A Vital Question: Is There a “Good” Spiritual Formation?

Kariba Dam between Zambia and ZimbabweOne of the most common arguments we hear defending Spiritual Formation is that there is a “good” Spiritual Formation done without contemplative prayer. To that we say, we have never yet seen a Spiritual Formation program in a school or a church that doesn’t in some way point people to the contemplative mystics. It might be indirectly, but in every case, if you follow the trail, it will lead you right into the arms of Richard Foster, Dallas Willard, and other contemplative teachers.

Think about this common scenario: A Christian college decides to begin a Spiritual Formation course. The instructor has heard some negative things about Richard Foster, Henri Nouwen, and Brennan Manning, and he figures he will teach the class good Spiritual Formation and leave those teachers completely out. But he’s going to need a textbook. He turns to a respected institution, Dallas Theological Seminary, and finds a book written by Paul Pettit, Professor in Pastoral and Education Ministries. The book is titled Foundations of Spiritual Formation. The instructor who has found this book to use in his own class may never mention Richard Foster or Dallas Willard, but the textbook he is using does. Within the pages of Pettit’s book is Richard Foster, Philip Yancey, N.T. Wright, Dallas Willard, Thomas Aquinas, Lectio Divina, Ayn Rand, Parker Palmer, Eugene Peterson, J.P. Moreland, Klaus Issler, Bruce Dermerst, Jim Burns, Kenneth Boa and Brother Lawrence’s “practicing God’s presence.” You may not have heard of all these names, but they are all associated with the contemplative prayer movement and the emerging church.

Another example of this is Donald Whitney’s book Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life. Whitney is Associate Professor of Biblical Spirituality at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. While his book does not promote contemplative mysticism, he says that Richard Foster has “done much good”31 in the area of Christian spirituality.

Our point is that even if there is a sincere attempt to teach Spiritual Formation and stay away from the mystical side, we contend that it cannot be successfully accomplished because it will always lead back to the ones who have brought it to the church in the first place.

Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ. For in him dwelleth all the fullness of the Godhead bodily. And ye are complete in him, which is the head of all principality and power. (Colossians 2: 8-10)

This is an excerpt from our booklet Is Your Church Doing Spiritual Formation? (Important Reasons Why They Shouldn’t), click here.

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