Southern Baptist Theological Seminary May Be Heading into Troubled Contemplative Waters


The Christian Post (see article below) is reporting on the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary’s new Ph.D. program for “spirituality.” Don Whitney, senior associate dean of Southern’s School of Theology, will play a significant role in this new program. Lighthouse Trails has had concerns in the past about statements Whitney has made about contemplative pioneer mystic Richard Foster. Whitney acknowledges Foster’s influence when he says: “Perhaps the most influential book on spirituality in the twentieth century is Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline, but he also states that Foster has “done much good,” a statement Lighthouse Trails strongly refutes.

While Whitney does presently reject Foster’s mystical propensities, he is not issuing stern warnings about the teachings of Richard Foster and the detrimental affect his writings have had on the Christian church. Although Whitney seems to see Foster’s mysticism as a negative, he still identifies Foster as an overall positive influence. However, such a mindset has paved the way for Foster’s spiritual formation to become an integral part of Christianity today, and perhaps one of the main reasons that contemplative spirituality has taken hold to some degree in nearly every denomination. Foster’s spirituality should be warned against, not in any way exalted.

Southern Baptist Theological Seminary may be heading into troubled waters. For example, in a STBS article written by STBS Associate Professor of Pastoral Theology Eric Johnson, Johnson writes:

[W]e must consider how to help people access God in more of his beauty for therapeutic purposes. For this we need to consider those spiritual disciplines that have been used for centuries for such purposes: prayer; spiritual reading (lectio divina [brackets in original]), especially the Bible, but also good devotional literature; meditation (or contemplation); and worship. 1 (p. 10)

In that same article, Johnson recommends readers turn to Bernard of Clairvaux and Julian of Norwich for further study on spirituality. Both Bernard and Julian were mystics. Thomas Merton, a Buddhist-sympathizer and mystic, said of Julian of Norwich: “There can be no doubt that Julian is the greatest of the English mystics.” 2 Johnson also favorably references John Ortberg, Larry Crabb, and Thomas of Aquinas, all with strong mystical propensities. Either Eric Johnson does not have an understanding of the true nature of mysticism, or he is sympathetic to it. Either way, his contemplative sympathies are pointing students to the mystics. What is sadly ironic about this is that Don Whitney condemns Foster for pointing people to mystical writers, but right in Whitney’s own school, this is exactly what Eric Johnson has done! 3 And in Whitney’s own book, Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life (1991 edition), he instructs readers in lectio divina (choosing a word or phrase – pp. 34, 52), not to mention makes reference to Foster and Willard nearly two dozen times total in his book.

According to the report below, SBTS’ new Ph.D. program will focus on “spiritual formation” and “spiritual disciplines.” Spiritual formation, by its very nature, and according to its very pioneers (Foster and Willard) IS contemplative. Even Rick Warren acknowledges Foster and co-contemplative Willard as founders of the spiritual formation movement in his book, The Purpose Driven Church (p. 126).

Will the new spirituality program at SBTS include Larry Crabb’s affinity to contemplative prayer? Or Julian of Norwich’s pantheistic views? Will lectio divina (where a word or phrase is focused upon) be added to the syllabus’? Or Richard Foster’s “school of contemplative prayer,” (which will be the same as Thomas Merton’s contemplative prayer)? Time will tell, but one thing is for sure, SBTS is flirting with contemplative spirituality, and if they are not careful, those flirtations may lead to the seducing spirits that Scripture warns about. “Now the Spirit speaketh expressly, that in the latter times some shall depart from the faith, giving heed to seducing spirits, and doctrines of devils” (I Timothy 4:1).

Aaron J. Leichman
Christian Post

“Baptist Seminary to Become First Protestant School to Offer Ph.D. in Spirituality”

The flagship seminary of the Southern Baptist Convention plans to become the first Protestant institution in the United States to offer a Ph.D. in spirituality, according to an announcement this week.

And the men behind the new program say Southern Baptist Theological Seminary’s introduction of the new degree this month comes at a key time.

“Spirituality is one of the fastest-growing areas of theological education,” noted Don Whitney, senior associate dean of Southern’s School of Theology and director of the Center for Biblical Spirituality, according to the news service of the Louisville, Ky.based seminary.

Michael A.G. Haykin, prominent church historian and author of The God Who Draws Near: An Introduction to Biblical Spirituality, meanwhile said a heightened interest in spirituality in the culture and the current fascination with piety among evangelicals makes a Ph.D. program in biblical spirituality particularly timely and important.

“The cultural interest in spirituality, though not in religion, compels evangelicals to think seriously about this area,” he told SBTS’s Towers Online before noting the “massive changes afoot in our culture.”…

The doctor of ministry program in biblical spirituality focuses on spiritual formation with seminars on topics including spiritual disciplines, spiritual warfare, evangelism and discipleship, mentoring, and spiritual awakenings.Click here to read this entire article.

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