Spiritual Theology: Review Article

Alan D. Strange

Ordained Servant: March 2012


Also in this issue

The Joy and Work of Prayer: Review Article

Prayers of the Bible: Review Article

Prayer (I)

Spiritual Theology: A Systematic Study of the Christian Life, by Simon Chan. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 1998, 300 pages, $23.00.

Let me offer two reasons for reviewing a book published in 1998. First of all, the distinguished editor of this journal asked me to. Secondly, though the book is more than a decade old and a number of books like it have been written since then, the basic theme of this book is a popular one of the last quarter century: doctrine and practice, theology and spirituality, have frequently been divorced and need instead to be integrated. I agree that we do not want to separate theology and praxis—who would want to? I also agree that we tend to, not just in the post-Enlightenment era, but since Eden. It’s altogether too common for us to settle for what Jonathan Edwards called “purely theoretical speculative knowledge,” in place of affective, hearty Christianity (this volume has, by the way, a rather interesting treatment of Edwards’ Religious Affections, 214–220). There is, however, as one might suspect, more to this story than just that. Though Chan’s theme is rather ordinary, he pulls off his treatment of spiritual theology with deftness and skill, though not without some cavils from those of us who are Reformed. There is, in other words, that which Chan offers herein that’s insightful and helpful, and there’s that which he offers which is dubious, especially with respect to his non-cessationism and mysticism.

The work is titled Spiritual Theology and serves as a kind of synonym for another word frequently used therein: “spirituality.” I learned at Westminster Theological Seminary from Professor Gaffin, Philip Hughes, and others that, properly, “spiritual” (as in the spiritual man of 1 Corinthians 2), and its cognates, indicated not the quality of the subject but the reality of the presence and work of the Holy Spirit. Spirituality, taken thusly, means that which comes not by the agency of man but by the agency of the Spirit of God. Interestingly, the word “spirituality” is often nowadays pitted against “religion” so that one commonly reads that this or that celebrity, while not being a practitioner of, as is often put, “organized religion,” is, nonetheless, “a very spiritual person.” Presumably, the inward is identified with spirituality and the outward with religion. Adhering to religion then is taken as merely outward and thus inherently hypocritical. Spirituality is perfectly acceptable in this schema because it’s an inward virtue that does not have or require outward observances. It is true that one may have the merely outward, as did the Pharisees. The falsehood present here, however, is that true inward spirituality never manifests itself in outward religious organization and observances. One may be religious without being spiritual; one cannot be spiritual, however, without being religious.

The church, to come at it from another angle, is both an organization and an organism, having both outward religious forms and inward spirituality (the latter pertaining to those who have saving faith). This assertion ties in with the nineteenth-century Old School Presbyterian notion of the “Spirituality of the Church.” Yes, the doctrine of the spirituality of the church has to do with the proper province of the church over against other divinely ordained institutions like the state and the family. The task of the church is a spiritual one (the gathering and perfecting of the saints) and she uses spiritual means (the Word, sacraments, and prayer) to carry it out, bearing the power of the keys, not of the sword (as does the state) or the rod (as does the family). The power is said to be spiritual because her task is carried out in and by the power of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is the one who empowers the means of grace so that the church might be gathered and perfected. So there is a tie between the way that we use spirituality as Presbyterians when we speak of the spirituality of the church and the way that the broader theological world uses spirituality to indicate the spiritual life that the Christian faith produces.

Chan begins his work with a first chapter setting forth the nature and criteria of Christian spiritual theology. He starts by noting that in the past, the term “spirituality” applied simply to religious life. Now “a sociocultural movement, an interest group or a particular cause or concern” can be denominated as a “spirituality,” so that we speak today, for example of “small-group spirituality, marriage spirituality, and single-life spirituality” (15). Thus spirituality is “understood in terms of personal (but not individualistic or private, since the Christian life is always defined by a person’s concrete existence within a community) relationship with God,” but not simply subjectively. Chan intends to treat spirituality as it is biblically, not just “a phenomenological description of spirituality” but faithfulness to the “given” that describes the Christian community: “the Christian story revolving around the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.” That story is the one “that gives shape to our lives and defines the nature of our existence as a Christian community” (16).

Chan proceeds to talk about the nature of spiritual theology (“spirituality is the lived reality, whereas spiritual theology is the systemic reflection and formalization of that reality”), spiritual theology as a theological discipline, its relation to other theological disciplines, and a survey of types of spirituality. Chan sets forth formal criteria for an adequate spiritual theology: comprehensiveness, coherence, and evocability. The rest of this orienting introductory chapter was devoted to material criteria for a Christian spiritual theology: the global-contextual criterion, the evangelical criterion, and the charismatic criterion. This sets the plate for the rest of the book, together with what Chan calls ascetical theology, basically the living of a disciplined Christian life.

The book is divided into two main parts: the theological and the practical (“the theological principles of spiritual theology; the practice of the spiritual life”). The theological enjoys, after the first foundational chapter described above, treatment in chapters 2–5. Chapter 2 treats the doctrine of God as the foundation of Christian spirituality. Chan rightly understands that the doctrine of God is foundational to the rest of the theological loci and thus to any development of a spiritual theology. The God that we worship is both transcendent and immanent, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Over against Moltmann, Chan argues transcendence, insisting that though the West may be taken up with God’s immanence, the East wants also to emphasize his transcendence, particularly an East that has been so in the thrall of earthly potentates through the centuries. And over against social trinitarianism, which Chan believes threatens to turn into tri-theism, Chan argues an emphasis on the oneness of God, favoring Augustine’s psychological model of the Trinity. He criticizes all the demythologizing that reduces Christian experience to sociology. Clearly, in all this, he resists the West’s rationalistic reduction of the faith while remaining sensitive to the need not to give way to mysticism, although in general his spirituality comes out too mystical and charismatic for those wanting to develop a Reformed spiritual theology.

In chapter 3, he treats sin and human nature. He does recognize sin to be more radical than does Roman Catholicism, even using the phrase “total depravity” several times to describe our fallen condition. He identifies himself with Augustine in this. But he also differs from Augustine in arguing that sin is relational as much as, if not more than, forensic. He says that sin is “less a legal problem than a family problem (as expressed in the parable of the prodigal son)” (61). What he seems to forget is that the prodigal son was a son and that we are such, after the fall, only by adoption, which is a legal declaration that provides the basis for restored relationship. Chan is to be commended throughout this book for seeking to be balanced, trying to find the best in each tradition (Roman, Eastern, and Protestant), though also failing to be as critical as he should at points. His criticism of the overly legal nature of Protestantism is not as careful and balanced as it should be, however. He does take sin quite seriously, though, and calls for a disciplined approach to the Christian life that fights the devil, the flesh, and the world and seeks to recognize the alien character of the church in a hostile world. One of his strengths in chapter 5 on the church as the community of saints is to argue, on the one hand, against a ghettoized church, and, on the other hand, an overly relativized church that loses its pilgrim character and its witness to a sinful world. One thinks of Lloyd-Jones’s dictum that the church does the world the least good when she seeks to be most like the world. This is clearly the sentiment of Simon Chan.

Chapter 4 deals with salvation and the life of spiritual progress, in short, the doctrine of Christ and of the Holy Spirit. Chan notes that Gnosticism, neo-Platonism, and Buddhism see salvation as deliverance from a transitory history to a timeless eternity. Christianity, in contrast,

takes history with the utmost seriousness because the experience of personhood [and “personality rather than its extinction lies at the root of the Christian conception of the ultimately real”] involves real continuity between the historical present and reality beyond the present, which is traditionally called eternity.” (78)

This sort of observation is one of the work’s strengths, especially its observations about Hinduism, Buddhism, and Confucianism, met by the broad orthodox Christian tradition. Chan proceeds at some length to unpack grace and its effects, discussing justification, sanctification, and glorification, offering some helpful insights of Calvin and the Puritans, as well as views of other traditions, ending with a discussion of perfection, which he affirms, though more modestly asserted than is often the case (if such can be said). We already noted chapter 5 on the church, but Chan is to be commended in seeing all of this theology as developed and lived out in the life of the church and the communion (or community) of the saints.

The second part of the book takes what Chan has developed in the first part, in examining the traditional theological loci, and seeks to apply it to life, examining how this faith that we profess is lived out among us. This involves a variety of disciplines whereby we embody and practice the faith once-for-all delivered to the saints. We confessional Presbyterians may understand what the doctrine of the spirituality of the church means in one sense, as we’ve seen above; however, in the sense of a lived-out faith, the true spirituality of our faith, we may fall short. The temptation of some traditions, the charismatic, for instance, is to privilege Christian experience over Christian doctrine, to settle for shallow doctrine that’s an inch deep and a mile wide. And such shallow theology undermines rich experience, yielding instead immaturity and Christian adolescence. The Reformed, on the other hand, have such rich theology and yet sometimes settle for beautiful doctrine not lived out.

To be sure, a lack of vibrant spirituality is not what marks our tradition at its best, and even in many of its historic expressions. But, if there’s one thing that has marked Old School Presbyterians in more recent years, it is great doctrine—accompanied by lives that are sometimes spiritually barren. So we need spiritual discipline. We need among us a hearty spirituality. Chan starts with prayer in chapter 6. This is clearly the fountainhead of our spirituality. This heads part two of the book “because prayer is the first act that links doctrine to practice, and all the other exercises are simply elaborations of this primal act” (125). He discusses prayer as act and habit, the divine initiative in prayer, growth in prayer, praying by the rule, and other matters.

Now we could wish for a fuller exposition in this second section of the book of what marks a healthy Reformed and Presbyterian spirituality: a vigorous use of the means of grace (Word, sacraments, and prayer) as is fitting in the public, private, and secret spheres. We have the Family Directory of Worship from Westminster as well as the Directory for the Public Worship of God. We are to be seeking the Lord personally in prayer regularly, as well as praying in our families, catechizing, and using all of our time, treasures, and talents, to the glory of our great God and king. There’s too much mysticism, monasticism, and charismatism in Chan’s view of spiritualty. Again, however, a judicious use of this book by someone from our tradition, particularly by a well-trained pastor or other church member, may prove beneficial.

Spiritual breadth of this sort, as long as we are discerning, can be quite helpful. In chapter 10, for instance, Chan discusses a rule of life, with a view to encouraging the broad laity to benefit from the best of monasticism. He does not call for the church to live under the Rule of St. Benedict, but rather calls for us all to have scheduled times of devotional prayer, and to avail ourselves of a wide variety of spiritual disciplines. These are helpful but are, arguably, best packaged within our tradition. The problem is—do we attend to these things? Some Orthodox Presbyterians these days seem to think that Sabbath observance is the only thing needful. Sabbath observance—neglected as a subject by Chan—admittedly is necessary for a vibrant spirituality, but it is not sufficient. We need in addition to the Lord’s Day all the spiritual disciplines during the week that will keep us mindful of communion with God and each other: all those things, in other words, that make for vital spirituality and are not a burden, rightly understood and employed, but an incomparable blessing.

After discussing prayer fairly extensively, Chan proceeds, in chapters 7–9, to treat various spiritual exercises focusing on God and self, the Word, and the world. With respect to the first, Chan deals with the practice of the presence of God, conformity to the will of God, fidelity to grace, and self-examining prayer. With respect to his treatment of the Word, rather than a focus on preaching as a divine act (he thinks Protestants have too much focus on this to begin with), he urges a spiritual reading of the Word and meditation on the Word. While there are useful insights here, this is altogether too mystical for me in its attempts to bypass reason and appeal directly to emotion. And in the chapter on the world, he deals not only with questions of political engagement, but has a rather interesting treatment of spiritual friendship. Spiritual friendship is not quite the same as spiritual direction, the subject of chapter 12. Chan thinks that the Anglican and Roman Catholic practice of spiritual directors ought to be employed by all of us in some measure, and he is convinced that, without such directors, real spiritual growth will likely be stunted.

One may wonder why all the fuss over spirituality anyway since, as some assert, our standards don’t address it (I’ve heard some say something like this before). I believe that our standards do address the spirituality of the church, both in terms of the proper province of the church and in terms of the church being a spiritual agency, the body brought into being by the work of the Holy Spirit. Our standards do teach that our faith has an accompanying spirituality, or as Calvin put it: love is the fruit of faith, obedience follows trust. Before addressing some ways in which our standards address the kinds of matters that pertain to spirituality, it might be helpful to note, contrary to much popular perception, that spirituality, and particularly the development of the doctrine of the work of the Holy Spirit, is central to the Reformed project. One might read a work like Chan’s, with all of its mystical, perfectionist, and non-cessationist sensibilities and feel that we Reformed are rather lacking when it comes to the Holy Spirit and spirituality: This is not at all true. This is why it might prove helpful to note here that the doctrine of the Holy Spirit as we know it is a distinctly Protestant (and Reformed) development.

Before Calvin, who Warfield rightly denominated the “Theologian of the Holy Spirit,” the doctrine of the work of the Holy Spirit was underdeveloped in the Church, particularly in the Western Church, and tending to be mystical in the Eastern Church. One can witness its absence from the ancient and medieval church, where there was a great deal of development of the doctrine of God and the person of Christ. The work of Christ was developed in Anselm’s theology and languished in the East where the doctrine of the Holy Spirit tended to be decoupled from Christ and his Word. One does not find a full treatment of the Spirit in Thomas’s Summa Theologica or any other such work until Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion. Previously, as with Aquinas, theologians would proceed from Christology to Ecclesiology (bypassing, largely, Pneumatology or Soteriology), which means of course that the means of grace must work on their own steam, as it were. It’s unsurprising that the misguided doctrine of the efficacy of the sacraments (as ex opere operato) developed. Calvin changed all of this in his momentous Book III of the Institutes (treating the work of the Holy Spirit), preceding Book IV on the Church. Calvin argued that all the blessings and benefits of Christ do us no good, in fact, as long as we remain outside of him. It is the Holy Spirit who brings Christ to us and us to Christ. This is the heart of any real doctrine of spirituality.

How is this insight of Calvin expressed in our standards? This reality is vividly realized in the Westminster Confession of Faith, chapters 25 and 26. The former chapter, 25, is on the doctrine of the church, while the latter chapter, 26, is on the communion of the saints. The relationship of those two chapters has very much to do with true spirituality. Chapter 25 sets forth what the Bible teaches about the invisible and visible catholic church. It then proceeds to address matters pertaining to the visible church: it possesses the means of grace, out of it there is no ordinary possibility of salvation, it differs in time and place in purity and visibility, there will always be some visible witness, and Christ alone, and not the pope, is its head. Chapter 26 picks up on the invisible again, at least in the first section, teaching that

all saints, that are united to Jesus Christ their head, by his Spirit, and by faith, have fellowship with him in his graces ... and glory: and being united to one another in love, they have communion in each other’s gifts and graces.

To whom does this refer? The elect, who, as “members of the invisible church ... enjoy union and communion with him in grace and glory” (WLC 65). Chapter 26 starts by highlighting that those in whom the Spirit has truly worked, the elect, enjoy union with Christ and communion with their fellow believers. This is true spirituality. The questions in the Larger Catechism from here to WLC 90 make it clear that it is only those in whom the Spirit works who enjoy all the blessings and benefits of Christ, as opposed to those who are in the visible church only.

As important as the visible church is—all those in whom the Spirit has worked are to be, and usually are, in it—not all its members partake of true Christian spirituality, because not all of its members enjoy the efficacious grace given by the Holy Spirit in the exercise of the means of grace. This is why we have not only a chapter on the church, but a chapter on the communion of the saints following it. We can think of these two as addressing church as institute and organism, religion and spirituality, the outward and the inward. We must not pit these against each other but insist on both. In recent years, not only have partisans of Federal Vision, but others tending toward formalism (resting in the outward forms), sought to downplay these realities. The answer to our perceived spiritual ailments is not an over-objectification of the visible church and the means of grace but a vibrant visible church leading to a vital spirituality. An overstress on the outward is a departure from the witness of our standards particularly and that of the Reformed faith more broadly. My bringing this up is not meant to create doubt, whereby timorous souls wonder, “Am I elect or not?” Rather it is meant to encourage us to remember that the means of grace are not ends in themselves but means to an end—and Christ is that end. All the means are to lead us to rest and trust in Christ alone. That is the beginning and the end of true spirituality—life in Christ by the work of the Holy Spirit.

Chan has produced a work on Christian spirituality fitting for evangelical theology. It is important for us as Presbyterians to attend to this sense of spirituality as well as the spirituality of the church in the Old School Presbyterian sense. This is part of what we do when we address the question of union, the union of saints with Christ. It is only those in whom the Spirit has worked, who are part of the invisible church as well as the visible church (ordinarily). It is only those in the communion of saints that enjoy such union and all the blessings and benefits of it, as elaborated in the Westminster Larger Catechism from questions 65–90. It is these who enjoy union and communion with the triune God and their fellow saints, both now and forevermore. Much work is being done with respect to union. Books have been published, and the blogs are ablaze with discussions about union with Christ. Some disagreements have surfaced among those committed to the Westminster standards over whether union must be preceded by justification. These debates, however, should not deter us. We need to continue to work on matters related to our union with Christ and come to as much agreement as we can. We need to make sure that we have a vibrant Reformed spirituality that accompanies and follows our cogent Reformed theology.

Alan D. Strange is associate professor of church history and theological librarian at Mid-America Reformed Seminary in Dyer, Indiana, and associate pastor of New Covenant Community Church (OPC) in New Lenox, Illinois. Ordained Servant Online, March, 2012.

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Ordained Servant: March 2012


Also in this issue

The Joy and Work of Prayer: Review Article

Prayers of the Bible: Review Article

Prayer (I)

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