(460.6) SPIRITUAL FORMATION: ORIGINS – Emerging Trends in the Church Today
“ORIGINS – Where Gaming Begins”….but I digress.
Is your church “doing SPIRITUAL FORMATION”?
Is your church promoting SPIRITUAL DISCIPLINES?
These are some of the catch phrases EMERGING today within the church as more and more Christians become increasingly influenced by a CONTEMPLATIVE MYSTICISM that has become popular within Evangelicalism over the last several years.
How people use these words and phrases may differ today but their origins can be traced – in some cases back to the EARLY CHURCH or in other cases to various MYSTICAL PHILOSOPHIES and EASTERN RELIGIONS. To properly understand their meaning, it is important to understand their original meaning and compare it to what is being promoted today.
For example – some will use the phrase SPIRITUAL FORMATION (& SPIRITUAL DISCIPLINES) to describe what basically has been known as DISCIPLESHIP. A problem arises when the principles behind what we call SPIRITUAL FORMATION have little in common with what Scripture teaches and more in common with what was taught by some in the EARLY CHURCH.
Why is that a problem? A problem arises when the church looks to history and actually values man’s views higher than God’s word. (2 Timothy 3:16)
When a source other than the Bible is used to establish practices and define doctrine, this can be an invitation to do down a path over time that is simply not beneficial in our spiritual walk. This can lead people/church away from its primary mission (i.e. discipleship) and into other activities not specified in the Bible. In the example of SPIRITUAL FORMATION, some of these popular activities were performed during the EARLY CHURCH. This fact alone will convince some to hold these concepts on par with the Bible. When the “Early Church” is brought into a conversation, it seemingly conveys a status of authority that some will actually say is equivalent to Scripture. Others won’t actually go that far in saying that but in practice, they hold up the Early Church sometimes more so than they look to Scripture.
Therefore, as doctrine develops in the church, if is not rooted and grounded in the Bible, then the opportunity exists for all sorts of error and aberrant theology to develop. When you read through the Bible in both the OT and the NT, the people of God have repeatedly dealt with doctrinal errors and heresies. In fact, we are warned that as we approach the final days, the amount of false teaching will increase – 2 Peter 2:
But there were also false prophets among the people, even as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Lord who bought them, and bring on themselves swift destruction. And many will follow their destructive ways, because of whom the way of truth will be blasphemed. By covetousness they will exploit you with deceptive words; for a long time their judgment has not been idle, and their destruction does not slumber. …
Many things could be said in this passage in 2 Peter. But looking at a few of the main issues include the following.When we look to define SPIRITUAL FORMATION, some basic observations should be noted.
=> False teaching came from WITHIN the church.
=> False teaching came from WITHIN the leadership of the church
=> False teaching will be SECRETLY brought in.
=> False teaching will be DESTRUCTIVE.
=> DECEPTIVE words will be used.
=> TRUTH will be BLASPHEMED.
It may be no accident that concepts such as SPIRITUAL FORMATION have caught on among Bible colleges and seminaries. There is an intellectual elite side to the appeal of these practices even though the practices themselves tend to downplay intellect, knowledge, doctrine,….etc. So, with this in mind, let’s look at the MEANING and the ORIGINS of the phrase SPIRITUAL FORMATION.
First, we don’t see this phrase used in the Bible. It is a simple fact but one that should be clearly noted when we decide to follow the associated teachings that spring forth from its inclusion in Christian practice. That doesn’t void its use in Christian practices and doctrine, (e.g. the word “Trinity” is not in the Bible but defines a core aspect of our faith found throughout Scripture) but it should cause you to look further at the principles being suggested to determine if they are biblically supported.
Second – If the phrase is largely dependent on historical traditions – then, obviously, we should investigate how these traditions developed and how they were used over time in the church. Again, we need to look at the core principles being suggested to determine if they are biblically supported.
So, how is this phrase used in Christianity today and where did it originate from historically”. In a previous posting, we looked at the recent history of SPIRITUAL FORMATION. Let’s look back further in history (and we won’t do this justice in this blog):
As we look back at the “Early Church“, one of the earliest sources to investigate is with Origen (A.D. 185-254). You may recall that Origen rejected the single meaning of a text of Scripture and adopted the Greek allegorical approach popular in secular mythological literature especially in the Alexandria, Egypt, region in which he lived.
This view taught that every passage of Scripture had various levels of meaning. It ranged from the literal, which was the simplest, to the allegorical, which was considered the most insightful. The allegorical is described using some of the same phraseology used today among contemplative spiritual formation proponents => allegorical was viewed as the DEEPER and RICHER form of biblical interpretation.
Origen and proponents searched for hidden, symbolic meanings within the biblical texts – but they were not necessarily the meaning intended by the author. The result of this approach was not an accurate understanding what the Scripture was saying but rather it opened up the reader to all kinds of aberrant interpretations.
Gary Gilley (from “Roots of the Spiritual Formation Movement”, Think on These Things Ministry) states that “this method was guided by personal imagination instead of informed study which of course led to all sorts of fanciful and, at times, heretical, interpretations”.
There are those today (e.g. Emerging Church proponents) who recommend reading material from Origen himself. I came across this from a men’s small group leader at my church who wanted to drop reading the Bible and instead read through the works of Origen for a period of time. Someone asked me of my opinion and I stated that while there may be a time and place for reading the works of Origen, replacing the Bible in a small group setting is not the time and place for it. Unknown to the leader, Origen taught a number of heresies such as UNIVERSALISM and PRE-EXISTENCE of SOULS. I don’t think that is the type of material we should be focusing on instead of the Bible.
An author, who is supportive of Origen’s views, wrote, “Almost all Christian spiritual and ascetic literature, ever since, has been indebted to Origen’s foundational architecture of Christian MYSTICISM.”
2b) DESERT FATHERS
Next up on the scene were the DESERT FATHERS. After Emperor Constantine’s conversion and the established the church as the state religion in 312-313 A.D., the persecutions of Christians were no longer carried out by the state. As a result, some saw the struggle against evil being minimized when Constantine took power. Becuase of this, (“man” in his infinite wisdom (not)), some felt the need to carry on the struggle resisting evil and left their places of comfort in society and fled to the desert to take up an ASCETIC life in battling evil. Many became isolated hermits while some formed local communities in the dessert. In a somewhat ironic shift in thinking, today we find Evangelicals going after the writings of those Desert Fathers and applying them to their walk today. (see item number #4 below)
The desert fathers followed in Origen’s footsteps. Gerald L. Sittser, “The Desert Fathers,” p. 199, states –
Their overall approach to the Bible seems—and, in fact, is—foreign to the modern age. They jumped from text to text, as if by free association, making connections that would appear odd to us, and they interpreted the Bible allegorically, which gives the impression that their interpretation is informed more by fanciful imagination than by careful exegesis.
Gary Gilley states that
“this approach to Scripture ultimately led to numerous schools of spirituality (ways of living out the gospel) such as Augustinian, Dominican, Benedictine, Ignatian and so forth. But ultimately they all had one thing in common, the so-called tripartite division of spiritual life. The sine qua non of this three-fold division consists of purgation, illumination, and union and is found in ALL forms of MYSTICISM, not just Christianized forms.”
Greg Peters defines these terms:
The purgative way consists in one’s active cleansing and is aided by spiritual exercises and ascetic practices, through the cultivation of humility and by practicing the virtues. Further advancement is made with the assistance of meditation, prayer and contemplation. The illuminative way is characterized by further meditation, prayer and contemplation, combined with the reception of the gifts of the Holy Spirit, additional spiritual exercises and a devotion to the Virgin Mary. The unitive way involves the exercising of proper Christian love until one experiences or achieves MYSTICAL UNION with God as Trinity. Greg Peters, “Spiritual Theology, ibid, p. 82, (cf. pp. 188-189).
MYSTICISM – Gary Gilley goes on to summarize –
- PURGATION = emptying oneself not only of sin but of passion, desire and even of intellectual thought.
- ILLUMINATION = is what takes place when the Lord fills the emptiness of our souls and minds with extrabiblical knowledge and experience
- UNION = is that mystical contact with God that cannot be rationally described, only experienced.
It is a bit beyond the scope of this posting to give too much more detail on these aspects of mysticism. But, some general conclusions can easily be identified with characteristics we see in even among Evangelicals today:
- An important goal in MYSTICISM is the belief that we can ALL achieve a UNION with God.
- We become like Christ by practicing SPIRITUAL EXERCISES/DISCIPLINES.
- RATIONAL (intellect) is downplayed while extra-biblical EXPERIENCE in encouraged.
The implications of these include the belief (by some) that the UNION achieved with God is available and achievable by all people (not just Christians). What comes to mind are false teachings such as UNIVERSALISM. A quote found in a popular book promoting a mystical view:
“… any and all active contemplation on your part is also just preparation for bringing you to a passive state. They are preparations. They are not the end. They are a way to the end. The end is union with God” (Guyon, Experiencing Union with God through Inner Prayer).
=> David Cloud states that – “This is a pagan concept that has no basis in Scripture. The believer is a child of God, but he is not absorbed into God and does not partake of his divine essence. Only Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son of God, can say that He is one with and of the same essence with God. Christ alone dwells in the light “which no man can approach unto; whom no man hath seen, nor can see” (1 Tim. 6:15). In Revelation 22:3, in the New Heaven and New Earth, the Bible says that God is still God and “his servants shall serve him.” God is God, and though the believer is His child through Christ, he is not God and never will be. When 1 Peter 1:4 speaks of being a “partaker of the divine nature,” it refers to partaking of God’s moral qualities, which is what the Bible means when it speaks of man as made in the image of God. Adam was made in God’s image morally, as an upright being, but Adam was not God. 1 Peter 1:4 refers to the same thing as Ephesians 4:24, “put on the new man, which after God is created in righteousness and true holiness,” and as Colossians 3:10, “put on the new man, which is renewed in knowledge after the image of him that created him.” www.wayoflife.org
SPIRITUAL DISCIPLINES (silence, solitude, chanting, meditation….etc.) may sound like a constructive description, but some of the disciplines include items that are not biblical. In fact, some of the disciplines are mirror images of practices within Eastern Mysticism and other Eastern religious and New Age beliefs.
=> Keep in mind, these fall under the phrase SPIRITUAL FORMATION.
As discussed above, during the first two centuries of church history persecution and martyrdom were not uncommon. Many Christians suffered because the church stood against the corrupt world system and the devil. The martyrs became the heroes of the faith. These folks, willingly made the ultimate sacrifice for Christ. That changed in 312 A.D. with the legalization of Christianity by Constantine. Some viewed the change as a watering down of the Christian faith. Martyrdom became a thing of the past, and Christians were asking who would become the spiritual heroes of this new generation?
Hermits and monks who later became known as the desert fathers and mothers were the ones who stepped out of their life of relative comfort. D. Cloud states that “They originally moved to the deserts of Egypt, and to similar areas, because it was their belief that Satan still ruled there and they sought battle with him as Christians had battled him during times of persecution. And in the face of a softening approach to the Christian life they wanted to demonstrate dedication. As their reputations grew, the desert fathers and mothers became the Christian heroes of their day. Many flooded to the deserts to see these living martyrs, to perhaps learn from them, and some to join them.”
What developed were many misguided attempts to show the dedication of the hermits and monks. Extreme forms of asceticism included fasting, days & nights without sleep, celibacy, poverty, loneliness….etc. It was under these extreme, self-induced physical conditions that some of these folks began to claim visions and revelations from the Lord.
Gary Gilley states that –
“these were passed down orally by their followers and then recorded in books to be spread throughout the Christian community. These writings became the basis for new forms of spiritualties that continue to have an impact on the church to this day. Those in the Spiritual Formation Movement today look continually to this group, which they call spiritual masters and physicians of the soul, for insights into a deeper life with God. The roots of spiritual formation are planted in the desert fathers and mothers of the second to sixth centuries.”
However to these early formers of mystical and ascetic spirituality must be added a number of others who mostly appeared in the Medieval Era, an era variously pegged as from 325 (the council of Nicaea) to 604 (the death of Pope Gregory the Great) and ending from 1453 (the fall of Constantinople to the Turks) to 1517 (Luther posting his “Ninety-Five Theses”). Developers and promoters of these forms of Christianity included Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109), Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153), Bonaventure (1217-1274), Francis of Assisi (1181-1226), Dante Alighieri (1265-1321), Meister Eckhart (1260-1327), Pseudo-Dionysius (c. 500), and Thomas á Kempis (1380-1471), to name a few. Around the time of the Reformation a number of efforts were made by Rome to draw those who had adopted Reformational theology back to the Catholic Church. This Counter-Reformation was led in part by those who supported mystical and ascetic views and insights. This same group popularized their ideas by means of their own experiences, supposed visions and writings. St. John of the Cross, Teresa of Avila, and Ignatius of Loyola (the founder of the Jesuits) were among the luminaries.
Julian of Norwich (1342-1416) is somewhat representative of this latter group. She was a nun in Norwich, England, who was locked in a cell that was attached to a church and lived there in seclusion (such women were called anchoresses). These cells or anchor holds would have a window that looked into the church so the individual could participate in the worship services. There would also be another window in which to receive food and water. While living in this condition, and at a time of extreme sickness, Julian claimed that she received 16 “showings” (revelations) on May 8, 1373, when she was 30 years old. These showings are held in high regard by the mystics and became somewhat of a pattern for the visions of others, which became increasingly common during this era.”
Consistent throughout the history of the mystical and ascetic spiritualties, including those promoting spiritual formation today, has been the four-fold hermeneutical approach to Scripture attempting to follow the three stage pathway to spirituality (purgation, illumination, union), as well as openness to extrabiblical visions, revelations, traditions and practices. It is the acceptance of these three foundational premises that has enabled this branch of heretical Christianity to survive and flourish.
While these stories are more common within Roman Catholic circles, today, we are seeing many Evangelicals being caught up with these practices. Many Evangelicals are reading books about these historic figures and mimicking the practices they used which originated from the mystical and ascetic life of the hermits living in the deserts. Relatively strong evangelicals are willing to drop their safeguards and minimize the clear teaching of Scripture in order to glean from these mystics what they believe will be spiritual insights. This is true even as these evangelicals are aware that the theological foundation of this system of spirituality is often corrupt to the core.
Gilley discusses this –
“One of the most interesting and puzzling examples of this is Dr. Bruce Demarest, former professor of theology at Denver Seminary for more than thirty years. Demarest is a man who has studied and taught evangelical theology for virtually his entire life and recognizes true heresy when he sees it. In writing the chapter “Reading Catholic Spirituality” in the book Reading the Christian Spiritual Classics, Demarest expresses deep appreciation for what he has learned from Roman Catholics concerning spiritual life. Yet he knows full well that the spiritual masters that he promotes and the teachings of Rome are in serious doctrinal error. He identifies a number of these himself: Catholic spiritual writers placed church tradition on par with Scripture and used faulty hermeneutics; they believed in papal supremacy and infallibility; they had a low view of the fall and human sinfulness; they did not call clearly for conversion; they did not believe in justification by faith alone; they believed in a redemptive role for Mary; they prayed to Mary and the saints; they practiced severe asceticism; they promoted unbiblical mysticism; and they were, and are, a pathway to Eastern religions. Fred Sanders, another author who is supportive of who many call the spiritual masters and their classics, nevertheless admits, “These nonevangelical traditions may hold the gospel itself in stewardship, but they are messing it up, and a messed-up gospel is not the gospel; its result is dysangel, not evangel; bad news, not good.” 
Many of these are core doctrines of the faith. To simply follow after them and substitute them in the place of Scripture and orthodox historic church practice is a serious change that many Evangelicals are misunderstanding in their rush to jump into these practices. In essence, these new Spiritual Disciplines fall into their own form of a WORKS mentality which looks to achieve based on disciplines that are engaged and practiced in their walk.
=> The positions taken by the “spiritual masters” and the Church of Rome place them outside the realm of biblical Christianity and in some cases demonstrate a clear rejection of the gospel.
Is your church involved in SPIRITUAL FORMATION? As we have seen, there are several indicators showing that may be the case. Is your church promoting the writings of the Desert Fathers and from the Early Church (e.g. is your Sunday School class reading from Origen or Teresa of Avila, St.John of the Cross….etc.)? Do you see and hear terms such as SPIRITUAL FORMATION being used over biblical descriptions such as DISCIPLESHIP?