Essay and Reflection about Reformed Theology and the Spiritual Journey I Am On

Hi Everyone:

This is a MUCH longer blog post than what I typically write. And contrary to all advice, I have not done any work to make it more internet friendly and easier to read.

 

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I wanted to share with you a few thoughts about a very significant book I just finished. I actually bought it two years ago, and it has been sitting on my "to read shelf" (actually shelves) which I am making progress working through.

It is Life in God: John Calvin, Practical Formation and the Future of Protestant Theology by Matthew Boulton.

While this book is the stimulation for this reflection, the reflection goes much broader than the book.

As you know, my main areas of theological interest are the doctrines of sanctification-regeneration-union with God. All of this was because of my 15 years of pursuing spiritual formation, writing spiritual formation exercises, teaching and training these models and approaches globally... and, at times, meeting with resistance, usually from theologically minded Reformed folks who had major red flags with anything that involved human participation and action in the journey of salvation. 

Quick Note: The vast majority of people do not have theological resistance to these models. They usually have the resistance that comes from the excessive responsibilities and obligations of contemporary life. The response is, I know I need this stuff, but I can't imagine how I will every get around to doing it. 

But back to the theological resistance. Tullian Tchvidian (sorry sp?) or TT is the most blatant example, not only of resistance, but flat out condemnation of what I teach. TT stands in what he thinks is the Lutheran tradition.  His Jesus Plus Nothing = Everything is one of the most marked up books I owned. On every page TT blunders and blathers about the spiritual life. If you want to read a critique that shows TT does not truly understand Luther, see Carl Trueman, Luther on the Christian Life.

Other major concerns-resistance-condemnation (it is a spectrum) of my approach flowed from people like popular preacher Matt Chandler, parts of the Gospel Coalition, the "Sonship" model that seems to describe sanctification mainly as daily reassurance of one's justification status (although as I researched their writings, they are full of tensions and contradictions, especially the popular stuff), and Michael Horton as a representative, substantial Reformed theologian.

 

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I did not take these criticisms lightly, but really wanted to be biblically rooted and theologically sound. While I have always been a reader in theology (my Th.M. was in historical theology), I needed to dive in more fully into this theological conversation-debate.

In fact, so seriously did I take these criticisms that I decided to put on hold, the ongoing writing of the Spiritual Exercises that would complete the series I had started. The exercises on the life and ministry, death and resurrection of Christ moved to the back burner until I could sufficiently work through the theological framework which I already had, but which needed more support.

About five years ago I began to dig more fully into the theological and biblical-theology resources to see what was going on with the Reformed tradition. Which, by the way, is my default tradition, even though it is modified with a generous orthodoxy that borrows from Wesley, the Pietists in general, the monastics and contemplatives as well as charismatics. At heart - I am a Reformed theologian.

It was also interesting to note that these subjects are being taken up with more interest and debate within the Reformed community, where parts of that community is concerned about "extreme justification views" that seem to minimize or eliminate sanctification and the spiritual life. Tullian's writings (and recent fall into moral lapse) were part of the occasion for the Gospel Coalition addressing the issue, and inviting Tullian to change or depart from GC. Tullian departed.

 

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What exactly does the Reformed tradition teach on sanctification-regeneration-union? 

I already knew there was not ONE unified voice on this, but rather multiple Reformed traditions and in-house disagreements on these theological matters. Through Life in God, I have become increasingly comfortable that there is a strong theological support within the Reformed tradition for my broader, evangelical approach to spiritual formation that has been shaped by C.S. Lewis, Chesterton, Willard, Foster, Peterson, Boa, Nouwen, Gary Thomas, Benner, Demarest, Schwanda, etc.

Note: For a very substantial and good exploration, see: Reading the Christian Spiritual Classics: A Guide for Evangelicals, edited by Goggin and Strobel. Leading evangelical theologians and exegetes speak wisely and cautiously about how evangelicals can engage with the contemplative traditions that generally have been avoided by evangelicals. There is theological consideration to the spiritual practices of formation.

So this morning when I finished Life in God, I knew I had finally found the one book that I can recommend and give to my Reformed friends who want to see what the "great-grandfather" of our Reformed theology actually believed and practiced on matters of spiritual formation and sanctification. I say one book, because many of the people I engage with, who have concerns, also have little time for a systematic study of these themes.

It is a marvelous book in so many ways. I am not going to do a review of the book but I will mention a few of the central themes. It is not an easy book, but nor is it excessively hard. The author is a little repetitious, but for me, the repetition was helpful. And there is a set of educational vocabulary that most readers will need to consult their dictionary to make sure they understand the terms. There is also a devotional flavor of love for God and the experience of God that enhances the reading.

I would also recommend, that a reader has a copy of Calvin's Institutes handy so you can look up the many citations in their actual context and read directly from Calvin. It will make a difference to actually read what Calvin says. Now, this is optional, but it will be beneficial. When I did this, my temptation was to read more widely before and after the specific section referenced. But that is a good thing.

 

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Here are a few MAJOR take aways.

1.  Calvin was not fundamentally opposed to monasticism and its spiritual practices. Instead, Calvin was opposed to the elitism and separatism of the monastic movement. Calvin believed that spiritual formation was for all (not just monks and priests) and was meant to be practiced in the context of the world and not just the monastery and altar. Yes to the monastic practices of spiritual formation. No to their monastic and priestly contexts. This was a break-through and strategic principle for me. (And by the way, Ignatius of Loyola had a similar mindset. He wanted formation that would be in the hands of a missional group of leaders who were serving God's purposes in the world, and passing those practices on to others.)

2.  Boulton then went on to show how Calvin universalized lectio divina, daily hours of prayer, the psalter and more, for all of Geneva. Brilliant, beautiful, and once you have eyes to see - so obvious. By the way, I had a course on Calvin under Sinclair Ferguson of Westminster Theological Seminary, and that was where my interest in Calvin began. And to my recollection (it was a long time ago) Sinclair had a warm piety that grew out of his Calvinistic theology-spirituality. The prayers of Dr. Ferguson, at the beginning of each class, were themselves formative in the lives of his students.

3.  Calvin was profoundly committed to a regula of consistently practiced formative disciplines. Genevan societal life was structured for the people to participate in those practices (and spend quite a bit of time in them!). Any Reformed author who diminishes the place of spiritual formation practices take a MAJOR and in Boulton's opinion, TRAGIC departure from the founder of this theological way.

4.  Calvin was much more integrative of heart and mind, theology, spirituality, ethics-morality, than we are. Likewise, he had an all of life redeemed approach and, to borrow a phrase from another tradition, wanted the people of Geneva to learn how to practice and experience God's presence in the world. One of the main themes in Calvin is our blindness and obstinacy to see and experience God's fatherly and benevolent presence that is manifest everywhere. Calvin'g high regard for the Scripture see the Bible itself becoming the spectacles we need so we may rightly practice-discover-discern and enjoy that presence!  Wow!!! Who needs Brother Lawrence in the monastic kitchen when we have Brother John (Calvin) in the marketplace and city center! Reading and knowing the Bible is not the end. Using the Bible to experience God and be have our piety awakened and aligned with God, that is why we read and study the Scriptures.

5.  Calvin had an urgent and passionate TELOS into which he placed all spiritual formative practices (including listening to sermons, studying the Bible, partaking in communion) and that was for the believer to more into deep experience of their "mystical union" (Calvin's language) with God in Christ, and experience a growing piety, above all characterized by humility and gratitude, as well as trust and obedience. Calvin had a transformational and doxological approach to everything he did. Theology as well as the Bible itself was in the service of such transformation and doxology.  See the relatively new book by theologian John Davis of GCTS is, Meditation and Communion With God: Contemplating Scripture in an Age of Distraction, where similar ideas are developed.

6.  To pick up on that last idea just a bit... Calvin's doctrines of creation, providence, the image of God in man, the fall into sin, and atonement are all developed for the specific purpose of fostering deep, experiential piety on the part of the follower of Christ. Calvin's theology can be described as a spiritual theology, a theology of piety, a doxological theology and more. Which is why Calvin's Institutes are not institutes of theology but rather of piety. Calvin was very intentionally writing a manual of piety and a theology of spirituality-pietas.

7.  So Calvin not only provides the theologizing and the preaching that provides support for my general evangelical-contemplative-Reformed approach to sanctification and spirituality, Calvin also models the way with specific practices. Calvin was a very consistent practitioner of the things he recommended.

8.  Now, this next point goes beyond Boulton.  It is a compatible observation from other reading. It is obvious the much of the Puritan tradition was deeply immersed and emergent from this way of understanding Calvin. The Puritans diverged from their more rationalistic-scholastic Reformed cousins. As I am reading Calvin, I am also digging into J.I. Packer as the pre-eminent theologian of the Puritans. And Packer is rightfully seen as a real heir  to Calvin's way of theology and spirituality, translated and expanded through the Puritans. I recently finished two books about Packer, and one of them was on the spirituality-sanctification theology of Packer. See Packer by Sam Storms and J.I. Packer by Ryken. I will soon start deeper explorations in the Dutch theologian - Bavinck, of whom my preliminary observations indicate similar approaches. 

9.  Boulton has a real pedagogical approach and is quite interested in paideia and how the teaching office of the church is best designed for the formation of a community of faith. As you know, I am a deep generalist who is always looking for the intersection and connection of theology, spirituality, leadership, andragogy and mission. Boulton has provided me with some sound theological language as well as recommendations for my ongoing reading as I continue to develop the LCI approach to learning communities.

10. All of the above is grounded in a robust and unequivocal doctrine of justification by grace through faith that abhors any synergism when it comes to justification and regeneration. And all is grounded in an equally robust doctrine of sanctification that places all responsible and faithful practices in the context of God's primary work of empowering us through the Spirit of Christ so we may even pray or read the Bible, etc. That means all sanctification is grounded in humility, gratitude, wonder, faith, hope and the love of God. The sovereignty of God and the supremacy of Christ find full flowering in this approach to sanctification.

 

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As I continue to read major works on theology, I am also diving once more into the more rigorous biblical studies that deal with sanctification and spirituality. There are a number of excellent monographs on Pauline spirituality I have read and more are sitting on those "unread shelves of books" waiting. Michael Gorman is one of those NT scholars whose work on cruciformity is remarkable. 

Then of course, the great challenge is how to take these rich and substantial ideas and translate-contextualize them for the typical missional worker and leader... and then, even more - for the general Christian audience to which they minister... and above all, for the thoroughly post-modern world in which we exercise our calling and vocation.

I am seriously considering a volume of exercises on NT spirituality as a precursor to re-engaging my writing on the Jesus exercises. Pray for me on this...

 

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Brian K. Rice, LCI, Leadership ConneXtions InternationalAt this Christmas time,y thoughts, prayers and gratitude are with all my colleagues and friends who are doing this kind of theological and spiritual work in the service of the mission of God's kingdom.

Those same thoughts and prayers are with all who are working as teachers, spiritual directors, coaches, mentors and more. It is to serve your ministry in these areas, that my ministry exists.

May God speed and grace all our learning, reflection, integration and practice.

May we be transformed by that beautiful grace of Christ, from the inside out. For participation in Christ precedes and makes possible all imitation of Christ. Jesus is looking for missional "friends" to send out into the world.

Your brother, friend and co-laborer in Christ Jesus.

Brian