Book Review: Imitation of Christ

Imitation of Christ: A Timeless Classic for Contemporary Readers, by Thomas A Kempis, translated by William C. Creasy

In many ways, it is easy to see why this particular book is thought of so highly by many professed Christians who share a broader sense of communion with the Hellenistic Christianity of its late medieval monkish author [1]. It is also easy to see why the translator of this work thought that the book deserved yet another translation of this book using professed insights gleaned from reader-response theories of communication. Creasy’s translation shows Thomas A Kempis to have been highly motivated to write frequently about humility, against gossip and intellectual vanity and a lack of resilience or commitment and comparing oneself to others and trust in material possessions and in the support of famous or powerful people. The book speaks against many blameworthy aspects of our contemporary culture, and that makes it a fairly easy choice as far as a book for those who wish to adopt a more modest and more contemplative life, and indeed one with a great deal of monkish renunciation. In many ways, the book reads like the Catholic equivalent of a Buddhist text with its strictures against wrongful clinging and the threat of bad karma and retribution and its passionate wishing for heaven as a place beyond the temporary and beyond concern with the affairs of the material world [2]. Given the contemporary popularity of Buddhism and New Age thought, it is mere chronological snobbery which leads many contemporaries to view with disdain this very old book when they highly regard its thought and tone elsewhere.

In terms of its contents, this book is a bit of a trackless collection of loosely connected and often repetitive thoughts. The short book, under 200 pages including a somewhat lengthy introduction, is divided itself into four books: Useful Reminders for the Spiritual Life, Suggestions Drawing One Toward The Inner Life, Of Inner Comfort, and The Book On The Sacrament. Each of the books (the third of which is the longest) is then divided into different numbers of smaller essays that amount to the equivalent of contemporary devotionals or short blog posts of a couple hundred words of length. In book three in particular, part of the book consists of imagined dialogues between the believer (likely a stand-in for the self-flagellating author) and Jesus Christ, who is viewed as being far more harsh than he is portrayed in our own contemporary accounts. There are occasional references to scripture, but for the most part the writing is of a somewhat overly anxious and perhaps somewhat neurotic person who viewed the contemplative life as a way of helping to resolve his own anxieties and find inner comfort and peace, and someone who in the midst of the Great Schism and clerical corruption around him nevertheless urged readers to submit to God’s will and respect the pivotal role of the priest and accept the religious hierarchy in place over each believer and to be content with where one is and what one has.

Even so, although it is easy to see why this book is highly praised, there is much to criticize about the book from the perspective of the Bible itself. For one, the way that the author portrays Jesus Christ as being hostile to God’s law is deeply unbiblical, and if this book represents well the spirit of Hellenistic Christianity or authoritarian Gnosticism, it fails to represent the spirit of biblical Christianity. This book is an example of human wisdom, at times wiser than the customs of our own decadent times, but not reaching to the level of salvation. The author’s almost desperate attempts to avoid speculating on the nature of God beyond a few pointed references to the Trinity and the unprofitability of focusing on too much that is beyond human knowledge and understanding suggest his desire to place his own Christian mysticism beyond the reach of critical and fault-finding tendencies among his own contemporaries and his general anti-intellectual tendencies. Those seeking for elegant and searching Gnosticism will find much of it here; those looking for a deeper understanding of genuine and biblical Christianity will have to look elsewhere. This book is to be viewed as an important work given its historical context and its high status among Hellenistic Christians, rather than for its value in presenting a godly perspective of belief and practice, even to such an age as our own.

[1] See, for example:

[2] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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