The Secret of Spiritual Formation, by Chad Thornhill
When one thinks about Christian spiritual formation, likely what first comes to mind are the spiritual disciplines. Activities like fasting, prayer, Scripture reading, solitude, etc. are part and parcel of our thinking on spiritual formation. Others still may think of formation through liturgical practices or perhaps even communal participation. There is, however, a more basic foundation to spiritual formation that is often overlooked which is at the heart of the third chapter of Smith’s The Magnificent Story.
Participation in the life of God. To many, that language may sound strange, mysterious, wrong, or even downright heretical. But such an estimation overlooks how the New Testament portrays the identity and formation of the people of God. Paul in Romans 8 frames it this way: belonging to the Father through union with and conformity to the image of the Son of God by means of the empowerment of the Spirit.
For Smith, where there is God, there are the transcendentals, so accompanying the tri-unity of the Father, Son, and Spirit are the tri-unity of beauty, goodness, and truth. Thus, “If you experience beauty, you also experience truth and goodness” (38). Rightly, Smith sees the beginning of the beautiful, good, and true story not with creation, but with what was before. Before there was a beginning to the universe, there was the eternal God in perfect, loving fellowship. A fellowship of beauty, goodness, and truth.
So what does this have to do with spiritual formation? Smith states forthrightly, “We were made for participation in trinitarian life. When Jesus told his apprentices to go and make disciples, “baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19), he was not talking about getting people wet but rather immersing people in trinitarian reality” (39).
Smith bemoans the absence of this trinitarian reality in the life of many Christians today, pointing back to the shrunken gospel stories discussed earlier where God is seen as uninvolved and Jesus merely a man or God pours out his punishment on Jesus. Neither see harmony between the Father and Son nor see much of a necessity to the work of the Holy Spirit.
Smith analyzes this shortcoming through the lens of beauty, goodness, and truth and through the Wesleyan Quadrilateral. Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience tell a better story, one in which, Smith (quoting Marty Folsom) finds:
And again, here quoting John O’Donohue:
“The Christian concept of god as Trinity is the most sublime articulation of otherness and intimacy, an eternal interflow of friendship. This perspective discloses the beautiful fulfillment of our immortal longing in the words of Jesus, who said, Behold, I call you friends. Jesus, as the son of God, is the first Other in the universe… in friendship with him, we enter the tender beauty and affection of the Trinity. In the embrace of this eternal friendship, we dare to be free” (48).
Do you think of the Christian life as one of participation in the life of God?
How does a Trinitarian view of the Christian life change our commitments and patterns of behavior when it comes to spiritual formation?
Chad Thornhill, PhD
Chair of Theological Studies, Director of the MA in Christian Apologetics,
Associate Professor of Apologetics and Biblical Studies
School of Divinity, Liberty University