call for reform of the economic order and give birth to a new kind of theology- liberation theology. It advocate a new way of doing theology, from bottom up. It employs Marxist ways of analysing the economic situation and the Christian gospel to offer hope from oppression in the future. This has been severely criticised by both the Catholics and the Protestants.

Recently Gustavo Gutierrez suggested an alternative: conversion (necessary break form the past), gratuitousness (free unearned grace of God), joy in suffering and martyrdom (which come in the struggle for liberation), spiritual childhood (commitment to the poor) and community.


4.6              Feminist Spirituality

The church in the West are in the midst of a revolution in response to the reevaluation of women in the church. The radical feminist movement in the United States in the 70s have developed a new consciousness among women in the church.

Much of the theology, traditions and history of Christianity has been written, developed and implemented by men especially men from the religious orders. It will not be surprising that there will be biasness as they tend to see women as sex objects and object of temptation rather than partners in spirituality.

Another are is the way we image God. We think of God in male metaphors and use the male pronoun. It is difficult to see how woman is made in the image of God.

There is a need to reform our attitude towards women in the church and avoid the unspoken dualism and hierarchies. This will need for us to read the Bible with different eyes, looking for women and how things look from their point of views. It also means we must be skeptical of church traditions as a whole especially in areas that deals with the role of women.


4.7              Emerging Spiritualities

(1)               Zen Christianity

(2)               Native American spirituality

(3)               Black Spirituality

(4)               Masculine Spirituality

(5)               Christianity-Psychology Spirituality

(6)               Twelve-Step Spirituality

(7)               Sufi Christianity


5.                  Reflection Questions

5.1              Compare and contrast the spirituality of Martin Luther and John Calvin with Ignatius of Loyola. What can we learn from them? How does your finding affect your own spirituality?


5.2              Do you think there is a place for dialogue between the Roman Catholics and the Protestants?  Why or why not?


5.3              Have this brief survey of the development of Christian spirituality helped you? Are there any areas you want to find out more? How would you use this knowledge to develop your own spirituality?


                                                                                                                                                                             Soli Deo Gloria


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