Spiritual Theology: A Systematic Study of the Christian LifeSpiritual Theology: A Systematic Study of the Christian Life
Simon Chan
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Post-Enlightenment theology has tended to divorce spirituality from systematic theology. Now, respected theologian Chan strives to reunite them as he explores the connections between Christian doctrine and Christian living. Covering the topics of sin, salvation, the church, and God, he offers illuminating reflections on the implications of these key concepts for the spiritual life.

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From the preface

(to view a footnote, click on its number)

This work seeks to introduce evangelicals to spiritual theology as a systematic discipline. It differs from traditional works of spiritual theology in three ways. First, it attempts to give the study a wider contextual basis by discussing the various issues from both a Western and an Asian perspective. Second, it looks at the spiritual life from an evangelical perspective. By evangelical is meant a life created by the Christian story and distinguished by a conscious, personal relationship with God through Jesus Christ. Third, it considers the life of grace as having a charismatic dimension that is open to surprises from God.

The twelve chapters of this book are divided into two parts. Part one develops the flip side of some major loci of systematic theology. The aim is not to reflect on Christian doctrine per se but on their implications for the Christian life. For this reason I have not developed these loci systematically or in any detail. For example, chapter two presupposes some knowledge of classical and contemporary theological discussions about the Trinity. My primary concern is to show that the different ways of configuring the relationship between divine immanence and divine transcendence into different trinitarian concepts inevitably affects the way the Christian life is lived.

The scope of the theological loci and the particular emphasis given to them needs some explanation. Man is discussed primarily from the standpoint of man-the-sinner. The basic accent of the Christian spiritual tradition is on overcoming the hindrances to man's becoming the person God wants him to be, not on developing his natural, creaturely potential. Spiritual progress is viewed primarily from the perspective of restoring the image of God rather than from the perspective of developing innate human potential. This is not to say that spiritual progress simply means going back to the "original" image. Rather, any attempt at realizing the human potential must take the person through the redemptive path. In other words, focusing on man-the-sinner is the more logical way of conceptualizing spiritual progress.
Similarly, we have not given eschatology the same emphasis that some modern theologians have given it. The historically conditioned is subsumed within the larger category of Christian perfection. It might be argued that the traditional concept of perfection lacks the historical dimension--a dimension that many modern theologians have come to see as most determinative. My response is twofold. First, theologically, if some form of incarnational theology lies behind the heavy historical accent, it could be argued on the same basis that the Incarnation is as much a doctrine of divine transcendence as of divine immanence. The Word became flesh is as much an affirmation of the preexistence of the Word as an affirmation of its historical presence. Second, if the doctrine of creation is what lies behind the emphasis on divine immanence, again it could be argued that creation is a free act and that God who is God is even before there was any creation.1

The accent of the Christian tradition has fallen a bit more heavily on God's transcendence than it has on God's immanence. Christian progress is not just a forward movement into God's historical future, as Moltmann or Pannenberg envisions it, but also an upward movement on Jacob's ladder, as the Christian spiritual tradition has consistently affirmed. Although the Christian life is firmly grounded in history, it certainly is not confined to it. This view is well summed up by Orthodox theologian John Zizioulas: "The fact that man in the Church is the 'image of God' is due to the economy of the Holy Trinity, that is, the work of Christ and the Spirit in history. This economy is the basis of ecclesiology, without being the goal of it. The Church is built by the historical work of the divine economy but leads finally to the vision of God 'as He is,' to the vision of the Triune God in his eternal existence."2 In this connection, it can be added that eschatology as it is conceived in the Orthodox Church contains a strong metahistorical dimension because of its close link with the Spirit who is "the beyond history."3

My second consideration is on contextual grounds. If we place Christianity within the larger global context, the transcendent or eternal dimension of existence found in Asian religiosity must be given its due weight. This does not mean that we are surrendering the normative witness of Scripture to the cultural context; it means that the scriptural witness to divine immanence and transcendence has a wider contextual application than is recognized by certain modern historically oriented theologies, which have essentially collapsed divine transcendence into divine immanence.
Part two of this work discusses the spiritual exercises by which the Christian life conceived in part one is to be actualized. 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. Acts are utterly basic, small acts, which over time form the Christian character. Without this ascetical base the practical implications noted in part one remain theoretical at best. I call this approach an "asceticism of small steps," of which the first is prayer. Prayer is the first ascetical principle because all the other spiritual exercises depend on it. Unless the various exercises are integrated into a rule of life, however, they remain incoherent and ineffective (chap. 10). Progress in the Christian life is not always smooth and straightforward. There are problems and dangers, unexpected twists and turns, choices to be made between several alternative paths. All these call for discernment (chap. 11). Those who want to discern God's will for their own lives and want to implement an effective rule of life need a spiritual director (chap. 12).

Regarding the issue of inclusive language, for good theological reasons, I would not have hesitated to use the masculine pronoun.4 As a concession to the times, however, I have used all three genders indifferently whenever it is aesthetically suitable. I make no apologies for this on either contextual or moral grounds. As an Asian living in a culture that does not make an issue of inclusive language (even where English is extensively used), I do not feel obliged to be consistent one way or the other. Existentially and irreducibly, human beings are either male or female. Systematically avoiding gender-specific terms for the sake of political correctness can only reduce personhood and bring an end to any meaningful personal conversation.5

I have used the term West and its cognates primarily as an ideal type distinguished by a number of characteristics such as individualism, rationalism and egalitarianism, not as a strictly geographical designation. It is virtually equivalent to modernity. Quotations from premodern works have been modernized.

  1. See T.F. Torrance, The Trinitarian Faith (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1993), chap. 2. (return to the text)

  2. John Zizioulas, Being as Communion (Crestwood, N.Y.: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1985), p. 19. Author's emphasis. (return to the text)

  3. Ibid., pp. 130-32. (return to the text)

  4. For the use of the masculine pronoun for God, see Donald D. Hook and Alvin F. Kimel Jr., "The Pronouns of Deity: A Theolinguistic Critique of Feminist Proposals," Scottish Journal of Theology 46, no. 3 (1993): 297-323. (return to the text)

  5. This point is made by Hook and Kimel (ibid., pp. 318-323) and, from a very different background and perspective, by an Asian woman writer, Delia Kang-Oakins, "In for a Rude Awakening," Asia Magazine, June 5, 1994, p. 30. (return to the text)