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Bridging Spiritual Formation and Theology


“Have this mind in you, which was also in Christ Jesus…” Phil 2:5

“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind…” Rom 12:2a

Introduction

A president of a theological seminary told me that “discipleship” is not the role of a seminary. Apparently, this respected leader thought that discipleship was the domain of the church while the seminary should treat academic issues and train in the skills of pastoral leadership. At the time, it struck me as odd that an institution for training Christian pastors would see itself as performing a function separate from Jesus’ final command to the apostles—to make disciples of all nations. Attempting to see matters from his perspective, I admit that not all disciples of Jesus need the kind of training offered in a seminary. Nevertheless, I was bothered that this man saw the heart formation of discipleship as something distinct from theological training.


In this brief essay, I return to that question—how does theology relate to spiritual formation? Is there a bridge? The one is thought to be an exercise of the mind while the other is a shaping of the heart. Theology is the domain of professors and the academy; spiritual formation is for contemplatives. The former is about information related to divinity. The latter, encountering the divine in lived experience.


The question has taken on new urgency due to the personal failures of spiritual leaders. Those we have trusted as spiritual guides and shepherds are suddenly exposed as charlatans, misogynists, swindlers and the like. They have knowledge and skills that allow them to ascend to positions of great influence in the church only to discover that “the emperor has no clothes.” We assumed their external charisma was a reliable indicator of internal formation of the heart. Alas…

Reconsidering Theology

What is theology? The word is formed by two Greek words: theos, meaning “God” and logos, meaning “rationale, study or word.” So we might say that theology is simply trying to understand God. It has been said that human beings are by nature theologians, meaning they perennially try to figure God out, to make sense of the Almighty. Even those who profess no belief or unbelief seek to find a rationale for their view of God—why God does not exist. In a nutshell, theology is thinking about God and humanity’s relationship to God. We want to know God and to know about God.


This begs the question of how we know. As heirs of Greek thought, we may slip into the idea that the mind can function in isolation from other facets of our being (e.g. behavior, affections, relationships). Though these aspects can be considered separately, we realize that true “knowledge” incorporates multiple aspects of who we are.

Think of the pianist who “knows” a score of music. His knowledge incorporates ears, eyes, fingers, muscles, posture, etc. Emotions are involved in his interpretation of the the piece. His relationships are integral to his knowledge, having learned from teachers, composers, and other performers. It is not merely theoretical or conceptual knowledge. It involves social, performative, affective and other aspects of his person. The same could be said for the knowledge of an electrician, a biochemist or a parent.

Knowledge, in the Hebrew Bible, is also multi-faceted. Famously, Adam “knew” his wife Eve and she bore children as the fruit of that “knowing.” Knowledge is not mere mental conception, not mere information. Knowledge, as intended by scripture, and increasingly affirmed by epistemologists and philosophers, is multifaceted, a synthesis engaging the totality of human faculties.


The point bears on our question about the interaction of theology and spiritual formation. If theology is the knowledge of God, that knowledge must extend to our emotions, our relationships, our attitudes, our actions. In brief, theology, rightly understood, is holistic. To be a “theologian” (a God-knower) implies an integration of all aspects of our being in relating to the one known—God.


What is Spiritual Formation?

“I’m not religious, but I am very spiritual.” We often hear this from our contemporaries who have become cynical about religious faith and yet affirm their spirituality. Despite a general decline in adherence to religion, contemporary persons still resonate with spirituality. They know innately that the range of human experience is not measurable. We are more than we can define. The meaning of “spiritual” is up for discussion, but the human being must be more than his or her physical constituent parts regulated by chemical secretions. There is something intangible, unquantifiable—spiritual.


And it’s not only Christians. Spirituality is packaged as contemplation, exercise, stress relief, yoga, etc. Religions and philosophies offer their own take on spirituality and Christians are part of the trend. We wonder if Christianity can make us better persons, more peaceful internally, easier to live with, more relatable and relational.


“Spiritual formation” is the current buzz word, but we’ve been talking about it a long time using words such as “sanctification” or “discipleship.” As noted above, Jesus called his disciples to follow him and ultimately to make disciples. The Greek word is mathetes, meaning simply “learner” but learning that is not merely informational. Jesus said that “a disciple is not above his teacher, but everyone when he is fully trained will be like his teacher.” (Lk 6:40) So what Jesus has in mind may be closer to our idea of an apprentice or a trainee. Discipleship involves behavior, emotions and intellect.


A friend recently protested the validity of spiritual formation. In his view Jesus followers need only internalize the gospel—the message of God’s unconditional love based on Jesus’ death to reconcile us to God. He thought “sanctification” is nothing more than a way to sneak the law back into our salvation—saved by Christ’s death, but made perfect by our obedience.


My friend’s concern gave me pause for thought. Spiritual formation is all about the gospel, but it is applying the gospel more and more deeply to every area of life. It is not replacing the gospel with law or disciplines or rules. It is centering one’s life in the gospel. It is seeing him (Christ) more clearly, following him more nearly and loving him more dearly.


Here’s an image. By nature, we live in a winter of alienation from God. The sun of Jesus’ love and reconciliation rises on our frost-bitten souls as we hear and understand the gospel. We begin to take our first steps towards that light of love. As we progress on the journey, we gradually take off our overcoat, then our vest, sweater, boots, etc. Those old wrappings that served us well when we lived in alienation from God are of no use to us as we follow Jesus. They represent the means by which we related to God and others—deception, duplicity, anger, lust, abuse, etc. In the light of God’s love in Christ, we see these things for what they are and leave them behind. Rather than doing more, we’re simply shedding the old. As we move along, we begin to put on new clothes that are more fitting for our journey. They are birthed by the Spirit of Jesus who indwells us, including love, joy, peace, patience, gentleness, kindness, goodness, faithfulness and self-control. Nor does this imply that we no longer sin. In fact, the journey of discipleship is one of continually confronting the selfish impulse of the ego and uprooting it, laying it aside.


Theology and Spiritual Formation

Regrettably, one can study theology, even obtain a degree and yet know little of the transforming work of Christ at the heart level. However, as we understand theology as the pursuit of a holistic knowledge of God through his self-revelation in Jesus, then it becomes integral to our spiritual formation and the foundation of our growth in Christ. And for you seminary types, reading the Biblical languages or internalizing the reflexes of good exegesis are all integrated into our spiritual formation.


Christian spiritual formation is not about stress relief, becoming winsome, tranquil or successful. Its reference points are signed through the narrative of Scripture—the alienation of humanity from God, God’s relational, Trinitarian nature that pursues reconciliation of humanity to himself, the cross as the means of reconciliation and the seal of the demise of opposing spiritual forces, the indwelling Spirit and the promise of resurrection and new creation.


Theology is the gate to spiritual formation—part and parcel of discipleship. Separating the two is like wrenching the spirit from the body or removing water from a stream. It can’t be done. The mind of Christ synthesizes, bringing every area of our being under the transformative aegis of God’s love revealed in Jesus’ cross. Mind, heart and body are engaged. Intellect, affections and behavior are integral. To be a theologian is to be spiritually formed and that means engaging in the hard work of deep discipleship.


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