Spiritual Theology: A Systematic Study of the Christian Life
Spiritual Theology is a rare book. In it, Simon Chan surveys the little-explored landscape where systematic theology and godly praxis meet, highlighting the connections between Christian doctrine and Christian living and drawing out the spiritual implications of particular aspects of systematic theology. Allowing rational formulations to drop into the background, he brings the mystery of the faith to the fore. Chan begins with the principal doctrines of God, sin, salvation and the church. He then progresses to a reflective consideration of the practice of the spiritual life, from prayer to spiritual direction.
Orthodox Presbyterian Church
Unabashedly evangelical and truly ecumenical, Chan grounds his exploration in the sources of the Protestant, Catholic and Orthodox traditions. His work is well abreast of contemporary theological currents and crossculturally conversant from an Asian perspective. Spiritual Theology is a book for those who care deeply about theology and spirituality, and strive to integrate the two.
It is well worth careful reflection and prayerful reading.
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Theology is "the doctrine of living unto God," wrote the Puritan theologian William Ames. I seldom have the experience of reading a book with the sense of holding a treasure in my hand. I did with this book. I urge every seminary teacher, administrator [and] student, and every pastor and Christian leader to seriously study this book. Chan brings the treasures of the church, historical and worldwide, to bear upon the needs of contemporary humanity, and especially on the desperate need of contemporary evangelicalism for an understanding of spiritual life in Christ.
Simon Chan has done just that, showing us how theology can be an expression of a vibrant relationship with the living God. I refer to this interdisciplinary approach as a socio-spiritual method. Without denying the faith and theology implicit in the study of Christian spirituality, my method relies on cultural studies and other human sciences. Spirituality is a social and anthropological reality, but for Christians it is above all the work of the Holy Spirit in the social and cultural cotidiano of the believer.
Therefore, I like to think of my method as a social, faith-filled, and spiritual look at la cotidianidad divina, the place where God dwells and acts. Is to formulate even more doctrines and dogmas? To discover, define and explain spiritual paths? I would like to think it is not to remain in the abstract but move to the practical, the formational.
I refer to this second consideration as the Felix factor. Is the world saved or improved in anyway because we are Christians? It takes a village or in this case, it takes a university. The Socio-Spiritual Method is just one method in the Study of Spirituality and it is necessarily enters into interdisciplinary conversation with other academic sciences. Spiritual theology of course has its place in the Academy and is not simply a precursor to a new and improved theological discipline called the Study of Spirituality.
Rather I believe Spiritual Theology, like Church History, Religious and Cultural Studies, Psychology, Sociology and other sciences, is a necessary conversation partner with and in the theological Study of Spirituality trying to get at the cotidiano of a particular spirituality or spiritual classic by way of serious academic research and self-implicating reflection.
It does so through three lenses Research and Reflection: When considering the spiritual life in all of its theological and phenomenological dimensions, academic research as well as personal, faith-filled reflection is required. As a theological science that seeks the evangelical mobility of Spiritual classics, Spirituality Studies is necessarily interdisciplinary, self-implicating and socio-implicating; The cotidiano: Research and reflection are meant to familiarize the inter-preter scholar with the Christian imagination and social imagination at work in the cotidiano of the author, original audience and contemporary participants of the spiritual classic being studied.
The cotidiano is the lens through which Christians meet and reflect on God in their daily living. The spiritualogian encour-ages the contemporary participant to work for improved social relationships at every level, for social justice and the common good of society, Church and planet. Chan notes that Gnosticism, neo-Platonism, and Buddhism see salvation as deliverance from a transitory history to a timeless eternity.
Christianity, in contrast,. Chan proceeds at some length to unpack grace and its effects, discussing justification, sanctification, and glorification, offering some helpful insights of Calvin and the Puritans, as well as views of other traditions, ending with a discussion of perfection, which he affirms, though more modestly asserted than is often the case if such can be said. We already noted chapter 5 on the church, but Chan is to be commended in seeing all of this theology as developed and lived out in the life of the church and the communion or community of the saints.
The second part of the book takes what Chan has developed in the first part, in examining the traditional theological loci, and seeks to apply it to life, examining how this faith that we profess is lived out among us.
This involves a variety of disciplines whereby we embody and practice the faith once-for-all delivered to the saints. And such shallow theology undermines rich experience, yielding instead immaturity and Christian adolescence. The Reformed, on the other hand, have such rich theology and yet sometimes settle for beautiful doctrine not lived out.
To be sure, a lack of vibrant spirituality is not what marks our tradition at its best, and even in many of its historic expressions. So we need spiritual discipline. We need among us a hearty spirituality.
Chan starts with prayer in chapter 6. This is clearly the fountainhead of our spirituality. He discusses prayer as act and habit, the divine initiative in prayer, growth in prayer, praying by the rule, and other matters. Now we could wish for a fuller exposition in this second section of the book of what marks a healthy Reformed and Presbyterian spirituality: a vigorous use of the means of grace Word, sacraments, and prayer as is fitting in the public, private, and secret spheres. We are to be seeking the Lord personally in prayer regularly, as well as praying in our families, catechizing, and using all of our time, treasures, and talents, to the glory of our great God and king.
Again, however, a judicious use of this book by someone from our tradition, particularly by a well-trained pastor or other church member, may prove beneficial. Spiritual breadth of this sort, as long as we are discerning, can be quite helpful. In chapter 10, for instance, Chan discusses a rule of life, with a view to encouraging the broad laity to benefit from the best of monasticism.
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He does not call for the church to live under the Rule of St. Benedict, but rather calls for us all to have scheduled times of devotional prayer, and to avail ourselves of a wide variety of spiritual disciplines. These are helpful but are, arguably, best packaged within our tradition.
The problem is—do we attend to these things? Some Orthodox Presbyterians these days seem to think that Sabbath observance is the only thing needful. Sabbath observance—neglected as a subject by Chan—admittedly is necessary for a vibrant spirituality, but it is not sufficient. After discussing prayer fairly extensively, Chan proceeds, in chapters 7—9, to treat various spiritual exercises focusing on God and self, the Word, and the world.
Spiritual Theology : A Systematic Study of the Christian Life by Simon Chan (1998, Paperback)
With respect to the first, Chan deals with the practice of the presence of God, conformity to the will of God, fidelity to grace, and self-examining prayer. With respect to his treatment of the Word, rather than a focus on preaching as a divine act he thinks Protestants have too much focus on this to begin with , he urges a spiritual reading of the Word and meditation on the Word.
While there are useful insights here, this is altogether too mystical for me in its attempts to bypass reason and appeal directly to emotion. And in the chapter on the world, he deals not only with questions of political engagement, but has a rather interesting treatment of spiritual friendship. Spiritual friendship is not quite the same as spiritual direction, the subject of chapter Chan thinks that the Anglican and Roman Catholic practice of spiritual directors ought to be employed by all of us in some measure, and he is convinced that, without such directors, real spiritual growth will likely be stunted.
I believe that our standards do address the spirituality of the church, both in terms of the proper province of the church and in terms of the church being a spiritual agency, the body brought into being by the work of the Holy Spirit. Our standards do teach that our faith has an accompanying spirituality, or as Calvin put it: love is the fruit of faith, obedience follows trust.
Before addressing some ways in which our standards address the kinds of matters that pertain to spirituality, it might be helpful to note, contrary to much popular perception, that spirituality, and particularly the development of the doctrine of the work of the Holy Spirit, is central to the Reformed project. This is why it might prove helpful to note here that the doctrine of the Holy Spirit as we know it is a distinctly Protestant and Reformed development. One can witness its absence from the ancient and medieval church, where there was a great deal of development of the doctrine of God and the person of Christ.
Previously, as with Aquinas, theologians would proceed from Christology to Ecclesiology bypassing, largely, Pneumatology or Soteriology , which means of course that the means of grace must work on their own steam, as it were.