Four Domains of Christian Knowledge: Spiritual Formation

A robust understanding of Christian education and discipleship is grounded in the pursuit of sacred knowledge, knowledge of God and His activity in the world that can be discovered through various intellectual and spiritual disciplines. In this series we are discussing four main domains of Christian education: Biblical and Systematic Theology, Church History, Spiritual Formation, and Christian Apologetics. In this post, I will look at Spiritual Formation, which focuses on the work of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer.

What is Spiritual Formation?

Of the four, foundational areas of Christian discipleship we are exploring, the practice of Spiritual Formation is perhaps the trickiest, and most elusive to define. Regardless, that there is a process of spiritual formation for the believer, i.e. a way of becoming like Christ, is not only passively assumed in Scripture, but actively commanded:

16 Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. 17 And when they saw him they worshiped him, but some doubted. 18 And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.

Christ’s command makes clear we are not just to lead people to Him for salvation, but also make them disciples, that is learners, of Jesus’ ways. Moreover, we cannot just tell people what those ways are and then be on about our business. The ways of Jesus are not just intellectual, although they must be grasped with the intellect, but are also practical and sometimes even physical (e.g. consider going to a quiet place, so that you can pray). Thus, we cannot simply remind ourselves over and over of the propositional truths of our faith, e.g. “Jesus is one with the Father”, “Jesus’ sacrifice on the Cross makes atonement for our sins, etc.” Rather, we must have some personal knowledge of the reality that lies behind these propositional truths, a reality beyond the words of our faith that actually causes transformation in our soul: a transformation in our inner life that in turn shapes our outward behavior. We must “practice” the truth, not just know it in theory. The practice of the presence of God, as Brother Lawrence put it, is the lived experience of our faith. It is when the biblical truth is actualized in our mind and body.

Spiritual Theology and Personal Formation

John Calvin opens his systematic theology, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, by addressing two kinds of knowledge that the believer must pursue if they are to come into the fullness of the life of Christ:

Our wisdom, in so far as it ought to be deemed true and solid wisdom, consists almost entirely of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves. But as these are connected together by many ties, it is not easy to determine which of the two precedes and gives birth to the other. For in the first place no man can survey himself without forthwith turning his thoughts towards the God in whom he lives and moves; because it is perfectly obvious that the endowments which we possess cannot possibly be from ourselves; nay that our very being is nothing else than subsistence in God alone. In the second place, those blessings which unceasingly distil to us from heaven, are like streams conducting us to the fountain…Every person, therefore, on coming to the knowledge of himself, is not only urged to seek God, but is also led as by the hand to find him.

Calvin points out an intimately connected dynamic between the knowledge of God in Himself (Theology proper), and the awareness of our own self (theological Anthropology). This is double-edged sword that must be carefully balanced when wielded; for, as Calvin points out elsewhere, to have too much knowledge of God, apart from how that knowledge relates to one’s self, can cause one to become sterile, even prideful, in his or her Christian walk. Head knowledge is necessary, but head knowledge that fails to get deep into our soul, and shape our inner life, does little to draw us closer to Christ the Person or display Him to others. As Paul says, this kind of knowledge, akin to that of the Pharisees, can “puff up” and make us arrogant.

However, on the flip side, knowledge or awareness of the self without a proper knowledge of our Creator, and all the truths that relate to that Creator, can take us down a rabbit trail of self-exploration that ends in self absorption. To introspect without reference to “God knowledge” is to try to do sanctification without the tools necessary to getting us to the right goal, namely, holiness. True knowledge of God, as found in the Word of God, constrains us from thinking too much about ourselves (which can cause pride, but oftentimes also depression), and also guides our formation toward freedom in Christ. In this sense we need both Spiritual Theology and Personal Formation: knowledge of God, and knowledge of self.

Spiritual Theology

While these two categories may be a bit artificial, Christians who specialize in this area of discipleship, usually begin with Spiritual Theology; or how the Holy Spirit works in the world and the heart of the human person. Spiritual Theologians often referenced in the history of this way of reflecting on the Christian life are men like St. John of the Cross, Francis of Assisi, Brother Lawrence, A.W. Tozer, and Dallas Willard; and women like Theresa of Avila, Hildegard von Bingen, and Julian of Norwich.

Jordan Aumann, a Catholic theologian, gives a concise definition of Spiritual Theology in his book of the same title:

Christian spirituality is therefore a participation in the mystery of Christ through the interior life of grace, actuated by faith, charity, and the other Christian virtues. The life that the individual receives through the participation in Christ is the same life that animated the God-man, the life that the Incarnate Word shares with the Father and the Holy Spirit; it is, therefore, the life of God in the august mystery of the Trinity. Through Christ, the spiritual life of the Christian is eminently Trinitarian.

That is a definition of spiritual theology that an Evangelical Protestants should have no problem accepting. It is thoroughly biblical and historical. However, as Evangelicals, there are aspects of some forms of Spiritual Theology that must be appropriately scrutinized, and, as always, subjected to the clear teachings of the canonical Scriptures. Spiritual Theology is related to, albeit different than, both ascetic and mystical theology; categories that in themselves are not foreign to an orthodox Christian life, but that can, like Scripture itself, be handled or engaged in carelessly. Ascetic and mystical theology not anchored in both the Word of God and the Church’s long history of orthodox doctrine, can open one up to false teachings, or experiences that might lead one astray from the truth of the Christian faith.

In this sense, like any part of our faith, we must be wise about how we do Spiritual Theology. Good spiritual theology will never abandon the need for God’s grace, the primacy of faith over works, and the centrality of the person and work of Christ. Further, we must realize that much spiritual theology has been done within the confession of the Roman Catholic Church. As such, while there is much we can glean from Roman Catholics who have written on Spiritual Theology, there may also be theological doctrines of the Roman Catholic church entailed in a spiritual theologian’s views that may be at odds with our Evangelical understanding of Scripture and authority.

Thus, for the Evangelical Christian to engage in Spiritual Theology is to focus on the work and presence of the Holy Spirit as we read Scripture, repent of our sins, give God adoration and praise, entreaty God for help and assistance, and thank Him for all we have, and all we do not have. As one of the great, contemporary spiritual theologians, J.I. Packer, points out, Spiritual Theology is essentially about God’s power toward us and our “keeping in step” with that power. However, this is not something mechanistic, as if we can access God’s power and presence through some magic formula or through some set of rules. God is a person, so to know and partake of His power is only possible through the quality of our personal relationship with Him. And that means desiring to be with God, so that we can be more like Jesus.

Paul’s prayer in Ephesians chapter 3 is itself a powerful reminder of what it feels like to want to be filled with God’s presence:

14 For this reason I bow my knees before the Father,15 from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name. 16 I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, 17 and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. 18 I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, 19 and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.

20 Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, 21 to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.

Clearly Paul’s words here point to the reality of God and our experience of that reality in a non-verbal way. Many medieval theologians imagined our ultimate telos as human creatures in the idea of the “beatific vision” or the eternal gazing upon the Trinity. Only the human being still tainted with sin would think of this as “boring.” But, that too is part of the mystery of revelation, for what does it mean to the finite creature to “be filled with all the fullness of God!”

That said, Spiritual Theologians that all Christians can readily embrace, at least in part, are: St. John of the Cross, Brother Lawrence, St. Francis of Assisi, Thomas a’ Kempis, and Hans Urs von Balthasaar (who called Spiritual Theology “kneeling theology”), Martin Luther, John Wesley, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Oswald Chambers, A.W. Tozer, J.I. Packer and Dallas Willard.

Personal/Spiritual Formation

How our theology affects our inner life and ultimately our outward behavior can be called spiritual or personal formation. This is really just another way to speak about our sanctification, but sanctification has often seemed to be the more nebulous part of our life in Christ, in contrast to salvation. Our sanctification has to do with moral formation, or as Dallas Willard put it:

The human spirit is an inescapable, fundamental aspect of every human being; and it takes on whichever character it has from the experiences and the choices that we have lived through or made in our past. That is what is means to be ‘formed.’

Ultimately our Master is Jesus, and we must learn from Scripture what He taught us, so that we can be formed by both the Word and the Spirit, and not just by our life of choices and experiences. Ultimately, the Divine Agent that does the work of forming our soul is the Holy Spirit, the third member of the Trinity. But, there is a cooperative (or concursive) action that occurs in this forming process. So, while God is always the person who enables and brings about any real change in our soul, it is attested both in creation and Scripture that God also allows us to participate in that very work of transformation. In this participatory act of opening ourselves up to God’s Spirit, we practice the Spiritual Disciplines so that we can experience God’s work in our life. In doing this, we inevitably begin engaging in the cultivation of certain spiritual virtues. It is in virtue of these virtues that we become like Christ, the man who is the summum bonum of the moral life, and the ultimate goal of our hard-fought journey. Paul speaks of this process in terms of the athlete (1 Cor 9:24-26).

Willard goes on to highlight the importance of allowing our souls to be cultivated by the Holy Spirit, saying:

In today’s world, famine, war, and epidemic are almost totally the outcome of human choices, which are expressions of the human spirit…[and] Individual disasters, too, very largely follow upon human choices, our own or those of others. And whether or not they do in a particular case, the situations in which we find ourselves are never as important as our responses to them, which come from the ‘spiritual’ side. A carefully cultivated heart will, assisted by the grace of God, foresee, forestall, or transform most of the painful situations before which others stand like helpless children saying ‘Why?’

What Willard is essentially saying is that a well-formed soul, one formed by the work of the Holy Spirit, will not only not be the source of war, strife, pain and suffering in the world, but will also be able to display the fruits of the Spirit, the life of Christ, in the midst of war, strife, pain and suffering, and that in such a way as to show the non-believing world that stands clueless before evil and suffering like a child, who Jesus Christ really is, and why He is worth knowing. New Testament scholar N.T. Wright sums up spiritual formation this way:

“Likewise, the qualities of character which Jesus and his first followers insist on as the vital signs of healthy Christian life don’t come about automatically. You have to develop them. You have to work at them. You have to think about it, to make conscious choices to allow the Holy Spirit to form your character in ways that, to begin with, seem awkward and ‘unnatural.’ Only in that way can you become the sort of ‘character’ who will react instantly to sudden challenges with wisdom and good judgment…When you’re suddenly put to the test and don’t have time to think about how you’re coming across, your real nature will come out. That’s why character needs to go all the way through: whatever fills you will spill out. And it’s up to you to do something about it.”

(N.T. Wright, “Why Christian Character Matters,” in All Things Hold Together in Christ, 158).

In other words when the world smacks us in the face, will we return the favor, or will we bleed the blood of true righteousness, like Christ?

Conclusion: A Necessary, but Tricky Area of Knowledge

Spiritual Formation is necessary to the life of the believer. It is where we come to know God intimately as He relates to our own personal life, our own story, if you will. Without spiritual growth we stagnate in our emotional maturity, and in the kinds of virtues God has called us to live into (see Galatians 5:22-26); as well as avoiding the vices that are common to our flesh (see Galatians 5:19-21).

However, Spiritual Theology and Formation, like any other Christian discipline or pursuit, has its pitfalls, its “gray areas” of which we must be aware. Spiritual theology not rooted in Scripture can devolve into syncretism, or personal mysticism. This is to be avoided. As such we must be wise about our engagement in spiritual theology, and the spiritual disciplines that coordinate with it.

Nevertheless, there are many resources for us to grow in this area. Great men and women of Christ have paved much of the way for us to learn and grow in our personal knowledge of Christ. Good spiritual theology accompanied by a passionate and persistent desire for prayer and virtue can not only help us break out of sinful habits, and aid in our efforts to react Christ-like to the attacks of the world, it can also open us up to a greater understanding and more profound experience of the Lord our God.

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