Four Views on Christian Spirituality


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One of the most remarkable stories of recent times has been the resurgent interest in spirituality.

While there is much to be celebrated, some are concerned. Where are these movements headed? Are they anchored in the venerable traditions of the past? And what exactly is Christian spirituality? These are just a few questions people are asking.

Four Views on Christian Spirituality (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012) addresses these queries by drawing on a rich, historically rooted Christian heritage—Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, progressive mainline Protestant, and evangelical—presented by some of the tradition’s most capable scholars. The format for the book is dialogical in nature as each viewpoint is followed by a response from the other three interlocutors. It is bookended with an introduction and conclusion by the editor, Bruce Demarest, an evangelical theologian at Denver Seminary.

In light of the current discussion within Adventism regarding “spirituality,” this book can serve as a gentle introduction to the field.

Christian Spirituality: A Definition

One of the most useful features of the book is found in the Introduction where Demarest provides a working definition of Christian spirituality and outlines a structure in which to frame the ensuing dialogue. “Christian spirituality,” he writes, “embraces devotion to the triune God, abiding in Christ, pursuit of holiness, and cultivation of virtues—in short, the whole of life lived under the direction of the Holy Spirit.” He then highlights for the reader prominent categories in how one can think about Christian spirituality: the role of doctrine in spirituality; the means, disciplines, [practices,] or regimens by which spirituality is achieved; the function of the institutional church in spirituality; and the goals or endgame of spirituality. This review will focus on the role of doctrine and discipline in comparing the four traditions.

An Overview of Four Christian Spiritual Traditions

For Evan Howard, founder and director of the Spirituality Shoppe, “conversion is arguably the most significant element in evangelical spirituality”; it is “the mechanism through which union with God is established and maintained.” Spiritual disciplines that correspond to Howard’s emphasis on conversion include: reading, studying, and meditating on scripture; preaching, hearing, and reading sermons; family worship; song; and intercessory prayer. Despite the vital role evangelicalism has had in shaping American history, culture, and religion, as noted by such historians like Mark Noll and George Marsden, Howard’s description attests to a common critique of evangelical spirituality: an overemphasis upon the individual at the expense of more corporate dimensions.

Progressive Protestants (e.g., American Baptist, Disciples of Christ, Episcopalian, Lutheran, United Methodist, and Presbyterian), on the other hand, are known for their compassionate concern for social justice and action. While the impact of this emphasis upon the external dimension of Christian spirituality should be lauded, Joseph Driskill, former professor of spirituality at Pacific School of Religion, spends most of his time discussing the capitulation of the Mainline to modernism. This has resulted in a slow but steady exodus of members over the last several decades. Facing the empty pews, progressive Protestants are now breathing in new life from the Spirit and beginning to acknowledge the need for a more experiential approach to knowing God and living the Christian life. Driskill speaks of the revival of contemplative spiritual practices as being influential in this regard.

According to Scott Hahn, popular Catholic author and professor of theology at Franciscan University in Ohio, Catholic spirituality can be expressed through the lens of the early church fathers. Ignatius of Antioch’s exhortation, “Come to the Father,” aptly summarizes Hahn’s view and thus reflects the divine filliation—the relationship of the Son to the Father and the Holy Spirit, and our coming to the Father through the Son. This is quite simply the “fact of salvation” from which all Catholic spirituality proceeds. Hahn succeeds in writing a well-argued prolegomena for Catholic spiritual theology, but unfortunately fails to allow room to expound on the rich traditions and practices that have emanated from the Catholic faith, such as Benedictine, Carmelite, Franciscan, Ignatian, and Dominican spiritualities.

Eastern Orthodoxy is probably the least familiar to Spectrum readers of this review, but certainly not insignificant. “Orthodox spirituality,” writes Bradley Nassif, of North Park University in Chicago, “is above all else a gospel spirituality that is centered on Jesus Christ in his Trinitarian relations.” This incarnational Trinitarian spirituality is expressed most fully in the beauty of the church’s eucharistic liturgy and the use of icons, its sacraments and dogmas, and monastic life. With regards to the latter, the most celebrated Orthodox hesychastic (from the Greek meaning “to keep stillness”) practice is known as the Jesus Prayer and is frequently offered throughout the day by repeating a form of: “Lord Jesus, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner” (Mk. 10:47; cf. Lk. 18:13, 38).

Discussion

As Eastern Orthodoxy rounds out the discussion, it is important to realize, as the book title suggests, that these are merely “views” and don’t always capture the finer nuances of the traditions represented, or the realities of the lived experience of individual adherents. In this regard, the authors should be commended for they’ve been given an arduous task—writing on behalf of traditions which, in the case of the last two, must consider nearly two thousand complex years of development, and do so in approximately twenty-five pages.

Although the authors write from a specific perspective, it’s interesting how several of them have been influenced by a tradition different than their own. For example, Hahn grew up Presbyterian but as an adult became Catholic; Nassif writes as an Eastern Orthodox Christian but teaches at an evangelical school; and Howard admits to almost becoming a Third Order Franciscan. This simply goes to show that no one tradition can truly exist apart from the other. Our denominational and spiritual identities are much more fluid than we may realize.

Nevertheless, a lot of digital ink has been spilled over the theological differences between these four traditions. In fact, this book is really an exercise in comparative theology with spirituality as an undertone, versus a “comparison of the major Christian perspectives on spiritual formation,” as the back cover states. According to Evan Howard, spiritual formation refers to the “attempts, means, instructions, and disciplines intended towards deepening of faith and furtherance of spiritual growth” (The Brazos Introduction to Christian Spirituality, 23).

Conclusion

In the end, Four Views on Christian Spirituality veers a bit off course from its overall beneficent tone and, after a fair summary, concludes with an apologia of evangelical spirituality as the more biblical and balanced position. Whether this is correct or not, the other contributors don't have an opportunity to respond because Demarest and the folks at Zondervan get the last word. But these minor infractions shouldn’t prevent the reader from engaging the authors through the spiritual practice of reading. Read slowly, read reflectively, and read with an ear to what the Spirit says through these churches.

Demarest, Bruce, ed. Four Views on Christian Spirituality. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012. Pp. 230. Paperback $18.99.

Erik Carter, D.Min., is working on a Ph.D. in Practical Theology at Claremont School of Theology in California.


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/4703