The Spirit and Spirituality

Here’s a question that might seem circular but it actually invites closer attention: Is the Spirit engaged in Christian Spirituality? And if he is, how so?

Is he, for instance, the sole source and basis of spirituality? So that real spirituality relies on the Spirit’s presence and work in a soul? Or is Spirit an impersonal quality of the soul? As in, “An inward divine quality” that all humans share, with Jesus as the ultimate example? Another possibility is that the Spirit represents positive religious qualities in a person. So that friends might say, “She’s a very spiritual person.”

The question has gotten sharper for me as I’ve read more about the Spirit. I recently enjoyed Donald Bloesch’s broad project in his Holy Spirit. He summarizes a number of historical views of the Spirit along with some recent discussions. I’ve also been reading Cornelius van der Kooi’s This Incredibly Benevolent Force. He asks how the Spirit is portrayed in Reformed Theology.

Both books point to the growing attention given to the Spirit in Christian circles today. Part of this has to do with the growth of Pentecostal and Charismatic churches. And part comes with the revived interest in Trinitarian theology in recent decades. The Spirit’s unique role in the Trinity and in believer’s lives invites close attention from Christians who want a life transforming faith.

The importance of the Spirit in church history is also apparent. My recent post on “Calvin and the Spirit” points to one example. The Spirit is also crucial in the writings of Augustine of Hippo, Martin Luther, Richard Sibbes, Jonathan Edwards, and others. These men accepted straightforward Bible presentations of the Spirit. They all honor him for his work in stirring faith and in accomplishing spiritual transformation.

I’m also reading—actually rereading—books from the Christian Spiritual Formation movement. Two of these are Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline and Dallas Willard’s Renovation of the Heart. Both are lively and compelling works that promise real benefits to those who embrace what they offer. They set out applied methods and regularly cite the Bible to support key points.

Along with my reading I plan to attend a major Spiritual Formation conference at the Willard Center in Santa Barbara next month. Foster, among many others, will present the latest insights from their collective labors. I’m devoted, with them, to the premise that all of us need to be “re-formed” in God’s Image so it should be a rich time.

Here’s my best answer for now to our initial question. I’m most impressed with the historic figures—I’ll call them the Augustinian tradition—who all elevate the role Jesus plays in transformation. They also attribute the work of soul formation in Christ’s Image to the Spirit. For all of them, then, Christ is the measure of real change.

As far as initiative goes this Augustinian approach is a Spirituality-from-above. This begins with the Spirit descending on Jesus at his baptism. It continued as the Spirit also came upon the young Jewish-Christians in Jerusalem at Pentecost; and later, on the Gentile-Christian church in Caesarea. The Spirit’s love, life, and power was “poured out” from God’s eternal communion.

Some forms of contemporary focus, by contrast, offer a Spirituality-from-below: as human disciplines to be learned. Willard, for instance, wrote that “God has provided a methodical path of [renovation]” – p.25. So the approach is, he continued, “intensely practical.”

This emphasis on method draws on a number of spiritual insights offered by both Roman Catholic and Orthodox mystics who have promoted an “ascent” based faith. In the ascent model the seeker must launch any changes while the Spirit remains a cooperative resource in the process.

According to Bloesch (p. 93) the ascent model has four stages of growth: 1. Purgation 2. Illumination 3. Union, and 4. Ecstasy. This progressive approach to Spiritual formation came from Pseudo-Dionysius (c. 500). And a later and stronger impetus was offered by Ignatius of Loyola with his Spiritual Exercises. Loyola formed the Jesuits in 1540 as a soldier-like effort to reverse the Protestant Reformation.

But let’s set the history aside and chase our real concern: what does the Bible offer? Paul helps us with a clear summary of Spiritual Formation in 2 Corinthians 2-4—and it’s a spirituality-from-above model.

Let’s notice the product first. It’s God’s work who “has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (4:8). How does a believer receive this light? From “the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God” (4:4).

Paul’s presentation of this Spiritual Formation started with a Bible comparison (see 3:7-18). Moses was a man whose face displayed God’s own glory when he visited God on Mount Sinai at the start of the Old Covenant. But that glory was merely external and eventually faded away. The Spirit of God in the New Covenant era, by contrast, remains present in a believer and offers a growing inward “glory.”

Here it is in Paul’s own words: “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit” (3:18).

It seems clear enough that in Paul’s portrayal spirituality is a work of the Spirit. But the key is for us to focus on “the glory of Christ.” Then watch what happens.



  1. R N Frost

    Thanks for the response, Terry. Clarity is an issue, isn’t it! What is becoming clearer to me in my reflections on the Spirit is how we tend to be impatient with the process of growth. Maybe by trying to nudge his work along … a bit like Sarah’ s solution to use Hagar to help God. And that’s never a great solution!

  2. Greg Dueker

    Thanks Ron! Thanks also for sharing with the group of young pastors in Beaverton today. God has giving you as a gift to the church! I am so thrilled that your MA/DMin cohort in Affective Spirituality & Christian Formation will be launching in June through Multnomah Seminary.

  3. Matt

    Thank you for the insights, Ron. I just read the Spirit of the Disciplines and found it extremely helpful in navigating ascetic practice in my own life. Please share the impact of the Formation Conference for this topic. -Matt

  4. R N Frost

    You bet, Matt, I’m sure I’ll have some thoughts. I only wish Willard himself was still here for the occasion.

  5. Rick

    Hi Ron,

    I’ve been recently reading Willard’s Renovation of the Heart along with some of his other works. The older I get (approaching 60 and a Christian for almost 40 years), I find myself thinking more ‘both/and’ rather than ‘either/or’; however, I push against the tendency towards relativism which I see can become an issue with ‘both/and’. But I think it can provide a much wider view of Truth (God), yet with the Scripture (and the Spirit) providing discernment.

    In stating this, I wonder if the truth regarding the topic addressed above encompasses both spirituality from above and below? I think one could support both positions from scripture and it seems like both have been emphasized within the historic church age. There may be aspects of truth in both positions and when both are embraced, then God seems much bigger and truth much broader in scope. Thoughts? I also would be curious to know how your time at the Willard center went. Thanks for always providing excellent food for thought and for personally stretching my own thinking on these topics. Much appreciated!

  6. R N Frost

    So Matt & Rick, I owe you both a report on the Santa Barbara “Life with God” conference.

    It was interesting, as expected, and I enjoyed it. It also proved to be more academic than I expected – something of an attempt to summarize and assess Willard’s theology now that he’s been gone for five years. Richard Foster was there but he was mostly treated as an honored figure rather than a resource for continued discussion.

    As I got a broader and clearer picture of Willard’s work I saw that he engaged the Bible in some unique ways. He meant to offer more practical steps to spiritual transformation. And I came away with an impression that he oscillates between an emphasis on God’s crucial initiative in making that happen; and on human responsibility to use God’s grace in achieving moral improvement (as a sign of real spiritual change). But it’s still an ongoing project for me and I’m reading more of what he offered.

    What seems to be the case – and I’m still reading so I can’t be certain – is that his view of the Spirit is a bit soft. And he hasn’t put together a strong spiritual anthropology that meshes well with what I’m finding in the Bible. E.g. he treats education and active human discipline as key components to ‘re-forming’ the soul. Yet he also credits God as the critical initiator in making it happen. But I don’t see it as a coherent discussion (so far!).

    About the “both/and” option that you suggest, Rick, in relation to a spirituality “from below” and “from above”, I wonder if you may be blending the clear appearance of spiritual reciprocity in the Bible with the question of ultimate spiritual initiative. We read, for instance, that “we love” only because God first loved us; and that apart from him we can do nothing – with the imagery of the continuum of vine, branch, and fruit as a single-direction reality. So that the fruit doesn’t stir or enrich what the Vine does. But once we are alive to the Spirit, we become active in pursuing Christ and the Father in a rich reciprocity of initiative.

    Let me know what you think.

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