Thursday, January 22, 2015

Review of "A Fundamental Truth"

I have selected a sermon by Terri L. Hansen, titled “A Fundamental Truth: I Have Been Raised by Christ (Colossians 3:1-4)”[1]

As part of a young couple’s class, Ms. Hansen’s group chose to read and discuss Richard Foster’s highly influential text, Celebration of Disciplines, which provides practical helps to illustrate how God’s grace can be revealed in “transformative ways through the [intentional] practice of spiritual disciplines.”  Given Celebration’s inclusion of various “Catholic” spiritual practices, such as “contemplative prayer, solitude,” and confession, while also including the traditional Protestant emphasis on devotional Bible study, prayer, worship, service, and study, Hansen describes the book as an eye opener among those in “Baptistic, evangelical homes and churches.”[2] Celebration of Disciplines set Ms. Hansen on a “spiritual journey,” through which she also discovered the works of John Ortberg, James Bryan Smith, and Dallas Willard.  Along with Foster, the cited authors are (or were) part of the Renovare Institute: School of Christian Spiritual Formation  The overarching vision of the Institute is that of stimulating a pietistic sensibility across denominations and branches within contemporary Christian practice. 

Ms. Hansen draws on Colossians 3:1-4 to structure the theme of her sermon, placing the emphasis on the first verse, “You have been raised by Christ, set your hearts on things above where Christ is seated at the right hand of God” (v. 1) and the correlate, “for you died and your life is now hidden with Christ in God” (v. 3, NIV).  In amplifying her theme, and echoing Foster, she states that “we should put the formation of our souls into Christlikeness [in this life] as our number one priority.”[3]
I find the Ms. Hansen’s sermon helpful because it illuminates the strengths and as well as a few weaknesses of the Renovare Movement.  A major benefit is the opening up to the reader of the spiritual richness of the collective works of the contributing authors, who veer toward what I will call the Wesleyan pole of the Protestant theological and spiritual continuum.  Hansen references a critical insight about the Renovare theology and psychology of spirituality; namely, that while “we can’t directly impact the condition of our souls,…we can direct our heart and mind on things above.  That is, “through the practice of spiritual disciplines and activities, we indirectly [my emphasis] improve the conditions of our souls.”  This is accomplished through the spiritual disciplines like meditation, prayer, study and solitude (Foster), which results in “creat[ing] a condition in ourselves” that leads us to existentially desire “to becoming like Jesus.”[4]  

This emphasis on the power of indirection, through the grace of God, to progressively shape our character formation into the image of Christ is especially pronounced in Willard.  As he states it, “as our spiritual dimension has been formed” by the cumulative impact of everything that has influenced us, “so it also can be transformed.[5]   To elaborate, for Willard, Christian character formation emerges through intentional spiritual practices that gradually transform a diligent practitioner’s “ideas, beliefs, feelings, and habits of choice, as well as their bodily tendencies and social relations.”[6] It is through such a process that we become intentionally able, through the grace of God, to progressively put on the mind of Christ, and live in the spirit of God more and more.
As one who has read a good deal of this literature with small groups, with my wife, and on my own, I have been much edified in my Christian walk.  The works referenced by Hansen and other texts by these authors has stimulated much food for thought in helping me to connect my faith journey with some of the finest reflections and tried and true practices within the cumulative history of the Christian spiritual tradition.  Hansen provides the reader a most useful service in opening these authors to readers in her highly engaging and accessible sermon which draw the reader in.  I will continue to engage these authors—especially Willard—for some time to come in providing essential spiritual guidance and inspirational energy to my own faltering efforts.

Willard and the other Renovare writers are careful to link the practice of the spiritual disciplines to the grace of God and also to the ongoing process of sanctification while acknowledging the enduring reality of the persistence of individual and collective sin. Nonetheless, there is a tendency in this literature to downplay what I will call the Calvinist pole of the Protestant continuum, particularly on the sovereignty of God, the Lutheran emphasis on the justified sinner, the persistence of radical evil, and the tension between “the already” of Christ’s first coming and the “not yet” on his second coming” when God will be all in all (1 Cor 15:28). 

In setting our hearts on things above (Col 3:1), we are still in his world, and—I maintain—only partially not of it (John 17:14); for we live in the reality of both Romans 7 and 8 and not of 8 only.  We have died in Christ and our life is hidden in him, but this is only a first eschaton reality in which we are given the deposit of the Holy Spirit, while we wait in faith for our full identification with Christ in the final eschaton.  While “my destiny is secure” regardless of “what happens in this life,”[7] I am still affected by what happens and I still “groan” to put on the full adoption that is promised to me, but which has not become a complete reality (Romans 8:18-27).  Thus, I am concerned when Ms. Hansen says that because “we live in the Kingdom—in the very presence of Christ already[,] fear of death and dying should never enter the mind of the Christian.”[8]  Whether the problem lies more in Ms. Hansen’s interpretation of the literature or in the works themselves, I remain concerned about a tendency toward a unidirectional progressive sanctification in this life and a corresponding tendency toward a sense of security beyond the weals and woes of this life in the exuberant belief that we can radically change our identity in a manner that comes close to the full embodiment of the Spirit and mind of Christ in this life.  These concerns, notwithstanding, I have been most edified by this literature.  I encourage that it be read with a strong dose of Puritan realism.

[1] Terri L. Hansen, “A Fundamental Truth: I have Been Raised by Christ (Colossians 3:1-4).” The Baptist Pietist Clarion (March 2014, Vol. XII, No. 2, 5-7).
[2] Ibid., 5.
[3] Ibid., 6
[4] Ibid.
[5] Dallas Willard, Renovation of the Heart. (NavPress, 2002, 14),
[6] Ibid., 15.
[7] A Fundamental Truth,” 7.
[8] Ibid., 6

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