Wednesday, August 07, 2013

Book Review of Formed for the Glory of God by Kyle Strobel

Formed for the Glory of God: Learning from the Spiritual Practices of Jonathan Edwards
by Kyle Strobel
ISBN 978-0-8308-5653-4
Intervarsity Press
Reviewed by Clint Walker

I remember in my seminary class on Christian Education, our professor made an effort to have us read a book on on Spiritual Formation in Congregational Life. Coming from a more evangelical background, I shared with my professor my struggles with the book. "This is such a different way of talking about church," I told him, "I have to slow down, filter, and then reinterpret this book through my current vocabulary to understand what the author is getting at."

My professor told me that this was his goal. He wanted us to be conversant with work done on Christian Education that used Spiritual Formation language. His vision was very prescient. This is because I believe that the "Christian Education" model of church is dying, and is quickly being replaced by a "spiritual formation" model of explaining how we do the work of discipleship.

Reading and studying Formed for the Glory of God will create similar challenges for those readers who are a part of the spiritual formation conversation, but are not used to the language and approach of the Puritans to spiritual practices. Strobel does his best to be our guide into the world of Puritan spiritual formation through its most articulate spokesman, Jonathan Edwards. He teaches us a new vocabulary as we journey with him. We learn of the practice of soliloquy in spiritual formation. Then we ponder the centrality of the concepts of beauty and grace in understanding how souls are truly transformed.

Much of the first three chapters of Formed for the Glory of God, the reader is given an overview of Edwards' theology that is relevant to his understanding of how persons grow close to God. It is a deep, thoughtful survey of Edwards' beliefs, which are deeply rooted in Calvinism. Strobel does an excellent job of both explaining this theology, and talking about why it is relevant to a conversation on spiritual formation.

The next section of the book talks more generally about how God changes people. What I thought was most interesting was the conversation about replacing the language of spiritual disciplines with Edwards' language about "means of grace". For Strobel, the language of spiritual disciplines tends to lean toward works righteousness and/or a therapeutic model of self-salvation. While Strobel has some good points, I tend to disagree.

I have always thought of the model of practicing spiritual disciplines as a relational journey. The practice of these disciplines helps me to listen and attend to what God is doing, and connect with him in a meaningful way. It is not me changing my life when I practice spiritual disciplines. When I practice spiritual disciplines I am just using time honored practices of making myself available to God to speak to and transform.

I think Strobel gets his aversion to the language of spiritual disciplines because it has its historical roots firmly planted in the ground of Catholicism. And, in Catholic writings on spiritual formation, there is a lot that lends itself toward works righteousness in the more historic works, and there is a lot of fluffy self-help stuff in contemporary thought. Nevertheless, I do not see the need to throw out perfectly good language because some have abused it. The same could be done with the phrase "means of grace" with enough effort and research.

As Formed for the Glory of God continues, there is some really good work that Strobel does in sharing some of Edwards' spiritual practices. The discussion of the difference between meditation and contemplation in Edwards' thought was instructional and helpful for me personally. Also, hearing about some of the spiritual practices of Puritan New England will be useful and I continue to understand how God is working on me, and how I can find ways to yield my heart to him more faithfully.

This little paperback packs more of a punch than it lets on. It is deep, thoughtful, and well-researched. I think it needs to be on the bookshelf of every pastor interested in Reformed Spirituality, and this work needs to be considered within discussions on how spiritual formation works across traditions.

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