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Thursday, December 27, 2012

Book Review: "Soul Recreation" by Tom Schwanda

Tom Schwanda
Pickwick Publications (Wipf and Stock)
199 West 8th Ave, Suite 3
Eugene, OR 97401
ISBN-978-1-61097-455-4; $35.00; 2012.
Reviewed by Dr. Michael Philliber for Deus Misereatur (12/12)

 Puritan Piety (3 stars out of 5)

When one thinks of meditation or contemplation, rarely does Puritanism race to the forefront of the mind. Instead, other traditions will be quickly thought of and looked into. But Tom Schwanda, Associate Professor of Christian Formation and Ministry at Wheaton College, seeks to give a scholarly corrective to this perception. In his recent 292 page paperback titled, “Soul Recreation: The Contemplative-Mystical Piety of Puritanism” he lays the groundwork for reclaiming a Reformed and Evangelical heritage of contemplative piety, looking primarily at one 17th Century Puritan, Isaac Ambrose.

In “Soul Recreation, Schwanda strives to raise, and firmly answer, two questions: was Isaac Ambrose a Puritan mystic, and “can contemporary Reformed and Evangelical Christians retrieve any wisdom from his writings to guide their piety” (xvi). The book then ambles its way through a historical theology focused on Puritan piety, its patois, practice, and potential repossession, specifically as it surfaces in Isaac Ambrose. Much of the work becomes an annotated bibliography of Ambrose’s writings.

The first chapter sets out to define Puritan mysticism, what it wasn’t and what it was. Schwanda validates and defends the impression that the aim of Puritan mysticism was to strengthen a believer’s experiences of “union and deepening communion with Jesus Christ through the power and guidance of the Holy Spirit” (11-2). This was based on the action of gazing on the Triune God. The author makes a repeatedly clear distinction between this form of mystical contemplation, and the “Spirit Mystics” of the more radical form, like the Quakers.

Chapter two then moves into one of the images of union with Christ voiced by many Puritans. The image was “Spiritual marriage” in which a believer’s soul was married to the divine Bridegroom, Jesus, and experienced a rich and joyful intimacy with Christ. This image runs back to the Western Catholic mystics, especially Bernard of Clairvaux, through Calvin, into the 17th century Puritans.

With the third chapter, the author works out a contemplative biography of Ambrose. Using the “Spiritual Movement Matrix” developed by Dreitcer and Bulkley in 1997, Schwanda reflectively walks the reader through the various loci of that matrix in examining how Ambrose practiced his spirituality. He strolls through the intrapersonal, interpersonal, and geo-environmental dimensions of Ambrose’s pious movements. The last dimension the author examines, geo-environmental, is quite unique and insightful, especially as he claims that “spiritual reality can be manifested in nature or through the uniqueness of place” (115).

Next, chapter four summarizes Ambrose’s teaching on meditation and contemplation, and the historical roots of what he taught. Schwanda draws out some of the continuities and discontinuities between Ambrose, along with the moderate Puritans, and Bernard of Clairvaux as well as Ignatius of Loyola (and a few others). Moreover, the author chronologically traces two key terms, “imagination” and “contemplation,” through the body of Ambrose’s works.

Chapter five of “Soul Recreation” launches into an examination of the more erotic language used by Ambrose, with regard to this contemplative-mystical piety. Showing how the erotic language is culled from the Song of Songs, the author focuses most on “ravishment” as the linguistic style of longing, intimacy, motivation and joy for Ambrose. The converting of the “bride of Christ” talk from the ecclesial dimension to the personal purview is quite clear and pronounced here. This move of personalizing and attaching the concept of “bride of Christ” to the individual soul has some problematic consequences.  As Leon J. Poddles once observed, with regard to the Western Catholic and Protestant traditions, “The transfer of the role of bride from the community to the soul has helped bring about the pious individualism that has dissolved ecclesiastical community in the West” (“The Church Impotent: The Feminization of Christianity,” 1999, Spence Publishing Company: Dallas, 118).

In the last chapter, the author addresses the resistance to this contemplative-mysticism, and how this form of Puritan piety might be retrieved. As Schwanda examines resistance, he brings in Karl Barth and his opposition to mysticism. For a balancing corrective, Herman Bavinck is favorably brought into the dialogue, and used to show how a cautiously healthy appreciation for mysticism might be developed. Finally, the author focuses on seven specific themes drawn from Ambrose that should help Reformed and Evangelical Christians reclaim the contemplative-mystical piety of the Puritans, especially Isaac Ambrose.

“Soul Recreation” has initiated a much needed search for reclaiming and recovering contemplative piety within the Reformed and Evangelical stream. The reader will likely find this work stiff and wooden, at times repetitive and redundant. The book would be even more effective if the material were streamlined. Nevertheless, the one who makes it through the book will benefit from the historical study of Puritan contemplative piety. I recommend “Soul Recreation.”

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