The Imitation of Christ falls into the category of what one might call ‘classic Christian devotional’. It fits into the time period of the transition between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, and is one of the best selling devotional texts of all time, and while the pious aspect of the text is at the top of it’s class, the underlying theology is abit of a mess.
Perhaps the strongest point of Kempis‘ text is its strong sense of humility and the drive for the Christian to be more Christ-like. Kempis has many bits of advice and words of wisdom for molding one’s life to more closely reflect Christ’s, the problem with this is that it seems to come at the expense of the gospel. On the one hand this shouldn’t be particularly surprising; the book was written during a period of transition between the Catholic church of the middle ages and the beginnings of the Reformation, and therefore it still has much of the skewed gospel which was prevalent in the church as a whole, though it seems almost a rebellion against the church-as-salvation mindset of the Catholic church, instead focusing on the actions of the individual and thereby resulting in a legalism similar to the later legalism of the early 20th Century.
This shift of focus can perhaps best be seen in the contrast between Kempis and somebody like Gregory the Great in his ‘Book of Pastoral Rule’. While Gregory assigns God’s favor based upon the pastor’s ability to cleanse sins (and thus focusing wrongly on the church), here we see God’s favor being based upon the actions of the individual (and thus focusing wrongly on the individual) – thus Kempis may be found noting that it is “a virtuous life [that] makes him pleasing to God.”
This underlying theme of legalism makes the text out to be a sort of paradoxical humility. Kempis preaches that humility makes one satisfying to God, yet the most prideful of all doctrines – the doctrine that we can earn God’s favor – underlies the entire endeavor.
That said, the book is worthwhile as a historical study of the progression of thought within the church, as a study of the transition between the Medieval church and the Reformation church in particular. In terms of private devotion, the text has some insightful points, though given that it is placed within an overall legalistic context the endeavor seems doomed to fail from the start.
-“Yet whoever wishes to understand fully the words of Christ must try to pattern his whole life on that of Christ.”
-“If men used as much care in uprooting vices and implanting virtues as they do in discussing problems, there would not be so much evil and scandal in the world, or such laxity in religious organizations.”
-“We ought not to be swayed by the authority of the writer, whether he be a great literary light or an insignificant person, but by the love of simple truth.”
Other criticisms of the text might include the message of extreme withdrawal from the world found within. Rather than the Christian being one who goes out into the world with intent and confidence that it can be changed we find the primary goal to be having nothing at all to do with the world, and indeed as little to do with anything as possible. Kempis sets up a false dichotomy where one either has no focus on the world or is entirely focused on it, and again when he distinguishes between the humble rustic who serves God versus the intellectual who neglects his soul (p2), yet one may be a rustic who neglects his soul, or an intellectual who humbly serves God, or neither.
A corollary to this point can be found in Kempis seeming despising of the self. If Kempis had any strong notion or presentation of the Gospel this wouldn’t be such a bad thing. Indeed, as sinful men we should hate our sinful selves – but Christ has made us new!… thus our view of our self cannot be fully negative. Without the Gospel message that Christ has made us new, and that the thing which we are hating is our sinful selves apart from Christ and not ourselves as such, the listener is left in a pit of despair leaning only upon their own powers, a wretched place to be indeed.
A final criticism is Kempis’ anti-intellectual tendency, the notion that we need not be too concerned with the things of doctrine, since ignorance of these things will not be held against us on the day of judgment (p3). Yet how would it play out if none of the Christians took the time to work though these seemingly obscure notions, if the early church fathers had not cared to uphold the Trinity or the Incarnation or any other doctrine which might boggle the mind – we would have no orthodoxy, monism would have overtaken the church. And what might be the result if the average Christian is taught not to care for these things. We must have those willing to contend for the faith and to dig into these matters, rather than find themselves absorbed in their own self-styled humility.