Spiritual Theology: A Systematic Study of the Christian Life
A review of Simon Chan's, "Spiritual Theology: A Systematic Study of the Christian Life," by Dr. Bruce Demarest.
Simon Chan, Spiritual Theology: A Systematic Study of the Christian Life (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1998), 300pp.
Simon Chan is lecturer in systematic theology at Trinity Theological College, Singapore. Chan notes that since the eighteenth century rationalistic Enlightenment, doctrine has separated from spirituality, rupturing the original unity that prevailed since the early church. In this book Chan seeks to repair the split by giving spirituality a sound theological basis and by drawing out the spiritual implications of Christian doctrine. The product of this integration Chan calls “spiritual theology.”
In the first part of the book, “The Theological Principles of Spiritual Theology,” Chan argues that our concept of the one-yet-three God profoundly affects how the spiritual life is perceived and lived out. Moreover, all will agree that “The basic problem of spirituality is the problem of sin” (p. 76). The doctrines of salvation–-grace, conversion, justification, new birth, sanctification, and perfecting at the sight of Christ–are intrinsic to the development of vibrant spiritual life. Finally, spiritual life is nourished by the community of believers who themselves are growing in Christ. Chan believes that growth is facilitated as the church recovers its rich sacramental heritage. To its spiritual impoverishment, the free church tradition “reduces the sacraments to minor appendices in the life of the church” (p. 111).
The second part of the book, “The Practice of the Spiritual life,” treats spiritual habits by which life in Christ is enriched. Chan believes that “The Christian life is from beginning to end a work of divine grace. Actual progress in that life, however, comes through diligent exercise of the means of grace” (p. 11). The heart of spiritual theology is prayer, including the prayer of self-examination, the Jesus Prayer, and contemplative prayer. Chan unfolds the theological basis of “methodical meditation” on the written Word and “occasional meditation” on the physical creation and the spiritual classics. Chan offers an excellent discussion of the benefits Christians may reap by engaging God through the created order. “Just as the text carries the word of God, creation conveys the presence of God. Creation does not just remind us of God but sacramentally presents God to us” (p. 182). Other spiritual disciplines given a theological foundation include journaling, spiritual friendship, and the ancient, but neglected, ministry of spiritual direction.
The reader will find rich gems sprinkled throughout this book. For example, regarding the debated issue of singing choruses in worship, Chan argues that “a good short chorus. . .functions like the Jesus Prayer. . . It aids continual prayer by letting a truth run through our minds over and over again so that it becomes a true part of us” (p. 166). Spiritually profitable choruses, however, must not be trivial but rich in biblical and theological content. The author believes that the Taizé choruses provide us with excellent examples of theologically sound and spiritually edifying music.
While remaining thoroughly evangelical, Chan ranges widely through the literature of theology and Christian spirituality. He insists that evangelical appropriation of the rich resources of Christian spirituality through the centuries is long overdue. Twentieth century believers in both the western and eastern worlds should be steeped in the Christian tradition nurtured by the Spirit through the centuries. We today can learn much that is edifying from from desert fathers, monastics, Christian mystics, Reformers, Puritans, Catholic charismatics, and so on. This book can also be viewed as a “global-contextualized” approach to the Christian life, for Chan skillfully applies timeless insights from classical spirituality to the Asian situation today.
Future books that aim at the integration of theology and spirituality will build on the solid foundation Chan provides in this volume. Here is a challenging book that is theologically sound, spiritually insightful, and persuasively argued. We are all richer for this solid effort.