By Rev. Dr. J. Patrick Bowman
Steven L. Porter in his 2008 article, Sanctification in a New Key: Relieving Evangelical Anxieties Over Spiritual Formation, begins by asserting that “the topic of spiritual formation within evangelicalism is simply the Protestant doctrine of sanctification in a new key.” Porter goes on to offer brief responses to eight general objections to spiritual formation. The following is my summary of those responses from the article as cited.
The concern is that because Evangelicalism has, over time, reinvented itself to accommodate various movements—“discipleship movement, quiet time movement, the accountability group movement, the Christian counseling movement, the men’s movement, the twelve-step movement, the WWJD? movement, the purpose-driven-life movement, and so on”—that it will once again invest in programs and emphasize that which will be just another passing fad. With this concern is the possibility that spiritual formation is but one more product in a long list of ‘solutions’ for spiritual growth that feeds “evangelical consumerism.”
The concern is somewhat well-founded considering how consumerism has entrenched itself into most facets of life. When the novelty and “revolutionary appeal” of spiritual formation and spiritual direction eventually wanes, “some new movement will arise to add some neglected element to the mix.”
But this alone should not be of high concern if, like other movements, “spiritual formation will have made its own positive contribution to the evangelical community. That the teachings and practices of spiritual formation will become commonplace in the life of the church is a great good given the assumption that many of these teachings and practices are in accordance with the reality of biblical sanctification.” Furthermore, the time and energy extended will not have been a waste of time, considering the historical precedent of spiritual formation in every period of church history.
In the sense that “all Protestant theology is historically rooted in the pre-Reformation Catholic Church,” spiritual formation is Catholic. Being that we look to the first fifteen centuries of Church history for insight in “the nature of the Trinity, the incarnation, the doctrine of the church, and so on,” what should keep us from accepting insight on discipleship and sanctification from those same sources, just because the phrase spiritual formation is used to term the process? There are some keen disagreements between post-Reformation Roman Catholicism and Protestantism on some crucial points, but “there is nevertheless room for interaction on those points of disagreement as well as other substantial points of agreement when it comes to spiritual formation.” The real concern is that spiritual formation has ‘borrowed’ specific practices from Roman Catholicism that are “incompatible with evangelical theology.”
Although a valid concern, we must not throw out a good idea just because of its origin. Any concern must be addressed specifically to a “particular problematic Catholic doctrine or practice that is embraced in the evangelical spiritual formation literature.” Is there evidence of justification by works? Does Lectio Divina tend to go against the standard evangelical hermeneutic? Is spiritual direction an afront to the priesthood of all believers? As with any questionable idea or practice, it should be weighed against sound evangelical theology. However, the knife cuts on both sides. There are evangelical ideas and practices that can easily be called into question. Views on sanctification, potential Bible study subjectivity, and overly authoritarian models of discipleship, are a few examples.
An import of questionable ideas and practices from any source should be the main thrust of concern rather than throwing out fifteen centuries of Christian theological emphasis on spiritual growth that influenced centuries of post-Reformation spiritual thinking, writing, and practice by noted evangelicals.
3. Spiritual Formation is New Age
The same concerns and controls stated above for a claim that spiritual formation is Catholic can and should be applied to a claim that spiritual formation is New Age or derived from any other non-Christian source. The other side of that is to be sure that authentic Christian practices have not been hijacked and relabeled by non-Christian sources because of neglect in the Church. Silence and solitude before the Lord are ancient Christian traditions, but most likely bring claims of New Age or Buddhist association in most Christians.
However, there are legitimate points of concern when clearly non-Christian practices are utilized within supposedly Christian spiritual formation. These include the use of “Ouija boards, drug use for spiritual purposes, spiritual principles that encourage the worship of self or nature, etc.” Other practices are more difficult to discern because they “are not obviously in direct contradiction with Scripture, yet they are not blatantly endorsed in Scripture and to varying degrees are associated with non-Christian spiritual traditions.” For these instances, the following criteria might be used to help with discernment (see Table 1).
Criteria for discerning the validity of certain spiritual practices
|Criteria #1||Is the practice/principle clearly supported by well-grounded biblical teaching? If so, then accept the practice/principle. If not, then consider #2.|
|Criteria #2||Is the practice/principle compatible with well-grounded biblical teaching? If so, then consider 3. If not, then dismiss the practice/principle.|
|Criteria #3||Is there a biblical/theological rationale for the practice/principle? In other words, does a Christian understanding of human nature, sin, salvation, and sanctification make theological sense of and adequately support the practice/principle? If so, then hold the practice/principle tentatively and consider 4. If not, then hold the practice/principle with greater tentativeness and consider 4.|
|Criteria #4||Is there extra-biblical support of the practice/principle from the study of general revelation? In other words, do we have any evidence from the investigation of human persons and the natural order that would demonstrate the value of the practice/principle? If so, then hold the practice/principle tentatively and consider 5. If not, then hold the practice/principle with greater tentativeness and consider 5.|
|Criteria #5||Is there widespread historical acceptance and endorsement of the practice/principle within the history of the Christian church? If so, then hold the practice/principle tentatively and consider the following concluding principle.|
|Concluding principle||If the practice/principle successfully met criteria 2-5, provisionally accept the practice/principle as having potential value for the Christian life. On the other hand, if the practice/principle met criteria 2 but did not successfully meet criteria 3-5, dismiss the practice/principle as most likely having no value for the Christian life. if the practice/principle met some but not each of criteria 2-5, further consideration and counsel is required.|
Data Source: Porter, Steve L. “Sanctification in a New Key: Relieving Evangelical Anxieties over Spiritual Formation.” Journal of Spiritual Formation and Soul Care, vol. 1, no. 2, 2008, pp. 129–148., https://doi.org/10.1177/193979090800100202.
To sum up, the question of whether or not spiritual formation is New Age (or Buddhist, Hindu, etc.) depends on what practice and/or principle is being evaluated and the degree to which that practice/principle fails to meet criteria 1-5 (or some other such criteria). What should be our ultimate concern is not whether the principle or practice can be found within some non-Christian spirituality, but whether the principle or practice can be affirmed from God’s general and special revelation.
Spiritual formation must remain grounded in Scripture, but do practitioners of spiritual formation see Scripture as the sole authority in matters of faith and practice? This is a valid concern considering the extra-biblical input within the spiritual formation movement. We need only look to major influencers in spiritual formation to see this. Examples are philosophy with Dallas Willard, psychology with David Benner, and the history of Christian spirituality with Richard Foster. But do any of these extra-biblical influences detract from the supremacy of Scripture? Are they a detriment to normal patterns of Biblical growth?
Secondly, is the subjectivity of experiential-driven spiritual formation replacing submission to the authority of Scripture? Thirdly, is “Bible boredom and burnout” pushing some believers toward less Word-centered spiritualities? These questions are legitimate considering the lack of theologians and biblical scholars writing on spiritual formation.
However problematic these factors are, the sufficiency of Scripture objection goes deeper:
For on a traditional understanding of biblical sufficiency the idea is that the Bible is the sole authority for all matters of faith and practice. If this is the case, then spiritual formation appears to run amuck of biblical sufficiency when it looks for insights regarding spiritual maturation in psychology, church history, subjective experience, and philosophy, and encourages practices and/or principles that are not explicitly endorsed by the biblical text (e.g., spiritual direction, journaling, silent retreats).
We can see that the sufficiency of Scripture can be looked at two ways. First is that Scripture is our highest authority for all matters of faith and practice. This reminds us that spiritual formation must “stand against the tendency to let other disciplines or personal experience trump biblical teaching. Nevertheless, on this understanding of the sufficiency of Scripture, as long as Scripture remains the controlling/regulating/governing force over against the insights of other disciplines and personal experience, there is no objection to bringing in these extra-biblical sources as subservient to Scripture.”
Secondly, we can look at the sufficiency of Scripture as an emphasis that Scripture is “the only authority in all matters of faith and practice.” This is a potential problem when looking at Scriptures such as Philippians 3:17, where Paul says, “Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us.” Paul is intimating here that it is reasonable to look to others more advanced in the practices of Christian growth as examples of those practices.
“Extra-biblical sources of knowledge can aid in our understanding of what Scripture teaches as well as how to put into practice what Scripture teaches, but these sources are not superior in authority to Scripture nor do they define what constitutes normal Christian belief and practice.”
It should be no surprise that with all the alternative and extra-biblical sources of spiritual formation available that evangelicals would be drawn to “simple obedience to the commands of Christ” in the Scriptures. Why, then, enlist spiritual formation, “an unnecessary complication and confusion of a long-standing and successful model of spiritual growth”?
Much of the literature of spiritual formations remains centered in good old-fashioned obedience. But good old-fashioned obedience can easily be externalized in behaviorism at the risk of missing the true heart response necessary for consistent, joyful obedience to Christ in all aspects of our lives. Thus, we can go through the motions without the devotion. Jesus rebuked the Pharisees for this very thing in Matthew 23:25-26.
Rightly called Christian spiritual formation makes it clear that “We do not simply want to do Jesus things, but we want to do Jesus things the Jesus way.”
Once we open the door to the way of becoming a person who naturally and regularly obeys Christ from the heart, we have opened the door to a deeper and more complex discussion involving the agency of the Holy Spirit, the role of the human will, the place of the Word, the nature of the heart, the necessity of relationships with other, etc.
…it may turn out to be the case that obedience to Christ is a bit more complex than the Christian behaviorism that can masquerade as obedience to Christ. Complex realities are not necessarily complicated or confusing, but they do demand a certain kind of sustained attention. “Trust and obey, for there’s no other way…” becomes a much more profound lyric than most of us probably realized.
Does spiritual formation encourage or inherently involve some form of works righteousness? It seems that anytime we are given something to do, we can overdo it and fall into a mentality of taking “control of one’s spiritual life and work out one’s salvation in the power of the flesh. …Once within this mindset, many Christians see the disciplines, spiritual direction, and the like as further requirements to earn God’s approval.”
Warnings against this are prolific in the spiritual formation literature. Although “our right standing with God is secured solely by the grace of God through Christ and the power of transformation is found solely through the Spirit of Christ’s mediation of that grace,” it is widely held that there is something we must do to avail ourselves of the Spirit’s work. As Frank Laubach says, “All I have done is to open up windows—God has done all the rest.” But even a simple act of opening windows, “making intentional space for God,” can become an entryway for works righteousness. On the other hand, there remains the temptation “in doing nothing” to fall into the same mindset of works righteousness. “Any model of sanctification that prescribes some response on the part of the believer to God’s sanctifying grace, however passive that response may be, becomes a target for works righteousness.”
Does spiritual formation tend to overemphasize an experiential relationship with God? Does a perceived subjective and feelings-based approach to spiritual growth undermine the objective truth of who God is? Is knowing God through the written Word being compromised in spiritual formation thought and practice?
However, in response, there is an experiential dimension of relationship with God chronicled in the Scriptures. John 14 is especially helpful in this respect:
Here Jesus is explaining to his disciples that while he will no longer be physically present with them (vs. 18–19), he will not abandon them but will manifest/disclose/show (emphanizõ) himself to them (vs. 21). One of his disciples (the other Judas) asks how this non-physical manifestation will work (vs. 22). Jesus responds, “If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word; and My Father will love him, and We will come to him and make Our abode with him” (vs. 23 Emphasis mine). This manifestation of Jesus (and the Father) in the believer’s life is mediated by the indwelling ministry of the Holy Spirit (vs. 16–17). Reflecting on Jesus’ teaching in this passage, D. A. Carson writes, “This must not be construed as merely creedal position. The Spirit is to be experienced; otherwise the promise . . . of relief from the sense of abandonment is empty.” In other words, the personal presence of the Spirit in the believer’s life is an experiential reality. Carson goes on to approvingly quote Schnackenburg: “In the twentieth century . . . consciousness of the presence of the Spirit has to . . . a very great extent disappeared, even in the believing community.” J. I. Packer agrees. In discussing the various aspects of the ministry of the Spirit, Packer writes:
“When, however, experiential aspects of life in the Spirit come up for treatment (as distinct from convictional, volitional, and disciplinary aspects) . . . Evangelicals for the most part seem to be at a loss. In this terrain of direct perceptions of God—perceptions of his greatness and goodness, his eternity and infinity, his truth, his love, and his glory, all as related to Christ and through Christ to us—understanding was once much richer than is commonly found today. This is a place where we have some relearning to do.
In taking into account Scriptures such as Ephesians 3:16, Philippians 4:13, 2 Timothy 4:17, Romans 8:16, Galatians 4:6, Romans 5:5, Colossians 1:29:
these and many other places the Pauline corpus makes it quite clear that the Spirit who is with and in the believer is a strengthening, testifying, loving, and energizing presence. It would be difficult in the extreme to make sense of Paul’s description of the Spirit’s ministry if one claimed that such language is not experiential. What would it mean, for example, that the Spirit testifies to our spirit [Rom. 8.16] if not that there is at some level of human experience a real event of personal communication taking place? Once again, the best way to conceptualize this experiential relationship and the degree to which believers are conscious of it is another matter, but our answers to those questions should not detract from the fundamental truth that life in the Spirit has an experiential dimension.
How then, can these experiences be overly emphasized considering the propensity of Scripture to highlight them? Some would say in the intentional excessive seeking out of a particular gift of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 12-14). But spiritual formation literature, for the most part, does not emphasize this practice and warns against excesses in general.
The Word of God is the primary means of grace that is used by the Holy spirit to open us up to a richer experience of God’s love, grace, peace, and direction. As Tozer says:
Sound Bible exposition is an imperative must in the Church of the Living God. Without it no church can be a New Testament church in any strict meaning of that term. But exposition may be carried on in such a way as to leave the hearers devoid of any true spiritual nourishment whatever. For it is not mere words that nourish the soul, but God Himself, and unless and until the hearers find God in personal experience they are not the better for having heard the truth. The Bible is not an end in itself, but a means to bring men to an intimate and satisfying knowledge of God, that they may enter into Him, that they may delight in His Presence, may taste and know the inner sweetness of the very God Himself in the core and center of their hearts.
The last objection to spiritual formation that we will consider is the complaint that spiritual formation reflects and reinforces our narcissistic and self-centered age at the expense of the Great Commission mandate to reach the world for Christ (Mt 28:18–20). Since spiritual formation focuses on the growth of the believer, it can easily seem that less attention is paid to reaching the unbeliever and ministering to those in need.
But since we are called to make disciples, not converts, we must come into that maturity before we can share it.
Indeed, it could easily be argued that the chief obstacle to missions is a lack of spiritual maturity amongst the body of Christ. Such common barriers to the mission endeavor as lack of financing, strained relations amongst ministry partners, moral and spiritual failure, hypocrisy, and the inadequate discipleship of new believers stem from issues of spiritual immaturity. Hence, rather than being a detraction from missions and evangelism, spiritual formation appears to be exactly what is required.
When we come into the fullest expressions of discipleship, loving God and neighbor, through following all that He commanded, we are then ready to teach others. Bishop Ryle states:
We must be holy, because this is the most likely way to do good to others… . [Our lives] are a silent sermon which all can read. . . . I believe that far more is done for Christ’s kingdom by the holy living of believers than we are at all aware of. There is a reality about such living which makes men feel, and obliges them to think. It carries a weight and influence with it which nothing else can give. It makes religion beautiful, and draws men to consider it, like a lighthouse seen afar off. . . . You may talk to persons about the doctrines of the Gospels, and few will listen, and still fewer understand. But your life is an argument that none can escape. There is a meaning about holiness which not even the most unlearned can help taking in. They may not understand justification, but they can understand charity.
As Porter concludes his article:
Each of the eight issues addressed here obviously deserve further elaboration and there are numerous other concerns that could have been raised. So while this treatment is far from exhaustive, my hope is that enough has been said to allay at least some of the anxieties of evangelicals when it comes to the topic of spiritual formation. But whatever the case on that, it is a profitable exercise for proponents of spiritual formation to pay attention and attempt to address the concerns of those who tend to be a bit suspicious of spiritual formation, if for no other reason that these concerns are often rooted in some helpful corrective.
 Porter, Steve L. “Sanctification in a New Key: Relieving Evangelical Anxieties over Spiritual Formation.” Journal of Spiritual Formation and Soul Care, vol. 1, no. 2, 2008, pp. 129–148., https://doi.org/10.1177/193979090800100202.
 Peterson, Eugene H. The Jesus Way : A Conversation on the Ways That Jesus Is the Way. Grand Rapids, Mi, William B. Eerdmans Pub. Co, 2009, pp. 1–18.
 Laubach, Frank Charles. Letters by a Modern Mystic. New Readers Press, 1955.
Emphasis in the original source.
 Carson, D. A. The Gospel According to John. William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1991.
 Ibid., 500-501
 —. Keep in Step with the Spirit – Finding Fullness in Our Walk with God. Fleming H. Revell Company, 1983, p. 62. Packer has much of the “relearning” that is needed within the pages of his book..
 Tozer, A. W. The Pursuit of God: the Human Thirst for the Divine. Christian Publications, 1993.
 —. Holiness : Its Nature, Hindrances, Difficulties, and Roots. Ichithus Publications, 2017, p. 42.