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Who's Afraid of Spiritual Formation?

“Spiritual formation” is a controversial topic in the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Adventist Review editor Bill Knott recently interviewed three seminary faculty members about criticism the seminary has received for programs on spiritual formation. The seminary chose to drop the term, opting instead for “Biblical spirituality.”

“Spiritual formation” and “spiritual disciplines” are terms that are new to some, and there can be a tendency to reject something simply because the label is unfamiliar. Others, excited by novelty, have embraced the terms, and sometimes a complete package, uncritically. By whatever name we call it, the subject is important because, as the seminary statement rightly says, it concerns how we live out our relationship with Christ. It is about spiritual growth.

We need to place the Adventist discussion in context, however, so let’s begin with some definitions and a brief history.

First, “formation.” This is a term that is used in Catholic religious education to emphasize that such education involves more that simply imparting information, but includes forming the whole person.

The expression “spiritual formation” originated in Catholic seminaries and religious communities. For religious communities (including monasteries) it is the period of introduction to that community’s life, traditions, and ways of prayer. The person is immersed in a new way of living, taught what it means, and guided by experienced brothers or sisters through the time of transition. It is a period of probation, in which both the community and the individual discern whether this is the right place for him or her to be. In Catholic seminaries, formation covers all that is involved in developing priestly spirituality—developing the whole person, nurturing the spiritual life, honing the intellect, and inculcating a pastoral heart.

But as John Paul II noted when writing about priestly formation (Pastores Dabo Vobis 45), the Catholic tradition understands that “spiritual formation … is applicable to all the faithful.”

Human formation, when it is carried out in the context of an anthropology which is open to the full truth regarding the human person, leads to and finds its completion in spiritual formation. Every human being, as God’s creature who has been redeemed by Christ’s blood, is called to be reborn ‘of water and the Spirit’ (Jn. 3:S) and to become a "son in the Son." In this wonderful plan of God is to be found the basis of the essentially religious dimension of the human person, which moreover can be grasped and recognized by reason itself: The human individual is open to transcendence, to the absolute; he has a heart which is restless until it rests in the Lord.

The educational process of a spiritual life, seen as a relationship and communion with God, derives and develops from this fundamental and irrepressible religious need. In the light of revelation and Christian experience, spiritual formation possesses the unmistakable originality which derives from evangelical "newness." Indeed, it ‘is the work of the Holy Spirit and engages a person in his totality. It introduces him to a deep communion with Jesus Christ, the good shepherd, and leads to the total submission of one’s life to the Spirit, in a filial attitude toward the Father and a trustful attachment to the Church. Spiritual formation has its roots in the experience of the cross, which in deep communion leads to the totality of the paschal mystery.

John Paul II goes on to outline some specific components of spiritual formation: it is communion with the Triune God; it is the search for Jesus Christ in the Word of God, in participation in the sacraments and prayer of the church, and in a life of service to those in need. It includes “the prayerful and meditated reading of the word of God, a humble and loving listening of him who speaks.” Such reading of the Bible leads in turn to prayer, and finding silence for it in the midst of the world’s noise. But spiritual formation does not happen in isolation—it involves the community. So individual prayer must lead to a thirst for public worship, especially the Eucharist. It must develop a love for the church and its mission. It must lead one to seek Christ in others.

Clearly, the practices John Paul II describes are not unique to Roman Catholicism. They are basic Christianity. All Christians acknowledge the need to abide in Christ, to pray, to worship, to study the Bible. There have been times in the history of the Christian Church when aberrations (whether overemphasis on doctrine, legalistic behavior, minimalism, or libertinism) have led to a reemphasis on heartfelt Christianity and the devotional life. In the early days of the Reformation, Luther translated the Bible into the common language and wrote hymns and catechisms as essential tools of spiritual revival; when Lutheranism grew stale, the Pietist movement sought to breathe new life into dry bones, encouraging not only individual devotion, but small group fellowship and sharing and prayer. Pietists like Spener and Zinzendorf had an influence in turn on the evangelical revival in the Anglican Church, and the “method” taught by John Wesley. The devotional spirit and practices of Seventh-day Adventism grew out of this strain of pietistic/evangelical Christianity. Adventism continued to be informed and nurtured and inspired by evangelicalism—a case in point being the adoption of the “morning watch” and the idea of volunteer missionaries from John Mott.

In our day, the terms “spiritual formation” and “spiritual disciplines” have largely been brought to evangelicalism (and thence to Adventism) by Richard Foster, the Quaker founder of Renovaré, and his Southern Baptist colleague Dallas Willard. Foster’s writings combine Quaker spirituality (emphasis on the divine “inner light”) with historic Christian (Catholic and evangelical) practices. This is something that should give us pause. Foster is starting with a specific theology of the human “spirit,” and because he believes this divine “spirit” is shared by all, he has no qualms about seeking out whatever he finds nurturing—without regard for the specific historical context or theological underpinnings of the different practices.

Foster’s eclecticism stands in contrast to historic Catholic and Protestant spiritualities, which have been rooted in particular communities and movements. In Catholicism, individuals such as Benedict of Nursia, Francis of Assisi, Dominic of Guzman, Teresa of Avila, etc., had powerful experiences of God and unique insights into how to live the Christian life, and taught these insights to others—thus giving us Benedictine, Franciscan, Dominican, and Carmelite spirituality. The spirituality of Lutheranism is rooted in Luther’s own struggles and the insights he developed from them; the same is true of Methodism. It’s as the Peruvian theologian Gustavo Gutierrez writes in his book, We Drink from Our Own Wells– spirituality starts as a personal experience, but it becomes “the subject of later reflection and is proposed to the entire ecclesial community as a way of being disciples of Christ.” In other words, someone says, “This is what’s worked for me—why don’t you try it?”

As Seventh-day Adventists, we share a common heritage and spirituality. We share devotional texts (like Steps to Christ), hymns, practices (especially the Sabbath), values, hopes, and dreams that are distinct. These are the components of Seventh-day Adventist spirituality (which is indebted, as I’ve already noted, to Methodism). But we can take these things for granted. We can grow complacent; the practices we grew up with can grow stale, and this can lead us to seek for new insights, greener pastures, and fresher wells. I would not discourage this; I would simply suggest that any exploration we do remain rooted in our own tradition, and that we retain a critical eye, carefully evaluating both the presuppositions and the practices of others through our understanding of God’s Word.

What I would hope is that Adventists who read Foster (or other popular spiritual writers) would be inspired to go on and learn what our own sources have said about these things–to go back, for example, and reread Ellen White’s books, Steps to Christ, Thoughts from the Mount of Blessing, Christ’s Object Lessons, Desire of Ages, and Ministry of Healing (and Life Sketches, which relates her spiritual journey). This will keep our spiritual sustenance rooted, not merely in our own personal preferences and curiosities, but in the life of our specific community. We will thus learn, as St. Bernard of Clairvaux said, to “drink from our own wells.”

But a more important lesson we can learn from Catholicism about spiritual formation is that we cannot take it for granted. We cannot just turn it over so that individuals can pursue, pick and choose whatever they happen to like. Spiritual formation is a responsibility of the Christian community–and especially the pastors and teachers–to form believers, to guide them on the path of discipleship, to immerse them in the common tradition, to build a community of prayer and service. And if we do not do this– if we do not give people water from our communal well– then they will search on their own for anything that offers to quench their thirst.

Bill Cork is pastor of the North Houston and Spring Creek Seventh-day Adventist churches in Texas, and is a chaplain in the Texas Army National Guard. 

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