Wheaton College Conference on Spiritual Formation: Part 2

Today I continue blogging about the Wheaton College theology conference I attended April 16-17. See my last post here.

When last we left our intrepid heroine, she was eating cookies from the awesome Wheaton dining hall during two afternoon lectures on spiritual formation in the writings of classic Protestant theologians. These lectures were more specialized than the preceding ones, and probably most interesting to folks who had read the authors in question, but still contained some useful insights for the average person.

Dr. Kelly Kapic, a professor at Covenant College, spoke about John Owen’s concept of “evangelical holiness”. Owen was one of the leading 16th-century Puritan theologians; his many books included Communion with God. (Four hundred years later, he has his own fansite; according to the thumbnail bio, “In his early twenties, conviction of sin threw him into such turmoil that for three months he could scarcely utter a coherent word on anything; but slowly he learned to trust Christ, and so found peace.” Oh yes, I’ve been there.)

Kapic said that for Owen, “evangelical holiness” was not only about right actions. In fact, Owen used “moral virtue” as a negative phrase, because self-generated effort is inferior to the holiness produced by grace. Sinful humanity likes to create a substitute (external or civil morality) for real spirituality, which does nothing to close the chasm between the holy Creator and the rebellious creature. True holiness is dependent on the gift of the gospel.

The moral law tells us what to do, but doesn’t give us the power to do it. That comes from our knowledge of God as He has revealed Himself in Jesus. The gospel is the only thing that brings spiritual strength, cheerfulness, courage, perseverance, and relief from fear and despair. The Law is still our guide for action, but we now live out of the freedom and power of the gospel. (Once again, I would have liked to hear about some specific spiritual practices that make this a psychological reality for the believer; one could easily walk away from a conference like this with the impression that the gospel message is a magic wand that taps us on the head and turns a frog into a prince. I wonder if many Christians suffer silent despair when they agree with all the right ideas but don’t feel better inside.)

Owen’s emphasis on divine gift, said Kapic, does not nullify his call to self-discipline, but it’s a matter of priorities: the ultimate goal of spiritual life is not self-improvement but communion with the Triune God. “Triune” is an important word here. Evangelical holiness is Christ-centered. God is most clearly represented when we look on the face of Jesus. It is the only way that humans can see the essential glory of the invisible God. By contrast, Kapic criticized some modern evangelical theologians for talking about God’s attributes without much discussion of Jesus.

The difference between the Holy Spirit and false spirits is that God’s true spirit always points people to Christ. In Owen’s day, there were a lot of religious enthusiasms and awakenings, and he wasn’t convinced that all of them were truly from God. The test: does this spirit shape you into the image of Christ, in your mind, body, and affections?

According to Owen, all the blessings of the Christian life flow from our being partakers of the same spirit with Christ. By virtue of this union, Christ suffers in our afflictions. (Does this mean Owen was taking a position against the impassibility of God? If so, good for him.) This union is participatory and life-giving, not only transactional and abstract. The cross doesn’t only point to the past reality of salvation. It continues to shape the present reality of his body, the church–the wounds we bear by virtue of being godly in a fallen world.

Owen distinguished communion from union with God. Will we lose ourselves in absorption in God, and lose our creaturely distinctness? No, we do not lose our individuality, but rather participate in God’s spirit, each in our unique ways, brought into harmony but not obliterated. Unity with Christ glories in that diversity, while overcoming the sins that divide us.

Sadly, it was hard for me to believe the proponents of this utopian vision, given the evangelical church’s discrimination against sexual minorities. More than in past years, I found myself struggling with trust issues, and had to remind myself that the speakers might know some things about God even if their hearts were not open to everyone He created.

Dr. Bruce Hindmarsh, a professor of spiritual theology at Regent College, discussed how early evangelicals like John Wesley and George Whitefield appropriated and popularized pre-Reformation resources on spiritual practices to develop a modern Protestant vocabulary for spiritual formation. I have to confess that I did not take very good notes on this presentation. Not having read the authors in question, I had only a limited interest in Hindmarsh’s detective work to trace how they read and reprinted one another’s writings, though I was moved by his reverence for the centuries-old book that he showed us.

He made an interesting comparison between Protestant and Catholic treatment of new movements that arise in the church. Protestantism splits into new sects, while the Catholic Church prefers to incorporate them as new “schools” (to use Prof. Cunningham’s terminology from his lecture) like the Franciscans, Dominicans, and so forth. Had Wesley and the evangelicals appeared before the Reformation, they might have become a new religious order within the wider unified church. A school of spirituality could be described as a particular way of hearing and relating to the gospel, identified with a particular cultural milieu and group of people.

That’s enough fun for today. Next time: Gordon Fee puts the Spirit back in spirituality; Dallas Willard reveals the three rules of humility; and some women are allowed to speak.