Thoughts on “Spiritual Formation”

We’ve been hearing a lot about “spiritual formation” and “spiritual disciplines” lately in the Seventh-day Adventist Church. These are terms that are new to some, and there can be a tendency to reject something simply because the label is unfamiliar, or has questionable connotations. Reactions have tended to go to one extreme or the other–either a whole package is accepted uncritically, or the baby is thrown out with the bath water.

The subject is important, by whatever name we call it. It concerns how we live out our relationship with Christ. Let’s begin with some definitions, and some brief history.

First, “formation.” This is a term that is used in Catholic religious education to emphasize that it involves more that simply imparting information, but includes forming the whole person.

The expression, “spiritual formation,” originated in Catholic seminaries and religious communities. For religious communities (including monasteries) it is the period of introduction to that community’s life, traditions, and ways of prayer.  The person is immersed in this new way of living, and taught what it means, and guided by experienced brothers or sisters through the time of transition. It is a period of probation, in which both the community and the individual discern whether this is the right place for them to be. For Catholic seminaries, formation covers all that is involved in developing priestly spirituality—developing the whole person, nurturing the spiritual life, honing the intellect, and inculcating a pastoral heart.

But as John Paul II noted when writing about priestly formation (Pastores Dabo Vobis 45), the Catholic tradition understands that “spiritual formation … is applicable to all the faithful.”

Human formation, when it is carried out in the context of an anthropology which is open to the full truth regarding the human person, leads to and finds its completion in spiritual formation. Every human being, as God’s creature who has been redeemed by Christ’s blood, is called to be reborn “of water and the Spirit” (Jn. 3:S) and to become a “son in the Son.” In this wonderful plan of God is to be found the basis of the essentially religious dimension of the human person, which moreover can be grasped and recognized by reason itself: The human individual is open to transcendence, to the absolute; he has a heart which is restless until it rests in the Lord.

The educational process of a spiritual life, seen as a relationship and communion with God, derives and develops from this fundamental and irrepressible religious need. In the light of revelation and Christian experience, spiritual formation possesses the unmistakable originality which derives from evangelical “newness.” Indeed, it “is the work of the Holy Spirit and engages a person in his totality. It introduces him to a deep communion with Jesus Christ, the good shepherd, and leads to the total submission of one’s life to the Spirit, in a filial attitude toward the Father and a trustful attachment to the Church. Spiritual formation has its roots in the experience of the cross, which in deep communion leads to the totality of the paschal mystery.”

He goes on to outline specific components: it is communion with the Triune God; it is the search for Jesus Christ in the Word of God, in participation in the sacraments and prayer of the church, in a life of service to those in need. It includes the prayerful and meditated reading of the word of God (lectio divina), a humble and loving listening of him who speaks.” Such reading of the Bible leads in turn to prayer, and finding silence for it in the midst of the world’s noise. But spiritual formation does not happen in isolation—it involves the community. So individual prayer must lead to a thirst for public worship, especially the Eucharist. It must develop a love for the church, and its mission. It must lead us to seek Christ in others.

Clearly, the practices he describes are not unique to Roman Catholicism. They are basic Christianity. All Christians acknowledge the need to abide in Christ, to pray, to worship, to study the Bible. There have been times in the history of the Christian church when aberrations (whether overemphasis on doctrine, legalistic behavior, minimalism, or libertinism) have led to a reemphasis on heartfelt Christianity and the devotional life. In the early days of the Reformation, Luther translated the Bible into the common language, and wrote hymns and catechisms as essential tools of spiritual revival; when Lutheranism grew stale, the Pietist movement sought to breathe new life into dry bones, encouraging not only individual devotion, but small group fellowship and sharing and prayer; Pietists like Spener and Zinzendorf had an influence in turn on the evangelical revival in the Anglican church, and the “method” taught by John Wesley. The devotional spirit and practices of Seventh-day Adventism grew out of this strain of pietistic/evangelical Christianity. Adventism continued to be informed and nurtured and inspired by evangelicalism—a case in point being the adoption of the “morning watch” and the idea of volunteer missionaries from John Mott.

In our day, the terms “spiritual formation” and “spiritual disciplines” have been brought to evangelicalism (and thence to Adventism) by Richard Foster, the Quaker founder of Renovaré, and his Southern Baptist colleague Dallas Willard. Foster’s writings combine Quaker spiritualism (emphasis on the divine “inner light”) with historic Christian (Catholic and evangelical) practices.  This is something that should give us pause. He’s starting with a specific theology of the human “spirit,” and because he believes this divine “spirit” is shared by all, he has no qualms about seeking out whatever he finds nurturing—without regard for the specific historical context or theological underpinnings of the different practices.

Foster’s eclecticism stands in contrast to historic Catholic and Protestant spiritualities, which have been rooted in particular communities and movements. In Catholicism, individuals such as Benedict of Nursia, Francis of Assisi, Dominic of Guzman, Theresa of Avila, etc., had a powerful experience of God, and unique insights into how to live the Christian life, and taught these insights to others—thus giving us Benedictine, Franciscan, Dominican, and Carmelite spirituality. The spirituality of Lutheranism is rooted in Luther’s own struggles, and the insights he developed from them; the same is true of Methodism. It’s as the Peruvian theologian Gustavo Gutierrez writes in his book, We Drink from Our Own Wells–spirituality starts as a personal experience, but it becomes “the subject of later reflection and is proposed to the entire ecclesial community as a way of being disciples of Christ.” In other words, someone says, “This is what’s worked for me—why don’t you try it?”

As Seventh-day Adventists, we share a common heritage and spirituality. We share devotional texts (like Steps to Christ), hymns, practices (especially the Sabbath), values, hopes, and dreams that are distinct. These are the components of Seventh-day Adventist spirituality (which is indebted, as I’ve already noted, to Methodism). But we can take these things for granted; we can grow complacent, the practices we grew up with can grow stale, and this can lead us to seek for new insights, greener pastures, and fresher wells. I would not discourage this–I would simply suggest that any exploration we do remain rooted in our own tradition, and that we retain a critical eye, carefully evaluating both the presuppositions and the practices of others through our understanding of God’s Word.

So I’m on alert when the Renovaré webpage begins its definition of spiritual formation this way:

We are all spiritual beings.  We have physical bodies, but our lives are largely driven by an unseen part of us.  There is an immaterial center in us that shapes the way we see the world and ourselves, directs the choices we make, and guides our actions.  Our spirit is the most important part of who we are.

That’s not in keeping with our understanding of Biblical anthropology.

But when it goes on to say that the Christian life is modeled on the life of Jesus, I say, “Amen.” Some have accused Adventists of going outside the mainstream of Christianity when we speak of following Jesus’ example–this reminds us that this is one of the most basic teachings of Christianity (as affirmed by books like In His Steps and The Imitation of Christ). Likewise I can heartily agree when it says the Christian life is characterized by prayer, virtuous living, empowerment by the Holy Spirit, compassion, and centered on the Word–this is the stuff of which the devotional life consists.

I hesitate again, however, when I see a definition of the “sacramental life” as recognizing God as manifest in his creation. I think Foster, as a Quaker, means something different by “sacrament” than Protestant theologians such as Luther or even Catholic theologians such as Augustine. For Augustine (followed by Luther) the sacraments are specific rites instituted by Jesus in which the Word is given a visible form (e.g., Baptism, the Lord’s Supper). Quaker theology turns this into panentheism—and Seventh-day Adventism has had a brush with that once before in our history, when John Harvey Kellogg incorporated such teachings into his book, The Living Temple.

I can affirm most of the practices (or “spiritual disciplines“) the Renovaré webpage identifies: meditation, prayer, fasting, study, simplicity, solitude, submission, service, confession, worship, guidance, and celebration. But I might want some more information–what is meant by “meditation,” for example? I am concerned by their recommendation of the “labyrinth” (see Lee Penn’s history) and Richard Rohr’s Center for Action and Contemplation.

So I have a number of concerns about Foster’s particular approach–but clearly he is striking a responsive chord in many. And his methodology of picking and choosing from various traditions will certainly resonate with postmodernism. But do we reject everything about “spiritual formation” and “spiritual disciplines” because of that? Of course not, because as is evident, there is much that is good, and is consistent with both the wider Christian tradition and our own practice and beliefs as Seventh-day Adventist.

What I would hope is that Adventists who read Foster (or other popular spiritual writers) would be inspired to go on and learn what our own sources have said about these things–to go back, for example, and reread Ellen White’s books, Steps to Christ, Thoughts from the Mount of Blessing, Christ’s Object Lessons, Desire of Ages, and Ministry of Healing (and Life Sketches, which relates her spiritual journey). This will keep our spiritual sustenance rooted, not merely in our own personal preferences and curiosities, but in the life of our specific community. We will thus learn, as St. Bernard of Clairvaux said, to “drink from our own wells.”

But a more important lesson we can learn from Catholicism about spiritual formation is that we cannot take it for granted. We cannot just turn it over to the individual to pursue as they might, picking and choosing what they like. Spiritual formation is a responsibility of the Christian community–and especially the pastors and teachers–to form believers, to guide them on the path of discipleship, to immerse them in the common tradition, to build a community of prayer and service. And if we do not do this–if we do not give them water from our communal well–people will search on their own for anything that offers to quench their thirst.

6 thoughts on “Thoughts on “Spiritual Formation”

  1. Where I get uncomfortable with “spiritual formation” is that, to me, it borders on a “salvation by works” (or what I like to call “old covenant thinking”) mentality. Is God so hard to find that we need to jump through such hoops to get a hold of Him?

    I have read Foster’s “Celebration of Discipline” (though it has been a while) and this is the thing that kept coming to my mind. Maybe I am misunderstanding Foster, but Ellen White seems to place these so-called “disciplines” in their right context, firmly couched in the everlasting gospel – something Foster, et al, do not seem to do.

    • Foster doesn’t, because he is a Quaker.

      Biblically, the “Old Covenant” wasn’t at all about jumping through hoops to get hold of God–it started in God’s initiative; the Ten Commandments say, ‘I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt. [Therefore] You shall have no other God before me.” Let’s get rid of this truly antisemitic notion that the Old Testament is about works and about trying to prove something about God. The “everlasting Gospel” is that all of God’s covenants have been about his initiative.

      Yes, talk about spiritual formation/sanctification/discipleship/devotionalism can be works oriented, if we think we are somehow cooperating with God in a way that is meritorious (Trent). But all the things that are mentioned or could be mentioned in this connection–reading the Bible, praying, fasting, keeping the Sabbath, living simply, watching our diet–are all things I know you believe are essential to Christianity. These are the things God told us to do as part of our relationship with him. And sanctification is something that we are involved in–I don’t think you believe in a Morris Venden kind of quietism.

  2. You wrote, “Let’s get rid of this truly antisemitic notion that the Old Testament is about works and about trying to prove something about God.”

    This is exactly why I hesitate to ever use the term “old covenant” to those I do not think understand the paradigm I am coming from. I am not using it in the historical sense but in the experiential sense. If you have not read it already, go get your hands on a copy of Skip MacCarty’s book, “In Granite or Ingrained” as quickly as you can. He does a nice job of explaining the difference between the experiential old and new covenants (which is what the Bible refers to usually when it talks about the “two covenants.” See Galatians 4:21ff). Or go here and listen to my three presentations (especially parts 2 and 3) from Camp Meeting a few weeks ago on this subject:

    Yes, I of course agree with the importance of these disciplines. And, no, I do not believe in a Morris Venden kind of “quietism” (though I have no idea what that means). I just want to make sure that we do not put the proverbial “cart before the horse,” which can often happen very subtly.

    • I’m referring to Venden’s brand of “sanctification by faith alone.”

      Yes, that can happen. That was what caused the reformation–Luther experienced medieval spirituality to the max, living out the theology of a spirituality of ascent, encouraged by his spiritual directors not to worry about his anxiety, but merely to put more effort into the practice of the rule. And look where it got him. That’s why the Lutheran tradition–especially that stream known as Lutheran Orthodoxy–has been very skeptical of devotionalism. They went to the opposite extreme, and denounce any talk of spirituality as “pietism.”

  3. Well, I wouldn’t necessarily disagree with Venden’s idea of “sanctification by faith alone” depending on how one chooses to define “faith.” If he uses the term “faith” as that which James was writing against, then, no, I would not agree with him.

    If it is a “faith that works,” then I would agree with him.

    Incidentally, I just read these words from A.T. Jones in preparation for Prayer Meeting tonight (we are reading “Lessons on Faith”) and I think it is appropriate: “Notice, too, it is not you who are to do that which he pleases; but, ‘It shall accomplish that which I please.’ You are not to read or hear the word of God, and say, I must do that, I will do that. You are to open the heart to that word, that it may accomplish the will of God in you. It is not you who are to do it, but it. ‘It,’ the word of God itself, is to do it, and you are to let it. ‘Let the word of Christ dwell in you’ (p. 104).

  4. To “Let the word of Christ dwell in you” requires an active choice. It is not a passive act. One must choose to let the Word grow in one’s mind OR to dwell on the latest story line entertaining society.

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