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).

Kapic does a great job in this chapter of outlining several of Owen’s concerns, as well as highlighting the neglect in many Reformed circles specifically of taking the imitatio Christi seriously. Owen, he suggests, holds together the unique particularly of Jesus with our call to imitate him well. Bruce Hindmarsh provides a helpful look at evangelical spirituality, noting, specifically, its characteristics as a “school” of spirituality in the church universal. Hindmarsh does an excellent job of highlighting the source of evangelical spirituality in a certain kind of reading of the Catholic spiritual tradition, with specific emphasis on the Quietists, Thomas A’ Kempis and the Carmelite tradition, read through the Wesley’s, Jonathan Edwards and Henry Scougal.

Dallas Willard, continues his project in spiritual formation by working through, what he calls, the “natural” part of salvation (natural in the sense of linking sanctification to justification, not as an accident, but as essential to what justification is about). Willard, unfortunately, chooses to deal with popular Christianity rather than Christian theologians. This has positive and negative sides to it. Positively, the real problems we have in our churches aren’t often because we don’t think transformation is important on paper, and therefore talking about popular Christianity can be important. Negatively though, Willard seems unaware (but this might be because of who he is choosing to deal with) that all major theological systems tie sanctification close together with justification. I would have liked to see him work within one of these theological systems to address the popular neglect “on the ground” rather than spending most of his time developing a biblical case for sanctification being tied to justification when no major theological system denies this.

There are several other issues addressed in the volume that are worth while reads – Gordon Fee focuses on the Spirit and the Bible, and in the last section, which I have bypassed here, there are five chapters on spiritual practices which are interesting, plus an epilogue addressing spiritual formation and theological education. This is a good place to start if you are looking to jump into some of these discussions, and they did a nice job of finding a decent amount of diversity.

For a theology conference, I must admit, these reflections were not the most theologically inclined. That is not necessary bad, I suppose, but I think it highlights a disconcerning trend in evangelicalism to think about spiritual formation without addressing the theological contours of evangelicalism. This volume itself takes on the characteristics of the discussion, which is something of a buffet-line with little theological orientation or grounding. There is some great stuff here, but not a lot of help in how to read it, interpret it or integrate it as evangelicals.


7 thoughts on “Life in the Spirit

  1. I’ve enjoyed what I’ve read of Willard but I don’t really see him as someone who engages in scholarship. His project seems to have a particular shape; its mostly just him building a certain understanding of Christian spirituality/formation. I don’t really see him engaging other writers or even significantly building on any particular theological trends. That’s isn’t to say there isn’t value to his project but its a project that isn’t really theological and it isn’t really scholarly, so far as I can tell.

  2. Kyle-

    I thought about bringing this up in response to your last post but since you make the point here as well I’ll pose the question. What exactly do you mean by “theological”? For example: “For a theology conference, I must admit, these reflections were not the most theologically inclined.” I think I know what you mean. You kind of get at it in your last post in the comments (reflecting on our being, practice, etc. “before God”). But I feel like in some circles “theological” is becoming what “biblical” has been for many evangelicals. (I mean who DOESN’T want to be “Biblical?!”). It increasingly sounds like a rhetorical or polemical word. Not that this is what you’re doing necessarily–just that it sounds like it. To me. I’d be curious to hear a little more of your take on what you mean when you say that. What would they have said at this conference which would have satisfied you in terms of being “theological” or having a “theological orientation”? I only check in here now and again so if you’ve posted on this elsewhere feel free to just direct me there.

    • Beau,

      Basically, my complaint has to do with methodology. The main difference between theological and biblical, in the sense you are using it, is that theological concerns a certain method while biblical does not. Biblical, in the sense you are using it, is an adjective concerning a belief (x’s view of salvation is “biblical”), while theological, as I am using it, concerns method (specifically a doctrinal approach). In the sense you suggest, everything is theological, and therefore that is incredibly uninteresting (which seems to be your worry).

      When I say theological, my focus is on doctrine, and specifically on the Christian’s ability to speak meaningfully about questions from within the grammar of orthodoxy. This is opposed to what I see going on in this book which has mostly philosophical and historical approaches. Take, for instance, Kelly Kapic’s historical approach to Owen’s spirituality – which is still robustly theological (probably because Kapic is primarily a theologian), and compare that with, say, Hindmarsh’s historical study which is simply historical. Now, it is fine that Hindmarsh, who is primarily a historian, wants to focus on an historic sketch of evangelicalism, that is certainly needed, but I expected more theologically minded papers given at a theology conference.

      One further instance. If you know much about the spiritual formation conversation, ask yourself who are the main theologians partaking in it? By “theologians” here I mean professional theologians who are utilizing doctrine as a way to speak about life under God. I would suggest that there are none. You have a lot of philosophers, historians, psychologists and maybe some sociologists, but no theologians (this is not the same conversation as the Christian spirituality conversation, which does have theologians a part of it. I take the spiritual formation conversation to be primarily a conservative evangelical discussion – think Foster, Willard, etc.). Now, this might not be a big deal, generally speaking, but, at least in my mind, the fundamental location of the spiritual formation conversation has to be theological, and doctrine must govern and guide the conversation appropriately, which, as of now, it does not. Therefore, instead of seeing what Kapic suggests that Owen offers (a robust trinitarian spirituality), you usually find a buffet line of spiritual practices poached out of context from the theological systems in which they were developed.

  3. Granted, probably theology is a more thinking, systematic approach to religion; and everyone should do it.

    But do theologians have to speak specifically, from within the grammar of “orthodoxy”?

    THis seems to limit theology far more than I would like. In part since 1)”orthodoxy” itself is often pre-theological; it is often just believing in rote lessons, without thinking them through; just because we were told to believe them, and because they are “orthodox,” or widely accepted.

    But especially: I am particularly interested in 2) theologies that discover new perspectives that, although grounded in old ideas, take us far outside of, beyond, the orthodox and conventional.

    What is the point of studying anything intensively, at the graduate level, unless it tells us things we didn’t already know? And ideally, that no one before us knew? And how can theology progress, so long as it merely repeats the conventional, the orthodox; repeats what was said in the past?

  4. I attended the conference last year; your comment, re: “these reflections were not the most theologically inclined”, by and large is true. Indeed, it was much more a recitation of historical theology: but that has its value for participating in speaking meaningfully about “the questions from within the grammar of orthodoxy.”

    Judging from the conversations I shared at the event, plenty of the evangelicals present did not grasp the history of the Christian movement regarding spiritual formation nor the underlying theological motivation for much of what concerned people like the fathers (Kalantzis, some of Cunningham), as well Kapic’s treatment of Owen.

    So, given that most of the evangelical heritage I am part would argue (complain) otherwise, the reality is that your concern is well-taken. The need for some sense of history among my evangelical world would cultivate a little more circumspection regarding the important theological concerns that are far too often presumed or ignored.

  5. It’s a common idea in the priestly elite, that materialistic, “prosperity” religion, hope for material miracles in the “world,” is backward or secondary; and that real Christianity is really about forming the mind or spirit. About dealing with the mystery of life; dealing with human passions; becoming “one” with humanity and God and the Universe, etc..

    But as the ancient gurus often warned, there are huge and insideous problems with focusing on spirituality itself. The Bible therefore similarly warned of “false spirits”; and called for “discernment.”

    Among thousands of other dangers in spirituality, in actual practice, I often find that those who are convinced that the transformation of the mind, emotions, “heart,” or spirit, is the major goal of religion, often descend into a kind of competitive narcissm, for example; people attempt to strike, for each other, the most affecting pose of emotional martryrdom. For each other’s homoerotic admiration. Or fawning self- or mutual admiration, over their own said spirituality. And alleged moral/theological/philosophical/emotional superiority.

    Worse, this is just one tiny example, of huge errors often made in the name of spirituality. This is why the Bible warned even about sins in even the interior life, the deceitful “heart.”

    Can a simple grammar of orthodoxy, trinitarianism, even theology, really deal with this? I doubt it. Theologians are among the worse offenders in this vein.

    For these and other reasons, I am very, very wary of what is today called spirituality. Indeed, the very concentration on spirit, immediately engenders problems. Once you decide to devote yourself to your own spirit, a kind of Pharisaic narcissism or vanity – admiring your spirit, after all – is usually the first result. And all too often, the final one as well.

    For this reason among others, I prefer to address myself to more practical, external good deeds, “works.”

  6. My own undeveloped thoughts on this subject (life in the Spirit) tend to wander towards, apart from the fairly constant attempted awareness of the presence of God’s Spirit all within me, is service to others – neighbor, stranger, friends, “lost and dieing people lying along side the road”(similar to the Good Samaritan, only to the spiritually lost and dieing instead), without expecting anything in return. Putting their needs ahead of my own, or trying to, (with the actual ‘doing’ of it being seldom pretty or pure).

    That is, doing something I wouldn’t otherwise do, if it weren’t that it is a way to exercise and abide in and even practice God’s love and mercy which He has shown me by adopting me and opening the door to His kingdom.

    Things I would not otherwise do if it weren’t for the God’s eager encouraging Spirit in me, that’s my ‘life in the Spirit’.

    Orthodoxy? I think I’ll plead ‘freedom from all men’, although I won’t deny my debt of gratitude to many of the church fathers.

    I appreciated the discussion. Thanks for letting me chime in.


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