Spirituality in the Reformed tradition

By Keith Forecast

reformedI was brought up within the Reformed Tradition, with three principal influences, namely, a practising Christian family, a liberal Congregational Church and a Crusader class. From the first influence, I learned the value of Church-going and the ethical practicalities of Christian living. In the context of the second influence, I became involved in dignified and restrained corporate worship which drew me consciously into the presence of God and encouraged me to think about my faith and its implications. Under the third influence, I developed a knowledge of and love for the Scriptures and the value of a daily ‘quiet time with the Lord’. I don’t think I ever heard or used the term ‘spirituality’, either during my upbringing or, for that matter, during many years of ministry. Today, it is used much more widely and freely and can denote anything from a vague yearning for the infinite to the daily exercises of the priest or the religious community.

So what is ‘spirituality’ and is there such a thing as ‘Reformed Spirituality’?

The Oxford Dictionary of English defines ‘spiritual’ as ‘relating to or affecting the human spirit or soul as opposed to material or physical things’. For the Christian, that is hardly enough. Yes, we are ‘spiritual beings’, having aspects of our personality that transcend the things we can see, touch and handle. But for us ‘spirituality’ is not simply the enhancement of our personality, or merely our aspiration after the divine, but essentially our communication with and our relationship to a God who is revealed in Christ through the Spirit. ‘We love because God first loved us’ (I John 4.19). Therefore ‘Our hearts are restless till they rest in Thee’.

The Reformers didn’t use the term ‘spirituality’. They wrote and spoke about ‘the practice of piety’, ‘pilgrimage of the soul’, ‘devotion’, ‘godly conversation’. Perhaps today we might both honour them and clarify our own thinking and practice by speaking of ‘Christian living’ or ‘Christian discipleship’.

For the Reformers everything begins with God, the source of all life, grace and faith. Christian discipleship therefore becomes, in the first place, a process of discovering God, enabling God to impact upon our lives, seeking to discern God’s will. God is revealed in many ways, but predominantly in Scripture (the Word), which has Christ at its heart, and comes alive in the experience of the reader through the power of the Holy Spirit. Christian disciples will therefore read and study the Bible carefully and critically, seeking guidance for contemporary living. Discovering God will inevitably lead to the acknowledgement of human shortcoming and sinfulness and the need for the assurance of God’s forgiveness and renewal. Thus assured, the Christian disciple will seek to display the character of God, as revealed in Christ, in day-to-day practical living. For the Reformers ‘spirituality’ is thus seen to be deeply personal, as the Christian disciple relates more and more closely to God and to their ‘vocation’, that is, what God specifically wants them to be and to do in daily living. The first question of the Heidelberg Catechism (1563) asks, ‘What is your only comfort, in life and in death?’ and the answer: ‘That I belong, body and soul, in life and in death, not to myself but to my faithful Saviour, Jesus Christ’.

But the Reformers don’t stop there! For them, a vital result of personal discipleship is corporate belonging to the Church, as belonging to Christ involves belonging to the Body of Christ. The Church and its ministry are indispensable ‘means of grace’. ‘Spirituality’ thus becomes corporate. Corporate worship is as important as personal devotion. The ‘real presence’ of Christ among his followers as they sit ‘under the Word’ and take part in the Gospel Sacraments is essential. And as many of them extend their corporate worship into the corporate waiting upon God to discern his will for them as a body, what we know as Church Meeting is developed. Thus, their emphasis on ‘the priesthood of all believers’ emerges, often reduced and distorted by their latter-day heirs into a doctrine merely of direct individual access to God.

We can thus see that for the Reformers, and therefore for those who claim to sit in the Reformed tradition, ‘spirituality’ is no vague concept, nor yet a matter for the individual Christian disciple alone. ‘Spirituality’ is the expression of our relationship to God, as God is revealed in Christ, through the activity of the Spirit. It will be nurtured by the reading of Scripture, by personal meditation, by private prayer. ‘Spiritual exercises’ from various Christian traditions and contemporary practices may help, and the Reformers by no means eschew them. even producing some of their own devotional manuals with sample prayers and advocating other aids to the spiritual life. But our ‘spirituality’ will also be developed by close involvement in the life of the Church, by the vast reservoir of hymns written to sustain the Church’s public worship, by the corporate study of and response to the Word, by prayers which may include both the treasures of the centuries in all Christian traditions as well as ‘extempore’ prayer, which does not mean unprepared and spontaneous so much as ‘out of the present time’, reflecting contemporary concerns and needs. Above all it will involve regular sharing in the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, always remembering that membership of the Christian fellowship is vital, both for the development of relationship to God and for expressing that relationship in witness and action, for, at the end of the day, ‘spirituality’ always becomes mission.