Thomas À Kempis

by Stephanie Shin

“For were the works of God readily understandable by human reason, they would neither be wonderful nor unspeakable.”
-Thomas À Kempis

As I read up on Thomas À Kempis (much of the following thoughts taken from Pages from Church History) one of the forerunners of the mysticism movement and author of the well-known work, The Imitation of Christ, it became a challenge to find a happy medium between many of the ideas espoused by the mystics and a faithfulness to the living Word of God. In the end, a growing appreciation for Thomas À Kempis and his teachings found its way in God’s sovereignty. But let’s start at the beginning.

À Kempis was believed to have lived from 1380-1471. Some of À Kempis’s earlier contemporaries were sizeable figures such as John Wycliffe, who championed the then-heretical teachings on the sole authority of Scripture in the church life, and Jan Hus, Wycliffe’s counterpart in the Czech Republic. While the Roman Catholic Church in the 14th and 15th centuries had grown in size and wealth, the pope struggled to maintain its hold on Britain and Germany. This is the era that prefaced the Reformation and the context that À Kempis lived.

A heavy influence on the writings of Thomas À Kempis developed from the monastic order that he was a part of—the Brethren of the Common Life founded by Gerard Groote. The heart of this monastery was the idea of being a “true disciple,” an imitator of Christ. At the time, the scholastic movement had penetrated Christianity. Many criticized the scholastics for the heavy emphasis placed on intellectual examination and rationale. This movement ignited the reactionary mysticism movement of which À Kempis himself was a proponent. The mysticism movement, as a rejoinder, described the knowledge of God as personal and transcendent; God was not to be found in books but experience. Unfortunately, this often came at the expense of Scripture.

Many of Kempis’s own convictions took shape in his most renowned book, an organized meditation named The Imitation of Christ. His book was split into four sections: Counsels on the Spiritual Life, Counsels on the Inner Life, Counsels on Inward Consolation, and On the Blessed Sacrament. A brief look at the three points in the first section is a good indicator of his ideals that:

    1. We must follow Christ’s way of life if we are to attain true enlightenment and freedom from the blindness of the heart.

    2. There must be humility in learning of the Trinity. Lofty words attain nothing, but a good life is pleasing to the Lord.

    3. There must be a withdrawal from the love of visible things and an affection to things invisible.

À Kempis wrote much of his treatise with the context and practice of monastic life in mind, but he acknowledged that spiritual health does not stem from the monastery in and of itself, but from the transformation of one’s life.

Coming from a fairly sparse knowledge of À Kempis and the mysticism movement, it was interesting to see how God used men like À Kempis and Groote to impact the coming Reformation. They gave voice to the dissatisfaction that was rising against the Roman Catholic Church and the need for moral and reform restructuring was identified.

While À Kempis was unable to bring about any extensive change because his teachings lacked the biblical foundation, a relatively new focus on the “suffering servant” and the idea that the Scripture was to be lived out in real life and not just intellectually known surfaced. While faith and Bible knowledge standing on their own do not depict the full picture of the Christian, it was soon made clear through revolutionaries like Martin Luther that Christ demanded full obedience in both areas. How awesome to know we are enabled because we are controlled by His love!

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The Beacon is the monthly newsletter for Lighthouse Bible Church in San Diego, California. It covers a variety of subjects including LBC events, church history, current events from a Christan perspective, ministry profiles, and messages from our pastors and elders. To join the Beacon ministry, please contact Stephen Rodgers.

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