The Dancing Puritan

Thursday, February 27, 2014

The New Spirituality

This material below is adapted from a paper that I presented for a class at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Links to the sources that I reflected on (by David Wells, Michael Horton, and Peter Jones) are below.

Michael Horton
David Wells
Peter R. Jones

The Preacher wrote in Ecclesiastes, “ . . . there is nothing new under the sun” (1:9 ESV). That verse is applicable to theological and philosophical error. Error has been raising its ugly head ever since the Serpent tempted Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. It comes repackaged for every generation and is wrapped in colorful ribbon. Though there are differences in the kinds of error and the way that they are described, there are fundamental similarities.

One of the points that Michael Horton, Peter R. Jones, and David F. Wells all make concerns the lack of regard for a God “outside of us” (Horton). Horton made the observation that the new spirituality is reflected in the idea that there is no need for an external God or for an external source of authority. What is valued is an “intuitive, direct, or immediate knowledge set against the historically mediated form of knowledge” (Horton).  This perspective is very different from the New Testament writers, the Church Fathers, and the Protestant Reformers. They believed in an external and absolute authority found in God and the Bible.

The adherents of the new spirituality are not interested in external constraints or absolute authority. Their focus is self-centered and inward. David Wells calls the new spirituality “The Invisible Religion” and points out its inward rather than outward nature. He cites a survey that indicates “56% of Americans who say that in life’s crisis they look to themselves for answers rather than to an outside presence like God (as he has been traditionally understood).”

Each of the articles, in one way or another, demonstrates that what is often referred to as spirituality is, in essence, a mixture of various philosophical beliefs. It would be inaccurate to call the beliefs a “system” because anything smacking of systematics is recoiled against. Horton quotes Curtis White:

We would prefer to be left alone, warmed by our beliefs-that-make-no-sense, whether they are the quotidian platitudes of ordinary Americans, the magical thinking of evangelicals, the mystical thinking of New Age Gnostics, the teary-eyed patriotism of social conservatives, or the perfervid loyalty of the rich to their free-market Mammon. We are thus the congregation of the Church of the Infinitely Fractured, splendidly alone together. And apparently that's how we like it. Our pluralism of belief says both to ourselves and to others, 'Keep your distance.' And yet isn't this all strangely familiar? Aren't these all the false gods that Isaiah and Jeremiah confronted, the cults of the 'hot air gods'? The gods that couldn't scare birds from a cucumber patch? Belief of every kind and cult, self-indulgence and self-aggrandizement of every degree, all flourish. And yet God is abandoned. (4)
I often hear professing Christians expounding what is, in essence, a hodgepodge of religious speak that is blended and called Christianity. It is not that unusual to find, in one person, mystical, patriotic, evangelical, and politically conservative ideas all blended into a loaf of what is presumed to be Christian faith. The lack of discernment is staggering.

The blending of various religious thought is a problem in many churches and among numerous Christians. Some of this blended thought has come via popular books such as The Shack by William P. Young and Jesus Calling by Sarah Young. In The Jesus Calling the author imagines Jesus speaking directly to individuals. She creates the words that Jesus uses. She seems to believe that the words she writes are actually the words of Jesus.

Tim Challies gives a thought provoking review of The Shack and deals with the issue of revelation. Challies writes:
There are few doctrines more important to Christian living than this one—understanding how it is that God chooses to communicate with human beings. Though the Bible teaches that Scripture is the “norming norm,” many Christians give precedence to other supposed forms of revelation, and particularly promptings, leadings and “still, small voices.” Sure enough, such an emphasis is seen clearly in The Shack. How will we hear from God in day-to-day life (away from the miraculous shack)? “You will learn to hear my thoughts in yours,” says Sarayu. “Of course you will make mistakes; everybody makes mistakes, but you will begin to better recognize my voice as we continue to grow our relationship.” And where will we find the Spirit? “You might see me in a piece of art, or music, or silence, or through people, or in Creation, or in your joy and sorrow. My ability to communicate is limitless, living and transforming, and it will always be tuned to Papa’s goodness and love. And you will hear and see me in the Bible in fresh ways. Just don’t look for rules and principles; look for relationship—a way of coming to be with us.” (Tim Challies:
Herein is the problem of modern-day spirituality that is divorced from foundational Scriptural teaching. When spirituality is not tethered to the Bible then it flies in the wind like a kite that has no one holding the string. For a time the kite may seem to be happily free from the controls of its owner. However, it is not long before the kite comes crashing down. When spirituality is detached from God as revealed in Scripture then, though it may seem unencumbered and free, it is in reality headed for a certain crash.

Horton writes:
In the American Religion, as in ancient Gnosticism, there is almost no sense of God's difference from us-in other words, his majesty, sovereignty, self-existence, and holiness. God is my buddy or my inmost experience, or the power-source for living my best life now. God is not strange (i.e., holy)-and is certainly not a judge. He does not evoke fear, awe, or a sense of terrifying and disorienting beauty. Furthermore, all the focus on making atonement through a bloody sacrifice seems crude and unspiritual to Gnostics when, after all, the point of salvation is to escape the physical realm. All of this is too "Jewish," according to Gnostics from Marcion to Schleiermacher to the "Re-Imagining Conference" of mainline Protestant leaders (especially radical feminists) who explicitly appealed to Gnosticism in their screeds against "men hanging on crosses with blood dripping and all that gory stuff." The god of Gnosticism is not the one before whom Isaiah said, "Woe to me, for I am undone!" or Peter said, "Depart from me, for I am a sinful man." To borrow a nice phrase from William Placher, it represents "the domestication of transcendence." God is no longer a problem for us.
One way that Horton’s analysis shows up in “the American Religion” is in the area of “Christian” music. A cursory listen to a popular Christian radio station will reveal a lack of emphasis on the “majesty, sovereignty, self-existence, and holiness” of God.

The same is too often true in Christian writing. With a plethora of self-help books on the shelves of Christian bookstores, titles that focus on the character of God are at a minimum. As I write this paper, two of the bestselling titles include: Breakout by Joel Osteen and Jesus Calling by Sarah Young. Breakout promises to give readers “5 Keys to Go Beyond Your Barriers and Live an Extraordinary Life.” It is not unusual to find popular titles that are focused more on extra-biblical experiences than they are on the clear teaching of the Bible. One such example is Heaven is For Real. The website, has this description of the book:
Heaven Is for Real is the true story of a four-year old son of a small town Nebraska pastor who experienced heaven during emergency surgery. He talked about looking down to see the doctor operating and his dad praying in the waiting room. The family didn’t know what to believe but soon the evidence was clear. In heaven, Colton met his miscarried sister whom no one ever had told him about and his great-grandfather who died 30 years before Colton was born. He shared impossible-to-know details about each. Colton went on to describe the horse that only Jesus could ride, about how “reaaally big” God and his chair are, and how the Holy Spirit “shoots down power” from heaven to help us.
The first problem with the description of Heaven is For Real is that it claims to be a true story. How does one know that it is a true story? The adherent to the new spirituality might surmise that it is true because the four-year old boy “experienced heaven during emergency surgery.” There is no objective standard of truth, just the testimony of a four-year old during surgery. There is no mention of Scripture in this description. The young boy, Colton, was able to see his surgery as it was happening. He was able to meet “his miscarried sister whom no one had told him about and his great-grandfather who died 30 years before Colton was born.” The confirming evidence of the trustworthiness of Colton’s story is that he was able to describe things about his miscarried sister and his great-grandfather that no one had ever told him about. The entire travel-to-heaven story is believed to be true because a boy had an experience and told stories about dead relatives that he had never met. Now, that is a fascinating story. And perhaps the boy had some sort of experience. Perhaps he had a vision/dream and perhaps in that vision/dream he did see an image of his late great-grandfather. We simply do not know, nor can we know. Yet a testimony is believed because it testifies of an experience. Experience trumps objective truth.

The problems with such a story are evident. The story serves as an illustration of spirituality in our modern age. People are encouraged to look within themselves for answers. The old forms of worship (creed, catechisms, confessions, liturgies) are jettisoned for more personal experiences with God.
David Wells writes, “It is quite apparent that the new spirituality is practicing what has become one of the norms of the postmodern world, that is—the belief that each person must be allowed one’s own private space within which one has the freedom to define reality for oneself and set one’s own rules.”

Michael Horton notes:
While Luther, Calvin, and their heirs sought to reform the church, the more radical Protestant movements have often seen the church as an obstacle to the individual's personal relationship with God. (Evangelical George Barna, a guru of the church growth movement, has recently written three books arguing that the era of the local church is over, soon to be replaced by Internet resources for personal piety.) Where the Reformers pointed to the external ministry of the church, centering on Word and sacrament, as the place where God promised to meet his people, "enthusiasm" was suspicious of everything external. Similarly, Quakers gave up the formal ministry, including preaching and sacrament, in favor of group sharing of personal revelations. Even when evangelicals retain these public means appointed by Christ, they often become assimilated to self-expression and techniques for self-trans-formation: means of our experience and activity more than God's means of grace. Ultimately, it's what I do alone with God that matters, not what God does for me together with his covenant people through public, earthly, material means that he has appointed.
The way ahead begins by looking back to biblical teaching on authority. The Bible is to be the Christian’s “only rule of faith and practice.” Yet the Bible is proclaimed in the context of community. That community is the church. As Horton reminds us, Luther and Calvin focused on church reform. They saw external structures not as an enemy but as the will of God. They looked to the “Word and sacrament, as the place where God promised to meet his people.” The errant spirituality of their day “was suspicious of everything external.”


The new spirituality is similar to the old spirituality in many ways. Both are overly reflective, suspicious of external forms, enamored with experience, and untethered from objective truth. It is common in the modern church to encounter God via experience rather than preaching. Music, drama, and various kinds of entertainment have encroached upon the preaching ministry at many churches. Experience rules as objective truth is subjected to the whims of congregants.

The way ahead for the Christian includes a reaffirmation of the Bible as the infallible revelation of God. God, the author of Scripture, is the one to whom every Christian must bow. His honor and his will reign supreme. Biblical preaching must be returned to the pulpit and be joined by God-centered congregational singing. Biblical theology must be stationed at the doors of the church as a protector from the new spirituality. Christians must be encouraged to read, study, learn, meditate upon, and apply the Bible. They must learn discernment. Objective truth must inform subjective experiences. This is not to dismiss the subjective or remove emotions from congregational worship. It is to ground the affections, inform the emotions, and set the heart to singing. The result is a freedom that is wise, godly, and can fly protected because it is tethered to truth.