When I heard that Kyle Strobel was writing a book on the spiritual disciplines of Jonathan Edwards I immediately went on Amazon and pre-ordered it. As you well know, I am an avid Jonathan Edwards fan, and have devoted much of my seminary writing to Edwards (and other Reformed theologians like Barth and T.F. Torrance). I haven’t been studying Edwards for a very long time, I was only in seminary for 3 years, nevertheless one of my first papers in seminary was actually on the spiritual disciplines of Edwards. I wrote a paper outlining his Spiritual Formation in a Puritan context, what “practices” he practiced (is there a better word?), and what we can learn from his rhythm of spiritual formation. It was in writing this paper that I fell in love with Edwards, mainly because it forced me to engage with George Marsden’s behemoth biography of Edwards. And now I’m in the process of preparing to do a ThM with a research focus on Edwards alongside of Oliver Crisp (we are waiting for him to come back from his sabbatical in Fall of 2014). So, all to say, that the spiritual disciplines of Jonathan Edwards hold a special place in my heart.
Having laid out the fact that I am biased, and have a keen interest in the subject of this book let me share some thoughts on it.
Kyle Strobel’s book, Formed for the Glory of God: Learning from the Spiritual Practices of Jonathan Edwards, is broken up into two parts. The first is titled “A Journey into Beauty.” In this section of the book Strobel lays out the foundation of the Christian faith according to Edwards. He uses the metaphor of a journey or a path to illustrate Edwards God-centered theology. This journey is centered on the Beatific vision (something that contemporary evangelicals have either forgotten was a central part of our catholic faith or have simply chosen to ignore). Kyle says that the culmination of the journey “is standing before the God of love and beholding him as my Father, seeing him clearly and growing in knowledge of him for eternity.” In the next chapter he cashes out what the beatific vision is really about, knowing God as glorious and knowing God as beautiful. And we only know God in these ways because we are “in” Christ. Knowing God in these ways, through Christ, is ultimately relational. It is no mere academic exercise. This is extremely important for understanding Edwards’ theology because Edwards’ practical theology is centered on “affections” (and by this I don’t mean the warm fuzzys). Edwards’ thoughts on affections are best captured in the truism “people are not simply thinking beings, but loving beings.” Our hearts will always gravitate towards something. When our hearts do that our will attempts to grasp it because we are vigorously captivated by it. In turn our entire way of living is changed because our will is now centered upon that one object or person.
Part two is titled “Tools for the Journey.” In this section of the book Strobel assesses the “tools God has given us on this journey, asking what they are for and why we should practice them.” He begins by explaining the fact that spiritual disciplines are means of grace. The means of grace are practices or actions given to the church which are not efficacious on their own right, rather they are actions through which we receive the Grace God has already given to us. In other words they are “spiritual postures to receive God’s grace.” This notion of putting ourselves in a posture of dependence is key for understanding Strobel’s discussion of Edwards’ disciplines. Again and again Strobel emphasizes that we don’t create grace or earn it through this disciplines; the Grace is already there, we simply put ourselves in a posture to receive the gift that God has already given to us, namely the gift of himself. Having laid this foundation Strobel explains some of Edwards’ practices. For instance he devotes an entire chapter to examining our own lives and an entire chapter to Mediation/Contemplation (which are slightly different). He concludes with a chapter on Sabbath, Fasting, Conferencing, Soliloquy, Silence and Solitude, and Prayer.
Thoughts on the Book
I want to highlight a couple of things that I believe Strobel did really well, and then make some constructive criticisms of the book.
Here are some of the things that Strobel did well:
- The Discussion of the Christian Life: Strobel says that “we refuse to talk about spiritual practices until we have a firm grasp of the picture of the Christian life.” Most people writing on spiritual disciplines these days don’t take the time to place the disciplines within the larger context of the Christian life. It almost seems as though these disciplines become the end of the journey, instead of the tools for the journey. Placing them with the context of our spiritual journey keeps us from falling into that trap. On top of this, Strobel did a great job explaining the Christian life from an angle that most people will not be familiar with. In my own experience working in ministry, I have never heard congregant explain their walk with Christ in the way Strobel explained it. Most people describe their journey as growth in becoming better people or something else like that. Strobel explains the journey as a journey towards the beatific vision, which can only occur in Christ. He says that the Christian life is a journey to see clearly. “It is a journey inaugurated with a sight of faith and a journey whose destination is perfection of that sight.”
- The Discussion of the Means of Grace: “Means of Grace” is a very reformed phrase, that most people aren’t accustomed to. Nevertheless, Strobel does a great job explaining what Means of Grace are. In my opinion this is the strongest part of the book. Where most people will see spiritual disciplines as self-help tools, or tools that will help them get closer to God so that God will love them more, the notion that disciplines are a means of grace combats these temptations. The disciplines that Edwards practiced, and Strobel recommends are the places that we come to receive the wonderful gift of grace that God has already given to us through his son Jesus. Spiritual disciplines are not a way of wrenching God’s arm into giving us more of himself. God has already fully given himself to us in Christ!
- The Appendix: For people who will want to practice what Kyle preaches, this is an invaluable tool. Its clear and well organized. Anybody can turn to this section of the book and begin to lead themselves and others into the disciplines that Edwards practiced.
Its hard for me to really criticize this book because I loved it so much, and found it to be spot on with Edwards’ theology, nevertheless here are some constructive criticisms:
- A Lack of Interaction With Edwards’ Historical Context: I would have liked to see Strobel interact with Edwards greater Reformed and Puritan context a bit more, especially in regard to how spiritual disciplines were regarded by continental reformed pastors and theologians and also by Puritans in the new world. What role did spiritual disciplines play in the lives of puritan pastors? Were spiritual disciplines a big part of reformed piety? Or is Edwards unique in this regard? The fact that Strobel didn’t include this sort of discussion in the book doesn’t hurt my opinion of the book, but I believe the book could have been strengthened by it. Perhaps he could have included it in the chapter about the means of grace.
- A Lack of a “Spiritual Biography”: I also would have liked to see Strobel pull all of these practices into a short (perhaps chapter long) biography section. Strobel does a good job of picking apart these disciplines and giving Edwards’ theological postitions behind them, but it would have been a stronger book if Strobel would have written about how these practices shaped Edwards’ life and ministry. I can imagine a chapter where Strobel starts off by talking about Edwards’ periods of prayer and solitude (as well as group prayers) when he was a kid in the woods. Then he could have written about the key role these disciplines played while he was a Presbyterian pastor in New York. And so on… I think you get the point. I would have liked to see how these disciplines fit into the big picture of Edward’s life.
As you can tell I (mostly) have only good words for this book. Edwards and spiritual disciplines are two subjects that I absolutely love to study, and this book brilliantly combines both. If you are looking for an easy introduction into the practical theology of Edwards I highly recommend this book. If you are looking for a reformed take on spiritual disciplines, I recommend this book. If you are interested in spiritual disciplines and want some practical guidance on practicing them, I recommend this book. Basically, whoever you are and whatever you are interested in I recommend this book.