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Thoughts on Religious Experience Paperback – January 1, 1998
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About the Author
Archibald Alexander (1771-1851) was raised in a godly home and educated at Liberty Hall Academy. Converted in 1789, he was ordained as a minister in the Presbyterian Church. He served as an itinerant missionary, President of Hampden-Sydney College, and minister of churches in Virginia and Philadelphia, before becoming the first professor of Theology at Princeton Theological Seminary in 1812. He remained at Princeton until his death, where he earned a reputation as an outstanding educator and became renowned for his understanding of the nature and effects of biblical piety.
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Yet, despite offers of emotional openness, many Christians remain spiritually ignorant on matters of conversion: What is spiritual rebirth and wherein lies the perpetual struggle with habitual sin? What--if anything--is "spiritually normative"? Can I understand spiritual depression? Moreover, can I be spiritually depressed and still be a believer? What does it mean to confess my sins openly, to be accepted, absent from the kindly discipline of Word, prayer, and brotherly accountability? These questions aren't rhetorical, as we each--by the Spirit of God--are led through both veils of greater understanding and valleys of the shadow of Death.
Such a wide berth of spiritual practicalities lies at the heart of Archibald Alexander's Thoughts on Religious Experience. "Faith," Alexander states, "is simply a belief of the truth, when viewed as distinct, and discriminated from all other mental acts" (83), and that though "[b]efore conversion, the soul is sordidly selfish...no sooner does this change take place, than the heart begins to be enlarged with a an expansive benevolence. The whole world is embraced in its charity..." (100). Unfolding by example and principle the primary faces of spiritual renewal, Alexander offers sweet encouragement to the believer and tender propositions for reflection for those uncertain people.
The dangers of the Evangelical and Reformed tradition is to become a deep well--unsearchable to its deepest mark--from which only one barrel of water is drawn at a time. The dangers of the Emerging Church are to become the wide, fast-flowing river whose depth is less than a foot. Searching both depth and breadth--ill embracing the particulars of form, style, or structure (worship or architecture)--Alexander reminds that "no phenomena now taking place in our world is half so important and worthy of consideration, as the repentance of a habitual sinner; so that he utterly forsakes his wicked courses, and takes delight in the worship of God and obedience to his will. Let it be remembered, that these are effects observed only where the gospel is preached... No series of miracles"--nor, might we add, any amount of emotional sincerity or theological knowledge--"could give stronger evidence of the divine origin and power of the gospel, than the actual and permanent reformation of wicked men" (74-75).
Alexander addresses youth and the elderly. He addresses the uncertain searcher of truths, the young believer, and the Christian in his final days. He warns of worldly dangers--"lawful pursuits are more frequently a snare than those which are manifestly sinful...the love of the world gradually gains ground. The possession of wealth is viewed as important. Worldly entanglements and embarrassments are experienced; the spiritual life is weakened. A sickly state commences, and a sad declension ensues" (159)--and he warns of theological pride--"[p]ersons may advance rapidly in other kinds of knowledge, and yet make no advance in piety; but the contrary. They may even have their minds filled with correct theoretical knowledge of divine truth; and yet its effect may not be to humble, but to `puff up'" (192).
And yet, springing from his sincerest warnings are a wealth-spring of constant assurance to the believer, reminding us that "[s]o far are right views of free grace from leading those who entertain them to indulge in indolence, or be careless about holy living, that they impart the only true cause of activity and diligence in the work of the Lord" (133). And, as if anticipating such as ourselves, he even ventures to state, "As one of God's methods of comforting and strengthening his mourning children is by good books, I will embrace this opportunity to recommend to those engaged in spiritual warfare" (188), which he does.
Even as I now recommend Thoughts on Religious Experience. For pursuant upon the deep wells of Gospel truth, flowing in great rivers of grace and comfort to a broken world--where often a church may offer one or the other--Alexander drives believers back to principles from spiritual rebirth to coming resurrection, in a journey of emotional intelligence and theological import.
I was afraid that the writing style would make the book drag, but that fear was not realized. The chapters that record others' deathbed comments did prove to be long, but they constitute a relatively small part of the book.
I heartily recommend this book to all those going into or already involved in pastoral ministry. I wish that I had read it years ago.