D. A. Carson, biblical scholar and czar of all things “Gospel Coalition,” wrote an editorial on spiritual disciplines in the latest issue of Themelios (which is a free journal put out by Trinity Evangelical Divinity School). You can read the editorial here. For the most part, I think he has some good thoughts here, but in general I think it was unhelpful. First, he does a good job of highlighting that “spiritual” in the Bible is something you are or are not based on the presence of the Spirit. It is not a degreed-judgment about a person. He is right about that. It is a point we make around here quite a bit, that when we talk about “spiritual formation,” what we are talking about is the Spirit’s work to form us into the image of Christ, and not that we are forming our “spirits” (whatever that would mean). That said, when people use the term “spiritual” today, what they mean is mature. They are not making a biblical argument, but are noting the reality of the Spirit’s work in someone’s life. I’m not sure that is a bad thing.
Second, and more poignantly, Carson states: “That is why people sometimes say, ‘For your doctrine, by all means commit yourselves to evangelical confessionalism. But when it comes to the spiritual disciplines, turn to Catholicism or perhaps Buddhism.’” Now, I’m the first to say that theology and spirituality has been divorced, and that reality is devasting for both. I am also quick to criticize those who turn to Catholic spirituality without any discernment. Fair enough. But Carson’s made-up polemical partner who is searching Buddhism for spiritual disciplines just does not exist. Certainly, there are people on the fringe of Christianity where this is a reality, but it strikes me that this was a polemical move that has no place in evangelical discourse. It is, in short, academically lazy. This posture made the editorial feel like a blog post, some musings that lead to vast over-simplifications and stereotypes. For as long as I’ve been in the spiritual formation conversation, there are no evangelicals turning to Buddhism as a candidate for spiritual resources. This kind of a move fuels misinformed fundamentalists into thinking that they are justified in believing that spiritual formation is just Eastern Mysticism. This is laziness.
Third, Carson continues to argue against some “popular” form of spirituality, by turning to spiritual disciplines specifically (I should say that even though this is an editorial, I think it should address actual beliefs real writers have, rather than positing this “popular” belief system without any actual referent). Addressing the disciplines directly, Carson states, “For Christians with any sense of the regulative function of Scripture, nothing, surely, can be deemed a spiritual discipline if it is not so much as mentioned in the NT.” First, the term “spiritual discipline” is not a term taken from the Bible, and therefore it seems a bit odd to argue for a regulative function of a term the Bible doesn’t claim to regulate. I can only assume he doesn’t believe in announcements at churches or church buildings on the same logic. Second, Carson’s point is that nothing that isn’t mentioned in scripture can be considered a spiritual discipline. This strikes me as both an odd view of Scripture, as well as a anemic understanding of theology. Third, Carson seems to be laboring under the delusion that spiritual disciplines increase our “spirituality” (using spirituality in the “popular” sense of the term). Again, who is saying this?
You don’t have to have spent much time here to see how must we agree with Carson’s worries without having to follow his seemingly arbitrary construction of what spiritual formation should be. I suppose I could be critiqued because he wasn’t talking about us, but talking about some made-up person, but that is the whole problem. This is just an unhelpful editorial. It fuels ignorance of what people actually say in the spiritual formation conversation, and it perpetuates negative views of a discussion without any reference to the discussion itself. This, in my mind, is unfortunate.