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Ambrose’s descriptive language on the effect of cultivating spiritual disciplines must not be ignored. Finding “hearts sweetly refreshed” reveals a critical dimension of Puritan piety; while their focus was always on the intellect, they never excluded the affective dimension of the soul. In reality, the Puritans challenge contemporary Christians with the much-needed balance between head and heart.
On the one hand, some Christians today are overly cognitive in their faith, giving little attention to how Scripture, worship, or spiritual practices might affect them. Ignoring the transformative power of these spiritual means is unwise; they are intended as reminders of God’s presence and desire to be in communion with us. There is an equal danger at the opposite extreme; some people today are so intentional about seeking experiences that they display little sensitivity to the origin of that experience.
The Puritans were spiritually alert and discerning to recognize that the Holy Spirit was not the only One who was present in the spiritual realm. They understood the need to “test the spirits to see whether they are from God” (1 John 4:1 NIV). It is interesting to note that Ambrose devoted a full book to this topic, titled War with Devils.
This intentional combination of integrating the head and the heart did not originate with the Puritans; it has a long history within Christian spirituality. The writings of many Puritans reveal a deep appreciation for Bernard of Clairvaux (1090–1153). Bernard, a key founder of the Cistercian (“school of love”) movement, was a favorite writer of John Calvin. Ambrose quotes directly from Bernard’s method of employing both the intellect and the will (often synonymous with the affections) when he asserts, “holy contemplation has two forms of ecstasy, one in the intellect, the other in the will; one of enlightenment, the other of fervor.” In summary, Ambrose declares that the foundations for “our meditation are in this method: to begin in the understanding and to end in the affections.”6
This integrated approach of balancing the intellectual with the affective reflects the experimental or experiential piety of Puritanism. J.I. Packer maintains, “Puritanism was essentially an experimental faith, a religion of ‘heart-work’, a sustained practice of seeking the face of God.”7 The writings of Isaac Ambrose breathe with the inspired pulse of a person who has experienced the love and joy of God. He urges his readers to “labor so to know Christ, as to have a practical and experimental knowledge of Christ in his influences, and not merely a notional [mental] one.” The Puritans stressed this message repeatedly, knowing that people could easily receive speculative head knowledge of Jesus without their hearts being touched or transformed. Ambrose was interested in changed hearts, beginning with himself. He and his fellow Puritans recognized that this sort of transformation was dependent on God’s inner working through the Holy Spirit in the human heart.
Ambrose also emphasizes the importance of God’s inward teaching when he declares, “Man may teach the brains, but God only teaches the heart; the knowledge which man teaches is a swimming knowledge; but the knowledge which God teaches is a soaking knowledge.”8 This does not limit the importance of knowledge or the human effort that is motivated by God’s initiative of grace; it rather emphasizes the critical dimension of depending on the Holy Spirit’s guidance in the cultivation of the spiritual life.
Further, the Puritans, like their earlier Reformed guides such as Calvin, always sought to connect the Word with the Spirit. One can trace this theme throughout the history of the church. When the church has been careful to maintain a healthy balance, a vibrant spirituality has flourished. But when either the Word or the Spirit was elevated to the exclusion of the other, aberrant theology and piety was the result. Ambrose consistently reminds readers that the witness of God’s Spirit always is agreeable to Scripture.
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