Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary Integrating Contemplative/Emerging Spirituality Into Degree Program

In 2007, Lighthouse Trails posted an article titled Church, Congregations Increase Focus on “Spiritual Formation.” The article, released by Adventist News Network, showed how the emphasis of contemplative/spiritual formation was moving into the Seventh-day Adventist organization. The article stated that “this subject [spiritual formation] is receiving serious emphasis in Adventist institutions, as well as in local congregations.” The following Lighthouse Trails research reveals that  Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary at Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan is promoting contemplative spirituality (i.e., spiritual formation)  through a new concentration in their Doctor of Ministry degree program. An October 2009 Andrews newsletter, put out by Kenley  D. Hall (Andrews DMin Project Coach) explains that  “Discipleship & Spiritual Formation” and  “Youth and Young Adult Ministry” will begin in February 2010 (see brochure).

According to the syllabus of one of the courses in the Andrews spiritual formation program, contemplative mystic proponents will be used to teach students this coming February. In CHMN 705 Theological and Historical Perspectives on Spiritual Growth, professor Jon Dybdahl is using a number of contemplative authors to “Demonstrate a continuing maturity in Christian formation, personal growth and ministry.” This maturity in Christian formation is typical language by contemplatives, who teach that true maturity can only come through spending time in contemplative silence. Richard Foster has been a pioneer in laying out this “maturity” doctrine. So it is not surprising that Dybdahl is turning to Foster for guidance. Other contemplatives being used in the class are: J.P. Moreland (Kingdom Triangle) and Peter Scazzero. A “short spiritual retreat” will also take place during the course.  Scazzero’s book, Emotionally Healthy Spiritually (the book being used at Andrews), is a who’s who of contemplative mystics and panentheists; some of those he points readers to are Basil Pennington, Tilden Edwards, Henri Nouwen, Meister Eckhart, Teresa of Avila, and several others.

In J.P. Moreland’s book, Kingdom Triangle (also used in Dybdahl’s class at Andrews), Moreland talks about a maturing process that takes place through “spiritual formation.” Moreland tells readers that a “treasure of deep, rich knowledge of the soul” can be found in the writings of the Desert Fathers, Henri Nouwen, and Richard Foster, (p. 153). Of course, all three of these sources ultimately point followers to eastern-style meditation (i.e., mantra-style). A four-part series Moreland did for Focus on the Family (click here to read further) substantiates that Moreland is embracing contemplative spirituality where he suggests that “Catholic retreat centers are usually ideal for solitude retreats.”

Jon Dybdahl’s contemplative propensities are strongly presented in his 2008 book, Hunger: Satisfying the Longing of Your Soul. In Hunger, Dybdahl favorably instructs on contemplative practices such as lectio divina, visualization (p. 64), the Jesus Prayer, and breath prayers (p. 52). Dybdahl explains in his book that in his “not-so-secret quest for God,” he turned to Quaker Thomas Kelly’s book A Testament of Devotion. It is Kelly, a panentheist, who said that within every human being is a “Divine Center,” a “secret sanctuary” (from A Testament of Devotion).  This “secret sanctuary” Kelly is speaking of is what he calls “abiding Light behind all changing [life] forms.” He says: “In that Current we must bathe. In that abiding yet energizing Center we are all made one” (p. 38).” Dybdahl says in Hunger that Henri Nouwen “intensified” his “craving” for “God’s presence.” (p.12) But the presence that Nouwen is speaking of is the same as that of mystics, and it is this mysticism that led Nouwen to reject Jesus Christ as the only path to God at the end of his life (Sabbatical Journey). Dybdahl’s book is brimming with references to contemplative mystics: David Benner, Morton Kelsey, Adele Alberg Calhoun, Tilden Edwards, Richard Foster, Ken Boa, and Brother Lawrence. (also see this critique on Hunger)

Another person who will be teaching at Andrews DMin in spiritual formation is Ben Maxson, pastor at Paradise Seventh-day Adventist church in Paradise, California and adjunct professor at Andrews University. Maxson will be teaching Mentoring for Discipleship & Spiritual Formation. In an article by Maxson titled “Renewing our Minds,” he says that the “spiritual disciplines” (the tools of spiritual formation) help one develop “intimacy with God,” and he encouraged practicing “the presence of God.”

One of the other spiritual formation courses in Andrews Theological Seminary’s DMin program on spiritual formation, taught by Allan Walshe, is The Personal Practice of Spiritual Formation. While the course’s syllabus is not currently posted online, we can partly identify Walshe’s contemplative propensities elsewhere. In an article featuring Walshe at a New Zealand conference, Walshe quotes contemplative pioneer Dallas Willard in referring to “intimacy with God.” This intimacy with God to the contemplative can only be obtained through going into the silence through meditation.

The DMin program on spiritual formation isn’t the only avenue through which contemplative is being implemented at Andrews. The youth ministry degree program is also involved with contemplative spirituality and emerging spirituality. In CHMN 720 Current Issues in Youth and Young Adult Ministry, professors Steve Case and Allan Walshe are using emerging church figure Shane Claiborne as well as emergent Youth Specialties author Chap Clark’s book, Deep Justice in a Broken World. The book is about the emerging kingdom on earth theology and turns to such figures as liberal/emerging theologians Jim Wallis and Tony Campolo.

Thus, as is usually the case, when a college or seminary begins to incorporate contemplative prayer, eventually they begin to open up to emerging church ideas – it is virtually inevitable. And this is the vehicle that drives our concerns. Those who practice contemplative prayer will move more and more toward an interspiritual outlook. Contemplative prayer (i.e., mysticism) is not just some obscure subculture – it is exploding across the Western religious spectrum.

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