Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The Real Problem With "Spiritual Formation"

Note: This is a "sneak peak" of my rather lengthy editorial in the September-October 2011 issue of New England Pastor magazine.

A lot has been made recently about the topic of “Spiritual Formation.” Books have been written, blogs have been posted, sermons have been preached, pastors and teachers have been accused. It has become one of the hottest issues within Adventism.

At the center of the controversy is the idea that certain individuals within our ranks are promoting—or, at the very least, unwittingly endorsing—a “New Spirituality” that goes beyond an innocent and appropriate spirituality that the Bible and Ellen White promote, and into the world of Eastern spirituality, Catholic mysticism, and pantheism. We hear phrases like “contemplative prayer,” “centering prayer,” and “meditation” thrown around, and the result has been an atmosphere of suspicion and criticism.

Just recently, one of our denomination’s publications conducted an interview with a few professors from our seminary on the topic. In the interview, the individuals sought to assure Adventists that, though some of the “buzz” terminology has been used, the seminary is not promoting in any way a form of “Spiritual Formation” that is on par with Catholic or Eastern versions of it.

I read the article with interest because I took a class in the seminary from one of the professors who was being interviewed—a professor who I respect greatly and believe to be a genuine man of God, who has also written for New England Pastor in the past. In fact, it was the class “Spiritual Formation” (which, in an attempt to alleviate concerns, has subsequently been renamed “Foundations of Biblical Spirituality”) and it was the very first class that I took in the seminary—a class that all incoming M.Div students are required to take at the very beginning of their seminary training. Overall, I felt like the interview accurately reflected my experience in the class, and I did not notice any overt—or even subtle—reliance upon the unfortunate practices that have been allegedly borrowed from Catholic and Eastern religions. There was no mention of “centering prayer” or anything of the sort—at least that I can remember (though, in the interest of full disclosure, it has been five years since I took the class and my ear was not necessarily attuned for these buzz phrases).

With that being said, I do have some serious concerns about the emphasis on so-called “Spiritual Formation” that goes beyond any type of “New Age” connection it may or may not have. The truth is, I do not know if there are people within our ranks who are deliberately—or even unwittingly—promoting a type of spirituality that borders on the spiritualistic; there very well might be. The real concern for me with “Spiritual Formation” is that it very subtly leads people into an old covenant (or salvation by works) mentality and experience.

Every theological or spiritual paradigm either leads people into a system of salvation by works or a system of salvation by grace. There is no middle ground. Either the paradigm leads to a man-initiated old covenant experience or a God-initiated new covenant experience. It either engenders to bondage or it engenders to freedom. It either focuses on man, seeking God, or God, seeking man.

For my money, the “Spiritual Formation” paradigm sadly falls into the former category—it is a paradigm that seems to focus on what man has to do to seek and get a hold of God—rather than vice-versa.

But is God so hard to find that we need to jump through all these hoops to find Him?

I picked up a copy just recently of a book that, for many, is the authoritative work on “Spiritual Formation.” The book was required reading for a class I took a decade ago on “personal spirituality” as an undergrad. Wanting to get a better sense of where this paradigm is coming from, I was fairly startled to read again the explanation of why a person goes about engaging in so-called “spiritual disciplines.” The author—who comes from the Quaker tradition—writes, “God has given us the Disciplines of the spiritual life as a means of receiving his grace.”[1]

As I re-read this explanation, I once again realized why I was so uneasy with the book—and the class—over a decade ago. The author proposes that we go about certain disciplines—meditation, prayer, fasting, solitude, service, etc.—as a way of receiving God’s grace. But is this how we “receive” God’s grace? Isn’t this more akin to the Catholic method of receiving grace—which is done through the sacraments—than what the Bible prescribes? Do we not receive God’s grace when our hearts respond by faith to the proclamation of the Gospel (see Romans 10:10, 17; Ephesians 2:8; 3:17; etc.) —a point that the Protestant Reformation rested upon?[2]

To be fair, the author of this book—and many others—would say that we are saved entirely by grace and that our salvation is based solely upon the merits of Christ. What they are talking about, they will say, is the process of sanctification; of becoming more like Jesus. But isn’t the Christian journey from beginning to end received solely on the basis of faith? Are we not justified and sanctified as our hearts respond in faith—and thus, these so-called “disciplines” are done in response to receiving God’s grace, not as a basis for it?

Unfortunately, I very rarely hear and read much about faith at all when it comes to the topic of “Spiritual Formation.” There is little-to-no emphasis on the objective work of Christ on Calvary; of the fact that Christ forgives us of our sins and gives us a new heart when we respond to Him by faith; of the fact that we have a seeking Savior who writes His law on our hearts and minds and finishes the work He began in us, thus making obedience a delight to us.

This, to me, is what is most troubling about “Spiritual Formation.”

[1] Richard J. Foster, Celebration of Discipline: the path to spiritual growth (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1988), 7.

[2] Rick Howard, in his book, The Omega Rebellion (Coldwater, Mich.: Remnant Publications, 2010), 25-30, does a good job of contrasting the faith-based experience of Martin Luther, which catapulted the Reformation, and the works-based experience of his contemporary, Ignatius of Loyola, who was the founder of the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) and forefather of modern “Spiritual Formation.”


Ricky Kearns said...

This is spot on. Now I know the reason for my unease as well. My journey through the Seminary started ten years ago. I had to drop out the first time and eaked through the second. Well stated.

Ricky Kearns said...

Dropped out of this particular class though. Not the Seminary.

Bill Cork said...

And this (one of) my problems with Jon Dybdahl's book, "Hunger" It is thoroughly Pelagian. Those embracing a spirituality of ascent are embracing the very spirituality that the Reformation rejected.

jse7en said...

I'm glad you are addressing this topic. I read the AR article defending the classes and also the open letter from Andrews about the name change and I still can't help but think they are completely ignoring a major criticism. They make it seem that the only problem was a confusion about the name, which they never admit to as a problem but instead blame those who would possibly think that by calling it "Spiritual Formation" they might be teaching what other faiths call Spiritual Formation. It's not simply the name of the class that is the same, it's also the curriculum. They never address the fact that they use books by authors like Richard Foster that teach exactly what they say they don't teach in their classes. Here is a blog post from a non-adventist seminary student at Temple who was required to read the same book in a class with the same name, (hmm, I wonder why people are so confused about the classes at Andrews?). He is not afraid to call it like it is: a return to Rome.

Andrew said...

Your professor and the others were responding to the actual attacks on the Seminary--which were not motivated by a concern over works-based spirituality vs grace. They rather arose from some of our brethren who have an aversion to anything new or unfamiliar.

In fact, many of the critics themselves are some of our brethren who are known to have their own unique challenges with works-based spirituality. There is no deeper and more slippery ditch for SDAs than this.

I understand what you are saying though--as I find this approach very "high-church" (almost Orthodox/Catholic in nature).

Shawn Brace said...

Thanks Andrew! I appreciate the feedback.

My musings were not in response to the content of the article, however, but the actual class (and general emphasis) itself.

Secondly, works-based spirituality is not limited to one segment of any religious paradigm. Salvation by works is endemic to all man-made religions and views of God (with the exception of Biblical Christianity, of course). So just because one group of works-based people are objecting to another group, it doesn't follow that the second group is automatically a non-works based spirituality.