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by Louis Berkhof

[excerpted from The Evangelical Student, 13.1 (January 1938): 10-14.]

The question is often asked in our day, what can be done to promote real spirituality? Serious-minded church members raise it from time to time, and the spiritual leaders of the people often dwell on the subject in their sermons and public addresses. The fact that this question ever and anon forces itself upon the attention of Christian men and women does not testify to the spiritualmindedness of the present generation, but rather gives evidence of the conscious lack of spirituality. They who enjoy vigorous health do not, as a rule, seek information as to special exercises to promote their physical well-being. But when a feeling of lassitude creeps over them, when their natural vigour abates, and when their general health seems to decline,--then they begin to show particular interest in special restorative measures.

At the same time it is an encouraging sign to find Christian people seriously asking, how they can improve their spiritual health and promote their spiritual growth. The person who is unconscious of the fact that his health is failing, and who is for that very reason indifferent as to restorative measures, is in a sadder plight than he who is deeply conscious of it and therefore seeks medical advice. When Christian people ask what may be done to improve their spiritual life, they are clearly conscious of the fact that their present condition is not ideal and manifest a desire for spiritual growth. They feel that they have not yet reached the ideal, that their sanctification is far from complete, and that their Christian life ought to move on to higher levels. And this is encouraging, since it is a necessary prerequisite for further spiritual advancement. It is a true cause for rejoicing to find theological students frequently raising the question as to how they may improve their spirituality.

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In any attempt to give an answer to this question it is of the greatest importance to determine the nature of true spirituality, especially since there is considerable difference of opinion on this point.

Pantheistic idealism bases its conception of spirituality on the immanence of God and conceives of it pantheistically. The divine in man is struggling to gain the mastery over his lower propensities; and the man who allows the higher elements of his nature to control his life, is the truly spiritual man. Man is spiritual in the measure in which he feels himself one with God in the depths of his being. Spinoza, the God-intoxicated man, may be held up as an ideal. Shelley and Tennyson were eminently spiritual. "The spiritual life," says president Hyde of Bowdoin College, "is the universal life; the life determined by reason." And according to Gerald Birney Smith, late professor of systematic theology at the Divinity School of Chicago "the essence of spirituality consists in a direct, personal, and inner relation to God ... As to content it is grounded in a good will and cannot be distinguished from a truly moral life."

Humanism has a conception of spirituality based on its view of the inherent goodness of man. All genuine human values, such as science, art, literature, and philosophy, bearing on human, especially social, relationships, are spiritual. Says Roy Wood Sellars of the University of Michigan: "Wherever there are genuine values, there is the spiritual. Is not loyalty to these spiritual values of human life coming to be the sole meaning of religion?" The spiritual man is the man who unreservedly devotes himself to the welfare of his neighbors and of humanity, and who labours for the social reconstruction of human society.

In Mysticism and mystical sects we meet with quite a different conception of spirituality. It is characteristically mystical to lay claim to spiritual independence of the Word of God and to a special enlightenment by the Holy Spirit. Mystics sometimes speak of being submerged in the infinite ocean of God. According to them it is exactly their independence of the letter which killeth, their special insight into the things of God, and their mystical oneness with God, that constitutes their spirituality. Evangelical sects of the present day occasionally manifest a tendency to move in the same direction. They sometimes decry the intellectual element in religion, speak of a special spiritual light which the enjoy, and boast of a high, if not unique, degree of spirituality.

There is a related view, very common in some Evangelical circles today, which is based on the idea that religion has its seat in the feelings, or in the heart conceived as the seat of the emotions. They use the term "spirituality" to describe the warmer religious emotions. The preacher who speaks with special unction and a great deal of feeling, and the books that stir the religious emotions, are regarded as pre-eminently spiritual. The man who is deeply moved by the operations of the Holy Spirit in his heart and delights to speak of the mercies of God, is looked upon as a deeply spiritual man. Now this view certainly calls attention to a real element of spirituality, but it is one-sided and narrows the conception of spirituality unduly. In fact, such emotional utterances may not be rooted in the deeper life of the soul at all. Sad to say, some professing Christians, whose speech gives evidence of this kind of spirituality" lead wicked lives and do very unspiritual things. And yet it is to be feared that this is exactly the kind of spirituality which many regard as ideal in the present day. The underlying assumption is that there can be no spirituality at all apart from emotional effusions. Men who are by nature rather unemotional are suspected of being unspiritual. This is doing them a great injustice. Such men may be more truly spiritual than those who are all warmth and emotion.

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We ought to learn from Scripture just who the spiritual man is. Paul speak repeatedly of believers as pneumatikoi (spiritual men). He places the pneumatic man over against the psychic man as one who possesses a life derived from the special operation of the Holy Spirit and under the control of that Spirit, as contrasted with the life of the natural man, who is a stranger to the special operations of the Holy Spirit. The spiritual man is the man who is in possession of the Holy Spirit, and therefore of a heaven-born life, who is controlled in his moral and religious life by the Spirit of God, and who adapts his life to the realities of the spiritual world into which he was introduced by the work of regeneration.

Since the Holy Spirit dwells in the heart of man, He naturally exercises a correspondingly extensive influence. In the present day, as was said, many are inclined to think that Scriptural psychology represents the heart exclusively as the seat of the emotions, and therefore looks upon spirituality as a sort of emotionality. The man whose emotions are stirred by the Holy Spirit is the really spiritual man. But the Scriptural conception of the heart is much broader. According to the Bible the heart is the center and focus of the entire conscious life of man, the organ of all possible states of consciousness, of all thinking, feeling, and willing. Out of the heart are all the issues of life. Among the Hebrews a brainy man was called "a man of heart." Men understand with their hearts, Matt. 13:15; they have purposes of heart, Acts 11:23; and are troubled in their hearts, John 14:1. The heart is the workshop of the soul in all its activities. It is in the heart that the human spirit responds to the divine Spirit. The spiritual man is the man who thinks the thoughts of the Spirit, who grieves on account of all opposition to the Spirit, whether in his own life or in that of others, who rejoices in the fruits of the Spirit, who delights to speak of the Spirit and his marvelous works, and who is deeply concerned about doing the works of the Spirit.

There is a sense in which every child of God is pneumatikos (spiritual), but there is also a sense in which this appellative applies to only a part of them. All Christians are pneumatikoi (spiritual) as distinguished from psuchikoi (soulish or natural) ; but in the manifestation of their life some of them are somatikoi (carnal) rather than pneumatikoi (spiritual). Paul writes to the Corinthians : "And I, brethren, could not speak unto you as unto spiritual, but as unto carnal, as unto babes in Christ." This clearly implies that there are degrees of spirituality in the manifestition of the life of believers. While they are all essentially spiritual, they do not all reflect the life of the Spirit of God as they should in their daily life.

The guidance of the Holy Spirit, to which the spiritual man gladly submits, is a guidance which is connected with and operates through the Word of God. At this point we differ very decidedly with all mystical sects, which have little use for the Word of God and glory in the inner light and in the immediate operation of the Holy Spirit. It is very dangerous to divorce the guidance of the Spirit from the Word of God. There are indeed immediate operations of the Holy Spirit, but these should always be submitted to the test of Scripture. It is not always easy to distinguish the voice of the Holy Spirit from that of the human spirit, and sometimes even from that of the spirit of the abyss. History testifies to it that Mystics often committed the grossest sins in the name of the Holy Spirit. Think of the extravagances and immoralities of Jan van Leiden and his followers. Spirituality can only be developed by ever increasing sanctification, and this is impossible apart from the Word of God.

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There can be no doubt about the importance of developing true spirituality. Every believer should be very much concerned about this. Worldliness should make way for heavenly-mindedness. This holds particularly in the case of those who are preparing for the work of the ministry. They should be preeminently spiritual, seeing that they aspire to spiritual leadership. They should seek intellectual development, but while doing this should not neglect the nurture of their spiritual life. If they do, their scientific training may make them increasingly unfit for the work of the ministry. We may well seek an answer, therefore, to the question, how the theologian should go in search of spiritual culture.

Let it be said first of all that for the development of real spiritual life the responsibility rests primarily with the individual concerned. The Spirit of God gives spiritual growth through the means of grace, but not apart from the faithful and persistent efforts of the spiritual man. Such growth depends on the exercise of a living faith in Jesus Christ. Paul exhorts the Romans to walk, not after the flesh, but after the Spirit. He who does not mind the things of the Spirit, but prefers to follow the lusts of the flesh, will never grow spiritually. He does not obey the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus, the very condition of growth, and thus stunts the development of his spiritual life. Such a person may be inclined to shift the responsibility and to blame his lack of spirituality to others: to his parents, his minister, his teachers, or his professors, but the fact remains that he is to blame first of all. He seems to think that the various extraneous influences to which he is subject should make him spiritual in spite of himself; but this is an utter impossibility.

In the second place it may not be unnecessary to stress the fact, sometimes overlooked, that the student should never place his spiritual training in juxtaposition to his regular school work. When Phillips Brooks entered the Seminary, he once attended a prayer meeting of the students and was deeply impressed by their devotion and prayers. But the next day he found that they did not know their lessons, and realized that there was something wrong their spirituality. Students for the ministry cannot develop their spiritual life by neglecting the very work for which they attend school, or by any show of devotion which does not affect the roots of their conduct and make them more consecrated and painstaking in their regular work. A glow that does not issue from living fire is apt to be very evanescent. True spirituality will make the student regard his work as a God-given task, as a religious duty, and prompt him to perform it as in the presence of God. It will give his work a higher sanction.

All this does not mean, however, that there are no means which may minister to the spiritual growth of those who are studying for the ministry. There are, and students should be diligent in the use of these means. At the same they should remember that the effectiveness of the means will largely depend on the use which they make of them. The Bible clearly reveals this. There are some who hear the Word of God, but do not respond to it; there are those who pray but pray amiss. In general it may be said that the means which the student has at his disposal are no other than those employed by Christians in general. Permit me to call attention to some of the most important.

The first great means which God has placed at our disposal is the public ministry of the Word of the Sacraments. Students who really desire to develop their spiritual life should be diligent in church attendance. Moreover, they ought to go to church with the right purpose: to commune with God in His house, Ps. 42, and 84. They should listen to the Word, not with a critical ear but in a receptive mood, seeking for themselves spiritual edification. Right at this point students, and especially theological students, are often exposed to a particular danger. Pope once said : "A little learning is a dangerous thing." That truth applies here also. Students are often a minister's most critical hearers. They have a little theological learning, and have just been put in possession of certain exegetical and homiletical standards, which enable them, as they think, to take the preacher's exact measure. With their newly acquired measuring rod they pass judgment on all the sermons heard. And in the measure in which they listen with a critical ear, they fail to catch the spiritual import of the message that is brought to them. They should fix their minds prayerfully on those elements in the sermon that edify and elevate the soul. This will make them more appreciative and yield greater spiritual returns.

Next I would point to private devotion, including Bible reading, meditation, and prayer. Students should make it a point to set aside a small portion of their time for daily devotional Bible reading. In the Seminary they are engaged from day to day in scientific and often critical Bible study. And if they are not careful, this may cause them to lose sight of the sacredness of Scripture and of its spiritual significance. It is after all the greatest of the means of grace and should be read for its spiritual messages. In connection with such Bible reading a practical commentary, such as that of Matthew Henry, may be of great value. There should also be seasons of quiet meditation on the truths of Scripture and on the ways of God. This tends to focus the attention on God and spiritual things, and frequently brings home to us lessons that would have escaped us in the hustle and bustle of life. Did you ever notice how often the book of Psalms speaks of the meditation of the Old Testament saints? Private prayer is another important means for cultivating spiritual life. In it we seek contact with Him who is the source of all spiritual strength. We are not always sufficiently conscious of the tremendous significance of prayer. Luther used to say: "If I have prayed well, my work is half done."

The question may be raised, whether the Seminary itself can contribute something to the spiritual growth of its students. And the answer is affirmative. If professors and students are diligent in cultivating spiritual graces (not to be confused with mere emotionalism), the atmosphere of the Seminary itself will be conducive to the development of spirituality. But let the students constantly bear in mind that they largely determine the atmosphere of the Seminary.

The regular devotional exercises can certainly contribute to the spiritual growth of the students. They will help them to enter into the presence of God, and bring them messages from the Word, which are messages of the Spirit. A great deal will of course depend on the way in which the student participates in these exercises. He should not for a moment allow himself to think that they cannot be helpful, unless they are of an emotional nature. A stirring of the emotions certainly has its legitimate place in religion, and is often very pleasing, but is not absolutely essential to spiritual growth.

Dr. Warfield says in his lecture on "Spiritual Culture in the Theological Seminary", that the entire work of the Seminary deserves to be classed in the category of means of grace. What we are dealing with in the Seminary is primarily the study of God's Word and of His dealings with His people. The matter presented is real spiritual nutriment. The work done may be a powerful means of grace, if prosecuted in the right spirit and with due regard for its spiritual or religious value. If theological students pursue their work in the right spirit, everything will serve to lift the soul to God and to lead them on to ever greater heights of spirituality. May our students so labor during the years of their Seminary training that their very increase in knowledge may be for them a source of rich spiritual blessings, and that they may attain ever increasingly to "the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a fullgrown man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ."