Puritan Prayers: The Trinity

Valley of VisionWith the PhD thesis officially submitted, I’m hoping to eek out a few blog posts now. My wife recently gave me a copy of The Valley of Vision, a collection of Puritan prayers and devotional reflections. It has been a joy to read thus far for several different reasons.

Probably the most significant aspect of it for me is its way of reminding me of who God is and why it is such a blessing to have a place among the saints. Even when devoting oneself to the doctrine of God in systematics, one can never take in enough thoughtful pastoral statements about the goodness and wisdom of God. These nourish and stabilize our faith (certainly mine, at least).

The meaning of the name of the volume is glimpsed in the opening prayer:

You have brought me to the valley of vision, where I live in the depths but see you in the heights; hemmed in by mountains of sin I behold your glory….Let me learn by paradox…that the valley is the place of vision….Let me find thy light in my darkness…thy glory in my valley.

The book is excellent not only for personal reading but also as a resource for crafting pastoral prayers to be used in corporate worship. Here is a longer portion of the prayer entitled “The Trinity”:

O Father, I thank you that in fullness of grace you have given me to Jesus, to be his sheep, jewel, portion; O Jesus, I thank you that in fullness of grace you have accepted, espoused, bound me; O Holy Spirit, I thank you that in fullness of grace you have exhibited Jesus as my salvation, implanted faith within me, subdued my stubborn heart, made me one with him forever. O Father, you are enthroned to hear my prayers, O Jesus, your hand is outstreched to take my petitions, O Holy Spirit, you are willing to help my infirmities, to show me my need, to supply words, to pray within me, to strengthen me that I faint not in supplication. O Triune God, who commands the universe, you have commanded me to ask for those things that concern your kingdom and my soul. Let me live and pray as one baptized into the threefold Name.

The book of course isn’t designed for the lenten season, but it does include a series of morning and evening daily prayers as well.

Questioning Theological Education

To start this post, let me begin with several qualifications: First, I think that theological education has some serious meditation to do concerning its task. Second, I think the overall model / approach upon which we’ve built is flawed. Third, I am excited about virtually anything that seeks to think creatively about this. In comes Mike Breen. Mike Breen, who I know little about but have heard good things, posted this back in November. It is a wholesale engagement with the kinds of worries I have. In light of that, let me again state some qualifications: First, I know nothing about this other than this post. Second, if I saw this right when I graduated seminary I probably would have called him up and said, “Sign me up and tell me what to do.” Third, I have some doubts about some of the statistics in the video, but for the purpose of this discussion lets assume they are true.

Now, qualifications aside, I was left frustrated by this post. But why? Why would I be frustrated by someone who is, for all practical purposes, hitting all of my sweet-spots? I actually found myself asking this exact question at times. Let me try and point to some issues I think are inherent to this project (keeping in mind how limited my knowledge of it is). Continue reading

Christian Spiritual Classics

I’ve been co-editing a book for the past year or so that is a guide for an evangelical reading of Christian Spiritual Classics. As a part of our research for this volume, I came across a new book edited by Arthur Holder called Christian Spirituality: The Classics. At first, if I’m honest, I was a bit worried when I saw the title! It was a little too close to our volume for comfort, but when I received the book I realized it was doing the exact opposite of what we are. Holder’s overall goal is to take the ever-growing interest in spiritual classics and provide a reader that covers the great bulk of them. Each chapter is written by a different scholar who follows an outline template, offering helpful continuity throughout the volume. The authors cover thirty texts, starting with Origen and ending with Merton. Each chapter gives a broad look at the author and context, provides an overview of the content, addresses the reception of the text throughout history, and then explores various ways these texts can be meaningful for today.

In an attempt to be broad, I fear that Holder missed some opportunities along the way. One must wonder how Cassian’s Conferences or Institutes fail to make it into a volume like this. Continue reading

Sabbath and Lord’s Day

I’ll extend the Calvin kick for another post, one that centers on his view of the Sabbath and the Lord’s Day in the Institutes, one stemming partially from the tension I might experience on Sunday as I both engage in spiritual and ecclesial activities and also head out to the pub to take in a Liverpool match.

For Calvin, the fourth commandment has three main functions: 1) to foreshadow and to promise to Israel spiritual rest which God will bring as the sanctifier of his people; 2) to provide a day for the assembled worship of God’s people; 3) to prevent oppression and overexertion of laborers (2.8.28-9).  In the old dispensation the Sabbath promoted meditation on the forthcoming ‘perpetual repose from our labors’.  However, its figurative and ceremonial aspect is no longer in force after Christ’s resurrection (Col. 2:16-17).  By participating in Christ’s resurrection (Rom. 6:1-14) we begin to participate in that promised rest and ‘[t]his is not confined to a single day but extends throughout the whole course of our life, until, completely dead to ourselves, we are filled with the life of God.  Christians ought therefore to shun completely the superstitious observance of days’ (2.8.31).  In this connection, Calvin also reasons that meditation on that transformation work spills over into the other days of the week (2.8.34).

Continue reading

Life in the Spirit

I’ve been meaning to put down some thoughts for a while now on IVP’s newer volume Life in the Spirit: Spiritual Formation in Theological Perspective, but have found it difficult to do so. This volume is last years Wheaton Theology Conference which focused its attention on spiritual formation. There is a lot of good stuff here, but it is a bit random, so I will simply make some highlights. Jeffrey Greenman begins the volume with a look at some of the classic issues in spiritual formation as well as the contemporary challenges. This is a helpful introduction, in many ways, and seeks to, along the lines of McGrath (in his Christian Spirituality) delineate evangelical distinctives. Greeman suggests Bebbington’s quadrilaterial as a way to do so.

Lawrence Cunningham provides a trinitarian read of Catholic spirituality, focusing on the concept of “the way” as a trope for the Christian life. Following Cunningham’s suggestions, Kelly Kapic offers a trinitarian read of Owen’s spirituality, taking time to focus on Owen’s Communion with God. Kapic states,

God in Christ by his Spirit has extended himself to us, drawing us into his loving embrace, into a divine giving and receiving, and this divine movement necessarily has a trinitarian shape. Owen’s premise is fairly simple: we have communion with God, and yet there is no God but the divine persons. All our approaches to God are always approaches to a divine person: this movement does not take us away from God since this is the only way we actually worship him” (102). Continue reading

Luther on Proper Meditation: Part 2 – Blessings

It has been a LONG time, but continuing our look at Ngien’s volume, we now turn to the meditation on blessings. Luther offers 7 images of evil and 7 images of blessing that are to guide our meditation. The first image is of “internal blessings” which are those blessings the believer possesses within themselves (beauty, strength, intelligence, etc.). These attributes are, as it were, “salted” with “the relics of the cross” in this world. “Evil,” Ngien continues, “is the seasoning necessary to preserve the savor of blessing” (58). The second image is delineated as “the blessing before us.” These are the future blessings in which we can find our comfort. Like Christ therefore, who for the sake of what was before him endured the cross, believers can rest in the blessings which are promised but not yet grasped.

Thirdly, Luther suggests the “blessing behind us.” Since redemption is fundamentally God’s work, truly by grace, the believer can boast in the work that God has done and continues to do. Continue reading

Luther on Proper Meditation: Part 1 – Evils

I will continue our look at Dennis Ngien’s book, Luther as a Spiritual Advisor: The Interface of Theology and Piety in Luther’s Devotional Writings. The chapter we will look at here is entitled: “Gems for the Sick: Proper Meditation on Evils and Blessings,” and is taken from Luther’s work Fourteen Consolations. Ngien summarizes:

In all these consolations the victorious image of Christ looms large, by which we are lifted outside ourselves (extra nobis), and are so caught up into Christ that we might see how, with such eagerness, Christ was willing to suffer on the cross to make death contemptible and dead for us (pro nobis)” (48).

The fourteen consolations are made up of seven evils and seven blessings. Instead of focusing his attention solely on glory, Luther accepts the reality of the cross as forming the Christian life – thereby making this work – as Ngien argues, an exercise in a “theology of the cross.” Luther, Ngien explains, “accentuates the unity of word and Spirit, working together in accomplishing the proper outcome of any act of meditation. The Holy Spirit assigns value and meaning to a thing on which our mind focuses so that whatever he considers as trivial and of no significance will move us only slightly, be it love as it comes to us or pain when it disappears” (49). Continue reading

Luther as Spiritual Adviser

I am taking a look at Dennis Ngien’s volume, LutherLuther as Spiritual Adviser: The Interface of Theology and Piety in Luther’s Devotional Writings (Paternoster, 2007). Ngien focuses on Luther’s devotional writings, emphasizing the material in volumes 42 and 43 of the American edition of the works of Luther. In his own words, “The aim…is to unfold the pastoral, not the polemical, side of the Reformer, drawing on the spiritual insights he offered to people of high and low estate. These writings are devotional and catechetical in shape and intent, yet not devoid of rich theological substance, the fruit of his rigorous reflections. They are the exercises of Luther’s basic calling as a theologian-pastor, and are concrete illustrations of the interface of theology and piety, the former being the abiding presupposition and logical cause of the latter” (xvii).

In a quote that reminds me of many posts on this blog, Ngien claims that, for Luther, “The theological curriculum ought to be taught differently, that is, in a way that takes seriously the spiritual formation of a theologian, since his primary vocation is to preach and teach the gospel of Jesus” (xix). Likewise, in advice to young theologians, Luther suggests prayer, meditation and struggle as rhythms of life. Ngien offers interpretation: Continue reading

Teaching Spiritual Formation

In light of our recent post on spiritual formation and the seminary, I thought I would share a bit about my recent teaching experience. I have been off of the blog for a little while now as I teach a spiritual formation class at Talbot School of Theology on “Jonathan Edwards’ Spiritual Theology.” I have never taught a semester length class before, so I was baptized with fire as I taught for three weeks, five days a week for three hours a day!

The way I approached the class was to try and help the students understand what it means to honor someone like Edwards. Following Reinhold Niebuhr’s famous talk “The Anachronism of Jonathan Edwards,” I suggestd that the only way to honor Edwards was to take on the spiritual and practical nature of his theology as we worked through the content of it. Therefore, I put together an hour long “Edwardsian prayer exercise” utilizing Edwards understanding of aesthetics, nature and spiritual imagination. Likewise, the class was oriented towards developing a spiritual discipline (for the final project), which would be grounded in the overarching movement of Edwards’ thought, starting with the doctrine of the Trinity, and working one’s way down to creation, fall, redemption on to glorification. My hope was to help students understand the systematic and practical nature of theology, and hopefully help them to see how important doctrinal development is for spiritual formation.

Has anyone else taught a class like this? I’m thinking through how to make this class better, as well as how to teach other classes like it. Has anyone found a way they find helpful to integrate prayer and the student’s spiritual lives in with the material of theology? I would love to hear any ideas.

Is the spiritual formation movement in theological education wrongheaded?

This question is one of many raised by Edward Farley’s Theologia: The Fragmentation and Unity of Theological Education (one I wish I would have read years ago!). Let me give you Farley’s assertion, then the FarleyEdwardargument that informs it:

[T]heological education has assumed that its unity and subject matter had no relation to the sapiential knowledge which accompanies faith’s concrete existence (piety). The flurry of activity going on these days about ‘formation’ and ‘spirituality’ is no doubt some sort of attempt at the restoration of piety [in theological education] … Because the aim has been to spiritualize the theological school’s life and ethos but not its course of studies, the formation movement perpetuates the inherited separation of piety and intellect. Presupposed here is that spirituality pertains to a realm other than the subject matter and end of studies … Furthermore, formation and spirituality seem to be viewed as to have little to do with faith’s sapiential knowledge (theologia). This may be why it has been so easy to talk about and urge a formation which lacks spirituality’s very essence, namely, discipline. This lack of a cognitive element and the discipline necessary to it may be the reason formation in the present-day sense exports intellect from piety (pp. 160-61).

How does this strike you?

Lying  behind Farley’s statement is a rather detailed historical tracking of theological education’s circuitous route from the patristic age to the present. The result: Continue reading

Gregory of Nyssa and the Grasp of Faith: Part 1

For the following couple of posts, I will be looking at the issue of faith in Gregory of Nyssa by reviewing a book by Martin Laird entitled: Gregory nyssaof Nyssa and the Grasp of Faith: Union, Knowledge and Divine Presence (Oxford University Press, 2004).

Laird discusses Nyssa’s view of the mind, that its energies are often dispersed fruitlessly (through worldly passions), and need to be drawn together and focused through self-denial. A worldly person has a “thick” mind, that squanders its potential on human passions. In Laird’s words, “In order for the heart to be whole the mind must in some way be recollected, withdrawn from the affairs of the world. Here it finds its wholeness and ability to ascend” (39).  He continues on to explain:

If unclouded, untroubled, or unimpeded by the senses and passions, the same mind, and not a different compartment or level, will move upward towards the spiritual, intelligible world. Given appropriate ascetic training, there is in the mind an upward orientation, a dynamic capacity to ascend” (43).

The thickness of the mind, in a move reminiscent of Edwards, is unable to know beauty. Again, “the sense faculties are not suitably trained for the discernment of what is beautiful and what is not” (45). Importantly, the mind is able to know beauty, but it needs training to do so (contra Edwards). Continue reading

The Ethos of Elitism

As of late, I have been contemplating some of the many temptations for the theologian. One of the more subtle, what I am calling elitism, is what I am concerned with here. My worry tends to focus on the teleology of the theologian, namely, “What are we becoming?” From my perspective, what often happens is that, somewhere along the way, our loves are reorganized and re-prioritized, and we find ourselves loving the ethos of theology more than the end of theology itself.

So what is the ethos of theology? The superficial answer is something like tweed, pipes, brown leather furniture and dark cherry bookshelves housing thousands of hard to find (and barely read) volumes. There is a side of this, of course, which is both natural and good (I do love all of these things by the way). When we deepen our understanding we come to appreciate, to use an Edwardsian idea, the complexity of harmony within objects of beauty. This soon oozes out of our academic context of book reading to things like food, where fish and chips are left behind for white wine reduction; music, where U2 is left behind for Mozart; and drinks, where Bud Light is left behind for Glenlivet’s fifteen-year french oak reserve. The problem with this is that it seems to be the telos of the academy rather than the church. Isn’t this true, for instance, of any philosophy program as well?

I’m not sure why these things have been on my mind lately, and I don’t really have anything terribly constructive to add, but I would love to hear any of your thoughts on this. Is there a teleology for the theologian which pushes against the academizing of our souls? belv4Is there something inherent in the task of theology which should undermine our love for these things? Is there any sort of sense that we should start looking more like John the Baptist and less like Mr. Belvedere (see the awesome photo on right).

I wonder if Philippians could be of service to this discussion as well, which, if Joseph Hellerman is right, is mainly a polemic against the Roman worldview. It makes sense therefore for Paul to hold his status (we could probably say C.V. as well) against Jesus’ in Philippians 2 where the overall movement of Jesus’ life (which is supposed to be our attitude) is from honor to shame, from having status to handing that status over. Is the academy modelling a worldview which mimics worldly ideals that needs to be mortified for the theologian to truly be a churchly theologian?

The Sacramental Life

sacramental-lifeFor those of you who follow Theology Forum, you know that we have a deep interest in the relationship between theology and spirituality. In light of this interest, this post concerns a book entitled Sacramental Life: Spiritual Formation Through the Book of Common Prayer by David A. deSilva. For those of you who recognize the author, you might be surprised by the book title. deSilva is a New Testament scholar and a Methodist, neither of which (one would think) orients him towards this topic! My friends at IVP told me that this was a labor of love for deSilva, coming out of his background in the Anglican church and the rich spirituality he found in the Book of Common Prayer (special thanks to IVP for sending me the volume for review). In his own words,

I am a person of faith today precisely because the liturgies of the Book of Common Prayer gave me a language and a context for encountering God in my youth that continue to be essential vehicles for my own spiritual formation.”

There are many things I really liked about this book, and I will highlight a few of them here. Continue reading