Simon Chan. Spiritual Theology: A Systematic Study of the Christian Life. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1998. Pp. 300. ISBN 0-8308-1542-2. US$25.95 (paper). This book treats a crucial area for every Christian pilgrim: the need to be growing in union with God. It proved itself to be an excellent text in my recently completed course on the Holy Spirit at McMaster this fall. This book is a feast and a treasure.
Simon Chan is lecturer in systematic theology at Trinity College, Singapore. The college, as I discovered, is Lutheran, and Simon himself turns out to be Pentecostal. The book, one will find, is centrist, making use of all the great sources of Christian spirituality: Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox alike. It is a wonderful book on the subject and supplements admirably the work of other devotional writers. For example, I myself love Richard Foster and Henri Nouwen in particular, but I found that Chan brought a good deal more theological analysis and substance into play. The book is fully documented across the whole range of devotional classics, studies of spirituality, and contemporary theology. I know of no book which is as informed and helpful on these matters as this one is. Chan is conversant with spiritual writers of every school and commends practices of every tradition.
Spiritual Theology: A Systematic Study of the Christian Life is divided into two main sections. The first part presents theological principles, while the second treats the practices of the spiritual life. While this is not a "how-to" book, it does commend a rule of life and advises what it calls a "spirituality of small steps." Noteworthy in part one (Chan having first laid out what spiritual theology consists of) are four chapters on the following doctrinal themes: the trinitarian foundations of Christian spirituality; the sinfulness of human nature and the need to overcome the depth and variety of our fallen-ness; the possibility of growing in holiness on the basis of the infused, transforming grace of God; and the importance of the sacramental community for individuals to make progress in the Christian life. It is a profound discussion and not what one might expect a Pentecostal to write, which goes to show how inaccurate such stereotypes are becoming. As one example of how open Chan is, let me refer to his conviction that the Catholic understanding of human nature produces a more systematic program for advancement in the Christian life than does the Protestant view (pp. 62-63)!
Part two delves into the spiritual disciplines, and even here the substance is not reduced. Chan considers prayer to be the first principle of ascetical theology and the action on which all other spiritual exercises depend. One learns to pray simply by praying and actual prayer can lead to habitual prayer. It is important to grow in our prayer life and it is realistic to expect prayer to be a struggle at times. He alerts us not to shy away from what is typically called the "dark night of the soul," in which we are being led to depend on God alone. Chan also treats a number of related subjects: petitionary prayer, self-examination and journal keeping, slow spiritual reading, and the practice of the presence of God. He is equally able in his treatments of meditation on the Word and the importance of having spiritual friendships. He writes about a spirituality of social justice, the discernment of spirits, and spiritual direction.
Chan has a fine sense of the Christian life having the goal of union with God, tempered by the realization that this high destination will not be reached without effort. He urges us as pilgrims to maintain a resolute vision of the celestial city and not live like tramps who shuffle along aimlessly, hoping that their minimalist religion will eventually get them somewhere. Chan refers us again to St Paul who says: "Train yourselves in godliness for, while physical training is of some value, godliness is valuable in every way, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come" (1 Tim 4:7-8). The Christian life is like an athletic contest, he affirms, and it involves strenuous effort. To do well in it we need a rule of life and spiritual disciplines. While it is true that rules can be abused, rules can also help us be more "regular" in our walk with God.
Reading Chan, I had an image of the rule of life in the form of a wheel. The hub of the wheel is the centre of devotion in which I seek to grow in my friendship with God. I choose a place and a time and wait on God in silence. I read scripture slowly and meditate on God's Word. I strive in my praying to move in the direction of unceasing prayer. I examine myself and bring my body under subjection. The spokes of the wheel symbolise for me the way in which devotion opens up to the whole of life. Like Brother Lawrence, I seek to practise the presence of God in every situation. Like St Francis, I meditate on the creatures of God. I also strive to live more simply and to place myself at the disposal of others as the servant of all. And I enter into spiritual friendships and participate in the believing community. In our common pursuit of the spiritual life, I commend Simon Chan to the reader as one who conveys a word of the Lord.
Clark H. Pinnock
Professor of Theology
McMaster Divinity College.
Clark H. Pinnock is the author of over a dozen theological monographs; most recently, Flame of Love: A Theology of the Holy Spirit (InterVarsity, 1996).