Dynamics of Spiritual Life (Book Review)

dynamics-spiritual-lifeI came across the name Richard Lovelace several times in the past couple of years.  The first time I was reading Tim Keller’s seminary class notebook on preaching.  Keller cites Lovelace quite a few times as his former teacher at Gordon-Conwell.  He even says that Lovelace is a major influence on his understanding of the Christian Life, Church History, Apologetics of the Heart, and Evangelism.  Then it dawned on me that my senior pastor studied at the same school.  So I asked him one day if he knew anything about Richard Lovelace.  He did!  Turns out that he studied under Lovelace back in the 1970s.  The experience was stimulating since Lovelace is a profound and broad thinker, a rare breed of church historian and visionary of the future.  Then my pastor pulled a book off his shelf and handed me his copy of Dynamics of Spiritual Life: An Evangelical Theology of Renewal.  It’s a big book, weighing in at 455 pages.  But it just so happens that I’ll be teaching a few adult Sunday School classes on the spiritual disciplines, so I thought I’d take a look at the book.  Once I started reading, I knew I had to finish it.  And buy a copy for myself to reread and mark-up.

The back cover (the awesome vintage cover circa 1979) has a summary of what Lovelace is trying to say:

Richard Lovelace gives a history of spiritual renewals in light of biblical models.  Isolating the elements of live orthodoxy, he proposes a comprehensive approach to renewal.  Lovelace looks at such practical issues as renewal of the local congregation, the ways revivals go wrong, the evangelical thrust toward church unity, and Christian approaches to the arts and to social concern.  A book for all concerned to revitalized the church.

The author’s thesis (tabulated on page 75) is that history consistently reveals the necessary ingredients of personal, corporate, societal renewal that God chooses to bless with his reviving Spirit.  When studied, each instance of renewal reveals the preconditions (preparation for the gospel), the primary elements (depth presentation of the gospel), and the secondary elements (outworking of the gospel in the Church’s life).

Regarding the preconditions, Lovelace identifies (1) an awareness of the holiness of God, particularly of God’s justice and love, and (2) an awareness of the depth of sin, particularly in your own life and in the life of your community.  Without these preexisting conditions in persons and/or entire communities of Christians, God has never acted to bring spiritual renewal.

According to Lovelace, the primary elements of renewal involve a deeper understanding of the gospel.  This is why the gospel is not just for entrance into God’s kingdom, but is the warp and woof of the Christian’s daily life with God.  Just as the NT teaches us the riches of the gospel, Lovelace emphasizes how the Christian’s identity is revolutionized in union with Christ.  The doctrine of justification reminds us the believer that he is accepted.  Sanctification means you are free from bondage to sin.  The indwelling Spirit of God in the Christian’s heart assures that you are not alone.  And the authority bestowed on God’s child in spiritual conflict remind you that you are not powerless, but have authority in Christ in the spiritual realms.  The depths of the gospel, understood, comprehended, and apprehended by the Christian, are the primary elements necessary for spiritual renewal.  This fact alone functions as a check on the abuse of the spiritual disciplines.  Many treat prayer, Bible study, meditation, fasting, tithing, serving, etc as a set of laws that Christians must shoulder after the gospel is believed.  But the history of spiritual renewal in the church argues otherwise.  Only by re-grounding in the gospel and sinking down strong roots capable of weathering the world, the flesh, and the devil, can the Christian experience renewal.  These elements (justification, sanctification, the indwelling Holy Spirit, and exercise of spiritual authority) are primary elements for spiritual renewal to occur by God’s sovereign blessing.

There are secondary elements of renewal, namely mission, prayer, community, disenculturation, and theological integration.  Lovelace defines each as such:

  1. Mission: following Christ into the world, presenting his gospel in both proclamation and social demonstration
  2. Prayer: expressing dependence on the power of His Spirit both individually and corporately
  3. Community: being in union with his body in both micro- and macro-communities
  4. Disenculturation: being freed from cultural binds that are either destructive or protective in nature
  5. Theological integration: having the mind of Christ toward both revealed truth and your culture

These preconditions and elements form the basis for biblical models of cyclical and continuous renewal.  As a historian, the author explains how the history of the Protestant church was better prepared for renewal before the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy brought as-yet unreconciled disunity to the church.  This early 20th century dispute split the Evangelical movement from the Mainline institutional churches.  Classical evangelicalism up until that time included the emphases of renewal, nurture, evangelism, and missions along with ecumenism and social reform.  But with the split came what Lovelace calls the “Delta Effect” as these various emphases became separated channels of particular movements.  Within the evangelical portion of the “river delta” were fundamentalism, confessional orthodoxies, and neo-evangelicalism.  These “conservative” streams were cut off from the traditions that valued and pursed ecumenical unity and social reform.  In the mainline portion of the “river delta” were neo-orthodoxy (Barth, etc), neo-liberalism (Tillich, etc), and the old liberalism.  These “liberal” streams were cut off from the traditions that valued and practiced spiritual renewal, nurture, evangelism, and missions.  The result of the split has (to generalize) led to a belief-oriented church that neglects the social implications of the gospel and the pursuit of Christian ecclesiastical unity; and an activist-oriented church that neglects the doctrinal implications of the gospel and the pursuit of a holy piety.  Both streams need each other for balance and correction.

At this point, Lovelace engages in a bit of crystal-ball gazing.  Not so much for making prophecy-like predictions, but for advising the Church how we ought to pursue the dynamics of spiritual renewal.  For a book published in 1979, it is excusable if he gets some things wrong or some predictions feel quaint or dated (hey, it was the Jesus People Seventies!).  Reunion of the conservative and liberal streams never happened because Lovelace failed to see how quickly the liberal stream would apostatize from the historical orthodox faith, how the mainline ecclesial governments would take over (completely in some cases) the power centers and structures of the churches, and the rapid secularization and globalization of culture that has created a religious pluralism that is tolerant of all expressions of religion except evangelical Christianity.  The conservatives never had a chance—although they were not completely innocent evidenced by their general abdication of involvement in denominational politics.  But the author’s prescription has not been totally ignored.  With the rise of Generation X, the Millennials, and the evangelical postmodern/emergent, the conservative stream of the Church has begun to practice ecumenism (unity) and social reform (justice) within their own stream.  This has been a welcome development and a healthy corrective to a myopic view of the gospel.

This is an eye-opening, mind-expanding book.  I found myself brainstorming fresh ideas and strategies for personal, corporate, and communal renewal.  I was encouraged, humbled, and emboldened in my calling as a Christian to keep the Greatest Commandments (love God and people).  I found the theological and historical categories to safeguard practicing the spiritual disciplines.  And I now relate to the testimony of others who claim they understand much better Tim Keller’s philosophy and method of ministry.  After all, even Keller said he got much of his stuff from Lovelace.  Read this book and be changed forever.  It just might reorient you to pursue God and his kingdom like never before.

Resources about the book, the author, and his thoughts on the spiritual life

Dynamics of Spiritual Life (Google Books)

Dynamics of Spiritual Life (reviews)

Renewal as a Way of Life: A Guidebook for Spiritual Growth (a shorter presentation of the main points in Dynamics of Spiritual Life)

1999 CBD interview with Richard Lovelace

1984-85 Lectures at the C.S. Lewis Institute

1988 JETS article: Evangelical Spirituality: A Church Historian’s Perspective, by Richard Lovelace

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