Few topics in Adventism have aroused more interest—and passion—during the past 12 months than that of “spiritual formation.” Books, seminars, and sermons have warned that the concept and practice of teaching contemplative spirituality can open minds to Eastern religions and non-Christian philosophies; others have urged that learning how to deepen a relationship with Christ is a foundational premise of the Word of God. One point of the discussion has been the courses in personal spirituality that are part of the curriculum of the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary at Andrews University, the primary institution for training pastors for the North American church and scholars for the worldwide denomination.
Adventist Review editor Bill Knott recently met with the three teaching professors at the seminary—Allan Walshe, Kathy Beagles, and Joseph Kidder—whose courses focus on teaching students to experience and communicate the practices of personal faith and discipleship.
Knott: One phrase above all others has become the lightning rod of this discussion. Do you use the term spiritual formation, and if so, what do you think it means?
Walshe: To answer the first part of your question—“Do you use the term spiritual formation?”—the answer is no longer. The seminary, along with other Adventist colleges and universities, has used that term, with the clear understanding that these were classes about spiritual growth as taught in Scripture. But when it became clear that it had become a contentious issue because proponents of New Age philosophies, Eastern religions, and others had co-opted the terminology to teach practices that are clearly dangerous, the seminary decided to change the terminology for the class. It is now called Foundations of Biblical Spirituality, which clearly indicates what the class is about.
So when you were using the term spiritual formation, what did you perceive it to mean?
Beagles: When I first encountered the term more than 20 years ago, it had a single, straightforward meaning—the process of building a life with God. My education has all been in Adventist schools, and I hadn’t been exposed to what those words could mean to persons from other religious systems. For me, “spiritual formation” has always been largely synonymous with what we are now calling “revival and reformation.” When you consciously form a Christian life spiritually, you are seeking to reform what isn’t faithful, to be transformed from worldly ways, and to conform your mind to the mind of Christ.
Kidder: I’m much the same. I accepted the term—and inherited a class for which the name was Spiritual Formation. I’ve always understood that it’s really about spiritual growth. One of the key verses that I’ve used in the class is Mark 3:13-15, in which Jesus chooses 12 men to be with Him. It says He called them, He wanted them to be with Him, and after they were with Him, He sent them out to preach and to make a difference in the world. He sent them out in the power of the Holy Spirit. Like those 12, I want to be with Jesus. I want to know Him, enjoy Him, and love Him, and, as the result of that, I want to share it with the world. That’s really the essence of what the phrase means to me.
Walshe: I first became acquainted with the term about 14 years ago at an Adventist camp meeting, and I have always understood it as being about spiritual growth in the way Paul describes in Romans 12. It’s about no longer wanting to be “conformed to this world, but being transformed by the renewing of our minds.”
So it’s about spiritual growth; it’s about sanctification; it’s about being transformed into the image of Jesus. One of the things I love about Enoch is that the Bible says that he walked with God. That’s what I want in my life and in the lives of my students—to walk humbly with our God. I remember in Patriarchs and Prophets, Ellen White says that through communing with God, “Enoch came more and more to reflect the divine image” (p. 87). So the way we’ve understood and taught it is like this: coming more and more to reflect the divine image through an intentional, daily communion and walk with God that is yielded to the Holy Spirit and anchored in the Word of God.
You all understand those terms as meaning the same thing?
Kidder: Absolutely. Spiritual growth, spiritual sanctification, discipleship—that’s what we’re meaning by it when we teach these classes.
Is the core of this controversy, then, an argument about semantics?
Beagles: The use of language is clearly an important part at the moment, but there’s more to it than that. Some well-meaning people simply assume that when we use the term formation, we mean the same thing that some other philosophies or faith traditions mean—which have some distinctly nonbiblical ideas. These individuals arrive at that conclusion to preserve a bigger argument they’re making—that the church today is being influenced by unbiblical ideas and practices. They assume that if we’re using that term, we mean just what others mean—without checking to see if that’s true.
Kidder: We’re Adventist to the core, and proud to be. Dr. Beagles worked at the General Conference for 10 years before coming to the seminary. Dr. Walshe was a conference president and union conference president before coming to the seminary; I have been a pastor and professor for 30 years. So our teaching comes from a solidly Adventist perspective; it is very biblical and also strongly supported by the writings of Ellen G. White. We all use her classic, Steps to Christ, in our classes. We also use The Desire of Ages, The Ministry of Healing, The Sanctified Life, and Thoughts From the Mount of Blessing because we believe these books powerfully contribute to spiritual life.
Walshe: We can all say definitely and categorically that we do not teach or practice “contemplative spirituality,” “contemplative prayer,” “apophatic contemplation or meditation,” which seeks a total emptying of the mind, New Age philosophies, Eastern religious practices, or any other nonbiblical practices that others borrow from Hinduism or Buddhism. We believe everyone should be vigilant not to allow these kinds of philosophies and practices to infiltrate the Adventist Church.
Kidder: Like the apostle Paul, we can say, “This thing was not done in a corner” [Acts 26:26, KJV]. Our work, our teaching, our students, are all in full view.
If what you’re teaching has always been part of the core message of Adventism, how did we get to the place where many Adventists think of learning how to have a deeper life with Jesus as a new direction?
Beagles: A deeper life with Jesus has always been one of the “givens” of Adventism—we kind of just jumped over it. We assumed in our writing and preaching that people knew how to enrich their prayer life, how to find greater meaning in their Bible study, how to “grow in grace” and enjoy sharing their faith. Maybe there was a time in the early years of this movement when that could safely be assumed, but it’s not a “given” anymore. Surveys show that barely 50 percent of Adventists practice the basics of a spiritual life—prayer and Bible study—and even fewer engage in things such as family worship. The worldly culture around us certainly tries to draw us away from God, and if we don’t intentionally plan to build up our lives in Christ, we shouldn’t be surprised that so many Adventists don’t know much about “abiding in Christ.”
You’ve referred to your extensive use of Ellen White’s books in your classes. Are there other Adventist authors you have been drawing on?
Walshe: Until more recently there haven’t been a lot of Adventist authors writing on this topic. Some have, however, and their contributions have been important—even crucial—to meeting the need for spiritual nurture in the church.
Beagles: But there aren’t many, and while some of them share the importance of a relationship very well, they lack the practical aspect that we need for our classes.
Kidder: Well, I’ve written a book—Majesty: Experiencing Authentic Worship—so I use my book in my classes. It’s an Adventist book!
Why do you think Adventist authors after Ellen White haven’t done more writing about how to grow in a relationship with Jesus?
Kidder: They have been focusing on other topics. Ellen White emphasized the need for renewal and Bible study, especially in the last days, and I’m so happy our world church president is emphasizing that. That’s what we teach. We want a revival of knowing Jesus, enjoying Him, loving Him, that will result in changing the world around us.
I’m one of those people who teach evangelism because I believe it is part of Jesus’ Great Commission. The first church I pastored grew from nine people to 139 people; the last one from 40 to 600. So I used to travel a lot and speak about what is often called “church growth.” But I would actually be speaking to them about personal spirituality; later, I would go on to talk about how churches grow. Often the local pastor where I was presenting would come and say, “Well, tell us the strategy you use.” And I would say, “I just told you!” “No, no, tell us point by point the strategy,” he would urge.
Today I travel even more and say the same thing. Pastors say, “That’s exactly what we need to hear.” Trying to do evangelism without spirituality is a danger. Encouraging spirituality that doesn’t result in ministering and evangelism is another danger. A deeper relationship with Jesus will definitely lead to personal evangelism, and that in turn will lead to effective corporate witness.
Beagles: Jesus said, “He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit” [John 15:5, NKJV].*
What do you say to those who complain that a focus on nurture detracts from the work of evangelism?
Walshe: Evangelism must be an important focus for the church. It is absolutely part of what Jesus commissioned His disciples to do in Matthew 28. However, we tend to think that discipleship is evangelism. More accurately, evangelism is the fruit of discipleship (nurture). So nurture (discipleship) should come first. That was Jesus’ model. Evangelism is what happens when your life with God flows over into the lives of those around you.
As Kathy said, we almost jumped over that one. Too often we forget that fruit comes at the end of a process of growing. We want the fruit now, without growing the tree; we want to skip the cycle of growth that precedes it. When our books, sermons, and seminars focus only on the fruit and not on spiritual growth, we find ourselves lamenting shallow spirituality, or meager results, or conflicts in the church, or the difficulties in reaching our communities.
I’m really pleased that church leaders are urging all of us to a time of deeper prayer, of fasting, of revival. Evangelism that is fostered by the nurturing of a deeper spiritual life is a beautiful and sustainable thing.
So evangelism and nurture are actually companions to build new disciples.
Walshe: It usually works like this: people who only have knowledge about God will usually, in turn, only bring other people to have knowledge about God, but people who are nurtured into knowing God, will, in turn, nurture others into knowing God, not just knowing about Him.
You’ve mentioned the significant use of Ellen White in what you do here; and when you create or find other Adventist resources, you’re using those. But you clearly use resources that come from authors in other faiths. How does the biblical imperative “come out of her, my people” [Rev. 18:4] relate to studying the insights and experiences of those from other religious traditions?
Beagles: Adventists believe that there are systems of belief appropriately designated as Babylon. But we also believe—and we’re told by inspiration—that many of God’s people are still in those churches and serving Him to the best of their ability. And many of them are searching. When we study the works of Luther, Wesley, Mueller, or the nineteenth-century missionary Hudson Taylor, we’re learning from persons who deeply loved Jesus but belonged to faiths different from ours.
Kidder: Kathy made an excellent point. Of course we screen these books. We point out what we agree with and what we don’t agree with. And we believe that even the things we don’t agree with challenge us to articulate a distinctly Adventist perspective on the matter.
How do you help some people understand that citing an author isn’t offering a blanket endorsement of everything the author has ever produced?
Beagles: The majority of church members appreciate what we do and understand the vital importance of it. But those who are intent on being critical will always find something on which to fasten. But we can appeal to fair-minded people to look at what we’re doing, see the integrity of our classes, and trust that we are as committed to Seventh-day Adventism as they are.
Kidder: I’m very happy to talk with anybody who has a problem with something I teach. Don’t go to secondary sources to know what I teach. What we teach is very transparent. It simply isn’t reasonable to say that because I use a phrase that another evangelical scholar uses, I believe everything he or she believes. The fact that I may quote a phrase or a line from a fifth-century Christian doesn’t mean I’m secretly sympathetic to Roman Catholicism. My credibility as an Adventist isn’t undermined because Christians from other denominations may believe some of the same things I do.
Many Adventists have grown wary of what is commonly called contemplative spirituality. Do you use that term, and if you do, what do you mean by it?
Walshe: We don’t use that term, and for good reason. Nor do we in any way teach those practices. But we dare not miss the life of thoughtful, Bible-based meditation that every Christian is encouraged to practice.
Beagles: I agree: if we don’t do what both Scripture and the Spirit of Prophecy repeatedly urge us to do, we will absolutely miss the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. We will miss the revival and reformation we’re praying for if we don’t spend quiet time thinking about Jesus, pondering His Word, and allowing His Spirit to change us into His likeness.
You sound as though you have a lot in common with some of the seminary’s critics.
Walshe: Absolutely. We also strongly believe that people should be warned about the subtle and not-so-subtle dangers in New Age philosophies and Eastern religion practices. We don’t want these things infiltrating our church. That’s why I have (in the course outline), as one of the clearly stated outcomes of my class, that students will be able to “discern truth from counterfeit as a means of both personal and corporate protection in the light of the growing number of nonbiblical ‘spiritualities.’ ” I spend a whole class pointing out to my students where, from an Adventist perspective, the dangers lie, and showing them how to enjoy the path of a more satisfying walk with Jesus without falling into the ditches on either side.
Kidder: I agree. We actually believe that many of these individuals have good motives. I wish they knew that we are careful about the same things they are careful about. In so many cases we teach the opposite of what they think we do! It’s important to note that our classes aren’t only about teaching. We have five or six components to help build well-rounded spiritual lives. All our students are required to commit themselves to a devotional experience every day—reading the Bible, or praying, or reflecting on God and His goodness. We frequently assign large portions of the Scriptures for reading, to encourage our students to understand and reflect on less-familiar material in God’s Word. Our aim is to help students come to know God in very personal terms through Scripture, through prayer, through reading the Spirit of Prophecy, through small-group experiences.
Beagles: Basically I would say that we’re trying to teach people to abide in Jesus. I know I’m just too simple, but my class is about taking the time to fall in love with Jesus. Everything we do is designed to get us to be quiet, sit down as little children at His feet, even though we have 100 papers to write and our kids are sick. It’s time to be Mary, even though we have to go be Martha in a little while. But let’s be Mary for a while.
Walshe: I have a student who’s been a conference departmental director for some years. He’s one of the most committed Adventists I know. Yet he said to me a week ago, “When I came into your class, I thought, I don’t need this. But your class reestablished my walk with God. You pushed me to form a devotional habit, and I’m still doing it now consistently, six months later.” And that’s what we do, each of us. We help our students re-form their journey with Jesus.
When church members tell you that they are wary of contemplation and meditation and similar spiritual practices, what do you understand they’re afraid of?
Beagles: They’re afraid that people will open themselves up to spirits other than the Holy Spirit—that we’re opening ourselves without realizing it to a connection with the wrong spirit. They’re concerned that the devil will try to deceive “even the very elect,” and there’s no denying that some Christians have been led away from truth because of the unbiblical practices they adopted.
How would you answer those concerns—those fears?
Beagles: We don’t teach unbiblical practices. We’re teaching people to grow in Christ, and hopefully that growth will spark a revival in their connection with the Holy Spirit. They will find Christ being formed in them; their joy and effectiveness will increase, and the latter rain will fall. We’re trying to help the church do what the church is really all about.
What makes your classes distinctively Adventist? How do your classes differ from what I might find at Wheaton College or at Hope College or some other Protestant seminary?
Walshe: In my class we covered the foundational Adventist passage, ‘Fear God and give glory to Him’ (Rev 14:7), taught by my colleague Dr. Jiri Moskala the last time around. Dr. JoAnn Davidson presented a unit on the ‘Attributes of God’, and Dr. Richard Davidson lectured on ‘Spirituality in the Sanctuary Message’. In another section of the class, I show how a deep understanding and practice of the Sabbath enhances Biblical spirituality.
Beagles: Let me give just one example: the Biblical truth that Adventists believe is that a human being is a single, unified personality—body, soul and mind are not separate and divisible realities. We usually talk about this in the context of what we call the “state of the dead.” But there’s a powerful message here for the state of Christian living as well. I don’t have a spirit that can connect with God apart from the mind and body He has given me. Spiritual transformation has to do with all of me—not just some invisible part of me I call my spirit. When Jesus tells us that He sends the Holy Spirit to live in us, the condition of our minds and of our bodies suddenly becomes important to our ability to be a temple for the Holy Spirit. What I feed my body, like what I feed my mind, has a great impact on my relationship with God. This understanding isn’t shared by almost other Protestants. The very premise of our Biblical spirituality classes is different because of our understanding of who we are, how God created us to be, and how we can commune with Him.
Kidder: We’re teaching whole life spirituality. It encompasses all of life. I live in the context of eternity because I have accepted Jesus as my Savior. The Bible teaching about the sanctuary inspires me to live a holy life and to enjoy the presence of God. I have a whole section in my class about Adventist contribution to the area of spirituality. We talk about the Second Coming, the Sabbath, the state of the dead—all the distinctive Adventist truths.
Some people don’t seem to know that you’re doing those things. Have any of those who have been critical of the seminary’s classes about spirituality asked to sit down with you or have conversations about these issues?
Kidder: Unfortunately, they haven’t. I think discussion and the sharing of ideas is very, very healthy. I would love for those who have concerns, before they print anything, in fairness to come to those of us involved and ask, “What do you teach? I want to be fair to you.” Better yet, pray with us. As I said before, just like the apostle Paul, we can say, “This thing was not done in a corner.” Our work, our teaching, our students are all in full view. Let them discover the common bond we share as believers committed to following Jesus.
Walshe: I wish those who are concerned could hear what we hear, and interact with the persons whose spiritual lives are changed by what they discover here at the Seminary. Often our students tell us, “I’ve had a lot of knowledge about Jesus; I’ve preached about Jesus; I’ve told other people about Jesus, but I’ve not known Him myself.”
Kidder: Every year we have several people who come to us and say, “I have been an Adventist all my life. I have been a pastor for years, but for the first time in my life I have come to know Jesus.” Several years ago I taught a D.Min. seminar about Biblical spirituality, and one of the participants was a teacher at one of our colleges. We had a retreat near the end of the course, and at the end he stood up and started to cry. He said, “I have been teaching theology, but I did not get Jesus.” The knowledge that there are others—perhaps many others like him—in ministry motivates us to do this work.
Beagles: That’s one of the hallmarks of genuine revival and reformation: men and women discover the real Jesus. They fall in love with Him; and their joy is simply contagious.
To read an open letter, “A Response to Teaching Biblical Spirituality at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary of Andrews University,” by Denis Fortin, Dean of the seminary, click here: http://www.andrews.edu/sem/article.php?id=401
* Texts credited to NKJV are from the New King James Version. Copyright © 1979, 1980, 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
This article was published August 11, 2011.