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The following text was delivered to a gathering at the Mennonite Church USA Convention in Orlando on July 5, 2017. A hard copy of this text may be downloaded at this link.

 

The goal of this presentation is to provide a description and definition of Christian formation that reflects an Anabaptist perspective. Corresponding to common usage, the term “spiritual formation” is used here synonymously with “Christian formation.” In addition, and in accord with common usage, “spiritual formation” is the primary term used, until conclusions are drawn at the end of the presentation.

There is a compelling need for the treatment of this topic. Models deriving from two streams dominate literature on spiritual formation emanating from authors identifying with the Western Church. One stream is medieval pietism, which focuses on the believer’s relationship with God. Examples found in this stream include the works of Roman Catholic moral theologians as well as the writings of Richard Foster, Dallas Willard, and A.W. Tozer. The other stream is Reformed theology, which focuses on one’s behavior toward God. Flowing within this stream are writings from Calvinist authors like J. I. Packer and John Piper. However, this stream also includes works by authors who retain the “two-step” paradigm introduced by John Wesley. This approach to spiritual formation stems from the teaching of Lewis Sperry Chafer, founder of Dallas Theological Seminary, and has been propagated by his students with dogged effort. This presentation proposes that spiritual formation from an Anabaptist perspective is not so much a third stream, but a coherent theological and historical bridge between the two prevalent streams of thought. In other words, it provides a more than satisfactory option for one to consider.

The presentation proceeds along the following path: First, following a brief recitation of Anabaptism’s origin and significance, the author explains what he means by an Anabaptist Perspective. Second, from a position within that perspective, the author gives the features of an Anabaptist model of spiritual formation. In so doing, it will be necessary to consider the topic of discipleship, and the place of disciplines in this scheme. Finally, the author will propose a definition of spiritual formation based on the contributions coming from an Anabaptist model of spiritual formation.

A BRIEF HISTORY OF ANABAPTISM’S ORIGIN AND ITS SIGNIFICANCE

Contemporary Anabaptists trace their origin to the 16th century Reformation movement distinguished by its insistence on believer’s baptism, hence the moniker Anabaptists or re-baptizers. In addition, these reformers advocated a radical imitation of the life and teaching of Jesus as recorded in the Gospels, with special attention given to the Sermon on the Mount. They based this conclusion on the conviction that Jesus had inaugurated the promised messianic kingdom during his earthly ministry, crucifixion, resurrection, and session.

The Anabaptist insistence on a “believer’s church,” though, put its adherents in direct conflict, not only with Roman Catholics, but also with Protestants, both Lutheran and Reformed. This conflict, in turn, boiled over into opposition from these three groups’ governmental protectors, with whom, in practice, they were effectively merged.[1] When this opposition came to a head in the form of persecution, Anabaptists’ radical adherence to the teaching and example of Jesus prohibited them from active resistance, resulting in widespread deaths.[2]

This brief account of the origin of the Anabaptist movement reveals in seed-form the two most apparent ways in which the practices of its members differ from that of members of contemporary Protestant faith traditions: Anabaptists maintain that the New Testament requires of disciples a level of commitment to Christ’s Kingdom mandating (1) strict separation of church and state and (2) non-resistance or pacifism.

Contemporary Anabaptists are represented primarily by Mennonites and by most groups with the word Brethren in their name.[3] However, their influence can be seen among Baptists and most free-church groups.[4] Evidence for this influence exists not only in the widespread practice of believer’s baptism and in various expressions of the separation of church and state, but also in the adherence to Anabaptism’s teaching on the symbolic nature of the ordinances and the visible nature and autonomy of the local church.

AN ANABAPTIST PERSPECTIVE

The preceding account identified two Anabaptist distinctives: separation of church and state, and pacifism. These, and other, distinctives arise from a particular theological perspective.

The perspective, or story, an interpreter inhabits and, therefore, from which the interpreter reads a text profoundly influences one’s interpretation.[5] Put another way, (more…)

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Our perception of reality is influenced by and cannot occur apart from (1) the effect of all our experiences (preunderstandings) and our (2) decisions, both conscious and unconscious, about reality (presuppositions).

In a similar way, understanding a text is controlled by the text’s genre and context. We all use different rules to interpret different genres, whether personal letters, poetry, or newspaper articles. In addition, one cannot adequately understand a text without knowing its context, both the specific purpose for which an author created the text (historical context) and the text’s place within a larger literary unit (literary context).

This comparison between reality and texts suggests that we may view reality as a kind of text. Texts have objective meaning that exists apart from our exact knowledge of it. Likewise, reality has objective meaning that exists apart from our exact knowledge of it. The knowledge we do have of reality is controlled by our interpretation or perception of it. And this perception is a product of our preunderstandings and presuppositions.

Furthermore, it is helpful to think of our perception of reality itself as a text, a story. This story is the reality in which one lives and by which one interprets reality. Though this reality, this story, is analogous to objective reality, it is not the same as objective reality—it is one’s perception of reality, your story.

To illustrate: Why do different people (e.g., a husband and wife!) and different people-groups interpret the same facts differently? Ignorance? Sin? Different stories?

Our stories do not function in isolation, but (more…)

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What label should one use for the post-conversion life of a Christian believer? The institution at which I teach uses the term “spiritual formation.” In this academic context, “spiritual formation” is synonymous with “practical sanctification” (as opposed to what theologians call “positional” or “definitive sanctification”).

A study of “spiritual formation,” as described above, must address many questions. A few of those questions include the following ones: What is the goal of spiritual formation? What does the spiritual formation “path” look like? What is the believer’s responsibility in his or her own in spiritual formation? What is the church’s role? What is the place of the so-called disciplines in spiritual formation?

The following chart addresses these questions in summary form. Admittedly, such two-dimensional representations of abstract thought have inherent limitations. However, they also can provide one with a tentative map that may help direct one’s exploration of a subject. With that goal in mind, I have presented this chart to my students and now share it with you.

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Disciplines in Spiritual Formation by Robert Milliman is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License

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