The Spiritual Discipline of Meditation - page 3

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From the Fall 2012 issue of Knowing & Doing:  

The Spiritual Discipline of Meditation:

Reading Scripture with Isaac Ambrose

by Tom Schwanda, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Christian Formation & Ministry,Wheaton College


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  So it is not surprising that Ambrose asserts that the accumulation of knowledge, even that of biblical knowledge, is of limited value unless it is applied to one’s life. This principle guides both his personal method for meditation on Scripture and his instruction to others in reading and praying Scripture. This is clearly evident in the structure of Looking unto Jesus. As he approaches each new section of his examination of Christ’s life, he begins with a detailed exegesis of the appropriate biblical texts. Only then does he seek to apply it to his readers’ lives. Ambrose consistently follows this pattern, first studying the objective truth of Scripture and then stirring up the affections to apply it to the heart, so that he and his readers might experience the subjective nature of those same passages. Summarizing the purpose of spiritual disciplines, Ambrose declares,

Study therefore, and study more, but be sure your study and your knowledge is practical rather than speculative; do not merely beat your brains to learn the history of Christ’s death, but the efficacy, virtue, and merit of it; know what you know in reference to yourself.9

  Being a good Reformed theologian, Ambrose recognized that the human brokenness due to sin distorts a person’s ability to perform properly these spiritual practices. Indeed even our best efforts are frequently distorted and mixed with sin. Significantly, a central theological principle in Ambrose’s understanding of spiritual duties was a person’s union with Christ. The Puritans frequently called this spiritual marriage. Union was seen both as the beginning of the Christian life through conversion and justification and something into which a person would continually deepen and grow throughout life until one reached heaven. Ambrose captures the depth of spiritual intimacy. This continual desire hungers for Christ’s refining love to purge and create an ever-greater awareness of Christ’s indwelling love. All of these desires combine in his meditation on the soul’s love to Christ:

Is it thus, O my soul? has the Lord Christ indeed discovered his will to you for his spouse? What, he that is so holy, to marry such an impure wretch as you are? O how should this but melt you into a flame of love? . . . O my soul, henceforth cling to your Savior, go out of yourself and creep to him and affect not only union, but very unity with him; bathe yourself hereafter again and again, many and many a time in those delicious intimacies of your spiritual marriage.10

  I note a number of important principles in this quotation. Ambrose employs the bridal language of the Song of Songs and other biblical writings that were commonly cited by Bernard of Clairvaux and other medieval Christians. Ambrose mirrors that joy and declares that if we are married to our bridegroom Christ, He will purge and perfect our spiritual practices and present them whole to God. Ambrose asserts the same comforting truth with greater clarity: “for Christ perfects, perfumes, and presents our duties to his heavenly Father.”11 This understanding of Christ’s role and participation within the human practice of spiritual disciplines underscores the significant role of Christ’s ascension in Ambrose’s theology.

Preparation for Reading and Meditating on Scripture

  The Puritans understood the great importance of preparing themselves for the spiritual disciplines. Isaac Ambrose recognized that there were ways by which his listeners could improve their ability to hear Scripture more effectively and fully:  (1) prayer—praying especially for the minister who preaches, for our fellow Christians that they might be strengthened in faith, and ourselves that we might be blessed in hearing God’s word; (2) meditation—recognizing that we come into Christ’s presence as we hear the Word and considering the nature of our motivation for hearing the Scripture; (3) examination—to discern the frame and receptivity of our hearts and allow the Holy Spirit to deal with our sins; (4) cleansing of the heart—from sin and worldly cares; and (5) the right disposition of our hearts—to be soft and flexible, humble, honest, full of faith, and teachable.  

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