Вы находитесь на странице: 1из 7

Review on Spiritual Theology: A Systematic Study of the Christian Life by Simon Chan Inter-Varsity Press, 1998

Book Review on Spiritual Theology: A Systematic Study of the Christian Life

Theology is "the doctrine of living unto God," wrote the Puritan theologian William Ames. As such, true theological reflections ought to arise from personal encounter with God in Jesus Christ and lead to a deeper spiritual life. However, since the Enlightenment period, theology becomes increasingly fragmented into specialized, merely academic branches (dogmatic, biblical, philosophical and so on) that are often disconnected from its goal of guiding us to godliness. As a result, the church is impoverished if her devotional books are doctrinally thin and her theological works are spiritually vacuous. In his book Spiritual Theology: A Systematic Study of the Christian Life, Dr Simon Chan seeks to address this modern weakness by placing Christian spirituality on solid theological foundations while exploring the practical implications of various Christian doctrines.

Any good spiritual theology, he argues, should have a framework comprehensive enough to account for various experiences without losing balance. It should also be internally consistent where each doctrine meaningfully relates to others without explaining away all mysteries of the faith. Finally, it should evoke a sense of the spiritual realities beyond such formulations by integrating prayer and reflections. But what makes for a distinctly Christian spiritual theology? In order to be faithful to both the Christian storyline as well as our own Asian context, Chan calls for three interconnected criteria: the globalcontextual (sensitivity to complex historical conditions that shape our thoughts), the evangelical (a personal relationship with Christ mediated by the gospel that entails a

countercultural ecclesiology) and the charismatic (an openness to the surprising work of the Holy Spirit). We should be able to review and evaluate Chans spiritual theology using these tests of adequacy he has provided.

In the first part of the book, The Theological Principles of Spiritual Theology, he argues that our knowledge of who God is determines the shape of our spirituality. In spite of the Trinitarian language that pervades the churchs liturgy and creeds, our practice is often inconsistently focused on only one Person of the Godhead. For example, a Christological spirituality that focuses on forgiveness of sins and personal relationship with Jesus engenders a warm piety over against impersonal religiosity (page 47). But it may also lead to insular tendencies that see church as mainly opposed to the world if uncoupled from a spirituality of the Father that also affirms our common humanity and creation care. In contrast, a Trinitarian spirituality is modelled after the inner life of the Godhead. It is characterized by a personal intimacy with God through Christ (the Son) and openness to the powerful works of the Spirit that finds its inter-penetrating unity in a basic ascetical structure of life (the Father).

Chan proceeds to draw out the spiritual implications from principal doctrines of humanity, salvation and the church. The depth and variety of sins in fallen human nature find their sources in the flesh, the world and the devil. A proper understanding of sin as radical and relational turning away from God is needed to avoid superficial fixes of mere moral improvement. In order to progress spiritually, we need to accept personal accountability instead of blaming it all on genes or circumstances. According to Chan,

the cure for worldliness is found in neither externalizing it into a list of places to avoid nor internalizing it into mere attitudes regardless of outward actions. It lies in seeing the world as ultimately transitory in light of the brevity of life and eternity of the life to come (1 Corinthians 7:29-31). To combat sin, we need resources from the gospel of salvation.

Although most Protestant Christians understand that we are declared righteous by grace through faith in Christ, it is unclear how it is related to our actual progress in godliness. Sanctification is a result of justification, but in practice, imputed righteousness does not automatically lead to a transformed life. According to Chan, spiritual theology could only be sustained by understanding grace as both Gods unmerited favor to undeserving sinners and an empowering gift infused by God that enables human response (page 83). Otherwise, development of character can be reduced to works righteousness or the importance of spiritual disciplines as means of grace is largely ignored. He contends that the pilgrims progress in conformity to the image of Christ requires repeated actions of growing intensity so that good habits can replace bad ones. The goal of all ascetical disciplines is perfect union with God in love (page 101).

However, sanctification does not occur in a vacuum apart from the body of Christ. Spiritual formation is not designed to develop individualistic qualities but to enable responsible and virtuous living within the ecclesial community. Contemporary Christians need to understand that they have been baptized into one Body (1 Cor 12:13). The universal church across space and time bears the visible marks of preaching, baptism and

the Lords Supper and as a sacramental community, points forward to the new creation through her suffering, celebration and solitude.

In the second part of the book called The Practice of the Spiritual life, Chan clarifies that his purpose is not to offer tips on how to carry out spiritual disciplines but to focus on the theology that undergirds these practices. While spirituality is a work of divine grace, actual progress comes through effort by practising means of grace like prayer, meditation on the Word, spiritual friendships and so on. He advises a rule of life that is embraced and ordered to enable us to achieve ascetical proficiency. A pattern or rhytmn of life helps us to be more regular in reinforcing desirble habits. We tend to agree that acquiring a certain competency at work or sports require some form of discipline and practice. What makes us think that proficiency at being a Christian is attained by aimless drifting or ad hoc effort?

Chan is aware of how incessant demands of modern living weigh down urban Christians today so he proposes an ascetism of small steps (page 11). Borrowing an analogy from mountain climbers, beginners are shown a pathway of simple steps starting from prayer as the first principle of spiritual theology (Chapter 6). Thereafter the winding stairs ascend gradually to the practice of Gods presence in daily activities (Chapter 7), meditative Scripture reading and memorization (Chapter 8) and the cultivation of spiritual friendships, meditation on Gods creation and social justice (Chapter 9). The author also warns of pitfalls and dangers that may hinder our progress.

Therefore discernment becomes necessary to overcome common setbacks like seasons of distraction or dryness, over-scrupulosity that results in rigidity and self-delusion (Chapter 10). Chan also draws plenty of insights from the reflections of revivalist-theologian Jonathan Edwards on how to separate true religious affections and extraordinary phenomena from spurious ones. Finally, the book draws to a close with a discussion on the art of spiritual direction. According to Chan, there are no self-taught saints because even the most mature pilgrim needs help from time to time (page 225). The spiritual director could help to ask hard questions and discern the workings of grace in the life of the directee.

An Evaluation

For pastors, seminary students and informed laity, Spiritual Theology is a rewarding book that presupposes some knowledge in classical and contemporary theological discussions. It is not a how-to book for beginners. Personally, I find that it is a valuable resource that integrates systematic theology with its goal of living unto God. It admirably passes its own tests of adequacy by drawing resources from various spiritual traditions (desert fathers, Catholic, Orthodox and so on). Being ecumenical in outlook, Chan is also evangelical in his conviction that a personal encounter with Christ as necessary for salvation while remaining conversant with the Asian cultures in which he is situated. For example, his discussions of sin and salvation engage meaningfully with Confucian and Buddhist spiritualities by tracing lines of convergence and divergence (page 66, 77). It also evokes an inner hunger to pursue spiritual disciplines more intentionally for myself. I

felt convicted that my own spiritual life could be significantly improved by finding a rule of life between the polarities of contemplative and active.

From his Pentecostal perspective, Chan also engaged robustly with both Catholic and Reformed views of grace with a spirituality of the Spirit as an expectant openness to Gods surprising work beyond what we can predict or control. I find his proposal on rethinking grace as a helpful corrective to integrate intentional effort in the process of spiritual formation. At the same time, he demonstrates a confident ability to be critical of his own tradition by pointing out its weakness in trying to routinize the extraordinary and a rather undiscerning attitude towards supernatural phenomenon such as holy laughter (page 48, 214). Although some arguments are difficult to follow at times, there are valuable insights to be gained from virtually every page.

There are some proposals for improvement: the time-honored discipline of fasting seems to be omitted even though it could serve to intensify our hunger for God and perhaps a Kuyperian model of cultural-political engagement could complement the alternative polis model in contexts like Singapore and Korea where a sizeable Christian population exists (page 36). But the holistic spirituality that emerges is essentially Trinitarian, deeply personal and centered on prayer coupled with meditation on Gods word. Its devotion opens up in fellowship with a community of faith, service to others in social justice and appreciation of creation. If such spirituality characterizes the Asian church, it would breathe new life into our mission and church life. As Asian Christians, we are deeply indebted to Chans insightful and challenging contributions to spiritual theology.