Now we continue with Part 2 of my review of “Kingdom Triangle” by J P Moreland. The second half of the book presents Moreland’s three-part solution to the problems facing the church, and this is where the book takes its name “triangle.” The three legs of this metaphorical stool are 1) the recovery of knowledge, 2) the rennovation of the soul, and 3) the restoration of the Kingdom’s miraculous power. Last time (see Part 1) I reviewed the first and third “sides of the triangle.”
This brings me to the second suggestion; the rennovation of the soul. By this he means learning to practice “spiritual disciplines” in order to transform our character. Unfortunately, spiritual disciplines are groundless in the Bible and we are warned that they are useless. But first, let us consider his argument.
First, he takes Romans 12:1, Romans 6:11-13, Colossians 3:5, and 1 Timothy 4:7-8 to be passages about our physical bodies and how we should use our physical bodies to engage in physical actions that bring about sanctification. Here’s how he gets there. He says that “flesh” in these passages means “the sinful tendencies or habits that reside in the body and whose nature is opposite to the Kingdom of God” (p. 151). So the sin nature is in my physical body. For example, he asserts that anger is often in the stomach, gossip in the tongue, and lust in the eyes (why not in the penis?). According to Moreland, the solution is to engage in spiritual disciplines. A spiritual discipline is “a repetitive practice that targets one of these areas in order to replace bad habits with good ones” (p. 153). As a metaphore he uses tennis, in which bad tennis habits (your “tennis flesh”) are cured by submission to a tennis instructor and practice that strengthens better tennis habits and thus “tennis righteousness.” I am not making this up! Moreland advocates the typical spiritual disciplines of engagement (e.g., study, worship, service) and abstinence (e.g., solitude, silence, fasting, and sacrifice). One example of how this works, and a specific recommendation, is the practice of “affective meditation in our hearts.” This means we should 1) focus our attention on our physical heart muscle until we discern some negative emotional feelings in there 2) bring a new positive emotion from memory in order to mediate on it instead and stick it in the heart, so that we can learn to “Trust in the Lord with all your heart” (Proverbs 3:5).
As an aside, he also writes some other nonsense about “the brain in the heart.” I am a cardiovascular psychophysiologist with research interests in the relationship between emotions (e.g., depression, anxiety, and anger) and heart measures (e.g., heart rate variability). I know this literature fairly well, and I can assure you that the heart is not the location of emotions, nor is it thinking for itself. As a clinical psychologist with interests in cardiovascular behavioral medicine I would caution you not to focus your attention on your heart because there is a decent research literature on perception of bodily sensations in relation to the cardiovascular system that suggest this is not reliable. For example, you can’t feel high blood pressure—that’s why it’s the “silent killer” and also part of why people won’t take their high blood pressure medication. Furthermore, there is an important subset of individuals who suffer from non-cardiac chest pain for which they present to the physician with scary cardiac symptoms in the absence of any diagnosible heart disease. Focusing on frightening physical sensations is precisely the kind of thing that intensifies and prolongs problems like non-cardiac chest pain (and panic disorder). Treatment of non-cardiac chest pain includes getting people to stop focusing on these physical sensations! So focusing on the physical heart muscle in order to try to feel what is going on there is possibly harmful.
But back to the logic of his argument; Moreland is wrong. First of all, Moreland takes Romans 12:1 out of context. He asserts that “presenting our bodies to Christ” means exercising parts of the body to become less sinful and more Christlike. Rather, the passage starts with ‘therefore’ which refers back to Romans 1-11, and the context makes clear that Paul is writing to believers to remind them that the entire world is condemned (Jew and Greek) but that we have now received the astonishing gift of grace through faith in Jesus Christ, and can be justified before God and declared righteous. What is our response? The metaphore in Romans 12:1 is the thank offering, which is a burnt offering in the Old Testament. In the New Testament, we are the offering our entire selves, given freely to God in thanks for what he has done for us. That’s our reasonable act of worship. This is not at all the same as exercising to become sanctified.
Second, the sin nature (i.e., flesh) is an aspect of our human nature that we inherited from Adam as part of being human beings. The “flesh” is only one word the bible uses to describe the sin nature, and others include “the sin which indwells me” (Romans 7:7-25), “heart” (Jeremiah 17:9), and “outer man” (2 Cor. 4:7-18). The Greek word “sarx” is translated flesh, and although it can refer to the physical body (Galatians 2:20), it is also used in ways that do not refer to the physical body. For example “flesh” is used to refer to human accomplishments in Philippians 3:4.
Thus, the sin nature is all-encompassing, and a false dualism suggesting that the sin nature resides solely in the physical body and not in the rest of a person is mistaken. In fact, this view sounds like weird mysticism, and is strangely similar to a view typical of gnostics. The gnostic heresy that John addressed in 1 John included the idea that the body is bad and the spirit is good, so anything the body does is irrelevant (e.g., orgies). Moreland says the badness is in the body, so the body has to get reformed. But, the flesh described in the bible doesn’t map onto parts of the body as Moreland suggests. Take as an example Paul’s words in Galatians 5:19ff “Now the works of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity, depravity, idolatry, sorcery, hostilities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, selfish rivalries, dissensions, factions, envying, murder, drunkenness, carousing, and similar things.” Where in the body does murder reside? It could reside in the hands and feet if you’re Bruce Lee, and perhaps the trigger finger if you’re Dirty Harry. Where in the body would sorcery reside? So, the works of the flesh do not map onto body parts or systems, as Moreland implies when he says that the flesh is “the sinful tendencies or habits that reside in the body and whose nature is opposite to the Kingdom of God” (p. 151).
Another problem with Moreland’s argument is the fact that rightousness does not replace the sin nature by getting into the body through exercising these parts of the body. There is not enough time here to discuss the theology of sanctification (it is complicated), but self effort does not work, and in fact is offensive. Galatians 3:2-3 says “The only thing I want to learn from you is this: Did you receive the Spirit by doing the works of the law or by believing what you heard? Are you so foolish? Although you began with the Spirit, are you now trying to finish by human effort?” That is, sancitification is by grace through faith, just as salvation. Good works, even when repeated and prolonged, do not sanctify.
In fact, targeting the physical body to produce righteousness is a wrong-headed idea. If targeting the physical body were a good approach to sanctification, then the Buddhists and other religions would have a great strategy. Some forms of Buddhist meditation involve the “body scan” in which people meditate on their physical bodies in order to search out any uncomfortable physical sensations. They are then trained to maintain a passive awareness of these sensations in a non-judgemental manner. Another popular body-centric technique is progressive muscle relaxation, in which muscle groups are alternately tensed and relaxed in order to reduce body tension and relieve stress. Then there’s physical exercise such as cycling, which should do wonders for any unrighteousness residing in the legs, buttocks, and abodomen. The thigh-master would be helpful of course, and perhaps the spiritual discipline of hanging out in the dark could relax the eyes to prevent lust. Obviously, none of this produces sanctification or lasting character change of a Christian nature. On the other side of this argument, why are so many spiritual disciplines unrelated to parts of the body? What part of the body does frugality strengthen, fortify, or relax? What about submission? Fellowship? Study? If a spiritual discipline is “a repetitive practice that targets one of these areas in order to replace bad habits with good ones,” then the commonly practiced spiritual disciplines should involve using specific parts of the body.
Of course, the most important objection is that spiritual disciplines are not commanded by the bible. Bob DeWaay of Critical Issues Commentary tackles this point in earnest (http://cicministry.org/commentary/issue91.htm). He pionts out that Dallas Willard’s primary text supporting the practice of spiritual disciplines, which is Matthew 11:29,30 does not actually teach that spiritual disciplines should be practiced (from Willard’s The Spirit of the Disciplines). He also notes that even Willard agrees that spiritual disciplines are not found elsewhere in scripture. Furthermore, DeWaay reminds us that “they had ascetics in Paul’s day and he rebuked them” (Colossians 2:20-23). This passage is worth quoting here in its entirety:
“If you have died with Christ to the elemental spirits of the world, why do you submit to them as though you lived in the world? ‘Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!’ These are all destined to perish with use, founded as they are on human commands and teachings. Even though they have the appearance of wisdom with their self-imposed worship and false humility achieved by an unsparing treatment of the body – a wisdom with no true value – they in reality result in fleshly indulgence.” (Colossians 2:20-23).
So, accoring to scripture, activities that would be indistinguishable from today’s spiritual disciplines look like they would be a good idea, bu they actually are without value and are merely human inventions. In fact, they are worse than benign meaningless activities, and rather have the potential to cause real harm (“result in fleshly indulgence”).
The problems associated with spiritual disciplines are numerous, but they include the fact that they are:
· Legalistic, amounting to a Christian self-help program when the Bible is clear that we cannot help ourselves.
· Unbalanced, elevating self-indulgent practices (e.g., solitude, silence) to equal prominence with critical teachings of the bible (e.g., committment to the body of Christ, sacrificial service).
· Distracting, letting Christians off the hook when they’re doing self-focused navel gazing even though they neglect the clear mandates of Jesus Christ (e.g., make disciples). People can feel that they are making real progress by having spiritual retreats despite doing little actual service for the Lord.
· Non-relational (e.g., silence, solitude) when the Bible clearly emphasizes love relationships in the Body of Christ.
· Formalistic, when the scriptures condemn religious formalism. For example, Jesus taught against formalism on many occaisions, including the famous “Lord’s prayer” passage which has somehow been converted into religious formalism by many religious people. In fact, prayer is not a “spiritual discipline” at all, but rather communication with a real person.
What about sanctification?
In all fairness, I have only poked holes in Moreland’s argument for spiritual disciplines, without offering anything to replace his theory of sanctification with something else. Having a strong theology of sanctification is important because Moreland is right that the American church is in crisis, a crisis that includes a very low level of sanctification among most American Christians. We need to be very clear about our part in sanctification, God’s part, and how this process works. That will have to wait for another discussion. One purpose of this book review was to point out that learning to practice spiritual disciplines is not the right path to sanctification. I hope that this criticism does not detract too much from the rest of Moreland’s book, as his analysis of the decline of Christianity in America has much to commend it. I would still recommend this book, with the exception of his recommendations regarding the “rennovation of the soul.”