Spiritual Disciplines – page 1


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From the Winter 2017 issue of Knowing & Doing:

Spiritual Disciplines

by D.A. Carson, Ph.D.
Research Professor of New Testament,
Trinity Evangelical Divinity School


lmost two decades ago I wrote an essay titled “When Is Spirituality Spiritual? Reflections on Some Problems of Definition”.1 I would like to follow up on one aspect of that topic here.

New Testament Meaning of “Spiritual”

  The broader framework of the discussion needs to be remembered. “Spiritual” and “spirituality” have become notoriously fuzzy words. In common usage they almost always have positive overtones, but rarely does their meaning range within the sphere of biblical usage. People think of themselves as “spiritual” because they have certain aesthetic sensibilities, or because they feel some kind of mystical connection with nature, or because they espouse some highly privatized version of one of any number of religions (but “religion” tends to be a word with negative connotations while “spirituality” has positive overtones). Under the terms of the new covenant, however, the only “spiritual” person is the person who has the Holy Spirit, poured out on individuals in regeneration. The alternative, in Paul’s terminology, is to be “natural” – merely human – and not “spiritual” (1 Cor 2:14). For the Christian whose vocabulary and concepts on this topic are shaped by Scripture, only the Christian is spiritual. Then, by an obvious extension, those Christians who display Christian virtues are spiritual, since these virtues are the fruit of the Spirit. Those who are “mere infants in Christ” (1 Cor 3:1), if they truly are in Christ, are spiritual inasmuch as they are indwelt by the Spirit, but their lives may leave much to be desired.2 Nevertheless the New Testament does not label immature Christians as unspiritual as if the category “spiritual” should be reserved only for the most mature, the elite of the elect: that is an error common to much of the Roman Catholic tradition of spirituality, in which the spiritual life and the spiritual traditions are often tied up with believers who want to transcend the ordinary. Such “spiritual” life is often bound up with asceticism and sometimes mysticism, with orders of nuns and monks, and with a variety of techniques that go beyond ordinary Joe or Mary Christian.

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