Perhaps you’ve never heard of the term “spiritual formation,” let alone Richard Foster or his foundational work, Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth. The writings of two authors, Richard Foster and Dallas Willard, are the primary drivers of the movement. Searching the Internet for “spiritual formation” is prone to cause more confusion than understanding. Many resources are rather vague and surface-level about what exactly the concept is. Others are profoundly negative and read like an endless exercise in name dropping and Six Degrees of Turkey Bacon. Piled upon this is that a great number of conservative seminaries are having their students undergo a mandatory spiritual formation program in order to graduate. My Th.M. alma mater is no exception. The idea is that graduating seminary students should also go through a program of sanctification rather than only being well-trained in theology, original languages, and overall “book smarts.”
Put most simply, spiritual formation is intended to be a method of sanctification in which certain spiritual disciplines are a means by which God brings about positive change in a person’s inner character. That sounds innocent enough, but understanding this requires a much deeper look. I won’t evaluate everything in this blog post, but we can start by taking a fresh, firsthand look at Celebration of Discipline to examine the roots of the movement.
In the foreword to the “Special Anniversary Edition” released earlier this year, Foster includes this statement which serves as a helpful central thesis:
Throughout the ages, Christians of all races and ethnicities from all geographic locations and economic backgrounds have witnessed that the classical Disciplines of the spiritual life can produce deep within us exactly this kind of life. The Spiritual Disciplines are the means of God’s grace for bringing about genuine personality formation characterized through and through by love and joy and peace and patience and kindness and goodness and faithfulness and gentleness and self-control (Gal. 5:22–23). [emphasis original]
At its core, Celebration of Discipline is a book about spiritual disciplines. Aside from the introductory first chapter, each chapter is devoted to an individual discipline. These individual disciplines are divided among inward, outward, and corporate disciplines.
Part I: The Inward Disciplines
Part II: The Outward Disciplines
Part III: The Corporate Disciplines
Foster is careful to state that the disciplines are not a means of “earning” sanctification. They “possess no moral rectitude or righteousness in and of themselves. They are, most definitely, not ‘works righteousness’ as it is sometimes said. They place us—body, mind, and spirit—before God. That is all. The results of this process are all of God, all of grace.”
So far, we don’t seem to be dealing with any great amount of theological error. The distinction between meditation and prayer is somewhat curious. One might get suspicious at the mention of economic background in light of the current social justice argument, but this was first published in 1978. The spiritual discipline of solitude also might look suspicious, but we should dig in before judging that one.
But if Foster is trying to sneak aberrant teaching into the church in a covert manner, the sneak ends very shortly after the above thesis statement. We’re not even past the initial introduction to the 2018 edition when he writes that God’s giving humans the capacity to develop moral character is a “gamble.”
Now, we might want to sit for a moment with the thought that we have this unique capacity for moral development. I mean substantial character formation and transformation. Think of it. God could have created the human species into granite boulders or red radishes—merely minerals and vegetables. But instead God has given us the capacity for developing moral character, the ability to become glorious beings that can live in communion with the Triune Reality of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit for eternity.
This is a great risk on God’s part. The moral development of personality is possible only in a world of genuine freedom. And for us to have the freedom to grow in moral character also means we have the freedom to choose moral evil . . . at times horrendous moral evil. So, for us to develop and grow in moral character is God’s great project for human beings. This is the gamble God has made with the human enterprise. And what God gets out of this gamble is the kind of person we become.
Calling God’s redemptive plan a “gamble” denies a great amount of the New Testament’s teaching about God’s redemptive plan and aligns nicely with open theism.
In further introductory remarks, Foster goes on to advocate listening for the “Kol Yahweh, the voice of the Lord” by various suggested methods mainly involving turning off all electronic devices and citing selected scriptures. Later portions of the book make clear that Foster is not merely equivocating Kol Yahweh with the scripture being read out loud.
Reading farther into the introductory remarks, the reader discovers why some reviews of the work sound like Six Degrees of Turkey Bacon, namely that it drops a great number of names that compel the reader to consider the source, names such as Teresa of Ávila, Catherine de Hueck Doherty, and Brother Lawrence. This continues throughout the entire work.
In future parts, we’ll dig farther into Celebration of Discipline and consider what Foster teaches about each of these disciplines and examine them in the light of scripture.