The Biblical/Theological Foundations of Spiritual Formation

 

 

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The Biblical and Theological Foundations of Spiritual Formation

Dr Alex Tang, 15 Feb 2010

 

 

Christian spiritual formation is a process grounded on the biblical and theological concepts of restoration, relationship, and shalom. These key foundational concepts are as follows:

1.  Restoring the imago Dei

2.  Relationship with the triune God

3.  Shalom and the kingdom of God

 

1.     RESTORING THE IMAGO DEI

The concepts of the imago Dei and perichoresis are the epistemological dimension of spiritual formation. These concepts expand the understanding of spiritual formation, including its processes and means. God created a perfect world that he declared good (Gen. 1:1–2:1). He made man and woman in his own image, the imago Dei (Gen. 1:26–27). Scholars have understood the imago Dei in different ways. Some interpret it from an anthropological angle, but Ian A. McFarland (2005), approaching the concept from an epistemological perspective, postulates that, in restoring the divine image, one receives greater knowledge of God. He gives the helpful insight that, in the process of restoring the imago Dei, more of God’s glory may be perceived. Evangelical theologian Henri Blocher notes resignedly that concerning the imago Dei, “the controversies have continued unabated through the centuries” (1997, 15).

In his exhaustive study of the imago Dei, Reformed theologian Anthony A. Hoekema discerns two facets: a functional aspect “involving man in his threefold relationship—to God, to others, and to nature” and a structural aspect moving from the “original image” to the “perverted image” after the Fall and, ultimately, from the “renewed image” to the “perfected image” in God’s redemptive work (1986, 75–96).[1] The exposition that follows represents a Reformed view.

From the functional perspective, man and woman were created for a relationship with God (Gen. 3:8–9). Unfortunately, they disobeyed God and fell, distorting His perfect creation by what is known as “Original Sin.” Concomitantly, a rupture occurred in the threefold relationship with God, others, and nature. Bruce A. Demarest presents this as historical fact (1984, 405) while other scholars argue that the Fall is not historical but “saga or legend.”[2] My theological position is that of Hoekema and Demarest, which maintains that the Fall is an historical fact.[3]

From a structural perspective, God sent his Son to redeem fallen human beings by Christ’s death on the cross and resurrection. Those who receive the Son are restored in union and justified. God sends the Holy Spirit to empower them to be restored to the image of Christ as his special people. God the Father wants to work in partnership with restored human beings to redeem his whole creation.[4] The end result is the “perfected image” of God in humankind. Hoekema summarises, “[T]he purpose of redemption is to restore the image of God in man” (1986, 27). Restoration of the image of God means restoring the full potential of personhood. The process of restoring the fallen imago Dei in each human being results in that person’s becoming more like God. Hoekema notes that “because Christ is the perfect image of God, becoming more like God also means becoming more like Christ” (1986, 89). It is after being restored that a person can be who God has created him or her to be. In other words, the nature of Christian spiritual formation is restoration of the image of God.

Such restoration is not limited to individual human beings but involves the entire people of God because all believers are part of the Church or body of Christ (Eph. 5:26). The Church is the ekklēsia, a called-out people of God. Restoration of the imago Dei has a corporate dimension or “ecclesiastical aspect” as Hoekema suggests (1986, 89). As each person individually restores his or her divine image, he or she is also doing so corporately by forming the larger faith community of the Church. However, the catholicity of the Church needs further development if one is to understand truly the image of God, according to Miroslav Volf (1998) in After Our Likeness: The Church as the Image of the Trinity. Furthermore, the image of God is also the image of the Trinity. When one is restored to the image of God, one is restored to a relationship to the Trinity. This restoration occurs because, as a person restores the image of Christ, he or she is drawn into the Trinitarian relationship by the power of the Holy Spirit.

In summary, the dimension of person-in-formation deals largely with redressing consequences of the primal Fall for mankind. Restoration of the imago Dei provides the theological foundation for this formative strand of Christian spiritual formation.

 

2.     RELATIONSHIP WITH THE TRIUNE GOD

God desires a community of image-bearers of Christ who will be involved in an eternal love relationship with the triune God, thus displaying His glory (Jn. 17:20–25; Eph. 3:11). Being in right relationships is another one of the foundations of spiritual formation. For example, the writer of Deuteronomy declares: “Hear (Shema), O Israel: The LORD is our God, the LORD is one. Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength” (Deut. 6:4–5).

The Shema of Judaism is what Anabaptist theologian Scot McKnight refers to as the “Jewish creed of spiritual formation” (2004, 6). The Shema is an affirmation of Judaism and a declaration of faith in one God. The obligation to recite the Shema is separate from the obligation to pray, and a Jew recites the Shema in the morning and at night (Deut. 6:7). The first line, “Hear, O Israel: The LORD is our God, the LORD is one” (Shema Yisrael Adonai eloheinu Adonai ehad), is repeated throughout the prayer services (Schoenberg 2008). The statement that “The LORD is one” is a declaration not only of monotheism, the truth that there is only one God (Yahweh), but also of the wholeness (shalom) of this triune God with whom the Israelites had a covenantal relationship (McConville 2002, 141). The object of recognising the oneness or integrity of God can be achieved only by the process of spiritual formation, which consists in loving God and obeying His commandments as a covenantal community (Craigie 1976, 170–71). These actions are designed to restore the fallen image of God in the Israelites. The Shema is not only an affirmation of who God is but also a call to be in right relationship with Him.

The core of these commandments may be found in a holiness code found in Leviticus 19:18: “Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against one of your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the LORD.” This passage is considered by many scholars to be part of a holiness code that spans chapters 17–26 in Leviticus, but it is considered distinct from other priestly laws in the book (Hartley 1992, 246–60). The central theme of the code is for the Israelites to imitate Yahweh—be holy and be a special people distinct from the nations around them (Lev. 19:2; Hartley 1992, 248; Wenham 1979, 264–65, 274–75). The refusal to seek personal revenge for a wrong is one of the standards of loving one’s neighbour in the covenantal community (Lev. 19:33–36). This concept implies the sacrifice of one’s “egocentric nature” in order to grow in holiness (Kiuchi 2007, 364). Holiness lies in imitating Yahweh and being in right relationship with Him and with other members of the community.

By drawing on the teachings of Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18, Jesus reveals an important foundation of spiritual formation:

“The most important [commandment],” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.” (Mk. 12:29–31; cf. Matt. 22:37–40 and Lk. 10:26–27)

The context of this passage is that Jesus had been asked, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?” (Mk. 12:28). Jesus’ answer summarises the whole teaching of Scriptures as being right relationships and love. Jesus thus quotes the Shema of Judaism and expands the definition of neighbour to include all others outside the covenantal community (Hartley 1992, 318). In doing so, he reveals to his followers true spiritual formation. McKnight (2004a) calls this passage the “Jesus Creed.” The Shema reveals the nature of spiritual formation for Judaism, according to McKnight, while the Jesus Creed, that for Christianity. The vertical relationship involves loving God; the horizontal relationship involves loving others. These relationships are grounded in love, which is the key to understanding this teaching. Jesus is saying that, if love for God is our priority, all else in our thinking and action will fall into place.

Spiritual formation is the ongoing process of developing right relationships of love—with God, self, and others. Such wholeness and harmony are akin to the Hebrew concept of shalom. Paul comments on this process by urging the Ephesian Christians to “[m]ake every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace (eirēnē). There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to one hope when you were called—one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (Eph. 4:3–6). Jesus has become our eirēnē (shalom) by his death on the cross. Paul also connects Christian wholeness or shalom with the triune God in Romans 8:27–29:

And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints in accordance with God’s will. And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.

This passage reveals the working of the triune Godhead in our spiritual formation. The doctrine of the Trinity is that God reveals himself in the Scripture as God the Father, Jesus the Son, and the Holy Spirit. There is only one God, and in this Godhead are three “persons”: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. These three are co-equal and co-eternal.[5] According to theologian Stanley J. Grenz, contemporary understanding of the doctrine of the Trinity stems from a consensus among theologians that view “theological language as metaphorical” (2001, 7–8).[6] Thus, it has allowed theologians from different traditions to interact on this doctrine ever since a revival of interest stimulated by Karl Barth in the last century (Olson and Hall 2002, 95). The epistemological implications of the triune God for spiritual formation will be examined according to the following tenets:

a.     The triune God is complete.

b.     The triune God reveals a perfect functioning relationship within the Godhead.

c.      The triune God extends communion to people.

d.     The Christian faith community is the visible image of the triune God.

 

a. The triune God is complete.

God is wholeness and completeness, eternal and perfect. Theologian Albert Sundararaj Walters (2002) suggests a Malaysian model of the Trinity that he calls Trinity from Below. He constructed this model from interviews with Malaysian Christians and Muslims and then reflected on his findings theologically. Using the banana tree as a symbol of fullness of life, he writes, “Thus, this image of the banana tree is closely linked to the Trinity which portrays the essence of Being as a coming-from and a going-to, a giving and receiving” (2002, 276). Because the banana tree offers shelter as well as food and because its leaves are used as plates and as containers for storing food, the metaphor denotes completeness as what is visible as a “banana tree” is actually a pseudostem which bears fruit and then dies. The plant itself is at the base and is perennial.

Similarly, Korean theologian Jung Young Lee (1996) uses the Chinese symbol of Yin-Yang to express his understanding of the completeness of the Trinity. He starts with Jesus, whose dual nature as human and divine is reflected in the two portions of the Yin-Yang symbol. The feminine Yin represents the Holy Spirit, which is Mother, whereas the Yang represents the masculine, hence, God the Father. The Yin-Yang is a Taoist symbol for balanced harmony in the universe. Using it as a metaphor for the Trinity, Lee shows the balanced harmony of the three persons of the Godhead in their completeness or wholeness.

Explaining the Trinity in other terms, Catholic theologian Karl Rahner writes that “[t]he ‘economic’ Trinity is the ‘immanent’ Trinity, and the ‘immanent’ Trinity is the ‘economic’ Trinity” (1967, 22). Olson and Hall (2002) break that rather cryptic statement into “immanent Trinity” (within the world) and “economic Trinity” (beyond history). God has within Himself a tri-unity that is apart from the world. Rahner’s main thesis is that God created the world and relates to the world, but the world itself is not part of God.[7] Otherwise, his saving the world “becomes God’s self-salvation as well” (Olson and Hall 2002, 3). Thus, God is uniquely one: “The Lord our God, the LORD is one” (Deut. 6:4), the sempiternal Creator that stands outside His creation.

 

b. The triune God reveals a perfect functioning relationship within the Godhead.

The three persons of the Trinity closely relate to one another (e.g., Jn. 8:29). The Father sends the Son yet remains with him. The Son represents the Father and obeys him willingly. Jesus proclaims that he is God and accepts worship by his disciples (Matt. 16:16; Jn. 20:28). The Holy Spirit is also part of this relationship (Jn. 14-16). The intimate relationship and interaction within the Trinity is often referred to as perichoresis, the Greek word for a dance. As in a dance, there is dynamic energy as each dancer moves in perfect partnership and equality with each other.[8]

The equality of the distinctive “persons” gives hope to a human race that is torn apart by racial and ethnic violence, gender inequality, economic exploitation, class distinctions, and social injustice. This perfect relationship between the three persons of the Trinity is the model of what relationships in a community may be.

 

c. The triune God extends communion to people.

The three persons of the Trinity have extended an invitation to human beings to be part of their perfect relationship in the Godhead. In other words, the invitation is to be in communion with them. Miroslav Volf, in arguing for an anthropological model of “social Trinitarianism,” emphasises that the Trinity may not be understood just as God’s self-revelation but may be discovered by what was done in salvation history (2006, 5–7). He elaborates that there is a role for a person in imitatio Trinitatis:

Because God has made us to reflect God’s own triune being, our human tasks are not first of all to do as God does—and certainly not to make ourselves as God is—but to let ourselves be indwelled by God and to celebrate and proclaim what God has done, is doing, and will do. (2006, 6–7)

Human beings were created in God’s image and fulfil the potential of that image by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit while engaging the world as the result of this communion.

Grenz expands on this point by describing social personalism[9] as the realisation that the self is not a “what” but a “who.” This “who” emerges from conversations with other “whos” to become persons-in-communion. However, it is when persons-in-communion become part of a conversation with God that the “who” discovers his or her identity as a person-in-relationship (2001, 12–14). Within the Christian faith community, persons discover who they are. Doing so is only possible in relationships with others in the community and with God. God created humankind to enjoy a relationship with him (Gen. 3:8–9). Spiritual growth is a process of self-discovery in relationship with God and others. Theologian Jürgen Moltmann suggests that it is the interpersonal relationship within the Godhead that gives people the model for loving their neighbours (1981, 199). Within the Godhead are mutual respect, submission, harmony, and equality. This may then be the model for how human beings live with one another (Erickson 2000, 84–98).

Using the metaphor of the divine dance (perichoresis), theologian Elizabeth Johnson incorporates the concepts of Volf, Grenz, and Moltmann and expands on them by suggesting that the Trinity not only invites human persons to join them in the dance but also dances to the “contagious rhythms of salsa, meringue, calypso, swing or reggae,” thus celebrating the diversity of human beings (2007, 214). She summarises by offering an overview:

The point is, with the three circling around in a mutual, dynamic movement of love, God is not a static being but a plenitude of self-giving love, a saving mystery that overflows into the world of sin and death to heal, redeem and liberate. The whole point of this history of God with the world is to bring the world back into the life of God’s own communion, back into the divine dance of life. (214)

God’s purpose is to bring his elect back into his communion in the Trinity where there exists perfect shalom. This shalom occurs when God is in communion with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, which may be considered a garden temple. This temple imagery reappears in the New Jerusalem (Rev. 21, 22).

 

d. The Christian faith community is a visible image of the triune God.

The biblical record is a metanarrative of how God calls a people to himself, those whom he prepared before creation began. Theologian Gabriel Fackre comments, “In the most elementary of terms, these refrains are the chapter heading of The Christian Story: Creation, Fall, Covenant, Jesus Christ, Church, Salvation, Consummation, with their Prologue and Epilogue, God” (1996, 5). God the Father intervenes in human history to call out this group of people. To prove his commitment, God seals them with the Holy Spirit. This special group of people is the ekklēsia or Church, which will praise and worship Him for all eternity.[10] Grenz identifies the postmodern “ecclesial” self that is formed in the Christian faith community as an image of the relational triune God (2001, 331–36). Adding weight to the argument that the Christian faith community is the image of the Trinity are the writings of theologian Miroslav Volf (1998), who contributes from the perspective of Roman Catholic and Orthodox theologies.

The Christian faith community carries on Jesus’ mission of redemption. To enable believers to complete this mammoth task, God the Father sent the Holy Spirit to empower them with spiritual gifts. Jesus’ mission was to complete the Father’s plan of redemption for all fallen men and women. The idea of missio Dei was first broached by Karl Barth at the International Missionary Council held in Willingen, Germany, in 1952 (Seamands 2005, 160). Missio Dei denotes the restoration of human beings and nature through the empowering of the people of God by the Holy Spirit. Examining the Bible through the methodology of a missional approach, theologian Christopher J. H. Wright (2006) concludes that it constitutes a grand metanarrative that reveals God’s mission to redeem the whole of creation from sin and that God’s people have a mission to reveal his righteousness and share this love.

To put it all together, God created man to be relational in nature. The triune God is perfect in relationship and perfection. The persons of the Trinity open their fellowship to all humankind to participate in their divine fellowship. Individually, humans reflect God’s image. However, in a covenantal community they reflect the image of the Trinity or imago Trinitatis.

In summary, being in right relationship with God, self, and others is one of the theological foundations of spiritual formation. The triune Godhead who is perfect reveals what a right relationship is. Not only does the triune God reveal himself, but he also invites Christians to join in the dance or perichoresis of the trinitarian Godhead. The Christian faith community is to represent to the world what this perfect relationship of shalom is. Community is all about relationships. The Trinity models relationship for Christians in communities. Person-in-formation seeks to restore the fallen imago Dei to that of Christ. Persons-in-community formation, on the other hand, seeks to pattern human behaviour in community after that of the Trinity.

 

3.     SHALOM AND THE KINGDOM OF GOD

The concept of shalom in the Bible is one of the ontological aspects of Christian spiritual formation. Shalom basically defines how things may be in (1) personal character, (2) relationships, and (3) the material world. The Hebrew word (šālôm)[11] occurs 250 times in the Old Testament (Mounce 2006, 503). Often translated as “peace,” it means far more than an absence of strife, suggesting a state of wholeness, completeness, well-being, prosperity, health, contentment, salvation, righteousness, and justice (Beck and Brown 1986, 777; Kittel, Friedrich, and Bromiley 1985, 406–20).

The word shalom is often used in the Scriptures to describe relationship to God. The Bible presents the Garden of Eden before its fall as a paradise. It was a time of shalom when it existed in what theologian Edward A. Powers describes as an ecology of “the relationship of people, creatures, and nature” (1973, 15). God is interested in a whole person, a whole people of His own, a whole earth, and a whole creation in interconnected relationship, all implied in the concept of shalom. The biblical metanarrative is about God’s first creating his shalom in Genesis 1 and 2 and then his recreating shalom in the coming new heaven and earth.

Theologian Hugh C. White (1973) finds that shalom is basically used in two settings. The first is a tribal setting in early Hebrew history, when it denotes “an organic unity,” and the second occurs in the national setting of a covenantal community. In a tribal setting, “shalom . . . consisted of a dynamic, organically unified life process made stable by the institution of blood kinship” (1973, 9). Blood kinship was the static component, but the dynamic involved living individually and corporately in such a way as to promote harmony and unity within the tribe. This concept was expanded when the Hebrews became a covenantal community. The promise of the covenant was that “I will grant peace [shalom] in the land, and you will lie down and no one will make you afraid” (Lev. 26:6a). However, whereas the tribal shalom demanded blood unity, the national shalom demanded obedience to Yahweh’s covenant. White notes that “it is in this context, then, [that] shalom acquires its connection with love, faithfulness, justice, and righteousness” (1973, 15). In the Old Testament, shalom is often associated with the harmonious relationship between persons and God and with each other in a covenantal community. White discovers in the writings of four prophets the “eschatological prophetic visions of shalom” linking the Old Testament and the New Testament. These prophets are Isaiah (prince of peace), Jeremiah (new covenant), Ezekiel (covenant of peace), and Deutero-Isaiah (suffering servant; 1973, 20–24). Together, they form a bridge between the Old and New Testaments. A prince of peace will come with a new covenant of peace, which will be ratified by a suffering servant.

In the New Testament, shalom is translated as the Greek word eirēnē, which is found 91 times, of which, 24 citations appear in the Gospels (Beck and Brown 1986, 780). Beck and Brown comment that the meaning of eirēnē in the New Testament has the same “form and content” as its meaning in the Old Testament (1986, 180). Kittel, Friedrich, and Bromiley affirm this statement by noting that “[t]his peace is what God wills, not merely for the soul or for the whole human race, but for His whole creation.”(1995, 209)[12] Eirēnē in the New Testament is the continuation of God’s work of shalom in the Old Testament, leading to its eschatological fulfilment. In the context of education in the Christian faith community, Norma C. Everist notes:

Jesus made shalom through the cross (Col. 1:20; Eph. 2:15-16). When Jesus healed and forgave people, he dismissed them by saying, “Go in shalom.” We are to “seek and pursue it” (Ps. 34:14b, as quoted in 1 Pet. 3:11). We are to be at peace, pursue it, send it, and keep it. Shalom is an active fruit of the spirit and a mark of the realm of God. It is about the matrix of peace, harmony, and wholeness and is both a gift and task for the very goal of our teaching and learning life together. (2002, 68-69)

Shalom is an important foundation for spiritual formation as a way to fulfil Christian spiritual formation. This point will be expanded in the following subsections:

a.     Shalom and the salvation of people

b.     Shalom world (the kingdom of God)

c.      Shalom and the mission of God

a. Shalom and the salvation of people

It is God’s purpose that people be saved for eternal life. Salvation consists of justification, sanctification, and glorification. In this respect, Christ himself is the mediator of shalom (Eph. 2:14-18), bringing reconciliation (Col. 1:20) and a “sense of wholeness both for men and the world” (2 Cor.5:17; Gal. 6:15). Beck and Brown note that “the whole process of believers’ sanctification, preservation, and perfecting (e.g., 1 Thess. 5:23; Heb. 13:20) serves to deepen their participation in the peace of God” (1986, 781). Thus, the person-in-formation component of Christian spiritual formation may be understood as growing into shalom, the process through which people find wholeness by reconnecting to God and other people.

Jesus made possible humankind’s reconciliation with God. In the penal-substitution theology of atonement, Jesus is the shalom, fulfilling the justice requirement of Mosaic Law. Mounce notes that shalom is also Jesus’ “parting gift” to his disciples (2006, 503): “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid” (Jn. 14:27). This shalom, which is Jesus’ legacy to his disciples, may be understood in the context of relationship with God in the kingdom of God.

 

b. Shalom world (the kingdom of God)

Shalom is the eschatological peace of the new heaven and earth. The concept is related to Jesus’ teaching on the kingdom of God. Robert H. Stein notes that “the expression is found in sixty-one separate sayings in the Synoptic Gospels. Counting parallels to these passages, the expression occurs over eighty-one times” (1996, 451). The numbers emphasise how central the kingdom of God is to Jesus’ teaching. Shalom occurs when harmony is restored between God and man as mediated by Christ’s sacrificial and redemptive death on the cross. In creating this shalom, the kingdom of God breaks into human history.[13] The kingdom of God, or what Walter Brueggemann (1982, 188) refers to as a “shalom world,” is not a political or ideological kingdom. New Testament scholar George Eldon Ladd comments, “The kingdom is not an abstract principle; the kingdom comes. It is God’s rule actively invading the kingdom of Satan” (1984, 608). This shalom constitutes the rule of God in the hearts of His people. Kenneth Boa describes a holistic spirituality in the kingdom of God as occurring when “believers for whom Christ is pre-eminent . . . acknowledge his sufficiency and supremacy by relegating all areas to his rule and authority” (2001, 221). In the kingdom of God, spiritual formation helps Christians to submit all areas of their lives to the rule of God, even as Jesus submitted his life to the Father’s direction.

A future dimension to the eschatological shalom, when the kingdom of God is fulfilled, occurs when the whole of creation is restored at the installation of a new heaven and earth. In the end times, believers shall be like Christ when they receive a resurrected body at his Second Coming. This prospect gives believers hope and motivation in working to achieve it.

 

c. Shalom and the mission of God

God’s mission is to redeem his whole creation, and the mission of the people of God is to be agents of God’s blessings to the nations. The shalom concept of tribal and national or covenantal community is now carried on by the people of God (1 Pet. 2:9–10) for the whole world. A community may work together to create this shalom. Norma C. Everist writes, “Shalom is communal, meaning the right relationship between friends, neighbours, a community, nation, or even all the inhabited world (oikoumene). The heart of the meaning is close to life itself” (2002, 68). Shalom is both something to work for and a gift from God (Rom. 1:7; 1 Cor. 1:3). Christians and the Christian faith community are to carry out the mission of God through shalom. Spiritual formation may equip believers to be persons-in-mission so that they may be agents for God’s redemptive purposes. However, the other two strands—person-in-formation and persons-in-community formation—are also necessary to equip persons to be appropriate agents. Missiologist Leslie Newbigin (1995) suggests a Trinitarian framework for the mission of God: (1) proclaiming the kingdom of God (faith in action), (2) sharing the life of the Son (love in action), and (3) bearing witness of the Holy Spirit (hope in action).

First, the kingdom of God is to be proclaimed throughout the world, and it is the mission of the people of God to do so. Newbigin describes this as “faith in action.” Mission, he explains, is

the proclaiming of God’s kingship over all human history and over the whole cosmos. Mission is concerned with nothing less than the completion of all that God has begun to do in the creation of the world and of mankind. Its concern is not sectional but total and universal. (1995, 56)

The people of God are tasked to proclaim the kingdom of God that broke into history with the coming of Jesus Christ, and this kingdom will be fully re-established in the future like the shalom of God’s pre-Fall creation. The persons-in-mission component of spiritual formation is to prepare persons to be proclaimers of the kingdom of God. American theologian Joseph A. Grassi comments that “[p]eace and justice are like twins who always go together” (2006, 7). Biblical teaching has always pointed out the need for concern for the poor, defenceless, and oppressed. Shalom cannot exist if there is still injustice in the world. It is the role of the people of God to make sure that these problems are addressed. Thus, the shalom of God is to be extended to the poor, defenceless, and oppressed. The persons-in-mission formation strand of spiritual formation equips Christians to be caring and compassionate in this suffering world. This preparation is intimately involved with person-in-formation and persons-in-community formation.

Second, Christians are to share the life of Jesus. Making shalom with one another means sharing the life of Jesus, which is “love in action. The kingdom of God already exists within the people of God by virtue of Christ’s death and resurrection. Newbigin observes that the Church, “by inviting all humankind to share in the mystery of the presence of the kingdom hidden in its life though its union with the crucified and risen life of Jesus, acts out the love of Jesus that took him to the cross” (1995, 64-65). Understanding the life of Christ and experiencing his love is formative. Love in action as envisioned by Newbigin basically means living out the life of Christ in the people of God. It involves person-in-formation, persons-in-community formation, and persons-in-mission formation.

Third, the people of God are to bear witness to the Holy Spirit, who is the active agent in mission. The Holy Spirit creates opportunities for individual believers and the Christian faith community to share the Gospel. The sharing of the Gospel by the witness of the Holy Spirit is “hope in action.” This witnessing occurs through both words and deeds. God’s offer of salvation is to be shared with others who have not heard about it, but witnessing goes beyond words alone. How Christians behave and who they constitute an important part of the Gospel message. The best witness is by exhibiting the fruit of the Holy Spirit (Gal. 5:22) in their lives. The character of the witnesses conveys the message more effectively than mere words. Jesus is the heart of this message. The strand of person-in-formation helps Christians to be more like Jesus.

The Holy Spirit empowers believers to challenge the evil powers and principalities that keep the present creation in bondage. Paul warns the Ephesians, “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Eph. 6:12). Spiritual formation equips the Christian faith communities by preparing it to use the full armour of God for spiritual warfare (Eph. 6:13–18). It is in spiritual warfare that Christian faith communities engages culture and the world. The Gospel of the kingdom of God is to be proclaimed by God’s people actively throughout the world. As George Eldon Ladd remarks:

This must be the spirit of our mission in This evil Age. We are not rosy optimists, expecting the Gospel to conquer the world and establish the Kingdom of God. Neither are we despairing pessimists who feel that our task is hopeless in the face of This Age. We are realists, Biblical realists, who recognise the terrible power of evil and yet go forth in a mission of world-wide evangelisation to win victories for God’s Kingdom until Christ returns in glory to accomplish the last and greatest victory. (1959, 139; author’s capitals)

Making shalom advances God’s mission for the redemption of His whole creation so that His kingdom will be established. The people of God are to be spiritually formed and equipped to be agents of this redemptive effort. This equipping will be achieved through the persons-in-mission formation strand of spiritual formation.

To summarise, the concept of shalom is deeply interwoven with the kingdom of God and the mission of God. Shalom signifies the state of wholeness of the pre-Fall creation, the redemptive acts of God, and the gathering of a people to promote the kingdom of God. Individual believers and the Christian faith community are involved in all aspects of this mission by proclaiming the kingdom and being active witnesses of the Holy Spirit.

The three goals of Christian spiritual formation are developing Christ-likeness in the characters of believers, developing a people of God, and establishing the shalom kingdom of God. The strands of spiritual formation to achieve Christian spiritual formation are person-in-formation, persons-in-community formation, and persons-in-mission formation.

Figure 1 shows the nature of spiritual formation which includes the biblical imperatives, the formative imperatives and the fulfilments. The theological foundations of Christian spiritual formation include restoration of the imago Dei, which was perverted during the Fall. Spiritual formation entails being in a right relationship of love as reflected in the perichoresis of the triune God. Christian faith community has a communal aspect in that, by demonstrating God’s shalom, it establishes this relation with other communities and the world at large. The concept of shalom, thus, defines an important dimension of the nature of spiritual formation.[14] However, spiritual formation is not limited to individual and communal development. It includes seeking justice for the poor and oppressed throughout the world. Therefore, it looks forward to an eschatological shalom, when the whole of creation will be declared holy and perfect by God.

Figure 1. The nature of spiritual formation

 

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

 

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Blocher, Henri. 1997. Original sin: Illuminating the riddle. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

Brueggemann, Walter. 1982. Living towards a vision: Biblical reflections on Shalom. 2nd ed. Philadelphia: United Church Press.

Craigie, P. C. 1976. The book of Deuteronomy. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmanns.

Demarest, Bruce A. 1984. Fall of man. In Evangelical dictionary of theology, ed. W. A. Elwell, 403–5. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.

Erickson, Millard J. 2000. Making sense of the Trinity: Three crucial questions. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.

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Grassi, Joseph A. 2006. Jesus is shalom: A vision for peace from the gospels. Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press.

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Hartley, J. E. 1992. Leviticus. Dallas, TX: Word Books.

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Endnotes

[1]. Theologian Millard J. Erickson in Christian Theology offers an evangelical perspective on three views of the imago Dei: substantive, relational, and functional. Several variations of the substantive views exist, but most agree that the image is identified as some characteristics in human nature. Relational views define the image of God as a relationship between a person and God and with other persons. Functional views identify the image as exercising dominion over the rest of creation. Erickson’s own conclusion supports the substantive view (1999, 517–36).

[2]. Theologian David F. Wells, writing in the context of North American Christians in a postmodern era, notes that “[a] majority of 52% of evangelicals . . . reject the idea of original sin.” He attributes this situation to the Pelagian influences on their theological thinking (2005, 299).

[3]. John Calvin’s view of the Fall may be found in Book 2, Chapter 1.4–7, of his Institutes (1960, 244–50). He does not represent it as a myth but as historical fact.

[4]. This is a brief outline of God’s great plan of redemption or salvation. See R. E. O. White (1984) and Arnold (1996). Erickson gives a more detailed treatment (1999, 901–1032).

[5]. Olson and Hall (2002) wrote a comprehensive historical and theological survey of the doctrine of the Trinity with a very useful bibliography of books published in English.

[6]. By understanding the nature of the Trinity through metaphors, contemporary scholars are able to illuminate the subject. In his later book, Rediscovering the Triune God: The Trinity in Contemporary Theology, Grenz (2004) was able to explore the Trinity further.

[7]. Rahner’s (1967) cryptic statement on the economy of the Trinity is important because it stresses that God cannot be part of His own creation.

[8]. The Greek word perichoresis does not appear in the Bible. Introduced by Greek theologian John Damascene in the eighth century, perichoresis “highlight[s] the dynamic interpersonal character of the Trinity in contrast to impersonal images and abstraction” (Peterson 2005, 344).

[9]. Grenz attributes much of his thinking about social personalism to the works of Martin Buber, Michael Polanyi, and John MacMurray (2001, 10–14).

[10]. In a series of lectures—“The Promises and Problems of Evangelical Spirituality”—at Regent College, Vancouver, May 29 to June 9, 2006, theologian Simon Chan said that “the Church is pre-existing. God uses creation as a means to bring the Church into existence for communion with Him” (notes transcribed while listening to Chan’s lectures on CD). This view is not shared by everyone. The Reformed stance is that the Church came into being at Pentecost.

[11]. Shalom will be used in place of šālôm and eirēnē for ease of reading because the three terms are essentially synonymous.

[12]. On the use of eirēnē, Kittel, Friedrich, and Bromiley note that in “the material use of the NT we find peace as a feeling of rest, peace as a state of reconciliation with God, and peace as eschatological salvation; the last of these is basic (1995, 209).

[13]. The kingdom of God is a difficult concept to understand, made more so by the fact that Jesus was rather vague in his description of it, opening the way for many different interpretations. Erickson’s (1999, 1160–71) survey mentions the liberal approach (modernised eschatology) and typifies the approaches of Albert Schweitzer (demodernised eschatology), C. H. Dodd (realised eschatology), Rudolf Bultmann (existentialised eschatology), Jürgen Moltmann (politicised eschatology), and dispensationalism (systematised eschatology). Similarly, Wendell Willis (1987) edited a collection of fourteen different interpretations of the kingdom of God in the twentieth century. It is beyond the scope of this dissertation to expand further on these various interpretations. I find George Eldon Ladd (1959, 1964, 1984) an excellent study appropriate for use in this dissertation.

[14]. This summary paraphrases the main points of McKnight’s The Jesus Creed: Loving God, Loving Others (2004a), Willard’s Renovation of the Heart: Putting on the Character of Christ (2002), and Brueggemann’s Living Towards a Vision: Biblical Reflections on Shalom (1982b).

 

 

Soli Deo Gloria

 

 

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