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