Recovering the Christian Spiritual Classics

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I love books. I love reading books and I love writing about books. The best book is an old book.

“If one must choose between reading the new books and reading the old, one must choose the old: not because they are necessarily better but because they contain precisely those truths of which our own age is neglectful” (C.S. Lewis, God in the Dock).

Ten years ago I set a goal of spending some time every day in a spiritual classic (about fifteen minutes). I’ve kept that purpose most days. I’m not familiar with any precise definition of what counts as a spiritual classic; it’s more, “You know one when you read one.” If I were to surmise what the particular attributes would be, I would say (and so I am surmising):

  1. A spiritual classic has shaped the spiritual lives of thousands, if not millions, of people.
  2. A spiritual classic has proven to be spiritually enriching for decades or even centuries.
  3. A spiritual classic captures something of truth that transcends cultural barriers.
  4. A spiritual classic fosters a desire for deeper communion with God and renews a passion for God’s Word.

Perhaps there are other elements to consider, but I’m very comfortable suggesting that these are the sina qua nons of spiritual classics. “Old” does not mean classic. Most books have never been reprinted. Classic books are books that have aged well. Don’t mistake “classic” for easy reading. A book understood thoroughly the first time is not likely to be read a second. A classic has depths that are only normally ascertained after multiple readings, not unlike the Bible.

Most modern devotional books fail the criteria of classic spiritual literature. Nonetheless, many believers continue to consume one best-seller after another like children in a candy store. A child may feel good momentarily, but a study diet of candy won’t sustain physical health. I’m frequently asked what I think about this or that devotional book or for a recommendation. My first response, not to be curt, is, “Tell me about your daily Bible study method. If you’re not reading and studying your Bible daily, go do that for the next 30 days then come back and I’ll have a suggestion for you.”

The books I recommend are not written by Daniel Henderson, Timothy Keller, and Francis Chan. Now these guys are not writing fluff, but they are writing for secondhand readers. I’ve read and learned from all three of these guys, but why should we limit ourselves to secondhand material? These guys read the spiritual classics and their writings are shaped by the books you’ll find below.  The time is ripe for a recovery of the spiritual classics that have inspired Christian faith for centuries.

Over the last two years I have composed a list of my favorite spiritual classics. Some are very readable and others are a bit esoteric. Nearly everything on this list is available digitally or in print. Most of these are not formatted as modern “devotionals” with a page or two for each day of the year. You just have to sort out what to read each day.  Also, none of these books are younger than forty years and they cross the geographic and theological spectrum within Christian faith. The list I am sharing here is a selection from a more complete list I’ve compiled. Here is the list by century:

20th-Century Spiritual Classics

  1. Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis
  2. Celebration of Discipline, Richard Foster
  3. The Cost of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer
  4. The Way of the Heart, E. Stanley Jones
  5. My Utmost for His Highest, Oswald Chambers

19th-Century Spiritual Classics

  1. Evening and Morning, Charles Spurgeon
  2. Fear and Trembling, Soren Kierkegaard
  3. Longing for Heaven, Horatius Bonar

18th-Century Spiritual Classics

  1. A Devout and Holy Life, William Law
  2. A Plain Account of Christian Perfection, John Wesley
  3. Religious Affections, Jonathan Edwards
  4. A Guide to Prayer, Isaac Watts

17th-Century Spiritual Classics

  1. Communion with God, John Owen
  2. The Life of God in the Soul of Man, Henry Scougal
  3. Holy Living, Jeremy Taylor
  4. Meditations, Francois Fenelon
  5. The Art of Divine Contentment, Thomas Watson

16th-Century Spiritual Classics

  1. Private Prayers, Lancelot Andrewes
  2. Dark Night of the Soul, John of the Cross
  3. Flame of Love, Teresa of Avila

15th-Century Spiritual Classics

  1. The Imitation of Christ, Thomas a Kempis
  2. Enfolded Love, Julian of Norwich

14th-Century Spiritual Classics

  1. The Cloud of Unknowing, Anonymous
  2. Prayer, Hugo de Balma

13th-Century Spiritual Classics

  1. The Riches of Simplicity, Clare of Assisi
  2. The Life of St. Francis, Bonaventure

12th-Century Spiritual Classics

  1. On Loving God, Bernard of Clairvaux
  2. Benjamin Major, Richard of St. Victor

11th-Century Spiritual Classics

  1. Why God Became Man, Anselm of Canterbury
  2. The Religious Life, Hugh of St. Victor

10th-Century Spiritual Classics

  1. Commentary on Morality, Odo of Cluny
  2. Occupatio, Odo of Cluny

9th-Century Spiritual Classics

  1. On the Body and Blood of Our Lord, Gerbert of Aurillac

8th-Century Spiritual Classics

  1. Orthodox Faith, John of Damascus

7th-Century Spiritual Classics

  1. Illustrated Lives, Isidore of Seville
  2. On the Catholic Faith, Isidore of Seville

6th-Century Spiritual Classics

  1. The Divine Names, Denis the Areopagite

5th-Century Spiritual Classics

  1. Conferences, John Cassian
  2. The Call of All Nations, Prosper of Aquitaine
  3. Becoming Temples of God, Cyril of Alexandria

4th-Century Spiritual Classics

  1. Confessions, Augustine of Hippo
  2. On the Incarnation, Athanasius
  3. The Lord’s Prayer, Gregory of Nyssa

3rd-Century Spiritual Classics

  1. Apologia, Tertullian
  2. On Sports, Tertullian

2nd-Century Spiritual Classics

  1. Against Heresies, Irenaeus of Lyons
  2. The Stromata, Clement of Alexandria
  3. Letters, Ignatius of Antioch

 

 

 

 

 

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David Fry
Senior Pastor at the Frankfort Bible Holiness Church. PhD in Systematic Theology (Trinity Evangelical Divinity School). MDiv in New Testament Theology (Wesley Biblical Seminary).
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