January 14, 2012

Frank Senn: Protestant Spiritual Traditions

  Protestant Spiritual Traditions by Frank Senn (1986) – 3.5 out of 5 stars.

In this book, Frank Senn attempts to provide a survey of spirituality in the major traditions which make up Protestantism today. He defines “spirituality” as “communion with God and the way of life which emanates from that.” The approach he takes is to solicit an essay from a representative within each tradition (with Senn providing the Lutheran perspective). This allows each tradition the ability to express its own distinct voice on the subject of spirituality.The goal is not to outline the doctrinal distinctives of each tradition, or to provide a complete history of the origination and development of each tradition, but to provide a look specifically into the approach of each with regards to prayer, faith, public worship, and private devotion. The focus for each is on the founders or key influences in each tradition to provide a view of their spirituality in its original form. The motivation for this is to provide a perspective which may call some back to their origins. Senn writes:

“The essays are offered in the conviction that Protestants and non-Protestants alike will appreciate a survey of the spiritualities which have nurtured the faith and life of so many adherents who have contributed in a formative way to Western, and especially North American, culture. At the same time it may be that many Protestants who are searching for a deeper spiritual life will find what they are looking for at home as well as abroad. It may be that what passes for the copy in current circulation betrays the original. For this reason the essays emphasize the experiences and reflections of the “founders” of these spiritual traditions – e.g Martin Luther, John Calvin, Menno Simons, Thomas Cranmer and the Anglican divines and mystics, Richard Baxter, Philip Jacob Spener, John Wesley, and others. Communities in search of renewal need to begin by returning to their origins” (5-6).

The traditions represented are Lutheran, Reformed, Anabaptist, Anglican, Puritan, Pietist, and Methodist. Most of the essays are about 40-50 pages long, except for the Reformed and Puritan essays which were much shorter at 25 and 18 pages, respectively. Not all of the essays were of equal quality nor equally clear.

In my opinion, the strongest was Senn’s, which provided a well-balanced view of Lutheran spirituality, touching on the mystical and ascetic aspects of Luther’s spirituality, Lutheran liturgy, the sacraments, catechism and hymnody, prayer, devotional literature, and the tradition’s emphasis on discipleship and cross-bearing.

The remainder of the essays were helpful to varying degrees and together provide an interesting view of the way these various traditions have arisen from and influenced one another. From these essays and also general observation, the Puritan and Pietist streams seem to have had the most far reaching influence, affecting aspects of life (whether cultural or religious) in each of the other traditions. Perhaps the most insightful observation of all the essays was the idea that Puritanism could accurately be described as an application of medieval monasticism to all of life. Glenn Hinson writes:

“Puritanism was spirituality. Puritans were to Protestantism what contemplative and ascetics were to the medieval church. They parted company with their medieval forbears chiefly in the locus of their efforts. Where monks sought sainthood in monasteries, Puritans sought it everywhere – in homes, schools, town halls, shops as well as churches. Sometimes knowingly, at other times unknowingly, they employed virtually the same methods monks used to obtain the same goal – “the saints’ rest,” heaven, or “full and glorious enjoyment of God.” Like the monks, they were zealous of heart religion manifested in transformation of life and manners. Impatient for unreserved, enthusiastic embracing of the covenant. Everything they did, they did with solemnity and determination” (165).

This book would be a helpful supplement to a study in historical theology or church history, and gives much needed insight into the similarities and differences in the way your neighbor at the Protestant church down the street worships Christ.

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