Monday, September 13, 2010

What is Spiritual Theology?

Perhaps the strongest term for Christian spirituality is “spiritual theology.” Our lived faith can never be separated from our understanding of God as revealed in his Word. This is what separates true Christian Spirituality from the many other “spiritualities” in circulation today. The term “spiritual theology” is valuable because it seeks to keep together the content of our faith as Christians and the outworking of that faith in our lives.

Traditional Use of the Term

Classically, spiritual theology has been the academic study of Christian formation. It has been divided into two fields: ascetic theology and mystical theology.

Ascetic theology focuses upon much of what we term “discipleship” today. It looks at our training (askēsis), especially in terms of practicing various spiritual disciplines, as practical steps in putting to death our old nature of sin so that we can walk in the freedom of the Spirit.

Building upon that foundation of discipleship, mystical theology looks upon our intimate encounter with God. What we call “experiencing God’s presence in prayer” or “feeling God in worship,” is what Christian mysticism is about. While the word “mystic” has developed a negative connotation in its contemporary usage, in its classical usage it simply emphasizes the heart-felt love for God and the experiential relationship with the Lord to which all believers are called.

Although the term spiritual theology has maintained this traditional, narrower definition since the nineteenth century—and though it was often seen as a subset of systematic theology—the term today often carries a broader connotation. In particular, spiritual theology seeks to integrate our faith with our practice, especially emphasizing the Trinitarian foundation of our Christian faith.

God is a Trinity of Persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit

Christian Spirituality, by definition, needs to be Trinitarian. Orthodox Christianity has always worshiped a God who exists eternally as three Persons. God is love (1 John 4:8), and love is of necessity relational. From all eternity the Father and the Son share intimate communion with each other, as seen especially throughout the Gospel of John. By the Holy Spirit, the Godhead invites us to participate in that love relationship.

Our Trinitarian faith shapes our relationship with the Lord. Spiritual formation is essentially relational. God is personal. That personal God invites us into the same love relationship that the Father and Son share (see John 17). For a valuable discussion of Trinitarian theology and spirituality, see Philip Sheldrake’s Spirituality and Theology: Christian Living and the Doctrine of God.

Spiritual theology keeps our Christian formation from becoming simply one more self-improvement program on the market. It ties our practice with our personal relationship with God. Moreover, it emphasizes that relational character of our lives—spiritual growth is lived out in friendships with others and friendship with God.

© 2010 Glenn E. Myers

Selected Bibliography Spiritual Theology and Theological Anthropology
Allen, Diogenes. Spiritual Theology: The Theology of Yesterday for Spiritual help Today. Cambridge/Boston: Cowley Publications, 1997.
Chan, Simon. Spiritual Theology: A Systematic Study of the Christian Life. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1998.
Grenz, Stanley J. The Social God and the Relational Self. Knoxville: Westminster John Knox, 2001.
Houston, James M. The Prayer: Deepening Your Friendship with God. Colorado Springs, CO: David C. Cook, 2007. ISBN: 07814-44268.
McIntosh, Mark A. Mystical Theology: The Integrity of Spirituality and Theology. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 1998. ISBN: 1-55786-907-3.
Sheldrake, Philip. Spirituality and Theology: Christian Living and the Doctrine of God. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1998. ISBN: 1-5707-5224-9.
Torrance, Alan J. Persons in Communion: Trinitarian Description and Human Participation. Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1996.
Zizioulas, John. Being as Communion: Studies in Personhood and the Church. Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1985, 1997. ISBN: 0-8814-10292.
__________. Communion and Otherness: Further Studies in Personhood and the Church. Edited by Paul McPartlan. New York, NY: T&T Clark, 2006. ISBN: 978-0-56703-1488.

1 comment:

  1. Why spiritual theology in the world of secularism and pluralism. Can Mariology be studied as a branch of spiritual theology? God was made flesh in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary, has this not a very big lesson to to teach humanity? Why do some people rather Mariology as the "worship" of Mary?