Grounded in the lives, ministries and writings of the Dutch Further Reformation divines, Arie De Reuver’s Sweet Communion, Trajectories of Spirituality from the Middle Ages through the Further Reformation (Baker, 2007) sets out to examine and describe the way these divines lived, experienced and reflected upon the concepts of ‘spirituality’ and ‘mysticism.’ Titled after Psalm 25:7 (‘sweet communion’ in Dutch ‘hidden fellowship’), this study is about “the interchange between God and humanity that is called ‘hidden’ or ‘sweet’ because it takes place in heart-to-heart intimacy … also called ‘hidden’ because of its mysterious quality that never fully relinquishes its secrets.” (p. 15) Reuver’s Sweet Communion also reflects the personal and pastoral concerns of the author whose conviction is that “the most serious symptoms of the present crisis in church and culture is the increasing loss of sweet fellowship with God.” (p. 16). Reuver’s Sweet Communion draws on the richness of the seventeenth-century movement the Further Reformation who ‘developed a comprehensive pastoral psychology by which it intended to provide guidance on the manner in which the applied world of the Holy Spirit brought people to certainty of faith … through an intense promotional effort and constant preaching.” (p. 17). This Further Reformation movement not only was guided by the spirituality and theology of the Reformation but also consulted the Middles Ages particularly its Augustinian theology and spirituality. In fact, the Further Reformation incorporated many devotional practices or spiritual disciplines such as contemplation, mysticism, solitude and meditation within the Reformed worldview. Reuver’s Sweet Communion is not a doctrinal study. Here is an investigation into the quality and roots of the spirituality of the Further Reformation. More specifically, Reuver’s Sweet Communion seeks to capture and document “the continuity and discontinuity of the Further Reformation’s spirituality with that of the Middle Ages.” (p. 17). To accomplish this purpose, the author selected the following representatives of the Further Reformation: Willem Teelinck, Theodorus à Brakel, Wilhelmus à Brakel, Herman Witsius and Guiljelmus Saldenus. The spirituality and mysticism expressed by these movement’s divines will be analyzed and described by alluding and drawing on the medieval and pre-Reformation literature of the two greatest pietists and most quoted authors: Barnard de Clairveaux and Thomas à Kempis. Finally, before proceeding to discuss the Dutch divines the author of Reuver’s Sweet Communion defines and explains the concepts of ‘spirituality’ and ‘mysticism’ and even ‘Christian spirituality’ in order to underscore that while these terms are obviously and typically catholic and medieval in nature – the Reformers rejected many of the central ideas behind Rome’s medieval mystics – they were nonetheless present and even cultivated among the churches of the Reformation and the Further Reformation.
Reuver’s Sweet Communion initiates in chapters one and two with a biographical sketch of the lives of Bernard of Clairveaux (1090-1153) and Thomas à Kempis. In chapter one Reuver’s Sweet Communion stresses that Bernard’s twelfth century is “the era when medieval spirituality flowered.” (p. 27) Mystics in the twelfth century were guided and shaped by the legacies of Augustine and Gregory the Great. Mystics were also oriented from a theological perspective that was articulated in the universities as a form of both scholasticism and monastic theology. That is to say that mystic wanted not only to experience but also structure love. In other words, Reuver’s Sweet Communion states that “the fact that experiential love transcended the intellectual idea did not signify a minimizing of the intellect as such.” (p. 28) This was seen in the life of Bernard de Clairveaux. The influential Bernard was self-taught and began in the monastic life as a result of losing his mother. His monastic life is described as shaped by a “regimen of reading, praying and singing texts of Holy Scripture.” (p. 31) Bernard was able to combine scholastic and monastic theology, stressed the mutual dependence of the knowledge of God and the knowledge of self and emphasized “the experiential, heart-felt nature of faith-knowledge.” (p. 33) Reuver’s Sweet Communion describes and analyzes Bernard’s theology of spirituality and mysticism by reviewing his work or tract titled ‘On God’s Love’ and by discussing its themes: God’s love, meditation on Christ, bridal mysticism and union with God. Reuver’s Sweet Communion evaluation of Bernard stresses his “Christological emphasis, his meditative disposition, his yearnings to experience God’s presence, his realistic perspective on human sinfulness, his interweaving of knowledge of God and knowledge of the self, his emotional interpretation of fellowship with God and his deep conviction concerning the transitory nature of earthly existence” (p. 57) all within a monastic frame of reference. Finally, Reuver’s Sweet Communion underscores that although many can argue that Bernard’s spirituality was based on love while the Reformation on faith this is too limited because ultimately for Bernard merits rests on the fact that “people fix their hope completely on him who saves the whole person … [he] considered God’s grace so surpassingly sweet (dulcissima) because it is entirely free (gratis).” (p. 59).
In chapter two Reuver’s Sweet Communion examines Thomas à Kempis within the spiritual atmosphere of modern devotion. Reuver’s Sweet Communion briefly documents the contextual factors that led to the birth of modern devotion, one that “aimed at a renewed spirituality that endeavored to dispel the prevailing spirit of religious laxness (p. 67) and that represented a “definite democratizing of spirituality.” (p. 67) The modern devotion’s communal life was one whose intent was “personal reformation, the reshaping and equipping of one’s life through concentration on the inner life.” (p. 67 ). The modern devotion embraced the spiritual disciplines or practices of study, meditation, fasting, vigils and periods of silence along with the principles of humility, obedience, purity, self-denying and submissive service. Its principal task or practice was the “meditative engagement with Scripture.” (p. 68) Modern devotion can be best described as a movement that was sustained by the three components of feeling, understanding and action. “Through rumination on what is heard and read, feelings are ignited and the understanding is enlightened with the result that discipleship is practiced in conformity to Christ.” (p. 70) Reuver’s Sweet Communion then reviews Thomas’ life. Born in Kempen, Thomas early on pursued an education at a cathedral school that stood for Christian discipleship. Ordained as a priest, Thomas was known for combining “the contemplative life with the active existence of overseer of novices and of subprior, of a pastor and preacher, of a writer and copyist, and of a musician and hymn-writer.” (p. 72) In fact, Thomas’ “literary output was seen as a form of spiritual exercise and at the same time as an indirect form of apostolic witness.” (p. 72)
Reuver’s Sweet Communion describes and analyzes Thomas’ most famous work Imitation of Christ. Just like most of Thomas’ works this work was intended for the instruction of the young. It is a devotional book. Approaching the Imitation of Christ is an exercised based on examination and rumination. Thomas’ primary intention “was to apply sacred Scripture … as the Bible is cited perhaps a thousand times.” (p. 75) Thomas spirituality can be described by alluding to the following themes: discipleship, cross-bearing, humility, the inner life, loving God and heavenly matters. Reuver’s Sweet Communion assessment from a reformational perspective takes on five aspects, namely: grace, Christology, justification by faith, love, pneumatology and monastic formation. Although it appear at times that these seven themes are questionable from a reformed perspective, Reuver’s Sweet Communion acknowledges that these have been cordially received in the movement of Reformed spirituality known as the Further Reformation for they speak of “fundamental spiritual themes that cross confessional boundaries: heartfelt love of God, being humbled in one’s guilt for sin, dependence on grace and longing for the glories of heaven.” (p. 101) This is to say that while à Kempis cannot be considered a fore-runner of the Reformation, his “conceptual legacy lies embedded in a spirituality that reflects Christian catholicity,” (p. 102) a catholicity guided by an experimental communion with God that appealed and was embraced by leading seventeenth century Reformed pietists.
In chapter three Reuver’s Sweet Communion explores William Teelinck known as the ‘Father of the Further Reformation.’ Williams was influenced early on by English Puritans. Consequently, his conviction was that spiritual practice “should simply cover all of life.” (p. 110) William writes “to motivate others to this kind of devotion, or at least to make progress toward it.” (p. 111) While quoting from multiple sources, “as a reformed Christian he [William] accorded true devotion not just to Reformed people, but to the entire Christian tradition.” (p. 113) William wrote about devotion which was “a conscious surrender of oneself to God whenever a person, living an aimless and uncommitted life, now commits himself totally and completely to the worship of God.” (p. 114) William also considered prayer and the movement of the spirit an essential trait of the believer and God as “simply the very best.” (p. 126) Other themes the William underscores as his spirituality were: love for Jesus, sin and grace, faith and love self-denial, cross-bearing, humility, longer for Jesus and hunger for eternity. William stood behind the affirmations of the reformation, bore ecumenical traits and his “piety certainly bears mystical features.” (p. 160)
In chapter four Reuver’s Sweet Communion describes Theodorus à Brakel as “one of the earliest representatives of those pietists born in the immediately following century” (p. 164) and one who focused since an early age on “how can a person acquire peace with God?” (p. 164) Influenced from early age by the spiritual and devotional life of his grandmother in his mother’s side, Theodorus was decidedly shaped by three events in his life: the proclamation of the Word; his engagement with 2 Corinthians 6:14-16 and an experience when “his heart was ‘lifted up’ to union with God.” (p. 165)
Theodorus’ lifestyle was heavily characterized by godliness. His work De Trappen presents his basis for spirituality. Here Theodorus “presents an account of the steps, that is to say the levels, along which interaction with God develops. There are three. They do not reflect the three fold division of the Heidelberg Catechism, but the triad of childhood, youth and fatherhood.” (p. 169). Theodorus’ main emphasis is fellowship with God in Christ. He takes 1 John 2 and instead of the apostle speaking of children, fathers and young people, Theodorus affirms that this does not reflect years and age but “the increase of grace in the born-again person.” (p. 170) Theodorus’ spirituality could be described by referring to his conceptualizations if childhood in Christ, youth in Christ and fatherhood in Christ. The key aspects of his spirituality is that he pays attention more attention to the form rather than the stage of the spiritual life; the frequency of mystical pleasures increases but the intensity or quality and he is one of the most mystical writers of the Further Reformation
In chapter five Reuver’s Sweet Communion examines Guiljelmus Saldenus regarded by many as one “the old, practical theologians who possessed great ability in the care of the soul.” (p. 201) Born to godly parents, Guiljelmus was educated by Voetius and later befriended Herman Witsius. Guiljelmus was also man of great erudition. His spirituality and piety is best examined in his book de Wech des Levens in which he showed his heart and soul. Guiljelmus’ piety is one that seeks to explain the nature and power of godliness. Godliness “has deep roots in the inner life” (p. 208) and this “inner life does not constitute the source for creating godliness” (p. 208) … but “the point of connection for the Holy Spirit, the point where he reaches and touches the heart.” (p. 208) Four Guiljelmus, the life of faith mandates that the boundaries between true faith and counterfeit are delineated; intimacy with God is “familiarity or sweet friendship with God and his Son Jesus Christ” (p. 212) and heavenly joy; and longing for heaven prompted by the Holy Spirit and the imperfections of this world. Guiljelmus’ piety and spirituality is the life of faith whose certainty of salvation is established by inherent fruit; fellowship is rooted in joy and emotional experience is desirable and common to all true believers.
In chapter six Reuver’s Sweet Communion presents Wilhelmus à Brakel, a child of prayer. Wilhelmus was both influenced by godly parents and by professor Voetius. Wilhelmus can be best described by his militancy defending the rights of the church, his loyalty to the church, and his “combination of dogmatic capability and pastoral, experimental disposition.” (p. 233) His most famous work is Reasonable Service which was not a systematic theology but a popular statement of doctrine with pastoral implications. He wanted to build the church. His main spirituality believing fellowship with Christ was also called a covenant of marriage. Also there are the themes of love for God and love for Jesus, reflection and contemplation. Wilhelmus was able to connect “his systemic interests with both pastoral and mystical attitudes” (p. 257) and introduced believing fellowship with Christ and the claim that contemplation must be rooted in Christ.
Finally, in chapter seven Reuver’s Sweet Communion invites us to view the spirituality of the learned and gifted Herman Witsius. Both a professor and a minister, Herman stated that “knowledge of the truth of the gospel provides enjoyment.” (p. 262) Raised by godly parents, Herman was also influenced by Voetius particularly the synthesis if pietas and scientia. Herman’s spirituality sows continuity with the medieval mystical tradition particularly the Augustinian-Bernardian tradition. Various themes attest to this spirituality. These are taste and contemplation when Herman affirmed that being admitted to the inner precincts of the heavenly academy is accomplished by “seeing and tasting in drawing near to God;” (p. 268) faith and love, the former consisting of knowledge, assent and love and while the latter “kindled in love of God’s amicable qualities” (p. 271) and both intimately bounded up; meditation to be of essential nature; union with Christ in connection with the Holy Spirit; and starlight and sunlight which imply that godly people receive enlightened understanding. Herman was a mystical theologian inspired by Bernard in which faith and love are to be interwoven.
Reuver’s Sweet Communion has documented the Dutch Further divines’ spirituality and mysticism in a significant and substantial manner through writings, ministries and experiences. His foremost contribution here is that true doctrine can be married to personal faith, a testament that highlights the sources and richness of Reformed spirituality.