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I found Four Views on Christian Spirituality somewhat troubling on several levels. First, touted as “an invaluable resource for study and comparison of the major Christian perspectives on spiritual formation” to “aid readers seeking spiritual transformation,” it was not what I expected. In his excellent Introduction to Christian Spirituality, Evan Howard, one of the contributors to this work, defines the study of spirituality as both prescriptive—the theology of spirituality—and descriptive—the lived experiences of spiritual transformation. I expected more descriptive spirituality here but got more prescriptive spirituality instead. That’s okay, just not what I expected.
First up was Bradley Nassif representing Eastern Orthodoxy. And he did a brilliant job hitting all the major Orthodox themes from theosis (union with God) to the church, gospel, liturgy, sacraments, monasticism, prayer, and spiritual direction.
Helpful for correcting evangelical misunderstandings of Orthodoxy, Nassif explains that “the doctrine of synergy, a collaboration between free will and God’s grace…is an unequal emphasis in which God takes the initiative in saving grace; yet it also is one that requires a response by human beings.” And in a footnote he references Mark the Ascetic’s Concerning Those Who Imagine That They Are Justified by Works: prayer, fasting, vigils, and all other monastic disciplines are dangerously misguided without a prior grounding in the “unmerited, free gift” of grace as the prime motivation for all Christian living.
Roman Catholic Scott Hahn, in his response, adds: the idea “comes from St. Paul, who referred to us as God’s co-workers (synergoi, 1 Corinthians 3: 9)” and it is important to say “that our partnership is not fifty-fifty. Whatever we have, we have received as a gift, a grace.” Even evangelical Howard, in his response, recognizes that “this is certainly not a salvation of ‘works.’ Everything is received.”
Another lesson to be learned from the high-church traditions is noted in the responses of Hahn and “progressive mainline protestant” Joseph Driskill. Hahn: “Bradley Nassif gives a beautiful account of a beautiful life. For me, it brought back the memory of the first time I attended a Catholic liturgical event—a vespers service at a Byzantine seminary. My Calvinist background had not prepared me for the experience—the incense and icons, the prostrations and bows, the chants and bells. All my senses were engaged. Afterward a seminarian asked me, ‘What do you think?’ All I could say was, ‘Now I know why God gave me a body—to worship the Lord with his people in liturgy.’”
Driskill: “Orthodox worship engages and activates all five senses in worship and thereby implicitly acknowledges the way in which human beings have been created. We are more than our capacity for reason, as important as the role of reason and critical thinking are for a faith that seeks understanding. As progressive Protestants in America focused increasingly on issues of justice and compassion, notions of sacred space, where material objects might beckon a worshiper to bow down, were exchanged for that which is ‘useful’ or benevolent. The history of Protestant protests, fighting these battles in one arena or another since the sixteenth century, resulted in an ambivalent attitude toward beauty. Utilitarian notions of beauty which view that which is beautiful as a luxury rather than a window to the divine have resulted in many Protestant houses of worship that are neither beautifully ornate nor beautifully simple. Consciously investing resources to create spaces that invite believers to see worship as more than fellowship with one another was in many progressive churches viewed as either a luxury or a misuse of scarce resources.”
What really turned me off, however, was when each of the responses turned unfairly (in my view) critical. One response implies that, as good and beautiful as it may be, Orthodoxy cannot be true because it has suffered from “autocephaly, factionalism, and rivalry.” Another essentially says (my words): “Well, this is all good but has been spun for evangelical readers and is not a true representation of Orthodoxy.”
Troubling on another level was an emerging theme first detected in Howard’s response. Contrasting Orthodoxy with evangelical Protestantism, he says, “Evangelicalism is characteristically a lay movement. Part of this is a reflection on the modern individualism in which evangelicalism emerged (and out of which postmodern, nonindividualistic evangelicalisms are developing)”—more to come on this continuing “crisis of authority.”
Next up was Scott Hahn, a former Presbyterian pastor turned brilliant Roman Catholic apologist. He, too, begins with “divine filiation” or theosis before moving on to salvation, the church, the sacraments, and prayer. I appreciate the fact that he located all this within the context of familial, covenantal relationships.
I also appreciate his emphasis on suffering as one key to spirituality: “Suffering is not an optional component of Christian life…no suffering, no glory. Catholics, moreover, do not merely endure suffering; they ‘offer it up.’ For Christlike suffering has redemptive power. Christ offered his sufferings as a priestly sacrifice for the sake of others, and so should Christians. That is true love.”
Building on the emerging theme of the Protestant “crisis of authority,” Hahn makes a strong case for the New Testament as Eucharist, not a book, implying the church is not a product of Scripture but Scripture is a product of the church—more yet to come on this.
In response, we again hear (my words): “Well, this is all good but has been spun for evangelical readers and is not a true representation of Roman Catholicism.”
Troubling on a much deeper level is Joseph Driskill’s presentation of “the progressive face of mainline protestant spirituality.” I very much appreciate his admonition that “the church of Jesus Christ needs to overcome its own divisions so that the world may believe.” But that’s precisely where the trouble begins, for how is such unity achieved? “The commitment to ecumenism…reflects an ecclesiology where no one church assumes that it offers the only path to salvation”—so far so good. “The enthusiasm for ecumenical cooperation…results in a belief that ‘we are all going to the same place,’ even if the routes differ.” Depends on who the “we” are, does it not?
After a lengthy endorsement of liberal textual criticism and postmodern theologies we come to a number of statements that left me wondering why this view of spirituality was even included:
“How could God ‘so love the world’ and yet allow much of its population to starve? If God is ‘all-powerful,’ why does God allow genocide? Questions of theodicy, as well as the seeming randomness of ‘divine’ interventions, begged the question: If God is all-powerful, then how can God be just? For many progressive Protestants the answer came with the affirmation that something was wrong with our theology, with our understanding of God and how God was at work in the world.”
“As the modern age, with its preoccupation with the rational, waned and the postmodern emerged, the fresh breeze of a renewed appreciation of the Spirit challenged the understanding of Jesus as ‘the only way to God…The path of Jesus is a way to God but not the only path.”
“The concern with social rather than personal sin and the focus on social justice remain aspects of the lived experience of faith for progressive Protestants…Today, this attitude is reflected in the worship services of many progressive congregations, where it is virtually anathema even to mention personal sin. The sins of racism, classism, sexism, and heterosexism remain a concern.”
In Nassif’s response, the “crisis of authority” bursts into full bloom: “We have vast differences that lie not in the affirmation of a ‘lived experience’ but in the source and content of it. It seems to me that the solution to our differences lies largely in the area of ecclesiology (the nature of the church). In other words, we need to ask, ‘What is the source of our understanding of the ecclesial community that shapes and sustains an authentic lived experience of faith?’ Will it come from communities whose thinking rests on the conclusions of individual Christians and Bible scholars? Or will our communities rely on the collective experience of historic Christianity?’ These questions seem to lie at the heart of our differing theological epistemologies…Truth is known communally, not secretly or privately…This ecclesial hermeneutic—still considered valid by the Orthodox Church—is the very principle that has kept the church united around the core teachings of the gospel over the past two thousand years. Without it, biblical interpretation turns into interpretive anarchy. Truth becomes relative. Each interpreter does what is right in their own eyes…Although Driskill has skillfully composed a brilliant historical narrative of the tenets of liberal Protestantism, he described it for what it actually is, namely, a religious movement that knowingly rejects the very heart of the historic Christian gospel. Its adherents self-consciously substitute a ‘social gospel’ for the saving realities of the Trinity and the person and work of Christ confessed in sacred Scripture, the church’s liturgy, and the ecumenical councils from 325 to 787. Although liberal Protestants see this as a desirable improvement over a Christianity that is rooted in an unenlightened past, Orthodoxy would view it as a digressive heresy — if not an entirely different religion (see 1 John 2: 21– 23).”
Hahn responds just as strongly:
“The mainline denominations have simply taken up the causes of secular culture as their own. Their accommodation has ended in complete identification and capitulation. The spirituality Driskill describes is simply what Robert Bellah called ‘American civil religion.’ It is Christianity tamed by American secular culture. How does this express itself? First of all, in disbelief…if the progressive mainline is united by anything, it is by what its leaders no longer believe about historical Christianity.”
Howard’s response is very interesting. And, as a fellow evangelical, I find it very troubling. For is not evangelicalism on the very same path, just a few steps behind, mainline Protestantism?
Howard’s evangelical response: “Interpretation is a key question, and it is not simply a matter of theological debate but also a matter of lived spirituality. Orthodox and Roman Catholic writers tend to emphasize interpretations affirmed through hierarchical process. Anabaptists tend to emphasize the gathered local community as the primary interpretive context. Evangelicals tend to emphasize the ability of the ordinary individual believer to receive from the text. As Driskill mentions, progressive Protestantism emphasizes the role of scholarly inquiry in biblical interpretation. My suspicion is that the Reformation simply raised the important question of biblical interpretation, a question that remains unresolved.”
Finally, Howard presents an evangelical spiritual theology, which he repeatedly calls “true religion” because it is based on personal conversion. Therefore, “Evangelicalism may be best interpreted less as an ecclesiastical tradition or institution and more as a loosely connected movement of popular spirituality…Evangelical spirituality, like many popular religious movements, exhibits both a strength (breadth) and a weakness (depth). It is dangerous indeed to reduce the gospel to ‘four spiritual laws.’ Yet when these four laws provide millions of people appropriate entrance into relationship with God, this weakness becomes a strength.”
Because of the individualistic and subjective nature of evangelical spirituality, Howard goes on to say “it is simply impossible to speak of ‘the evangelical’ approach to ecclesial spirituality” and he raises more questions than answers. And, again: “This brings us to a discussion of the means, disciplines, or regimens of evangelical spirituality. Obviously, there is no single way of addressing this issue.”
The one evangelical Protestant discipline that can be clearly identified and affirmed, he says, is personal Bible study. And there, again, is that most troubling issue. As an aside, leading Protestant theologian Peter Leithart, in a recent First Things post entitled Me and My Bible, says: “Protestants have often been charged with promoting an individualist reading of Scripture, what with our confession of sola scriptura. That charge, I submit, arises from a misunderstanding of what the Bible is…To open the Bible is to gather the wisest council of advisors: Moses and Samuel, David and Solomon and the Chronicler, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Daniel, Hosea, Ezekiel, Matthew, Mark, Luke, Jesus, Paul, James and Jude and John. I’ll put that up against any list of theologians you’d care to compile.” The problem doesn’t become any more glaring than that.
Nassif, in his response, cuts right to the heart of the matter: “In all cases, the mystical theologians of the Orthodox faith understood spiritual experience to be a direct outgrowth of the sacramental life of the church…Theology and spirituality must be connected to the life of the worshiping church. That is how many Orthodox would think about resolving these and other evangelical divisions. Our ecclesial context is absolutely essential for doing theology in a way that can be faithful to the canon and community of historic Christianity, even if such answers are ultimately a matter of opinion or not discoverable. Otherwise, interpretive anarchy reigns, and the church is visibly divided—a reality that no doubt accounts for the thirty thousand denominations that have proliferated since the Protestant Reformation.”
That number is now reportedly 39,000 denominations, with many more to come.
Likewise, Hahn’s response: It is at least questionable whether those doctrines are sustainable apart from the visible church, which for the first millennium was visibly united in sacramental and doctrinal life. Indeed, already in the first century and in every century afterward, enthusiastic movements arose and evanesced, and heretics already had denied each and every one of the doctrines affirmed in Howard’s brief list. It was the church—one, holy, catholic, apostolic, and orthodox—that preserved, developed, and defended those doctrines.”
And he points out that most of the ever-growing divisions among Protestants arise “in opposition not to Roman Catholicism but to other forms of evangelicalism” and “evangelicalism may speak of ‘true religion’ and ‘real Christianity,’ but it cannot present a coherent sense of what that might be…This leads to a key question: Does the need for renewal and reform necessitate and justify more and more protests and splits based on this sort of ‘lowest common denominator’ approach to a list of ‘fundamentals’ that seems to be ever shrinking and under debate among an amorphous body of ‘true believers’?”
As you may discern by now, the book is a very interesting read, but not much of an “aid [to] readers seeking spiritual transformation.” Yet I was prepared to give it four stars. Until I read the conclusion by editor Bruce Demarest, another evangelical:
“Orthodoxy and Catholicism both uphold baptismal regeneration wherein the baptized allegedly receive spiritual life and heavenly inheritance. Lacking scriptural support…”
“Fundamental to robust spiritual life in Christ is overcoming the effects of original sin. Tending toward Semipelagianism, Orthodoxy asserts that pre-Christians are morally weak rather than spiritually dead, focusing more on specific sins than fallen human nature. Rome judges that because the fall allegedly left the natural human endowments untarnished, sinners retain the power to attain virtue through ascetical practices. Theologian Richard McBrien acknowledges that the doctrine of original sin doesn’t play a large part in contemporary Catholic theology. Recent Catholic ‘new morality’ teaching involves a radical reinterpretation of sexual ethics, including validation of homosexuality and same-sex marriage. The traditional moral code rooted in Scripture is replaced by a situational ethic governed by ‘love.’
“Eastern and Western monasticism judge that effectual grace would undermine ascetic discipline and encourage spiritual sloth.”
“A common refrain offered by converts to evangelical faith reads thusly. I ‘regularly attended Catholic church and my weekly catechism. My faith was important, but I did not have a personal, intimate relationship with God.’”
“Another convert testifies, ‘I grew up in a Catholic home with a mother and grandmother who were steeped in Catholic practices and rituals and a father who silently attended. We faithfully attended weekly Mass but with very little growth or relationship with the living God.’”
“In agreement with Scripture, evangelicalism…”
“Evangelicalism is a vital spiritual movement claiming 90 percent of the fastest-growing churches in the United States…represented by Martin Luther, John Calvin, the Puritans, John Wesley, Jonathan Edwards, Billy Graham, etc…James Houston, Eugene Peterson, Dallas Willard, Richard Foster, and others.”
I understand that Zondervan is an evangelical publisher so they have to ensure an evangelical gets the last word. But no responses were printed so, even as an evangelical, I felt this was an egregious violation of the irenic aim of the book. Ironically, in fact, Demarest closes the book with this:
“As an outcome of the current spirituality revival, we are learning that considerable common ground exists between committed Christians in the four traditions. Thankfully, open dialogue, respect, and mutual love among God’s redeemed people are being forged. An egregious fault of Christendom has been its painful divisions in disobedience to Jesus’ plain command in John 17: 20– 23. A healthy ecumenical spirituality is being cultivated.”
For the conclusion alone I deducted another star.