Scripture and the Church

The Theological Error of Spiritual Formation

By Dr. Bob Payne
The "spiritual formation" movement has absolutely nothing to do with the Word of God. It has more in common with Roman Catholic mysticism and the New Age movement.

From the TeachingtheWord Bible Knowledgebase

Editor's Note: Today we present a warning to Christians to understand and avoid one of the most serious heresies of our time. The "spiritual formation" movement has absolutely nothing to do with the Word of God. It has more in common with Roman Catholic mysticism and the New Age movement. But it has gained a foothold, and worse, in even some of the most reputedly conservative churches, colleges, and seminaries.

This article originally appeared in the February 2019 issue of The Review, an official publication of the Independent Baptist Fellowship of North America. The author, Dr. Bob Payne, is pastor of the Baptist Church of Danbury, Connecticut and the current moderator of the IBFNA. We reproduce it here with his permission, and with special thanks to Dr. Kevin Hobi, pastor of New Boston (New Hampshire) Baptist Church, who is the editor of The Review. - Dr. Paul M. Elliott

Many years ago when my daughter was looking for a Christian college to attend, she, my wife, and I visited the campus of a well-known, now-defunct fundamental Christian college. In one of the buildings, I recall seeing a sign for one of the administrators that read something like, "The Director of Spiritual Formation." Although spiritual formation was a rather strange term that gave me pause, I could not just outright reject the term based upon my apprehension. As far as I knew, it was simply a new, trendy term for discipleship. I had a lot to learn!

The Background of Spiritual Formation

As time went on I learned that the term spiritual formation actually came from ancient paganism and Roman Catholic mysticism. One author describes the term as:

A movement that has provided a platform and a channel through which contemplative prayer is entering the church. Find spiritual formation being used, and in nearly every case, you will find contemplative spirituality and its 'pioneers' such as Richard Foster, Dallas Willard, and Henri Nouwen. Spiritual Formation is based on 'spiritual disciplines' that can be practiced by people of any faith to make them more 'Christ-like.' Rebirth through Jesus Christ and regeneration through the Holy Spirit are not essential. Rather it is a works-based 'theology' that has strong roots in Roman Catholicism and ancient paganism.[1]

The article just cited went on to describe the related term contemplative spirituality. The author describes it this way:

A belief system that uses ancient mystical practices to induce altered states of consciousness (the silence) and is rooted in mysticism and the occult but often wrapped in Christian terminology. The premise of contemplative spirituality is pantheistic (God is all) and panentheistic (God is in all). Common terms used for this movement are 'spiritual formation,' 'the silence,' 'the stillness,' 'ancient wisdom,' 'spiritual disciplines,' and many others.[2]

Gary Gilley also describes the roots of the spiritual formation movement:

Some trace the roots of the Spiritual Formation Movement to 1974 when Father William Menninger, a Trappist monk, found an ancient book entitled The Cloud of Unknowing in the library at St. Joseph's Abbey in Spencer, Massachusetts. This 14th century book offered a means by which contemplative practices, long used by Catholic monks, could be taught to lay people. As Menninger began teaching these contemplative practices, his abbot, Thomas Keating, along with Basil Pennington, another Trappist monk, began to spread the concepts Menninger was teaching. But it was Richard Foster's 1978 book, The Celebration of Discipline, that launched the popularity and present interest in spiritual formation. It was by this landmark book, described by Christianity Today as one of the ten best books of the 20th century, that Catholic and Eastern Orthodox disciplines, practiced by the Desert Fathers and Mothers as well as monks and hermits, were introduced to evangelicalism. These disciplines were not completely unknown to evangelicals who were familiar with church history, but they were now being repackaged and offered as a means of spiritual growth and maturity. In fact, the implication was that without the use of these ancient contemplative methods true 'spiritual formation' was not possible.[3]

To those holding to this false doctrine of spiritual formation, prayer, Bible study, walking with Christ, and becoming active in the local church are not enough. We need to return to the ancient spiritual disciplines that are able to keep our flesh in check. As these false teachers expound their twisted doctrine, it is common for them to use just enough biblical terminology to lure unsuspecting and uninformed believers over to their side, even though what they are teaching is incredibly divergent from sound doctrine.

According to those who adhere to the spiritual formation movement, our prayer life is not good enough unless we practice "contemplative (centering) prayer." This practice has roots in the occult. Matt Slick rightly connects these "spiritual disciplines" with the emerging church movement, and says that contemplative prayer, "is the practice of relaxing, emptying the mind, and letting one's self find the presence of God within. It involves silence, stillness, patience, sometimes repeating something, and the practice of 'not knowing' as the person seeks God's presence."[4] This definitely does not fit the description of prayer that we find in the Word of God!

We find that in the spiritual formation movement Bible study is not enough either. Another "spiritual discipline" needs to be practiced, known as "sacred reading" (lectio divina). This is more than just reading the Bible, or the type of meditation of which David speaks in Ps. 119:148: "that I might meditate in Thy Word." A downloadable brochure from contemplativeoutreach.org gives some details about this strange practice:

Lectio Divina is one of the great treasures of the Christian tradition of prayer. It means Divine Reading, which is reading the book we believe to be divinely inspired. This tradition of prayer flows out of a Hebrew method of studying the Scriptures which was an interactive interpretation of the Scriptures by means of the free use of the text [allegorical hermeneutics] to explore its inner meaning. It was part of the devotional practice of the Jews in the days of Jesus.[5]

On the back page of the brochure it says in very new-age fashion:

Being transformed into the Word of God is a process that happens as we faithfully read, reflect, respond and rest in God's Word.

An attitude of resting in God's presence becomes a part of our daily lives. We become a channel of God's presence to others.

Living in union with God, we are able to transcend ourselves as the 'center' and experience all in God and God in all.

Our energy becomes one with the Divine Energy. We become merciful, compassionate and loving as God is merciful, compassionate and loving.[6]

This is manmade theology that has absolutely nothing to do with the Word of God. It has more in common with Roman Catholic mysticism and the New Age movement.

There are other unbiblical and/or occultic practices in the spiritual formation movement that we don't have time or space to cover, such as fasting, journaling, silence, observing the liturgical calendar, Christian yoga, prayer labyrinths, etc. I will leave those to your own investigation and study.

Fundamental Colleges and Spiritual Formation

Just the other day I was doing a web search for schools that have courses in "Spiritual Formation." I was surprised to come upon one course in a school that claims to be a fundamental Baptist college. The title of the course was "Spiritual Formation and Discipleship." Now, I cannot say that schools that have courses like this are necessarily teaching mystic and occultic practices. What I can say is that they are definitely using mystic and occultic terminology.

The obvious question is "Why would an institution that professes to hold to sound doctrine use this type of jargon?" Some may do it because it is required by their accrediting agency (a topic for another article). Others may do it because it is the latest evangelical buzz word. Whatever the reason, even though the classes may be biblical (and I do not know that they are), these terms must be avoided.

Some may object and ask, "What difference does the label make as long as they are teaching the truth?" The church that I pastor, the Baptist Church of Danbury, Connecticut, seeks to consistently interpret the Word of God with a normal hermeneutic. Let's say that I continued to be faithful to the Word of God, but changed the church name to Danbury Church of Latter Day Saints. As a Bible believer, would you have a problem joining my church? I think you would! Why? The answer is simple: words mean things, and labels do matter.

Beth Moore and Spiritual Formation

Surprisingly, the message of Beth Moore has become quite captivating to some ladies in our fundamental Baptist circles. Although there are a multitude of theological reasons why you should steer clear of her (such as the obvious violation of 1 Tim. 2:12), spiritual formation is definitely one of those reasons. I will provide a couple of examples of Mrs. Moore's heretical teaching concerning spiritual formation.

Matt Slick, in his internet article on Beth Moore, provides one example of her mystic practice of contemplative prayer. His article points to a YouTube video of Mrs. Moore's preaching that was taken down [i.e., later removed]. He quotes her as saying, "A true lover of God once spoke about practicing God's presence. To me that's such a part of contemplative prayer. That we are able to absorb the reality that as we commune with God through prayer that He is with us, that His Spirit for those of us who are in Christ fills us, that we are drawn near to Him, that our souls find rest in Him." Matt Slick goes on to explain that in the video Mrs. Moore was praising Brother Lawrence, who was an apostate Roman Catholic monk.[7]

Another YouTube video[8] gives an example of her belief in what we described earlier in this article as Lectio Divina. The video shows Beth Moore dramatically reading a selection of Scripture. Following the reading, Mrs. Moore states, "Without any comment, please, let's pause and be still, and ask Jesus to speak His word to us." There follows a long period of silent, emotional meditation while the large crowd tunes in to their inner selves, presumably waiting for Jesus to "speak His word to them." Hasn't God already spoken His Word to us? This practice has a greater similarity to eastern mysticism than it does to the Word of God.

Stay far away from Beth Moore and her false teaching.

A Bible-Believer's Reaction to Spiritual Formation

False teachers of the first century threatened the early church with their incipient Gnosticism. They communicated to the Christians that faith was inadequate to a have a relationship with God. Instead, they needed the mystical knowledge (gnosis) that only those teachers possessed. Spiritual formation is a modern Gnosticism, which promises believers something deeper than what they possess. To those teachers, practices such as studying the Bible and prayer are good, but you need the "spiritual disciplines" if you want true spiritual depth in your Christian life.

Paul's warning to the believers in Colossae rings as true today as it did then. It warns us of modern false teaching to be avoided: "Beware lest any man spoil [more literally, cheat] you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ" (Col. 2:8). May God give us the grace and courage to stand against the philosophy and vain deceit of the spiritual formation movement.

References:

1. Lighthouse Trails Editors (Nov. 15, 2011). An Epidemic of Apostasy - Christian Seminaries Must Incorporate "Spiritual Formation" to Become Accredited. Retrieved January 23, 2019 from https://www.lighthousetrailsresearch.com/blog/?p=7733,.

2. Ibid.

3. Gary Gilley, Roots of the Spiritual Formation Movement. Retrieved January 23, 2019 from https://tottministries.org/roots-of-the-spiritual-formation-movement.

4. Matt Slick, Centering Prayer (Feb. 25, 2008). Retrieved January 23, 2019 from https://carm.org/enteringprayer.

5. Lectio Divina: Listening to the Word of God in Scripture (PDF Brochure). Retrieved January 23, 2019 from https://www.contemplativeoutreach.org/sites/default/
files/private/lectiodivinabrochure_2018_0.pdf
.

6. Ibid.

7. Matt Slick, Beth Moore. Retrieved January 24, 2019 from https://carm.org/beth-moore.

8. Posted by Tom Manning (Jan. 12, 2014). Beth Moore Leads Lectio Divina-Lite at Passion 2012. Retrieved January 24, 2019 from https://outu.be/JX9HcmxfyDQ.

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