Tag Archives: spiritual formation

Final Reflections on the Spiritual Formation Debate

Going beyond spiritual formation and the review of Peth’s book, let me briefly address what I consider a significant and perhaps dangerous misunderstanding in Adventist (and much evangelical) thinking. There is, rightly, a great concern about and fear of ecumenism. What is widely thought of as ecumenism is a process of unifying religious institutions for political advantage. When religion and politics get together bad things happen, especially to faithful believers who have captured the deeper spiritual heart of faith and rejected the political agendas of so many religious institutions. But there is another type of “ecumenism” and that is recognizing God’s call to many individuals in every religious institution on the globe (Rev 18:4). Among the Catholics, Muslims, Hindus, Jews, Buddhists, etc. are many people who are genuinely seeking truth and have experienced some acquaintance with God. Through the Holy Spirit, God has been in every place before the missionaries ever got there. I have found kindred spirits of genuine faith in many places that I would not have expected.

Peth has focused on the dangers of learning from others, and rightly so. I would wish that he had done so in a more reasoned and academic fashion, but I fully agree that there is a huge danger in opening oneself freely to the ideas of others without a strong grounding in the biblical world view. One can enter a slippery slope in which one gradually morphs from a biblical Jesus-follower to a self-focused eclectic. But there is an equal and opposite danger that Peth’s book does not address. And that is to allow ourselves to be so consumed with the dangers of ecumenism that we close ourselves off spiritually from neighbors, friends and family who think and live differently. God’s end-time remnant will be drawn from every nation, tribe, language and people, and yes, also religion (Rev 14:6; 18:1-4). My fear is that books like the one by Peth may cause us to see demons behind every bush and inspire suspicion of others that closes ourselves off from others at just the time when God is seeking to draw His faithful ones together.

There is an often unwritten thread in Adventist (and evangelical) thought that suggests that our religion has the truth and others are messed up. At the end of time people will abandon the mess-up religions and join ours, making up the end-time remnant (or whatever evangelicals may call it). What this thread does not take seriously is evidence that all religious institutions are messed-up, including our own, whichever that may be. All religious institutions are human attempts to bear witness to a perception of God’s action in the world. This is a good thing. We should honor the acts of God in our midst and call them to the attention of the world. But over time, religious institutions become more and more focused on self-preservation and less and less focused on the original mission. This is why reformations are needed in every faith. At the end of time all religious institutions will be split between those who want to preserve a human shell and those who have maintained or recaptured the original spirit and mission of the faith. The faithful remnant of every religion will in the end prove to have more in common with each other than with colleagues in their own religion. The final proclamations of the gospel and its counterfeit (Rev 14:6-12; 16:13-16– see the Armageddon Trilogy on the main page of the web site) will expose the human (and often satanic) side to institutional religion. God’s faithful ones will find each other in strange and surprising places. The final outcome is drawn in broad strokes in Revelation, but the details will probably surprise us all.

What I have outlined here is messier and will for many be less satisfying than a black and white treatise. But truth is often a tension between two poles (two examples: the divine and the human in Jesus Christ, and the role of faith and works in Christian experience). Finding a balance between the ditch of ecumenism and the ditch of self-important exclusivism is rarely easy. To be open and accepting of people at the same time one is discerning truth and error is challenging in practice. I hope that readers can learn the latter from Peth’s book without developing the mind and attitude of a Pharisee toward those who are sincerely seeking God in the only way they know how to seek Him. One thing Howard Peth and I certainly have in common, although we haven’t met, we both have a lot to learn.

Either/Or Thinking

Another challenge I find in Howard Peth’s book on comtemplative prayer is either/or thinking, which is inadequate to the depth of a subject like this. On pages ix and x (see also pages 54 and 55) this is reflected in three either/or dilemmas. 1) Pastors can “try anything once” or they can uphold the Word of God. But can we not learn from experience at the same time we are learning from the Word? 2) You can have a “seeker-friendly” church or you can have a church built on biblical principles. Wouldn’t it be good to do both as far as possible? 3) You can give people what they want or you can follow the Bible. But are these always mutually exclusive? Doesn’t the gospel strike with the most power when it meets people at points of felt need and common associations (1 Cor 9:19-23)? Perhaps Professor Peth would agree with me on the above once I have worded things in this way, but the book itself often fails to nuance things like this in a helpful way. When a case is weak one tends to overstate it.

On page 17 and other places the author laments that eastern mysticism is “infiltrating” the western Christian church. I don’t doubt that this is the case, and some or much of that deserves concern. But I see little recognition of the fact that the Bible itself is an eastern book and that Western Christianity has often distorted the biblical message by reading it through the filter of western culture and philosophy. We don’t even notice that we are doing this, because that culture and philosophy is ingrained in who we are. To make this an “either/or” is not helpful. To read the Bible with western eyes inevitably distorts some things and some aspects of eastern thinking do bring us back a little closer to the biblical world view.

In discussing specific individuals a major method of Peth’s book is the ad hominem (“against the man”) argument. This involves the use of emotive words and pejorative language (such as “brainwash,” “proclamation of another gospel,” “liberal, loose and free-thinking pastors” “not Bible doctrine but babbling dialogue,” “watered-down gospel”) to create a sense in the reader that the people being described are not trustworthy or even dangerous. This is a tactic often used when a person realizes that an argument is weak. I once teased a friend that his arguments were 50% logic and 50% ridicule. The weaker the logic, the greater the tendency to use emotive and pejorative language to carry an audience that would not otherwise buy the argument. But such methods actually signal the weakness rather than the strength of an argument.

The key figure under attack in Peth’s book is Richard Foster. The arguments against Foster are as follows. First, the title and contents of his book Celebration of Discipline are modeled on Ignatius Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises. Second, Foster is a Quaker, Quakers believe such and such, therefore, Foster teaches such and such. Noting this connection can be academically useful. But when I see how Adventists are often viewed in the light of David Koresh, I am cautious in applying this insight with finality. What I missed in Peth’s book was much analysis of what Foster actually wrote in his book. The closest Peth comes to an analysis of Foster’s actual work is on page 75 where two short and very general quotes (one sentence each) are then expanded and interpreted to support Peth’s viewpoint. Third, Foster seldom quotes the Bible in his book, getting his teachings from non-Christian or non-protestant sources. This too is helpful to observe. But there is a reason for Foster’s approach. The Bible strongly encourages prayer, yet rarely says much about how to actually do it in practice. Thus a book like Foster’s inevitably will take a more scientific approach of seeing what various people have tried and evaluating what works or does not work. How well Foster does this is worthy of examination, but I don’t find it surprising that a book on the practics of spiritual life might range far afield in search of options that could be useful to Christians. Adventists, certainly, got interested in Foster’s book and others because of the sense that other Christian communities knew more about caring for spiritual life and growth than we did. Interestingly, Peth notes that Foster himself warns readers in a later book of the dangers of demonic activity (page 69), so one can wonder if Peth is drawing the distinctions between him and Foster a bit too fine.

Given the mystical sources of Foster’s book in the eastern and Catholic religions, it is well that we read with caution. But reading Peth’s book has actually encouraged me to pick up Foster’s book again and see what I may have missed the first time around. If I get the time to do that I will report what I find in this blog.

Guilt by Association

In the previous three blogs I have been setting the context for some concerns I have about Howard Peth’s book The Dangers of Contemplative Prayer (Nampa, ID: Pacific Press Publishing Association and Hart Research Center, 2012). The book has been used to justify attacks on the Theological Seminary at Andrews University for a program I described from personal experience in the first blog. As I noted in the second blog, Peth’s book has value for those unschooled in the intricacies of spiritual growth and development. It warns the novice against the danger of emptying one’s mind to either one’s interior voices or an external influence that can be diabolical as well as benign. This is a valid point and worth making. Nevertheless, I wonder if the book will not prove in the end to do as much harm as it does good. This is certainly not the author’s intention, nor that of those who published the book. But the possibility deserves at least brief consideration here.

There are two major concerns I have about the book. First, the positive points in the book could have been made even more powerfully in 3-5 pages than in the 90 pages offered. The length of the book leads to much repetition along with examples and illustrations that often weaken the point rather than strengthen it. There is material in the book for a very good article, but over 90 pages the point is lost in questionable assumptions and illustrations. I will go into those a bit more detail below.

Second, the main purpose of the book does not seem to be the positives I mention in the previous blog but more of an attack piece on Evangelical Protestantism and its supposed selling out to the Papacy, at least in matters related to prayer and meditation. The author does not name Seventh-day Adventist authors or institutions, so the reader is left to decide whether he feels that some such have already sold out as well or whether this is merely an early warning. But he certainly names some very popular writers and speakers who have influence among Seventh-day Adventists, so if there is guilt by association (and that is a major argument in the book), the book is a subtle indictment of the Seventh-day Adventist Church and many of its thought leaders (though this indictment is subtle enough that a church publishing house chose to put its name on the book). But maybe I am making too much of that point, so I’ll just leave it an open question. Perhaps the author will be willing to respond.

The primary argument in the author’s case appears to be guilt by association. If you are a Roman Catholic you practice negative forms of contemplative prayer (even though they have been condemned by the previous pope). If you have quoted a Catholic or know a Quaker you are guilty. If you know or have read Richard Foster, you are guilty. If a spiritualist likes something you have said, you are guilty. Terms like spiritual formation and contemplative prayer are used by so and so, therefore anyone who has used these terms is guilty. In careful scholarship, associations and influence are important in establishing what a person could know or believe. But by itself association is a very weak argument, assuming that a person cannot associate with another and still disagree or maintain their own integrity (as we saw in the previous blog, that argument could be made about Peth’s relationship with Oakland and Yungen as well).

What the book lacks is clear documentation that most of the people mentioned in the book actually teach and practice what the author is opposing. I, for one, read books by Foster and Willard some 20-25 years ago and never picked up the “empty your mind” concept of meditation from them. One can, perhaps, read between the lines of their books and see such a concept, but Peth’s book does not demonstrate that it is clearly taught there. Arguing guilt by association introduces suspicion toward other believers. One begins with the assumption that there is something wrong with somebody and then searches for hints and turns of phrase to demonstrate what would not be obvious in a normal reading of the text.

A good example is the comment about Beth Moore on page 26. In a 2002 comment, Beth Moore says that practicing God’s presence in her life is a number one goal. And she finds God in the “stillness.” Does this “stillness” mean a removal of distractions, or something much more sinister? That is not demonstrated in Peth’s book, it is merely alleged on the basis of the word chosen. We all struggle with distractions as we pray, so it would seem strategies that can help focus the mind on Scripture and God would be important and helpful. My wife has taken a number of classes with Beth Moore’s material and was shocked to hear that she would be accused of a negative form of prayer. When I shared Peth’s description of negative forms of contemplative prayer, she said, “I never heard anything like that from her, she is always grounded in the Bible.” For what it’s worth.

In the next blog I will address another major challenge I have in appreciating Peth’s book. Then I will draw some general reflections on the larger context of this debate.

Questionable Sources

Since writing the previous blog I have been thinking. I have decided that before getting into Howard Peth’s book directly, it may be useful to set some background to the current controversy among Seventh-day Adventists. Peth quotes from time to time from the work of Roger Oakland and Ray Yungen. While he quotes from many sources and does not express direct dependance on these men, there is much similarity in tone and substance. Their influence on him seems at least as strong if not stronger than the Quaker and Catholic influences on Richard Foster.

I mention Oakland and Yungen because they have placed themselves at the crucial intersection between evangelical and Adventist thinking on spiritual formation. They both appear to be extreme dispensationalists, a perspective on prophecy radically at odds with Adventism at its very core (although they share a similar suspicion of the Papacy). So it is to be wondered why Adventists would take their work as seriously as many in Peth’s camp seem to. It is interesting to me that Peth and his colleagues seem to feel that they can pick and choose from the work of Oakland and Yungen and remain “undefiled.” But if that is the case, why cannot other Adventists take a similar approach to the works of Foster, Willard, Warren and MacLaren? Why is guilt by association somehow valid in the latter case but not in the former? It seems like a process of selective evidence to me. In reality we are learning from others and influenced by many sources. We all have to exercise spiritual discernment in this process and make sure our own selective use of Scripture is not as deeply flawed as those we criticize.

Oakland and Yungen have been studying and reporting on issues of spiritual formation and prayer for a dozen years, naming names and institutions in the evangelical world that they feel have sold out to eastern mysticism. Then in 2007 they came across an Adventist News Network article that mentioned (positively) how spiritual formation (in the sense of developing habits of Bible study and prayer) was getting increased attention at the Andrews Seminary and many local churches. Interpreting the phrase along the lines of their previously formed opinions about spiritual formation, they assumed that Adventists were buying into all the negatives that they had seen elsewhere. They posted material lumping Adventists as part of the whole Christian world that was falling away from God into spiritualistic apostasy.

Sometime after that a few Adventists here and there read Oakland’s work and began sounding the alarm within Adventism. The warnings of John Witcombe and Rick Howard fall into this category and also the book by Howard Peth that I am reviewing. For a full, fair and kind accounting of these developments I strongly suggest everyone get hold of a copy of the article by Dave Thomas (“The Great ‘Spiritual Formation’ Kerfuffle”) in Spectrum, volume 40, issue 1, Winter, 2012, 44-49. He documents in detail the journeys of Oakland and Yungen, their influence upon Adventism, and some of the more recent developments as a result. This is valuable background to the concerns I will address in the blog(s) that follow (don’t know how many yet).

(Additional Note– 12/3/14) As many may be aware, Dave Thomas’s article has been attacked by the same people who are finding fault with Walla Walla University’s approach to spiritual development training right now. I think Walla Walla’s opponents are sincere and seem to be godly people, but Dave Thomas has huge credibility with me as a careful thinker and keen analyst of trends in the church. So while his 2012 article may not prove accurate in every detail, I am confident in its overall helpfulness to the issue.

Three Powerful Points

In the previous blog I set the context for this review of the book The Dangers of Contemplative Prayer, by Howard Peth (Nampa, ID: Pacific Press Publishing Association and Hart Research Center, 2012). In this blog I want to share what I liked about the book and in the following some concerns I have about it. The book describes some dangerous types of prayer and the author’s belief that these forms of prayer are infiltrating the Seventh-day Adventist Church. His desire in this book, then, is to sound the alarm that no one might be deceived.

The book makes three powerful points that were very helpful to me. The central point of the book is summarized in a nutshell in the Author’s Preface (page viii). The key issue in prayer has to do with the purpose of meditation. In the eastern tradition the purpose of meditation is to empty the mind. Through the use of repetitive syllables, words or phrases (a so-called mantra), one banishes stray thoughts, feelings and images until one is at the “center of consciousness.” In the silence at the center one can begin to hear spirit voices that tell you things you have never heard before. You hear the voice of God within. In the biblical tradition, on the other hand, the purpose of meditation is not to empty the mind but to focus the mind on the words of truth from the Scriptures. In other words, the meditation is not directed inward toward a subjective truth but rather outward toward an objective truth. This is an extremely important distinction.

What’s wrong with the eastern approach? What if one replaces the meaningless mantras with Christian prayer words like “Jesus” or “Father?” The danger is that if one empties the mind, one has no control over which spirit voice speaks to that emptied mind. Apart from the safeguard of Scripture, it is possible to be deceived into thinking that satanic influences are truly the voice of God. The spirit world contains both angels and demons, so eastern forms of meditation can connect one with either source. It seems to me that this fundamental point is crucial. But for what it’s worth, I have never heard a Seventh-day Adventist preacher, liberal or conservative, tell people they need to empty their minds. The emphasis is always on ridding oneself of distractions so that the Bible or a devotional reading can be the full focus of one’s attention. That, I think, is a different thing than seeking a total emptying of the mind. While I think Peth could have made this point more effectively in 3-5 pages rather than a hundred, I do think his fundamental point is crucial and it is worth reading the book if one is not clear on this point.

Second, Peth makes a powerful point on page 62 where he says that God has arranged the “rules of the game” in such a way that the devil cannot force anyone to sin. Satan cannot take over a life unless at some level that person consents to it. The danger Peth sees in contemplative prayer is that a person will consent to Satan influencing or taking over his or her life thinking they are opening themselves to God. Without that consent, Satan cannot control a person’s life. But once that consent is given, it can be very difficult to extricate oneself from Satan’s clutches. The key in meditation is to keep the process of meditation under the control of reason and subject to the Scriptures. I couldn’t agree more.

Third, and this point was worth the price of the book in my opinion, Peth has pointed out one of the great misreadings of the Bible, one that I have been guilty of all these years. He points out on pages 27-29 that the phrase “Be still and know that I am God” has been grossly misused in Christian society. Most people think, and so did I before reading this book, that the phrase is all about prayer and our attitude toward God in the inner life. But in context that couldn’t be further from the truth. When you read the context of Psalm 46:10 it is all about a military attack on the fortress of God’s people (Psa 46:1-5). When enemies attack the people of God, He steps in with the mighty power of His word (46:6). The end result is the enemies’ bows are broken, their spears are splintered and their chariots are burned with fire (46:7-9). In the context of a battlefield strewn with the detritus of a defeated army, the phrase spoken to defeated enemies actually means something like, “Shut up and know who you are dealing with!” To use such a phrase in support of a questionable strategy for meditation and prayer veers wide of the exegetical mark.

So in sum, there are reasons to read this book and I am glad I did. While I knew the first two points before reading the book, the third was worth the time I took to read it. Next time, I will begin to share a few cautions about the content of the book.

Spiritual Formation and Contemplative Prayer

Over the last couple of years people have become aware of controversy over things like “spiritual formation,” “contemplative prayer” and “the emerging church.” Voices such as that of the General Conference President (Ted Wilson) have been raised in caution regarding the dangers to be found in these domains. What Wilson probably did not know, at the time he gave this sermon in July of 2010, is how frequently these terms were used at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, though not, I suspect, in the ways that he meant by these terms. As one who taught at the Seminary from 1982-2007, I am quite familiar with what was going on there during that time and I found it to be a place that was deeply grounded in Scripture and loyal to the church almost to a fault. So my initial reaction was like that of others. What is so bad about Spiritual Formation? What can be so bad about thoughtful prayer? What other kind of prayer is there? And while the authors promoting the Emerging Church were certainly offering challenging ideas, they had always struck me as rather prophetic in the Old Testament sense, challenging the comfortable ways in which many Christians have adopted western culture and practices without serious biblical critique. So what was going on here? Shouldn’t everyone spend “a thoughtful hour each day contemplating the life of Christ?” (Ellen G. White, Desire of Ages, page 83)

Did the Seminary teach Spiritual Formation while I was there? Yes, depending on what you mean by that term. I remember how in the mid-1980s our practics professors introduced us to the concept and asked all Seminary faculty to team up with local pastors to create “spiritual formation groups” of 10-12 seminary students each who would engage with local churches on weekends and then reflect on their experiences on Monday mornings. I have to confess I was never a huge enthusiast about this development. It sounded like a lot of work outside the areas of my interest and expertise. But I kept my lack of enthusiasm to myself. After all, what could be bad about helping young pastors find a closer walk with God? I certainly didn’t want to speak out against that!

And that is exactly what spiritual formation, in the forms that I encountered it at the Seminary, was all about. It was the process of encouraging young pastors at the Seminary to not simply exercise their minds, but also their hearts, while in school. It was seeking a balance between the intellectual and the spiritual. It was all about teaching young pastors to have a closer walk with God on a day to day basis. This has to be a good thing in principle. If there would be any dangers in such as process, it could be dealt with in the “multitude of counselors” that the group process required. On the whole I thought the process of thinking and worshiping together each week had a positive impact on me and the students I served, as well as a number of different pastors through the years.

The high point of such spiritual training, in my experience, occurred in the 1990s. I taught a first-quarter class called Salvation in which I plumbed the Bible from Genesis to Revelation, discovering the various ways people got right with God and how they also stayed right with God. As students confronted the claims of the biblical text there were many conversions (I would estimate 15-20) each year among pastors! This is not to imply that most pastors are not converted, but that the clarity of the Bible led these students into an entirely new walk with God, one that they themselves experienced as true conversion. I still have pastors contact me about their experience as students in that class and the profound effect it had on them.

What was especially exciting was that the first-quarter’s students were also taking a class in Spiritual Formation at the same time. In this class they explored how study, prayer and witness combines to develop a deeper and deeper relationship with God. Being deeply exposed to the biblical material (in my class) at the same time they were learning how to talk and listen to God at a deeper level provided both a stimulus and a safeguard to their walk with God. So when more recently people started talking negatively about Spiritual Formation and by implication the Seminary, I was puzzled and quite defensive for my former colleagues. Over 25 years I had not detected one trace of spiritualism or demonic danger at the Seminary. Surely people were confused in their use of these terms.

So I was deeply interested when a book arrived on my desk entitled The Dangers of Contemplative Prayer, by Howard Peth. The book was published by Pacific Press and Hart Research Center, both entities that I trusted. It came to me without charge and a letter of endorsement from the president of Adventist-Laymen’s Services and Industries, an entity that encourages Seventh-day Adventist lay people to integrate their faith and their professions, something that I could certainly endorse. The letter suggested that spiritual formation, contemplative prayer and the emerging church could be tools to bring satanic spiritualistic ideas into the church (quoting the prediction of Ellen White, The Great Controversy, page 588). So I took it the book projected these three elements as steps to the great end-time deception I had often written about in my books. So I determined to read the book at my first convenience. What I found there will be reviewed in future blogs.