A Trinitarian view of spiritual formation

Pastor, author and theologian Jule Canlis has written an essay titled, Calvin's Institutes: A Primer for Spiritual Formation (click here to access the issue of Crux in which her essay appears). In her essay she notes that John Calvin emphasized the doctrine of the Trinity in his writings (including his Institutes). Sadly, this emphasis was diminished by some of Calvin's followers as they further systematized Calvin's theology. One might say that some hyper-Calvinists "out-Calvined" Calvin! In the essay cited above, Canlis discusses Calvin's Trinitarian view on spiritual formation.

Following is a representative quote.
"Spiritual formation is all about entering this Father-Son relationship, about living out the truth of our adoption. It is the hard work of laying tasks aside in order to contemplate and receive the words, "This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased" (Matthew 3:17). Only when we hear that word can our tasks have any meaning at all. Quiet times, Scripture memorization, fasting, prayer—all the traditional disciplines—are to serve this one primary business of the Christian life, which is to live more and more deeply into being children of God.
"The reality of our adoption is not one we can force. For those of us who would charge into claiming our 'adoption' as yet another thing to accomplish, the good news is that adoption is under the Holy Spirit's jurisdiction. Our adoption—God welcoming us into his relationship with his Son—is brought about by the Spirit, 'without whom no one can taste either the fatherly favor of God or the beneficence of Christ' [John Calvin, Institutes, III.1.2].
"All too often we see the Holy Spirit as the giver and empowerer of tasks rather than as the giver of our identity. The Holy Spirit ushers us into adoption, not workaholism: he tells us not so much what to do but who we are. Calvin insists, 'Paul teaches that God is called Father by us at the bidding of the Spirit, who alone can 'witness to our spirit that we are children of God...' [Institutes, II.2.29]. This is the Spirit's ministry to us. He is 'witness of [our] adoption ' [Institutes, III.2.8]. It is an identity-forming ministry, calling us to trust in God's fatherly goodness and allowing us to cease from perfectionism and performance. Even here he meets us in our need, for we do not often truly believe in God's fatherly benevolence. But, 'in fact, he supplies the very words so that we may fearlessly cry, Abba Father!' [Institutes, III.1.3]."
If you'd like to read more from Canlis, check out her book Calvin's Ladder.


Jerome Ellard said…
Her essay is wonderful! It is very refreshing to read of Calvin's Trinitarian moorings. So often, "Calvanism" is seen as an opponent to the Trinitarian ideas of inclusion and adoption - how sad that his followers did not run with these ideas! Sounds like a job for Martin Davis to delineate in one of his accessible posts! Martin?
Anonymous said…
This is an intriguing post that touches on a basic problem we humans have in approaching God. This problem is that we quite naturally default into making our relation with God a transaction based on our performance of certain tasks. It just seems so logical to us to say and think that, "God, I will do this, and therefore I can look forward to You doing that." Even our spiritual disciplines can and do easily become tasks for us to perform to please God and therefore to gain His approval.

But we often fail to realize that our tasks are never, nor can they ever be, good enough or perfect enough to move us away from our humanness. For instance, we may agree to pray a certain amount of time each day in order to draw close to God and to gain His favor. But then life happens, and that time vanishes from us. The result is that we fall short and just prove that we are sinners.

But the truth, as revealed to us by the Holy Spirit, is that we are fully accepted by God, and this is a gift. As Paul says,

Romans 6:23--For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. (NIV)

Anyway, let us step away from workaholism thinking and into thinking based on our adoption as sons and daughters of God based on His grand gift of Himself though Jesus Christ our Lord.

All the best!

J. Richard Parker
Ted Johnston said…
Thanks Jerome and Richard for your helpful comments.

Jason has asked the following related question. I invite you responses.

Jason submitted the following topic for our consideration:

"We know by faith that God answers our prayers, and that by the Spirit, Jesus, in His continuing vicarious humanity, actually takes our prayers, sanctifies them and prays on our behalf.

"However, how can we tell if it's God answering our prayer or if it is just the natural course of life?"
Pastor Jonathan said…
Thank you, Ted, for drawing our attention to this excellent article.

I was especially struck by Julie's emphasis on adoption, as she saw it emphasized in Calvin's writing. Her comments regarding Calvin and Osiander were especially important, I thought. In that section she demonstrates how a failure to place the Trinity at the center of all theology leads to a narrow view of Christ that focuses only on justification. The result of this, she says, is that "we are no longer asking the questions that Calvin was asking: we suddenly are left with questions about how we are saved, from what we are saved, and what we should do now that we have received this salvation. . . ."

I believe she is right when she says that the Reformed tradition has focused too narrowly on Calvin's understanding of justification and missed the theology of adoption. Julie says that she believes ". . . his insistence upon 'adoption' best captures the big picture of his theology."

I think it is not only the Reformed tradition that has made this mistake, I think it is the whole Protestant - and especially evangelical - tradition in the United States. Even non-Calvinists are narrowly focused on justification without seeing it in the context of the big picture of adoption. Julie uses the word "adoption" constantly throughout her article and if Calvin even talks about it half as much as she says he does then I want to start reading more Calvin right away.

I bring all this up because I think "adoption" may be what Jesus is calling us in GCI to focus on. I think Jesus might be calling us to be the first (of, hopefully, many) denominations to organize our entire Theology, Worship, and Practice of Ministry around the big picture of the Father's plan in Christ to adopt humanity into his life (Eph. 1:5.) I find Julie's article exciting in this regard because it is the first time, outside of GCI and Baxter Kruger, that I have seen someone talk so much about adoption and make the language of "Adopted into the Trinity" central to her expression of the gospel.

Regarding Jason's question: I think the question of "God or nature?" is a false dichotomy. Since everything exists in and through the Son, everything that happens is both God and nature. There is no nature that is not bound up in the life of the Trinity and there is no nature that has its existence outside of the Trinity. When I get sick I pray and ask Jesus to heal me and he does, through the mechanisms of my body which exist in and through him, and the doctors and medicines that exist in and through him, and ultimately through my resurrection which takes place in and through him.
Ted Johnston said…
Thanks for this helpful comment Jonathan. I too am thankful for Julie's helpful essay.

And I think you are correct that not many theologians (trinitarian or otherwise) pick up on Paul's idea of "adoption" to speak of our salvation in Christ. However, many do write concerning "sonship." The two are really one in the same. It is through "adoption" that God has made us his children (sons). And that sonship is our participation in the sonship of the Son of God, Jesus Christ. Indeed, he is the "firstborn among many brothers" (Romans 8:29).

Paul's evangelistic appeal is to declare to people that they are God's child (they *belong*), then to urge them to *believe.* Paul's ethical plea is to urge those who believe to *become* in truth who they actually are in Christ: God's dearly loved children.

Paul himself refers to sonship more frequently that adoption - for him, both speak to the same issue, namely, who we are in union with God in and through the person and work of Jesus Christ.

It's about our true identity isn't it?
Great Stuff here, and confirming too! I have personally found myself reading Calvin's Institutes over the past two weeks and "smelling" some of the Good Gospel in it! I was wondering whether I ought not look into him more. This post makes me wonder no longer! :)

Dr. Julie Canlis is certainly hitting on the experiences I have been having with and in the Trinity lately, and she is helping me to see why I have been pressed to BE in this way!

Her audio lecture is one of the "GREATS" on the purpose and scandal of the Church in the light of our Adoption in Christ as the central point even!!! Wowsa!! Thanks for sharing!
After reading about a page and a half, my thought was "Dude....I want to go to HER church!" at least if they teach this.

I'm making some revisions in this week's sermon -- and all the rest of them, I think. Not that I hadn't read and understood it before, but the way it's brought out here is very teachable. This focus on adoption and what that means for being formed in Christ is highly encouraging, and of course a complete mystery to someone caught up in any sort of legalism, including standard-issue evangelicalism.
Wow...is God good, or what?