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Friday, March 23, 2012

"Four Views on Christian Spirituality"

TITLE: Four Views on Christian Spirituality (Counterpoints: Bible and Theology)
AUTHOR: Bruce Demarest (editor), Joe Driskill, Scott Hahn, Evan Howard, Bradley Nassif
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012, (240 pages).

Few books are able to capture so much with a small footprint. In a wonderful compilation of experts in the field of Christian Spirituality, readers are in for a spiritual feast that comprises scholarship, Church traditions, spiritual practices, and much more. In the foreword, Simon Chan summarizes the whole exercise as a way to instil evangelical fervour among Catholics and Orthodox believers, for evangelicals to come away with Catholic comprehensiveness, and for Progressive Protestants to learn from both. In the Introduction, Bruce Demarest describes the current culture of 'Walmart' kind of spiritual options, and argues that there is widespread spiritual hunger both inside and outside of the Church. He then points out 5 distinctive definitions of Christian Spirituality that form the purpose of the book.

  1. Spirituality as relationship inspired by the Spirit of God - as per Philip Sheldrake's definition
  2. Spirituality as lived experienced (as per Barry Callen's definition)
  3. Spirituality as conforming to Christ and communing with God and people (Michael Downey's definition)
  4. Spirituality as 'art of living' (as per Richard Foster's)
  5. Spirituality as a response to God's grace (as per Jeffrey Greenman)
Demarest does such an excellent job in summarizing the respective positions, that a few of the contributors have used them as starting positions in understanding the other traditions. Most of the contributions tend to be cordial and understanding. Negative responses are measured. In my brief review below, I have chosen to highlight some criticisms raised, not to pit them against one another, but more to magnify the points of differences for the purpose of understanding the nuances of each position.

(A) Orthodox Spirituality
Bradley Nassif describes his position as "A Quest for Transfigured Humanity." He defines spirituality as located at the center of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Radical discipleship needs to occur within the liturgical life of the church. Spirituality is lived in prayer. It is more caught than taught. It is holiness through obedience to Scriptures. He makes a case for the Church not sanctifying forms or methods of devotions but the 'holiness' of people who have lived out the reality of the Kingdom of God in their lives. He goes on to describe Hesychasm, of union with God, of Jesus prayer, and the unique missionary aspect of Orthodoxy. Finally, he explains that the crux of Orthodox Spirituality is in essence an obedience to loving God and loving neighbour. Any 'glorified humanity' can only come about with transfiguration in Christ.

Responding, Scott Hahn points out the weakness and inability of the Orthodox Church to maintain the unity it has sought. Joe Driskill is critical of the Orthodox Church's relative lack of social engagement, while  Evan Howard sees it as a different manner of emphases.

(B) Roman Catholic Spirituality
Scott Hahn begins by focusing on the 'universal' nature of Catholicity, that Catholic Spirituality is an all-encompassing movement throughout the ages. He points out two main approaches to spirituality, namely, external spiritual acts like prayer forms and devotion methods; and internal phenomena like mysticism, emotions, and spiritual consciousness. He points out several distinctiveness of Catholic Spirituality. Firstly, it is centered in the grace of Jesus Christ called the 'life of grace' that we are saved 'for' a purpose. Secondly, we are saved to share God's love and life.   Thirdly, we exhibit life in the Trinitarian relationship. Fourth, the Church is a family of both hierarchy and home. Fifthly, the communion of saints and the family relationships set the tone for the use of 'Mother Mary,' 'father,' 'sister,' within the Church.

Responding, Nassif takes issue with the Vatican's continued insistence on papal infallibility, universal jurisdiction and the age-old filioque controversy. Driskill argues for a more moderate emphasis on any ecclesiastical office while Howard celebrates the common primary points of agreement on the one hand, but criticizes the institutions and means in which the Catholic Church continues to espouse.

(C) Progressive Protestant Spirituality
Joseph Driskill gives an informative and somewhat provocative description of how the Protestant movement has tried to relate with the world. He points out that mainline Protestant spirituality tends to be 'more vulnerable' because of its 'enmeshment with modern worldview.' He gives a wide history of the movement, and also looks back at the Protestant roots of famous institutions like Harvard, Yale, Princeton, University of Chicago, California, and several others. In some ways, the essay looks like a lament for the good old days, and concerns for the future. He defines Protestant spirituality as:

"... the lived experience of faith, the communities that shape the experience, the practices that sustain it, and the moral life that embodies it." (115)

He is careful to distinguish mainline Protestants from others who come from the Protestant lineage. He points out certain characteristics of Protestant spirituality. Firstly, it is shared mission and witness through ecumenical activities. Secondly, it is biblical enquiry through scholarship and interpretation. Thirdly, it is about relationship in God, instead of a distant God somewhere out there. Fourthly, it is about Jesus. Fifthly, it is about social justice, mercy, and grace. Six, it is about the Church via the priesthood of all believers, and not any central authority or institution. Finally, he deals with the Holy Spirit and how spiritual practices come into play.

Responding, Nassif nails it when he critiques the Progressive Protestant secularizing stance, for yielding more to the world, and especially so when the Protestants themselves deny key tenets of the Christian faith through critical hermeneutics and scholarship. Hahn begins with his commonness with his Presbyterian friends, and also critiques Driskill's position for bowing down to Western culture. Howard identifies the key weakness of the liberal Protestant as the lack of experiential faith.

(D) Evangelical Spirituality
Evan Howard provides the face of evangelical spirituality by augmenting Bebbington's classic four-fold distinctiveness of evangelicalism (biblicism, crucicentricism, conversionism, and activism) with Timothy Larsen's 'orthodox Protestantism, revivalism, and the work of the Holy Spirit. For Howard, the marks are evangelical spirituality begins with the history of the Reformation movement via Protestantism. Secondly, it is Orthodox in the sense of creedal identity, via Nicene creed etc. Thirdly, it is 'lived conversion' in which the believer is transformed in Christ and empowered by the Spirit. Fourth, it is active working out of good works. Fifth, it is lay oriented. Sixth, it is ecumenism carefully bounded within certain conservative framework, through 'kindred spirits' more than 'formal associations.' Again, the mark of evangelical spirituality lies in spiritual formation unto holiness.

Responding, Nassif finds it incredulous that Howard uses the word 'orthodoxy' and that Howard has not really used the essence of what orthodoxy means. In fact, Nassif finds that the evangelical spirituality is rather late in terms of their discovery of spirituality. Before Wesley's conversion experience, the Orthodox Church already has many such experiences. Hahn affirms the evangelical stand against secularism, materialism, and the ills of the age, and argues that such good works cannot be sustained without the Church. Driskill closes up the discussion by aiming at the difference in terms of what 'true faith' means. Evangelicals tend to look for 'real Christians' within their faith communities, while Progressives tend to be more interested in the real communities they live in.

My Thoughts
At first look, there seem to be more similarities than differences among the four groups of spiritual perspectives. It takes a careful eye to see the nuances behind each of them. Thanks to Simon Chan and Bruce Demarest, this tough work has been set forth as a guide. Another way to see the differences is through the individual responses of the various theologians to one another's essays.

There is so much to learn from this book. In one volume, not only do I get to enjoy the broad description of evangelical spirituality, I grow in appreciation of the richness and the tightly knitted ecclesiology of Orthodox Spirituality, the well-described family and ecclesiastical tradition of Roman Catholicism spirituality, and a better understanding of Progressive Protestantism. What I especially enjoy is the engaging manner of the four respondents to one another's essays. Kudos to all the contributors who have been gracious to one another, polite but not compromising on their own positions, and above all, extremely engaging in their interactions.

This is probably one of the best books in the counterpoint series so far. It highlights the nuances of Christian spirituality, ecumenical, and provides a healthy platform for people to learn, to understand, and to disagree without fear and to agree in love.

Rating: 5 stars of 5.


This book is supplied to me free by Zondervan Publishers and NetGalley without any obligation for a positive review. All opinions furnished above are mine unless otherwise stated.


  1. Thank you for the summary and review. As you have surmised, there are various nuanced differences with a core of similarities in the spirituality of the different traditions. I suspect that instead of considering Christian Spirituality, we will be better off considering Christian Spiritualities.

  2. Hi Alex,
    Thanks for your comment. I suppose whether we want to see "spirituality" as a singular or plural depends on where we come from. Those who are convicted, like the four contributors will more likely see their view as "the" way rather than "a" way. On the other hand, readers in general will prefer to be served a buffet of choices. From the editor's standpoint, I think the "singular" will be preferred as it gives a chance for the contributors to make a stronger case for their view. Unlike an encyclopedia, this book activity describes as well as engages all the views.

    Thanks again for commenting.