Volume 38 - Issue 2

Four Views on Christian Spirituality

by Bruce Demarest, ed

America’s religious landscape is changing. An increasing number of people, known as “the nones,” claim to have no religious affiliation. Despite this massive cultural shift Americans, and people worldwide, are increasingly identifying themselves as deeply spiritual. As Bruce Demarest notes, “A defining characteristic of our restless times, then, is that Spirituality is back with a vengeance, as fully two-thirds of America’s adults consider themselves as deeply spiritual” (p. 11). This data indicates that spirituality, specifically Christian spirituality, is a worthy topic of consideration.

In Four Views on Christian Spirituality, series editor Stanley Gundry and general editor Bruce Demarest have added another important work to the Counterpoints series. This book puts four important theologians from various Christian traditions into a conversation about the nature of Christian spirituality.

Bradley Nassif, professor of biblical and theological studies at North Park University, represents the Orthodox tradition. Scott Hahn, founder of the Saint Paul Center for Biblical Theology, discusses Christian spirituality from a Catholic perspective. Joseph Driskill, professor emeritus at Pacific School of Religion, enters the conversation as a mainline Protestant. The final contributor, representing evangelical spirituality, is Evan Howard, lecturer in philosophy and religion at Mesa State College and director of the Spiritual Shoppe in Grand Junction, Colorado.

The first perspective represented is Nassif’s description of Orthodox spirituality. Nassif summarizes his argument by claiming, “Orthodox spirituality is above all else a gospel spirituality that is centered on Jesus Christ in his Trinitarian relations.” He goes on to discuss the role that liturgy, sacraments, and Scripture play in a distinctly Orthodox spirituality. He claims that their function is to lead individuals in the community into a closer relationship with the triune God and with each other. Of course, for Nassif, this means that the destiny of the Christian is to be deified, the ultimate communion with God (p. 53). Evan Howard’s response to Nassif provides an appropriate criticism by commenting on his lack of definitions and inability to clearly distinguish Orthodox spirituality from other Christian spiritual traditions.

Second, Scott Hahn provides a robust version of Catholic spirituality. His tone and emphasis is strikingly similar to Nassif’s presentation of Orthodox spirituality. Hahn underscores the importance of sonship in Catholic thought. For Hahn, Christian spirituality begins and ends with relationship to the Godhead and can be summarized with the beckoning phrase, “Come to the Father.” Howard responds by noting the absence of what many would consider hallmarks of Catholic spirituality—adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, devotion to the saints, Masses on behalf of the dead, and other similar practices. This absence likely indicates Hahn’s desire to distance Catholic spirituality from medieval devotional practices. But as Howard demonstrates, Catholic spirituality still reflects much of its medieval development (p. 112).

Third, Joseph Driskill supplies a mainline Protestant perspective on Christian spirituality. He emphasizes three marks of mainline spirituality—ecumenical cooperation, scholarly inquiry of the Bible, and a real sense of relationship with God. For Driskill the goal of spirituality is the love of God and neighbor, which for him are best demonstrated in ministries of social justice and compassion. While no one can disagree with his emphasis on the love of God and neighbor (cf. Mark 12:30–31), Driskill’s contribution is the most precarious for several reasons. First, as Hahn notes, the spirituality described by Driskill is nothing other than American civil religion (p. 149). There is very little that is distinctly Christian about his presentation. Certainly his presentation uses Christian language, yet from a metaphysical perspective there is little that is distinctly Christian. This is evidenced in his suggestion that the faith of progressive spirituality does not rest first and foremost in the historicity of the resurrection but in its symbolic power. At many points, second, it seems that his presentation of mainline spirituality is taking its cues from cultural forces rather than time-tested truths. There is little interaction with how the Bible presents spirituality or how the church has historically understood spiritual practices.

Fourth, Evan Howard presents his understanding of evangelical spirituality. Following David Bebbington, Howard lists Scripture, the cross, conversion, and active ministry as the core distinctives of evangelicalism. He further comments that the main practices of evangelical spirituality are reading, studying, and meditating on Scripture; hearing it preached corporately; and family worship, song, and intercessory prayer. Howard places evangelicalism well within the broader Protestant forms of spirituality by interacting with the Nicene Creed, Luther, Calvin, and Wesley. He demonstrates how evangelicals have benefited in the past from other Christian traditions, while at the same time making a strong case for evangelical spirituality.

This book’s greatest strength is its unique conversation partners. I was struck by the collegiality that existed between the contributors as they often sought to find common ground with one another. Hopefully, this is an indication of how future conversations between these important traditions will proceed. At the same time, none of the contributors withheld their differences. At several points there is sharp, yet charitable critique. It would have been very easy for any of the contributors to lock horns regarding doctrinal differences. While dogma has significant influence on the practice of spirituality, the authors were able to maintain their focus on the goal of the book—a conversation of Christian spirituality. In light of the emerging spiritual generations this conversation, and this book in particular, is a constructive contribution.

J. T. English

J. T. English
The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary
Louisville, Kentucky, USA

Other Articles in this Issue

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Will everyone one day be saved? Is hell only temporary, if it exists at all? If the answer is yes to either of these questions, the historic Christian commitment to the conversion of the world to Christ would appear to be somewhat silly...

People rightly note the way Christians in English-speaking Western culture have moved in a generation from being ‘moral majority’ to ‘immoral minority’...

In recent years a number of stances have arisen that have set themselves over against traditional evangelicalism and traditional Reformed thought, not a few of them arguing, in part, on the basis of a particular understanding of the kingdom...

One of the deepest impacts of the Reformation on Western Culture arose from the robust rearticulation of the biblical doctrines of creation and vocation...