Life in the Spirit: Spiritual Formation in Theological Perspective (Book Review)

Greenman, Jeffery P. and Kalantzis, George, ed. Life in the Spirit: Spiritual Formation in Theological Perspective. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2010.

The spiritual formation of Christians is a biblical concept. Unfortunately, there is much confusion about the purpose and practice of spiritual formation within the church. In their book, Life in the Spirit, Spiritual Formation in Theological Perspectives, Jeffrey Greenman and George Kalantzis compile and edit numerous works written by excellent scholars regarding the subject of spiritual formation. The reader is provided a biblically, historically, and practical understanding of Christian growth. With each chapter building on the next, the authors lead the reader to examine and practice the importance of spiritual formation.

In chapter one, Jeffrey Greenman offers an overview of the current discussion concerning the subject of spiritual formation (23).  He also provides his own definition for spiritual formation and discusses the strengths and weaknesses found in modern day evangelicalism concerning the theological topic. Greenman’s definition of spiritual formation is: “Spiritual formation is our continuing response to the reality of God’s grace shaping us into the likeness of Jesus Christ, through the work of the Holy Spirit, in the community of faith, for the sake of the world” (24). At the heart of Greenman’s definition is the thought that true Christian growth is not about human techniques or personal willpower, but about God’s own initiative in a believer’s heart (24). In other words, the primary means by which a believer grows in Christlikeness is not through external factors, but by the Holy Spirit.

Greenman concludes the chapter with a discussion on several challenges facing evangelism today concerning the subject of spiritual formation. These challenges include a disregard for historical Christian writings on the subject of spiritual formation, a lack of emphasis on the Holy Spirit’s work in Christian growth, and minimal attention on the doctrine of sanctification within the total doctrine of salvation.     

Gordon D. Fee addresses the role of the Holy Spirit in spiritual formation in the second chapter. He asserts that much of the church practically excludes the role of the Holy Spirit in the sanctification process (37). Numerous reasons could be offered for the absence of Holy Spirit talk within the church today. Fee, however, believes the primary reason for the absence is because of a misunderstanding of Scripture. He cites several biblical passages demonstrating the importance of the Holy Spirit within the triune Godhead and exhorts the reader to make the Holy Spirit a major focus in the reader’s thinking about biblical spirituality (44).

In chapter three, Dallas Willlard argues that today’s current emphasis on salvation within the church predominantly focuses on conversion making it extremely difficult for believers to understand that being saved includes spiritual transformation in the life of a believer (47). Willard supports his argument with numerous scriptural passages about the importance of discipleship and life transformation that is expected from a follower of Christ. He concludes his chapter with two exhortations for church leaders to teach more comprehensively about salvation emphasizing the importance of sanctification and to help new converts and church members learn that salvation involves Christian growth (60).    

The second part of the book, which includes chapters four through seven, builds upon the theological arguments given in the first three chapters and helps the reader understand the contemporary issues regarding the subject of “Spiritual Formation” within a historical context (13). George Kalantzis, in the fourth chapter, focuses on the ascetical life and praxis of the early Christians. In the fifth chapter Lawrence Cunningham provides some reflections on Catholic spirituality. Kelly Kapic writes about John’s Owen’s theology of Christian spirituality in chapter six. In the seventh chapter, D. Bruce Hindmarsh addresses the development of early evangelical devotion and catholic spirituality.

Kalantzis explains that spiritually did not originate with the early church. Indeed, the idea of “life of the spirit” unencumbered by physical attachments was a part of the Greco-Roman world long before the birth of Christ (67). However, it is only by the self-revelation of God through Christ can a person understand true spirituality. As the early church grew in its understanding of Christian spirituality it took on the form of a monastic life, oftentimes seeking isolation from the world. Even today, the church still embraces much of the thoughts and practices of those early Christians. Kalantzis warns that as helpful as some of those practices were the church today should be careful not to minimize the role of the body of Christ in the spiritual formation process (81).

Cunningham argues that authentic Catholic spirituality begins by following Christ, which, in early church, was identified as following the Way. Following the Way, was expressed in a variety of forms, such as an emphasis on certain biblical passages, church tradition, and asceticism. Cunningham discussed many of the forms in the chapter and concluded that they were worth giving attention within the Christian tradition (96).

Kapic focuses on John Owen’s theology of holiness as an expression of spirituality for many evangelicals. Owen’s concept of holiness as it relates to spiritual formation is centered on the person and work of Jesus Christ. Through Christ and the power of the gospel believers are Holy Spirit empowered to be transformed into the Christ’s image and enjoy the full benefit of gospel.

Finally, Hindmarsh explains the rise of evangelical devotion and its implication for modern day practices within spiritual formation framework. He cites two men, Henry Scougal and Thomas A Kempis as being instrumental in the development of spiritual formation within early evangelicalism. The influence of their writings can be seen in many of the early evangelical leaders and are still impacting Christians today.

In the final section of the book, several spiritual practices that foster true spiritual growth are addressed. In the eighth chapter, Christopher Hall shares how his listening to Scripture, specifically, the Sermon on the Mount on his iPod. As he listens, Hall seeks to incorporate the spiritual discipline of reading Christ into his heart. In essence, Hall mediates on the Word of God not just for knowledge, but for true transformation of his soul, allowing the revelation of Christ to change him.

Susan Phillips encourages the reader to consider the need to for spiritual direction as a navigational aid in sanctification. The navigational aid of listening and walking according to the Spirit has been a practice for Christians since the early church. Renewing the mind through the power of the Holy Spirit and through the aid of a trained director can help the Christian move forward in the spiritual formation process.  

James C. Wilhoit writes about the practice of centering prayer in the tenth chapter. Centering prayer, as expressed by Thomas Keating is when a believer consents to God presences and actions whereby there is concentrated focus on the indwelling Christ and His guidance for one’s life. Although there are weaknesses in Keating’s approach, Wilhoit believes there is merit in Keating’s approach to prayer when appropriated correctly from a biblical perspective.

Cherith Fee exhorts the reader to consider the importance of songs and hymns in corporate worship as a means to spiritual growth in the eleventh chapter. God is the main subject of a believer’s worship and when songs lack biblical truth the growth of the church is stunted.

In the final chapter, David Gushee challenges the reader to acts of service as a means of Christian growth. He argues that the root of Christian service can be found in the incarnate Christ. Moreover, to ignore the serving of others is in direction opposition to the Scripture. If a Christian is to be transformed, it will involve service to others.          

Overall, the book was extremely insightful. Beginning with a helpful definition of spiritual formation and providing Scripture as its foundation. The authors take the reader through a historical treatment of the subject and end with a variety of practical steps to help the reader grow spiritually. 

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