The History of Christian Spirituality: Recommended Resources

Over the past couple of years, I have become increasingly interested in the topic of Christian spirituality. While I have always cared about spirituality from a personal and pastoral perspective, I have had a growing interest in the study of spirituality from a scholarly (mostly historical theological) perspective as well. About half of my reading over the past year has been in this area. My “to-be-read” shelf currently includes another couple dozen books on the topic. I am blessed with the opportunity to teach doctoral seminars on the history of spirituality at Southern Seminary. I also hope to create a couple of new masters-level courses in spirituality for Southeastern Seminary students in the next year or two.In this post, I want to recommend some resources for those of you who are interested in reading about the history of Christian spirituality. Before you begin reading about the history of spirituality, it is probably a good idea to get a handle on the topic. What are the major questions? What are the major schools of thought? Who are the important names in the field? I would recommend four books as potential starting places. The best textbook-style introductions written for an evangelical audience are Alister McGrath’s Christian Spirituality: An Introduction (Wiley-Blackwell, 1999) and Evan Howard’s The Brazos Introduction to Christian Spirituality (Brazos, 2008). For a more popularly written introduction, see Bruce Demarest’s Satisfy Your Soul: Restoring the Heart of Christian Spirituality (NavPress, 1999). For a great comparative resource, I would recommend Bruce Demarest’s edited volume Four Views on Christian Spirituality (Zondervan, 2012).

Augustine of Hippo

Once you have a basic grasp of the overall topic of Christian spirituality, you are ready to move on to works related more specifically to the history of spirituality. For general survey-style books, I would recommend Richard A. Schmidt’s God Seekers: Twenty Centuries of Christian Spiritualities (Eerdmans, 2008) and Gerald Sittser’s Water from a Deep Well: Christian Spirituality from Early Martyrs to Modern Missionaries (IVP Academic, 2010). For introductions to the history of evangelical spirituality in particular, see James Gordon’s Evangelical Spirituality (1991; reprint, Wipf and Stock, 2000) and Ian Randall’s What a Friend We Have in Jesus: The Evangelical Tradition (Orbis, 2005). The latter volume is part of a helpful series titled Traditions of Christian Spirituality, published by Orbis Books. As of this writing, thirteen volumes have been published.

No study of the history of Christian spiritualty is adequate unless you actually read primary source works related to the topic. Fortunately, there are many different tools to help evangelical readers engage the classics of Christian spirituality. Before you dive into primary sources, check out the helpful edited volume by Kyle Strobel and Jamin Goggin, Reading the Spiritual Classics: A Guide for Evangelicals (IVP Academic, 2013). From there, a good starting place might by an anthology such as Richard Foster and James Bryan Smith’s Devotional Classics: Selected Readings for Individuals and Groups (HarperOne, 2005).

Anthologies are nice, however, one should never be satisfied with short snippets of classic writings. I would highly recommend moving on to a series that provides larger excerpts (or even whole volumes) with editors’ introductions that contextualize and summarize the work. The gold standard in the field is the Classics of Western Spirituality Series, published by Paulist Press. This series, which is extremely diverse in terms of theology and ecclesial tradition, is now up to around seventy published volumes. For those interested in the Reformed tradition, Reformation Heritage publishes the Profiles in Reformed Spirituality Series, which is now up to eleven volumes. In a similar vein, Joshua Press, a Canadian publisher, has a Classics of Reformed Spirituality Series that is now up to five volumes. We are still awaiting a publisher to take on a more general Classics of Evangelical Spirituality Series. (Any takers?)

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