Fridays with Michael Spencer: March 3, 2017

Longing for Spring 2014

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.

• • •

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.

38 thoughts on “Fridays with Michael Spencer: March 3, 2017

  1. Im extremely impressed using your writing abilities plus using the structure for your blog. Is the a paid theme or have you customize it yourself? Anyway continue the nice excellent writing, it782#1&;s rare to look a good blog like this one these days..

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  2. Happy Eastert to you both and may the skin of you teeth be in your favour and you avoid the pending gale. Look fowerard to hearing you are in and perhaps if we are lucky an arrival picture from Helen at journeys end.

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  3. Great pleace to try bikes – loads to try and the staff really know there stuff. We spent a few hours trying out the bikes up and down the lanes and I bought my wife an Emotion electric bike in the end and she loves it.GD Star Raogiiltadnng…GD Star Ratingloading…

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  4. My own prayers likewise tend not to be principally asking for a shopping list of things, but a way of coming close to and being with God.
    Even prayers about specific things we need do not I think need to be seen as nagging God to sort himself out and help. Prayer can be described as bringing our concerns to God, talking through what we are worried about or need and trying to understand what God expects from us in the situation we are in.

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  5. Oh, wow. Hate to hear that, Robert. Praying for healing and help and mercy, things I think are good to pray for.

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  6. on prayer, was said this by Anne Lamott

    “Here are the two best prayers I know:
    ‘Help me, help me, help me’ and ‘Thank you, thank you, thank you.’ “

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  7. About her critics, Dorothy Day once famously said, ‘if I feed the poor, I am a saint but if I ask HOW they got poor, I am a Communist’

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  8. My prayers will be with your wife’s sister.
    I’m sorry your family has been dealt such a tough hand.

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  9. My wife’s sister has just been diagnosed with cancer of the spine. Apparently, the breast cancer she received treatment for last year metastasized to the spine, and possibly to some other places that show unusual metabolic activity, according to the results of a PET scan done last week. This is practically a death sentence, for a woman who is not yet fifty years old, a single mother who is the sole-breadwinner and primary care-giver/manager of a full grown adult son with severe developmental disabilities. My wife and I live several states away, and do not have the resources necessary to help her in any significant material way, barely scraping by ourselves while both working full time and more; we can’t even be physically present with her in this time of terrible need. We are thrown onto words of encouragement over the phone and prayer as our only way of helping, but we hardly know what to pray, aside from asking not be overcome by grief ourselves. Christ have mercy.

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  10. Again, this is the primary reason why I mostly now pray “Lord, have mercy.” Most of the time I don’t know what “things” to pray for; in addition, I know what outcome I want, but I mostly don’t know God’s will in the matter. “Lord, have mercy” – in the Greek, Kyrie, eleison – is pretty much the opposite of thinking that God *doesn’t* have mercy and we’re pleading for it. In Greek it actually means, “God, be God in this situation – act according to your own character.” His character is always for the good of people. I certainly can tell him what outcome I would like to see – and I have to trust in His goodness and love. If someone is healed, that’s what they need. If someone is not healed, that’s what they need, even if I don’t understand why. It seems to me that God’s not as concerned with His reputation as we are sometimes…

    Dana

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  11. That’s actually a proverb!

    Proverbs 55:11 – “Sturdy coffee in thine tabernacle bringeth the aroma of good doctrine, while its absence voideth the leading of the Holy Spirit.”

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  12. I looked at her page on Amazon.

    Sometimes when I read about these new-fangled “transformative” Christians, I have the feeling that when all the labyrinths have been unthreaded, all the smoke lodges have been sweated, and all the non-binaries energies have been accessed, the end result is a Democrat, not a saint.

    Sorry to be so cynical.

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  13. Calvinists can seem to think that they invented Christianity. That anything that comes before is suspect. The best Wesleyans can tap into various traditions, especially RC & Orthodox and see what is good, not automatically what is bad, or in question.

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  14. Speaking for myself, my struggles with prayer don’t stem from the elements listed in this St. Gregory quote, they stem from the aspect of praying for “things,” such as healing. So with “healing prayers,” how do I reconcile people claiming “God answered that prayer of healing” when someone does get better with the times that He doesn’t answer prayer and that gets waved off as “God’s will”?

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  15. “Those who fail to unite themselves to God through prayer cut themselves off from God, so the first thing we have to learn from the Word is that we “need to pray continually and not lose heart.” Prayer brings us close to God, and when we are close to God we are far from the Enemy. Prayer safeguards chastity, controls anger, and restrains arrogance. It is the seal of virginity, the assurance of marital fidelity, the shield of travelers, the protection of sleepers, the encouragement of those who keep vigil, the cause of the farmer’s good harvest and of the sailor’s safety. Therefore I think that even if we spent the whole of our lives in communion with God through thanksgiving and prayer, we should still be as far from adequately repaying our benefactor as we should have been had we not even desired to repay him.”
    St Gregory of Nyssa
    (I just like the quote.)

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  16. –> “Not ever, and actually somewhat antagonistic, to Reformed.”

    Yep, me, too. I think my antagonism stems from two things:
    1) My Reformed friends are constantly trying to turn me into Reformed. Every time a scripture comes up that supports Calvinism it’s like, “There it is AGAIN, Rick! Do you believe NOW?!” C’mon, already, my friends! I don’t try to shove Armininism down your throats; please don’t shove Neo-Cal down mine!

    2) As seems to be alluded to here (and elsewhere in previous posts by Michael Spencer), Calvinism (and maybe especially Neo-Cal) seems to be an unhealthy form of Christianity in terms of displaying God’s love and grace. (John MacArthur’s “Grace to You” bits come to mind. Heavy on “YOUR” sin management, low on grace.)

    It’s like I was telling some guys as we were looking in Mark 4 at Jesus’ parable about the seeds and the soils. There’s not a lot we can do to create “good soil”, but there’s certainly a lot we can do to create “bad soil” so that the seeds of the word don’t take root. Seems to me Calvinism/Neo-Cal drifts more toward the creation of bad soil in a person who might hear the word rather than cultivating good soil.

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  17. –> “I’m still pretty Calvinist in my attitude to prayer (God already knows what I need and what I’m going to say, so why bother Him?).”

    Yep. I must admit the most puzzling aspect of my Christian walk has always been prayer. I do a lot of it – I’m on two different prayer teams, and pray before the two Bible studies I lead – but I still wrestle with its “effectiveness.”

    That said, I know that some of those prayers have been answered. I also know that God has enlightened me several times during those prayers.

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  18. >> . . . Therese de Lisieux, whose Little Way to Christ appears to me to be a good middle ground between the spiritual Olympianism of Orthodoxy and the undisciplined, uncrucified energies of Pentecostalism.

    And for those able to handle a more contemporary handle on the situation, we have Cynthia Bourgeault.

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  19. I’ve read your posts: you are more totally depraved than the rest of us….. yet Eeyore is strangely happy….hmmmm

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  20. For lack of a better word, the “shamanistic” element of religion is the only thing in it that is worth a bucket of warm spit. This impulse is undeveloped, maybe even vestigial (once they are ‘regenerated’), among the Reformed, but it is too widely democratized among the Pentecostals. The shamanistic office has always tended to a natural aristocracy of the spirit, and among the best traditions, carries with it the obligation to guide and illuminate the less adept, rather than lord it over them, using the powers of the Age to Come.

    The interesting thing is that in Orthodoxy, the goal is not ‘Unity with “God” ‘, but unity with the energies of God through Jesus Christ. It is an arduous path, though. To the best of my knowledge, Orthodoxy lacks a St. Therese de Lisieux, whose Little Way to Christ appears to me to be a good middle ground between the spiritual Olympianism of Orthodoxy and the undisciplined, uncrucified energies of Pentecostalism.

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  21. “2) Spiritual disciplines such as Lenten fasting or guided meditation are dangerous concessions to a Roman Catholic approach to the Christian Life.”

    This goes back to the early days of the Reformation. One of the differences between the Lutheran and the Reformed traditions is that the Lutheran approach was to look at existing (i.e. Roman Catholic) practices and ask whether they were forbidden by scripture. The Reformed side looked at these practices and ask whether they are mandated by scripture. In other words, anything that isn’t mandatory is forbidden. Most American Protestantism comes out of the Reformed tradition, directly or indirectly, and this attitude has carried down the years. I have seen the argument made against doing Communion, or at least doing it often or making a big deal out of it, because that would make the church in question look too Catholic.

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  22. “when you are arguing your position with somebody, they are not so much evaluating your argument as deciding whether they want to be a person like you.”

    We Reformed types HATE hearing that. We want our arguments to be judged SOLELY on the basis of their logical cohesion and their Scriptural exegesis. Our being bull-headed jerks has *nothing* to do with any of this… :-/

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  23. Ah, T.S., a voice crying in the wilderness. At least it is now possible to mention mystical prayer here, under whatever name, without being beaten or banished, tho there is often someone handy to scoff and sneer. What I would add to your testimony is that it is not crucial to either experiencing what you call an infilling of the Holy Spirit or what you call mystical prayer that these experiences be what you call ecstatic. They may be, but they may not, and if not this does not in any way negate the genuineness of the experience. This is where Pentecostals went astray. The genuineness is not provable by intellect, but it is recognizable in one’s innermost being. Maybe a bit more difficult for northern European stock, especially of the middle class, today’s predominate demographic.

    Both of these experiences, I would say practices, in my experience with myself and others, most often do not involve ecstatic emotions, and I think it is important for those standing outside to understand this. Much of this probably involves individual personality and background and culture, and is neither here nor there. God meets you where you are, and it is best to take it like it comes. Ecstatic emotion might be regarded as gravy but it is not the goal, unity with God is, and is available to all, even the neo-Reformed.

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  24. Just noticed eyeores quote above……funny: shared brain, hopefully we don’t have the alien earwigs……

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  25. 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,….

    Yes….and neither are their manners: they tend to not play nice with their own (Christian) family members. I could name names and ministries , but I’ve still got a smudge of ashes north of my eyeballs reminding me that I’ve got some work to do myself. Thanks Mr. Spencer….and of course Chap Mike.

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  26. And I remember when Michael was leaving Calvinism, how viciously he was treated by the Neo-Cals and their fan-boys, in particular James White. Calling Michael mentally unstable and unfit to be a minister of the gospel. The flame wars from the J-Mac fanboys towards the Boars Head Tavern group. It was a disgusting display of uncharitableness from supposed “mature” Christians, who were just standing for TRVTH, dontchaknow. It made me realize that when you are arguing your position with somebody, they are not so much evaluating your argument as deciding whether they want to be a person like you.

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  27. Exhibit B here. Not ever, and actually somewhat antagonistic, to Reformed. When reading Wesley’s 52 Standard Sermons in 1982 every evening in bed, went through what is called an infilling of the Holy Spirit. Like being a bird let out of a cage. It’s been called ecstatic. My boss came up to me at work and said, “what happened to you”.
    Long story short, a second ecstatic experience, that rivaled that one years ago, was finding mystical prayer. No need to speak. Actually that would be contrary to the non-dual prayer. Non dual was borrowed from the East, but is thoroughly Christian from the beginning. All five of Michael Spencer’s assumptions may apply. But the testimony here is that mystical prayer is a way to sustain and deepen relationally.

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  28. 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.

    Exhibit A here. My transition out of the fanatically Reformed wing of evangelicalism was speeded by my recognition that all the theological knowledge I was accumulating was NOT making me a better person.

    Still pretty weak on disciplines, though, because I’m still pretty Calvinist in my attitude to prayer (God already knows what I need and what I’m going to say, so why bother Him?).

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