Monday, March 22, 2010

Dousing that Spiritual Fire

I was reading through the first letter to the Thessalonians and got to the end where in typical Pauline fashion he lists a set of instructions for his readers regarding living out the Christian life.This section seems to pick up in verse 12 after Paul concludes his thoughts regarding the coming of the Lord and the day of the Lord.

5:12 Now we ask you, brothers and sisters, to acknowledge those who labor among you and preside over you in the Lord and admonish you, 5:13 and to esteem them most highly in love because of their work. Be at peace among yourselves. 5:14 And we urge you, brothers and sisters, admonish the undisciplined, comfort the discouraged, help the weak, be patient toward all. 5:15 See that no one pays back evil for evil to anyone, but always pursue what is good for one another and for all. 5:16 Always rejoice, 5:17 constantly pray, 5:18 in everything give thanks. For this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus. 5:19 Do not extinguish the Spirit. 5:20 Do not treat prophecies with contempt. 5:21 But examine all things; hold fast to what is good. 5:22 Stay away from every form of evil. (NET Bible,emphasis added)
In this set of instructions we are told not to extinguish or quench the Holy Spirit. As we read through the passage we should ask ourselves what does it mean to quench the Spirit so that we can properly avoid doing that. In order to try to figure out what quenching the Spirit is we must ask ourselves a key question. How does verse 19 fit in with the rest of the instructions in this passage? How we answer that question will drive our interpretation.

The passage has the following basic outline:
  • Respect your Leaders (12-13)
  • Help others (14-15)
  • Rejoice, Pray, and be thankful (16-18)
  • Don't quench the Spirit (19)
  • Don't disregard prophecy (20-22)
The verse on quenching the Spirit could be tied to the preceding three verses. This would tie quenching the Spirit to failing to do God's will regarding living a life of joy, prayer, and thanks. In another view it could be related to the three verses that follow, therefore quenching the Spirit would be related to having contempt for prophecy. Another possibility is that the quenching of the Spirit could be an individual instruction that is listed between God's desire for our worship (joy, prayer, thanks) and our attitude toward prophecy. In this interpretation the quenching is given no further elaboration. Finally the command not to quench the Spirit could be a general statement. The surrounding verses (12-22) could be giving specific examples of quenching. However, this seems the least possible because the command is given in the middle of the list of instructions not at the beginning or the end.
In reviewing the context of the letter and the paragraph, it seems probable (the other views are certainly possible) that the quenching of the Holy Spirit is related to the attitude of a person/church towards prophecy (*). In coming to this conclusion we first observed that verses 5:20-22 all deal with the same subject (prophecy). We can draw the conclusion that the testing (5:21-22) is related to the statements regarding prophecy in verse 20 because of the "but". This word draws the contrast between the prior statements on contempt for prophecy and the following statements regarding accepting true prophecy after testing it. Furthermore the testing of prophecy is something that is advocated in both the OT and the NT (Deut 18:21; Jer 27:14-15, 29:8-9; 1 Cor 14:37; 1 John 4:1) and why there is a gift of distinguishing prophecies (1 Cor 12:10, 14:31-32). Therefore we have good reasons for handling verses 20-22 as meaning - don't disregard prophecy, but test it and accept what passes.

The case for tying verse 19 to the commands regarding prophecy (20-22) can be made when we infer that verse 18 seems to conclude ("for this") that the prior comments (joy, prayer, thanks) are the will of God.  In addition the Spirit is the Giver of the gift of prophecy that is meant to educate, encourage, and equip the believers (Rom 12:6; 1 Cor 12:10, 14:31; Eph 4:11-13). Certainly disregarding the gift and subsequent benefits is to douse the working of the Spirit.

As we read through letter it is helpful to remember that Paul was not there very long - maybe a little more than three weeks at best. The people  that were there were particularly antagonistic toward the gospel (Acts 17:1-9,13). They caused a mob to chase Paul from both the city of Thessalonica and Berea. They are also the likely source of suffering that the church was going through at the time the letter was written (1 Thess 1:6, 2:14-15).

Since Paul was not there long enough to teach and establish all of the doctrine that he would have in churches like Corinth or Ephesus it is understandable that the body in Thessalonica would be lacking information regarding many things. Because they had much to learn the church was falling prey to doctrinal confusion and false teachings. In the case of the Thessalonians it seems to center around the persecution they are suffering (1 Thess 3:3-4) and the state of loved ones in Christ that have died (1 Thess 4:13-15, 5:9-10). There also seems to be some anxiety regarding the timing of the Lord's return given the number of times that is mentioned in the first letter. It is also the subject of another letter sent to the Thessalonians (2 Thess 2:1-3). There also seems to be a disregard for prophecy in the church (1 Thess 5:20).

As they had not received as much training from Paul and his missionary crew, the church at Thessalonica may have had several people there with the gift of prophecy. They would have been able to build up the body and make up for what was missing because Paul had to leave so quickly (1 Thess 3:10). However the church also seemed to have several sources for misinformation - particularly regarding the timing of Christ's return (2 Thess 2:2). These included false prophecy (spirits), false teachers, and forged letters. These false teachings may be why the Thessalonians began to mistrust all prophetic information (1 Thess 5:20). This in turn led to Paul including the instructions - don't reject prophecy, just be sure to test it. Then keep what passes the test (good) and reject what fails the test (evil).

Therefore, it is fair within the context of chapter 5 and the letter to the Thessalonians that the command to not quench the Spirit is instructing the church to be willing to accept prophecy and test it.

What does that mean for us today? That depends in part on our theological view regarding the gift of prophecy and whether or not it exists today (which would need another post to explore in detail). However we do know that the same Holy Spirit that moved men to speak prophetically, also inspired men to record that truth in the Scriptures. The same Scriptures that are to encourage, exhort, and equip the body of Christ. The Scriptures and the prophetic gift have many overlapping purposes so we would do well to hold the Scripture in high regard and to study & meditate on it regularly insuring that we are growing in both the grace and knowledge of Christ so that we are not subject to false teachings and vain philosophies.

(*) The top three commentaries at including those by Charles Wanamaker, Gene Green, and F.F. Bruce all propose the view that quenching the Holy Spirit is related to disregarding prophecy. The fourth on the list (John Stott) proposes that quenching relates both to the preceding verses on worship and the concluding verses on prophecy. 

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Contemplating Contemplation

I have been thinking through spiritual formation as I am currently taking a class on that right now in seminary. In a prior post I have compared the two views of Foster and Wesley regarding the spiritual disciplines and contemplative prayer. Here I hope to examine this mystical side of spiritual formation (SF) from a larger theological perspective.

Before I do that let me back up and define SF. Better yet let me let the main proponents define it. In a CT 2005 article that transcribed an interview with Dallas Willard and Richard Foster SF was defined as follows:
Spiritual formation is character formation. Everyone gets a spiritual formation. It's like education. Everyone gets an education; it's just a matter of which one you get.

Spiritual formation in a Christian tradition answers a specific human question: What kind of person am I going to be? It is the process of establishing the character of Christ in the person. That's all it is. You are taking on the character of Christ in a process of discipleship to him under the direction of the Holy Spirit and the Word of God. It isn't anything new, because Christians have been in this business forever. They haven't always called it spiritual formation, but the term itself goes way back.
I don't think many of us could disagree with the definition above. Certainly SF is the "the process of establishing the character of Christ in the person" and the Holy Spirit and the Word are instrumental. How these are involved and what that process looks like is a good question. One we all should be thinking through as we seek to please the Lord and make the most of the life He has given us. However my goal in this post is not to tackle whether Christ like character requires a process or not  - I think that Scripture makes it clear that sanctification is a synergistic process. My goal in this post is not to tackle what that process is either. My goal is to examine one of the disciplines - contemplative prayer - and look at the many areas of theology that are intersected.

Why? Because this discipline is stressed as one of the foundational disciplines and is the school that we should all enroll in according to Foster in CD. In the chapter on Contemplative Prayer in Foster's book Prayer: Finding the Heart's True Home (PFH) (161-163) we learn more about what this discipline is:
[this prayer is] traditionally called recollection. It means recollecting ourselves until we are unified or whole. Basil Penington uses the phrase centering prayer. Sue Monk Kidd calls it prayer of presence. The old Quakers uses the term centering down. They all refer to the same experience. The idea is to let go of all competing distractions until we are truly present where we are. ... [and] have made contact with that center which knows no distraction ... we experience an inward attentiveness to divine motions. ... Be silent and listen to God. Let your heart be in such a state of preparation that his Spirit may impress upon you such virtues as will please him. Let all within you listen to him. This silence of all outward and earthly affection and of human thoughts within us is essential if we are to hear his voice. (emphasis added)
Listening to God. That is certainly something every Christian should take serious. Jesus said if we were His friends we would obey Him (John 15:14). Jesus also said that My sheep know My voice and follow Me (John 10:4). Hearing God's voice. I have to admit this has always been a difficult area for me to get my head around. What does it mean that we shall "hear His still small voice"? What does that sound like? What types of things can we expect to be told and how? Can we be sure it is His voice and not our own desires, ideas, or worse? As I have wrestled through this again in view of contemplative prayer I thought of all the different theology that is involved with this concept.

Our view of Scripture as the inspired and inerrant Word of God is important. In this collection of books we have the promises, commands, and revelations of God as our objective truth. The Scriptures are the basis by which we are equipped for every good work (2 Tim 3:17) and the Spirit that indwells us empowers us to live in godliness (2 Pet 1:3; 1 Cor 6:19). Are we to seek subjective inner experiences in order to be equipped and empowered to live in godliness? As this discipline is pursued is Scripture to be used to  evaluate these experiences (1 John 4:1; Deut 18:21)?

Support for the Discipline is primarily supported by appealing to the "devotional masters". However there is no sound Scriptural support for the contemplative prayer described in CD or PFH. Certainly we can see Jesus seek out times of solitude to be alone, get rest, and pray. We are also told to "be still" in many Scriptures (Ps 4:4; Ps 46:10). However do any of these passages describe this practice? When Jesus taught us how to pray did He describe the discipline of listening silence? Should we accept a discipline that has no support in Scripture and was championed by Catholic mystics who come from a faith background that saw sacraments as part of salvation and grace (see Trent Session 7, Canon IV, VIII, IX)?

Our view of the Holy Spirit certainly affects how we come to contemplative prayer. As an aside I encourage you to stop reading this post and check this post out by Rey on the Holy Spirit. Tremble indeed.

When the Holy Spirit interacts with us, what does Scripture say we can expect (a non-exhaustive list - feel free to add more in the comment section):
  • Conviction of sin, righteousness, and judgment. (John 16:8-11)
  • Power to live in godliness (2 Pet 1:3-4)
  • Illumination & Understanding of what God has already revealed. (1 Cor 2:9-14)
  • Guidance & Wisdom. (James 1:5)
  • Assurance of Salvation. (Rom 8:16)
  • Help in prayer life. (Rom 8:26-27)
As the Holy Spirit works in these ways in our life how does He do it? Is contemplative prayer the means to these gracious promises?

Our definition of prophecy and continuation of the sign gifts certainly affects how we come to contemplative prayer as well. Is there a difference between convicting, guiding, illuminating, and revealing? Should we expect new information from God through imagination, feelings, and subjective experiences? Could this be a normal occurrence in the life of a believer?

I certainly believe that God speaks. I believe that this is primarily and normally by the Spirit through the Word  just as it says in Hebrews 3:7 (emphasis added):
Therefore, as the Holy Spirit says, "Today, if you hear his voice, ... "
The Holy Spirit speaks. One way is through the Scripture since this passage goes on to demonstrate the HS speaking by quoting Psalm 95:7. I believe that the Spirit primarily guides us into truth that has been revealed in the Scriptures and helps us understand and apply the Word in our lives. This does not preclude God from speaking through other means at various times. However I question whether this is a normative experience to be sought out through contemplative prayer.

How does your theology handle this very practical area of hearing God?