Spiritual Formation

I have encountered a number of Christian apologists that have some serious concerns about the concept of spiritual formation.  That seems strange as you would think that every Christian would agree with growing spiritually.  What they really mean is they have issues with some of the “techniques” of spiritual formation, taught be such people as Richard Foster.  My impression is that this concern is based on three fears:

1) Too Catholic – If one is “into” spiritual formation, it is not long before encountering the Roman Catholic mystics, people such as St. John of the Cross or Brother Lawrence.  Even before looking at the details of their writings (and how many critics actually read their books?), their Catholicism sets off some red flags.  Many evangelicals are not excited about learning spirituality from Roman Catholics, who they see as having a very different theology.  While prepared to discuss any specific teachings, I would suggest that being Catholic does not stop someone from being close to God or being a good example for evangelicals to follow.  Surely we would not reject taking care of the poor because Mother Theresa was Catholic?

2) Too Eastern – Some of the talk of meditating and fasting and other exercises seem a bit too New Age or too much like Eastern religions for some people.  What is next?  Christian astral projection or Christian tarot reading?  I would suggest that the measure of spiritual formation should not be how close it is to Eastern religions but how close it is to the Bible.  My reading of authors such as Richard Foster has shown me how biblical spiritual formation really is.  Things such as meditation are actually very biblical.  There are more verses telling us to meditate on God’s Word than there are to study God’s Word.

3) Too Experiential – Many apologists and others interested in the academic side are very skeptical of anything that smacks of experientialism.  Experience is too subjective.  How do you know if it is God or bad pizza?  While as a person who enjoys logic and rationalism, I can sympathize, I would also like to suggest another perspective.  The Bible does not teach a strictly rational faith.  Paul became a Christian, not because he read a book on ten reasons Jesus was the Messiah, but because he experienced Jesus.  Paul had visions and even seemed to have a spiritual trip to heaven.  Christianity seeks a balance between a rational faith and an experiential faith.

I am not giving blanket approval to every teaching on spiritual formation.  There probably are some Christian authors who step beyond biblical teachings and attempt to blend with New Age or popular ideas.  At the same time, I believe that we are to seek to grow spiritually and that spiritual disciplines such as prayer, fasting, silence, service, giving, and biblical meditation are very helpful in this endeavor.

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8 thoughts on “Spiritual Formation”

  1. Stephen, thanks for this. As someone who is knee-deep in the spiritual formation conversation, I am encouraged by your focus. There is no question that there is a need for more theologically rich and evangelical focus, but I, like you, see more that is biblical than not. I am reminded of how Jonathan Edwards approached the revivals. Was there excess? Yes. Was there bad theology? Yes. Was there a bad use of questionable sources? Yes. But, in the end, the approach was to speak into the conversation with a deeper and more rich theology to help make it more robust, not to reject its members as heretics (yes, I’ve been called a heretic for using the term “spiritual formation”). I appreciate your ability to affirm and offer corrective in a way that is humble. Much more of this is needed.

  2. Thanks Kyle. I would never want to suggest that we stop testing things biblically. This is true of every area of our life. I respect those who are concerned about spiritual formation, but I also hope they can see another perspective. Thanks again.

  3. Sigh . . . it pains me to see that we have to even discuss the value of a discipline that is encouraged, inspired, verified, and rooted in Scripture. As I’m convinced already that both of you who have commented here are already aware, the whole notion of spiritual formation comes from Paul’s words in Galatians 4:18-20.

    If only those who are so quick to judge someone like Richard would only stop a while and think about what they are doing, think about the inestimable good that this man has done, maybe they would slow down a bit on the criticism. Perhaps if they looked around at the historical situation we find ourselves in as a culture, they might realize he and others like him are allies in the faith. While he and his closer brethren may dot their “i’s” differently, he’s clearly a man of Christian faith and no enemy (and by the way, I barely know Richard, have never attended one of his seminars, and have most of my knowledge of him from having met him in the publishing business, having been deeply convicted by reading his books, and knowing his mentor Dallas Willard quite well).

    Seems to me that all of us folks who hold the Scriptures in high regard, as I do, and it appears that both Steve and Kyle do as well, might stop for a while and start thinking about new strategies for the age we now live in. I’m trained in journalism, philosophy, and historical theology, but it doesn’t take an apologist, a church historian, or a clerical strategist to read the signs of the battle that is right at our doorstep. It appears to me that the challenges posed by scientism (philosophically) and its militant cousin–the new atheism (Dawkins, et. al.), by Islam (especially in propaganda and a clear physical threat with regards the extreme radicals), and by rampant idolatry in our own culture (our economy bears witness to this) pose much greater threats to the body of Christ.

    We live in a time where we believers need to pull together, where we need to be less critical within our community and start shoring up our allies rather than tearing them down, follow the excellent advice that both of you have put forth here, and realize that the battle belongs to the Lord, but we’re looking at some much more intense and critical thinking that needs to be done and we need to examine our own hearts first. I’m from an evangelical and reformed background, but I can appreciate a thinking anabaptist like Richard Foster or Dallas Willard, precisely because I know they will make excellent allies, friends, and prayer warriors if we find ourselves in the same foxhole.

  4. Thanks Steve. I agree completely. I don’t understand with all the challenges that we as the church are facing, we would be upset about people praying, fasting or meditating on Scripture too much. Well said. I do not want to speak badly about the critics of spiritual formation, but there are real important battles we must put our energy into.

  5. As you say, Steve, there are other battle more important for us to be engaged in. As a CF padre, I can heartily agree! Having “stepped out” of the local church ministry and now work in a very ecumenical context (for which I am, and no doubt, will be branded a heretic), much of what we fight over in the Church (like spiritual formation or creation/evolution/ID or Rob Bell, for that matter) strikes me as moving the deck furniture about on the Titanic: busywork and ultimately pointless. I fear that what may motivate much of the rhetoric has more to do with feelings of anxiety and fears of inferiority. We’d rather fight over the small things than engage larger matters. These internecine squabbles, if they’re even noticed by anyone outside of the Church, only feed into the conviction that the Church is irrelevant and/or out-to-lunch feeding into our feelings of inferiority and angst. And so we ride the descending spiral.

  6. I’m actually doing a year-long sermon series on Spiritual disciplines this year, taking each of the 12 disciplines that Foster gives and covering one each month. I’m on ‘Service’ right now. I had noticed a pattern in the twelve, which Foster breaks up into three categories: inward, outward and corporate. I found that in each of those three categories, it was possible to discern the same pattern:
    Inward Outward Corporate
    Absorb (Meditation, Submission, Guidance),
    Reorient (Prayer, Simplicity, Worship),
    Examine (Fasting, Solitude, Confession) and
    Engage (Study, Service, Celebration).

    I think that we Evangelicals too often jump directly to the fourth stage (Bible Studies, Mission Work and Triumphalism) without taking the time to do the time-consuming, hard work of the first three (investing in scripture, turning toward God, and examining ourselves closely) which are the things which make the fourth stage possible, and we have the example of Christ so often going off by himself for these purposes. I’ve really been enjoying preaching on these topics and have found nothing in them that is contrary to scripture, Baptist principles or Evangelical thought as I understand them.


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