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?