Multiple Streams of Spiritual Formation

It seems like there are a lot of different approaches to spiritual formation. Different teachers and authors seem to stress different things while still calling them all “spiritual formation”. Nowhere, however, have I seen anyone (perhaps for lack of trying, I’ll confess) distinguish the various flavors of spiritual formation in very distinct forms.

More, I don’t think the various kinds can be completely separated. They all bleed into one another, and each will take material and ideas from the others, so even this little project of distinguishing them has its limitations. Still, I do wonder if just identifying them might help to give clarity to the various different beliefs and perspectives of those who title or are titled with spiritual formation.

The list I offer here is surely incomplete, but it’s a start. I welcome comments on what could be added, tweaked, or improved.

Streams of Spiritual Formation:

  • Historical
    The historical stream of spiritual formation focuses on the fact that we have lost connection with our roots as Christians. There is a wealth of wisdom in the ancient writings of the faith. If we go to study those who have gone before us – Augustine, Wesley, the Cappadocian Fathers, Edwards, etc. – we can gain significant insight on how God has and continues to work in our hearts today.
    Significant Figures: Thomas Odin, Richard Foster, Bernard McGinn
  • Spiritual Disciplines
    This stream focuses on the specific practices that Christians can engage in to interact with God. There is typically an underlying belief that Christians on the whole are either too intellectual or are simply failing to do things that are helpful to growth of their faith due to ignorance, distraction, or laziness. Cultivating habits – silence, solitude, fasting, study, etc. – can place us in positions that make us available to the work of the Spirit in our hearts.
    Significant Figures: Dallas Willard, Ruth Haley Barton, Bruce Demarest
  • Psychological
    The more that we learn about the way that the mind and heart work through science, the more we will be able to follow what God may be doing through and in those aspects of us. In addition, the more we understand about our internal world, the more we may be able to root out sinful habits and tendencies so that we can offer them at the cross.
    Significant Figures: David Benner, Benedict Groeschel
  • Relational
    God, as a Trinitatian being, is fundamentally relational. As we are created in His image, we bear this relational stamp; it’s inherent to our being and the way we function in the world. Therefore, our relationships are the places where we will find the source of much of our sin as well as the dynamics for our healing. Indeed, God offers us forgiveness not so that we may simply be better, but so that we may be reconciled to Him and foster the relationship for which we were designed.
    (This stream may be just another aspect of the psychological, though I believe they’re separate.)
    Significant Figures: Larry Crabb, John Townsend/Henry Cloud
  • Theological
    I struggle to include this as I am not certain that most of those that adhere to this stream are formational apart from intellectually. Such a stance feels too rational and compartmentalizes the human person, neglecting much of the heart. Regardless of my position, there are some that believe that we are most formed by a fuller understanding of the doctrines and theology of the church. As we know what is true, we will be transformed by that truth.
    Significant Figures: Many theologians and scholars
  • Reformationist
    Some spiritual formation thinkers are concerned that those looking into formation are delving into theologically unsound areas by connecting with Catholic doctrine. They argue that Protestant traditions, often most specifically the Puritans, have a rich wealth of spiritual wisdom and practice that the church fails to take advantage of. Therefore, those who hold to this path believe we should be wary of the Catholicism that seeps into the church and focus on the Protestant wisdom available to us.
    This stream is commonly, though not exclusively, connected with the theological stream.
  • Contemplative/Mystical
    Throughout history, there have been those who have desired something deeply personal with God. The closer we grow to Him, the more we are willing to listen, the more, this stream holds, that we may hear His voice and experience His presence and the fullness of His love in a very intimate way. His love and presence are both the agent of and the goal of transformation.
    Significant Figures: A. W. Tozer, Evelyn Underhill, Thomas Merton
As noted, the streams blend together. It’s hard to say, for example, that Richard Foster is only a part of the historical stream when he essentially rebirthed the spiritual disciplines stream. Others, like Henri Nouwen, are hard to pigeonhole into a single stream at all, though you know they’re in there somewhere. While each person seems to have a strong focus in one or two of these streams, I think we can gain from any and all of them. God works in multiple ways, and we are complicated beings. He uses many different ways, and we need many different things to draw the various parts of us towards Him.
So what do you think? Are these categories helpful? Would you add more? Combine some? Adjust some things?
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3 responses

  1. Dave

    Would you place von Balthasar in the contemplative/mystical tradition?

    I think a philosophical approach could be added. The different aspects and capacities of the soul, the freedom and limitations of the will, and enduring identity as well as change through time are deeply ingrained aspects of philosophy. I would include Kierkegaard, Polanyi, maybe Van Kam. Gregg Ten Elshof’s book on self-deception is also a good representative of this category. Willard would also be a cross-over from the spiritual disciplines category.

    November 2, 2011 at 11:33 pm

    • I don’t know where I’d place Balthasar. He’s definitely got some theological, but there’s a bit of contemplative/mystical in him. I really haven’t read (or understood) enough to say. … or were you just taunting me with that question?

      A philosophical stream might be a possibility. I’m not a terribly philosophical thinker, so I might be biased or just unclear on things, but I would tend to lump that in with theological. I find philosopher and theologians (or at least systematic ones) tend to think and process in pretty similar ways. Or perhaps the general category could be re-termed Intellectual? Unless you can give me a reason to separate them out…?

      November 3, 2011 at 6:33 pm

  2. Dave

    I know a bit about von Balthasar, but not enough to say anything for sure. I was seeing if you had interacted with him and to what extent. It was a teaser question.

    Some of the methods are similar between theologians and philosophers, but they definitely work from two different starting points and with two different sets of data. They often overlap and complement one another.

    An intellectual category would work. I would say that Reformationist is the one that I have the least interaction with (and the least interest to interact with if I am being honest). I suppose trying to come up with a set list is of spiritual formation categories is like trying to come up with a set definition of spiritual formation or a set list of the spiritual disciplines. It is still useful to clarify thinking and expand one’s approach, but it is an ongoing project.

    November 5, 2011 at 11:42 am

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