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.