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Letting God be God: The Reformed Tradition

Darton, Longman and Todd.
RRP $29.95

Letting God be God is part of the “Traditions of Christian Spirituality” series and explores the spirituality of those denominations within Western Christianity whose theological heritage is traceable to the Swiss Reformers of the sixteenth century Reformation. Included in this umbrella are those churches that identify with the Reformed, Presbyterian and Congregationalist traditions (in contrast to Lutheran and Catholic streams) and whose foundations are grounded in Calvin or Zwingli.

As David Cornick observes in his introduction, “books on ‘Reformed spirituality’ are as rare as hens’ teeth”. One reason is that ‘the Reformed’ have tended to be suspicious of human experience, including technique, as a proper starting place for exploring the Christian life.

Emotional responses can be as much an expression of our distorted humanity as a genuine experience of God. An overemphasis on spiritual exercises can trap us into a cycle of self preoccupation and they can also lead us to believe that our own work will save us.

Furthermore, the goal of the Christian life is to participate in God’s divine activity (to ‘glorify’ God) rather than to attain the vision of God (to ‘contemplate’ God) and this particular emphasis within the Reformed tradition invites active discipleship and a discovery of God in the everyday, rather than a preoccupation with ‘cultivating our souls’.

‘Spirituality’, suggests David Cornick, has therefore been seen by members of the Reformed tradition as something that other Christians do and this has meant that they have become largely unaware of the depth of their own tradition, and are unable to share it.

Letting God be God sets out to remedy this. In a fine introductory chapter Cornick traces the history of the meaning and use of the term ‘spirituality’ and in chapter one summarises the history of the Reformed traditions. Armed with a firm understanding of the uneasiness with which the words ‘Reformed’ and ‘Spirituality’ sit side by side, Cornick then addresses the core elements of the Reformed tradition and seeks to show how these weave their way into the particular practices and disciplines of Christian life.

Chapter two explores the central place of Scripture and the way in which, in corporate worship and preaching, the Word becomes the living Word through the activity of the Spirit.

Cornick describes the close links between public and private prayer and the place of the Lord’s Prayer as the model for praying. Drawing on the work of Walter Brueggemann he describes how, through the disciplines of public worship and personal prayer, the people of God are formed as citizens of God’s alternative world.

Chapter three examines the role and history of the doctrines of predestination and election and the way in which, as Calvin originally formulated them, they were meant to allay the anxieties of Christians concerned about the state of their souls.

Chapter four explores the role of art, images and the imagination and the contrast between their use in public worship (‘the sanctuary’) and in the world. Cornick argues that within Reformed understanding, God’s glory is to be found in the world and that true piety is lived and experienced in the midst of the ordinary things of the world. Artistic expression, social and political engagement are all part of a worldly spirituality.

In the final chapter Cornick traces some of the more recent expressions and experiments in Reformed spirituality and community including the radical reclamation of monastic disciplines in such groups as the Iona and Taizé communities.

At a time when ‘spirituality’ is often used as a term with no particular content other than our own feelings about God, it is a bracing tonic to explore the particular disciplines of one Christian tradition and trace the connections between its theological emphases and concrete Christian practice.

Letting God be God is of particular value for members of the Uniting Church who draw upon a number of different traditions including the Reformed.

Reviewed by Rev Jenny Tymms Discipleship Formation and Spirituality Consultant.