I’ve been reading some of the writings of a Puritan minister named Isaac Ambrose lately. First of all, let’s just say that these guys swam in the deep end of the pool–whewee! Digging through their thoughts is well worth it, but you are laboring for your reward–best not to read these guys on the Sabbath! (just kidding) Just to give you a taste of the character of these fellows–it was the habit of Rev. Ambrose to take one month a year and spend it in a small shack set up in the woods not far from his home, avoid all contact with other humans and devote himself to contemplation. Ambrose describes this practice himself in his diary:
I came to Weddicre [i.e., one of the woods to which he withdrew for his annual retreats], which I did upon mature resolution, every year about that pleasant spring time (if the Lord pleased) to retire myself, and in some solitary and silent place to practice especially the secret duties of a Christian: In this place are sweet silent woods, and therein this month, and part of the next, the Lord by his Spirit wrought in me evangelical repentance for sin, gave me sweet comforts, and spiritual refreshings in my commerce and intercourse with him, by prayer, and meditation, and self-examination, and discovered to me the causes of my many troubles and discouragements in my ministry….
Anyway, I became interested in Isaac Ambrose (1604-1664) because of an article in The Journal of Spiritual Formation & Soul Care, Vol 3, No 1 (Spring 2010). Indeed, this article was the first time I’ve ever heard of the guy. One of Ambrose’s works was titled Media: The Middle Things, In Reference to the First and Last Things, or The Means, Duties, Ordinances, both Secret, Private, and Public for Continuance and Increase of a Godly Life, (Once Begun,) Till We Come to Heaven, how’s that for a descriptive title!
The Puritans, who by the way, typically get an undeservedly bad rap, had a fascinating way of discussing various spiritual disciplines. They divided them up into three types: secret, private, and public. “Secret” described the individual’s personal spiritual practices, while “private” referred to what ought to be engaged in by a small group such as family or friends gathering in a home, and “public” referred to larger gatherings for the practice of corporate worship. Ambrose defined spiritual disciplines as “any practices that awaken, strengthen, or deepen a person’s relationship with the Triune God.”
But here, in particular, is what caught my attention: in Tom Schwand’s article about Ambrose, titled “‘Hearts Sweetly Refreshed’: Puritan Spiritual Practices Then and Now” I read the following:
He [Ambrose] acknowledges that spiritual duties were not popular in his day, due in part to the reality of antinomianism that was prevalent in his region of Lancashire. This tended to minimize the necessity for spiritual disciplines since they believed that Jesus had already accomplished all that was required and therefore, there was no need to spend one’s time in cultivating a deeper personal relationship with God.
My attention was arrested by the reality that the same theological error that plagues us today, also plagued the 17th century, and caused similar consequences then as it has today.