Note from CM: Michael went through a period swimming in the post-evangelical stream of neo-Calvinism. This excerpt is from a 2006 post in which he expressed appreciation for one Reformed writer (Don Whitney) who stood out in advocating that Reformed Christians pursue a vibrant devotional life. Michael saw that such teaching was rare in Reformed circles, and this deficiency was a factor in his ultimate distancing of himself from that stream.
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Voices advocating a strong devotional emphasis stand out in reformed circles. They stand out because the theological emphasis of most reformation Christianity is on Christ and the work of Christ; the Bible; the Doctrines of Grace and issues of ecclesiology. The formative scene for Christian spirituality in the reformed tradition is the meeting house, with the congregation hearing the teaching of scripture by the minister. Even the word “spirituality” is likely to be avoided.
If honesty were to take hold of many of us, we could tell the tale of how our enthusiastic embrace of Calvinism put our devotional life on the downgrade…IF we do not restrict that devotional life to listening to preaching and reading Reformed books. In fact, there is more than one Calvinist who spent more than a few moments wondering “Why pray (or anything else) at all?”
Without intentionally promoting it, many reformed Christians have a kind of pessimism about the devotional life, built on certain assumptions.
1) There is nothing good is us and we should avoid subjective, introspective experiences.
2) Spiritual disciplines such as Lenten fasting or guided meditation are dangerous concessions to a Roman Catholic approach to the Christian Life.
3) The objective proclamation of the Gospel, and the growing intellectual understanding of the Bible, are the primary means of spiritual growth, and others may detract from a full-devotion to the importance of preaching.
4) Too much of an emphasis on certain kinds of prayer can go astray into challenges to God’s sovereignty, new age spirituality or empty ritual.
5) Too much emphasis on the devotional life becomes legalistic, works righteousness emphasizing pietism.
Of course, any of these assumptions can be rightly and correctly placed within the Christian life. There is no need to reject the devotional life in any form when it is rightly related to the Gospel. Godliness is not synonymous with works righteousness, though there is no doubt that there is a possibility of departing from a complete satisfaction in and dependence on Christ in any personal discipline. Don Whitney’s ministry makes this plain, and deserves to be heeded.
What should also be heeded is the rather obvious evidence that theologically big-brained, one-dimensionally intellectually oriented Christians are often not spiritual well-formed, and advanced appreciations of doctrine do not negate the place or need of the devotional life. Reformed Christians often are doing- and not doing- spiritual disciplines based on what they are seeing in the broader Christian world. There are errors and fads to be avoided. There is also a rich heritage to be appreciated and appropriated.
It’s possible to run too far away from the spiritual formation of classic Christianity. Dallas Willard is increasingly criticized in reformed circles as an “emergent” type to be avoided, yet Willard’s call to return to serious, Jesus-centered, Biblical spiritual formation has been going on long before the emerging church became news. Willard’s powerfully accurate critique of undiscipled Christians is not “out in left field.” It is dead center with what is wrong with many of us.