ABOUT THE IMAGE: This quote is from Tilden Edwards (b. 1935), an Episcopal priest and co-founder and Senior Fellow of the Shalem Institute of Spiritual Formation. The Shalem Institute, founded in 1973, states this:


Shalem is grounded in Christian contemplative spirituality and, at the same time, draws on the wisdom of many religious traditions.
We welcome you, wherever you are on the path of spiritual discovery.


The wisdom of many religious traditions” includes teachings from Buddhism and other religions, as well as New Age based guided meditations (one of which does not mention God or Christ and sounds like a Buddhist-New Age meditation) Edwards claims that man has a “spiritual heart” that knows God. The Shalem Institute is only one of many such spiritual direction schools that have mushroomed in the church and produced spiritual directors, such as Ruth Haley Barton (who had a Buddhist mentor at Shalem), who are leading many into Contemplative Spirituality.


Part 1

Spiritual Formation and Spiritual Disciplines

Spiritual Formation and Spiritual Disciplines, products of monasticism recently mixed with Eastern spiritual practices, have been gaining traction in the evangelical church, especially due to people like Richard FosterDallas Willard, David Benner, and many others.


These practices were initially promoted by the Centering Prayer Movement founded by Trappist monks Thomas Keating (d. 2018) , Basil Pennington (d. 2005), and William Menninger (d. 2021) who adopted practices from The Cloud of Unknowing mixed in with Hindu and Buddhist meditation practices from TM (Transcendental Meditation), and from Thomas Merton’s teachings, himself inspired by Buddhist practices. Meninger admitted in a video that they included Eastern spiritual practices.


The Centering Prayer Movement was never endorsed by the Roman Catholic Church and, in fact, a Catholic apologetics site writes against it. See here and here for more Roman Catholic exposes of this movement.


I read books by Keating, Pennington, and Merton and recognized the practices and concepts I learned in the New Age when I was involved in Tibetan Buddhism and Zen Buddhism for many years. Foster and Willard were friends with Thomas Keating, and when he was alive, their Renovare website linked to Keating’s Contemplative Outreach website. (“Contemplative” became the catch-all term for Centering Prayer, Spiritual Disciplines, Lectio Divina, and other related practices).


I also heard Thomas Keating speak in person and had a personal conversation with him in 2005. Very little of what Keating said in his talk, which was about an hour or more, was biblical, and he misused scripture when illustrating his points.


The Spiritual Formation and Disciplines movement did not pop up organically from the Bible but came from men who hold/held problematic concepts. While many seminaries and churches decry anything unbiblical in their Spiritual Formation programs, we would not even be discussing this were it not for Thomas Merton, Thomas Keating, Basil Pennington, Richard Foster, Dallas Willard, and others. These teachers often refer to each other in positive ways as part of their Spiritual Formation teachings.


A 20 page pdf document from Biola University defending these practices was given to a woman at a church who had questions about these [the document can be seen here]. I did not address all the points raised, only what I considered to be the most salient.


This is the information on the document’s author, who was a student of Dallas Willard:

Steve L. Porter. Title: Associate Professor of Philosophy and Theology. Affiliation: Rosemead School of Psychology and Talbot School of Theology (La Mirada, CA). Highest Degree: PhD, Philosophy, University of Southern California. Areas of interest/specializations: Philosophical theology, integration of psychology and theology, doctrine of sanctification, doctrine of the atonement, theological method, and epistemology.


What is the Christian’s Authority?

An early claim in the document asserts:


That spiritual formation looks to the first fifteen centuries of church history for insights into spiritual maturation is no more problematic than looking to the first fifteen centuries of church history for insights into the nature of the Trinity, the incarnation, the doctrine of the church, and so on.”


The Trinity, the incarnation of Christ, and other doctrines are based on the Bible; spiritual formation practices have not been shown to be based on Scripture. They came from practices in the Roman Catholic church and the monastic community.


“It should also be noted that one reason spiritual formation has Catholic dialogue-partners is because the Catholic tradition had for centuries highlighted the topic of Christian growth whereas the Protestant movement was initially a theological response to doctrinal errors regarding the nature of salvation and the authority of Scripture. It would be foolish to ignore fifteen centuries of reflection on the nature of spiritual growth even if that history has had better and worse seasons.”


Some practices supposedly came from the desert fathers, but there is no basis for thinking what the desert father did was biblical; in fact, many do not think so.


The statement above is highly ironic since one of the points of the Protestant movement were that scripture should be the authority for faith and practice, and yet this statement goes against that by pointing to practices of the Catholic church, and the fact that because they did certain things for a long time, those practices must be beneficial. That rationale is precisely one of the points rejected in the Reformation.


Silence and Solitude

For instance, the practice of silence and solitude is often developed more within contemporary New Age and Buddhist literature than contemporary Christian literature, even though silence and solitude before the Lord is a practice deeply rooted in biblical and historical Christianity.”


I have not found any practice of “silence and solitude before the Lord” in the Bible. There are times when some were alone, such as Moses when he went on the mountain, and Jesus when he went into the wilderness, which were times designated by God specifically for them and God’s purposes. Jesus went to pray alone a few times when the crowds became too much. But these are narrative and not prescriptive. Moreover, there is no evidence that Jesus was practicing the techniques of Contemplative practices or the Spiritual Disciplines taught in the Contemplative movement.


The only instance of anyone being told to be alone is when Jesus tells his disciples not to show off in the public square with prayers as the Pharisees do, but to go into an inner room to pray. It was a point made by Jesus to highlight the fact that the Pharisees were not praying for God but instead for man’s approval. (Contemplative Thomas Keating taught that the “inner room” means to go within).


Nothing in the letters to the churches teaches that one must be alone or silent for any spiritual reason. I have looked at every passage given to support the so-called disciplines of silence and solitude and none of them say that. All are taken out of context and misinterpreted, or meanings are put into the text that are not there.


The more controversial and most popular practices of Spiritual Formation are what is called Contemplative Prayer, Lectio Divina, and Imaginative Prayer. None of these have a biblical basis, and in fact, go against what the bible teaches and/or go against the character of God as he has revealed himself.


The Big 3: Benner, Foster, and Willard

David G. Benner

David Benner, Dallas Willard, and Richard Foster are all mentioned, and certainly they are key figures in making the concept of Spiritual Formation acceptable in the church. There are problems with all three of these men’s ideas. Benner  is probably one of the most disturbing figures in the church. He is a Master Teacher at Richard Rohr’s school and is a follower of Perennial Wisdom (which means he cannot honestly confess the historic Christian faith). His books are read on Christian campuses either because no one has discovered he is a Perennialist or it is not an issue. I am not sure which case is worse.


One cannot be a Christian and be a Perennialist because in Perennial Wisdom , there is no need for salvation, only the need for an awakening to having always been in and with God.


Dallas Willard & Richard Foster: The Renovare Bible

Dallas Willard and Richard Foster put out a Renovare Spiritual Formation Study Bible, now called the Life with God Bible. I had this Bible and noticed that the study notes endorsed many ideas of the Higher Critics (who denied the supernatural and rejected the Bible as God’s word). Some of the troubling things I found included:


“Adam and Eve fell’ because, though innocent, they lacked character. Innocence is not virtue. Innocence, for all its beauty, is a form of ignorance and lack of character. God certainly could have stood over Adam and Eve (‘been in their faces,’ as we sometimes say) and prevented them from succumbing to Satan’s clever appeals. Instead, God arranged for them to be on their own,’ and the result was then expressed in what they did. This allowing us to be on our own’ in order to develop character within us is an arrangement God still abides by and respects.” – Excerpt from Life with God Bible which can be seen here on the Renovare website.


The Renovare Bible denies that Genesis chapters 1 through 11 are God’s words:


“Gen. 1-11 is Israel’s theological narrative about God the Creator.”


And states this:


“Borrowing from other creation accounts, these writers express the strong belief that the one God of Israel is the very same God of all creation.”


According to this Renovare Bible, Genesis 1 to 11 is Israel’s account about God, not God’s account through the biblical authors. The creation account allegedly “borrowed” from pagan stories. These are precisely the views today of postmodern and Progressive Christians who deny that the Bible is fully God’s word. See responses to this view here and here.


This Bible also endorses the Deutero-Isaiah theory by stating there is a gap of 200 years between Isaiah 39.8 and 40.1. This theory posits that there were two “Isaiah’s” and, since then, there has been speculation that there were even more than two.


Why should the church listen to spiritual advice from anyone who supports these views from Higher Criticism?


Richard Foster

Richard Foster, whose book Celebration of Discipline sparked an interest and then desire for spiritual disciplines, was mentored by Agnes Sanford, a former follower of New Thought and the founder of Inner Healing, which is based on New Thought beliefs. Although Sanford converted to the Episcopal faith, her New Thought ideas continue in her books (I read two of her books and a detailed book about her which is highly recommended).


I noticed several New Thought concepts in Foster’s COD, especially in the chapter on prayer. He writes about visualizing a white light, visualizing someone who is sick being well, and advises not to pray for God’s will when praying for healing. All three of these are from New Thought and the first two are also very common in the New Age. I practiced the first two. Here are a few examples from COD:



The Be Still DVD

Foster and Willard put out the “Be Still” DVD in 2006, which is a video promoting mystical concepts from the Contemplative movement for the evangelical church.


When Benner, Foster, and Willard are held up as inspiration for spiritual disciplines, an examination of these men can only provide arguments against their teachings.


Going Extra-Biblical

This view in the document is offered to support the idea of teachings or traditions not given in the biblical text:


”In Philippians 3:17 Paul writes, “Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us.” This text not only points the Philippians to Paul’s life as an example (in keeping with Paul’s imitation theology—1 Cor 4:16; 1 Cor 11:1; 1 Thess 1:6; 2 Thess 3:9), but there is the additional commendation to “observe those who walk according to the pattern you have in us.”


The writer continues citing several other passages where Paul points towards himself and others as examples or models to follow. I do not disagree that this is in Scripture. However, there are two things to keep in mind:


When Paul wrote these things, the canon was not yet complete.


Paul is not endorsing anything extra-biblical when he says to see him as a role model since this statement itself is God-breathed.


The writer then concludes:


These Pauline passages constitute only one example of the biblical endorsement of extra-biblical resources that aid in our understanding of God and his ways.”


If an extra-biblical resource is quoted in Scripture, the information is not extra-biblical.


The writer’s final comment on this is this:


“…there is nothing about the doctrine of biblical sufficiency that hinders the integration of extra-biblical insights as long as Scripture retains its authoritative supremacy and constitutive role in this integration.”


Actually, the doctrine of biblical sufficiency does hinder teachings of “extra-biblical insights” when those insights purport to teach how to hear God, grow spiritually, or “go deeper with God,” and are contrary to Scripture.



Once we open the door to the way of becoming a person who naturally and regularly obeys Christ from the heart, we have opened the door to a deeper and more complex discussion involving the agency of the Holy Spirit, the role of the human will, the place of the Word, the nature of the heart, the necessity of relationships with others, etc. So, on the one hand, there is no need to worry about the loss of good old-fashioned obedience for it remains at the forefront of anything rightly called Christian spiritual formation. On the other hand, it may turn out to be the case that obedience to Christ is a bit more complex than the Christian behaviorism that can masquerade as obedience to Christ.”


The above seems to claim that Spiritual Formation will cause someone to be obedient, and implies that without it, we only have “Christian behaviorism that can masquerade as obedience to Christ.” Here is the elitism one often finds in Spiritual Formation teachings. Those who promote this tend to look down on Christians who are not doing Spiritual Formation practices or who criticize it.


Are not the Holy Spirit, Scripture, and love for Christ sufficient to effect obedience?


Loaded language is used here — “Christian behaviorism” and “masquerade” – to buttress his points. The implication is that spiritual formation methods lead to a deeper type of obedience. Other methods only engage in a “masquerade.” However, in truth, all we need for spiritual growth is found in God’s word and in Christian fellowship (per God’s word), and is taken care of with regular Bible study and a teachable spirit.


The Issue of Experiential Spirituality

The article tackles the charge that Spiritual Formation/Disciplines encourage the experiential over God’s word by pointing out that Scripture speaks of the indwelling Holy Spirit as experiential, and the article quotes scripture, D. A. Carson, and J. I. Packer on this point.


No one is denying that there is an experiential dimension to the Christian faith. I not only affirm it but affirm it as one of the blessings of knowing Christ. However, there is a difference between the experiential given to Christians by God through the Holy Spirit and seeking or evoking experiences through practices from man.


The Spiritual Formation and Contemplative movements tell the Christian that his faith and walk are shallow or rote, and that without the disciplines, one can’t grow “closer” to God or “go deeper” with God. But is that not done through reading and studying Scripture and relying on the Holy Spirit? It is God’s power that effects transformation and that works via the Holy Spirit through God’s word, prayer, worship, and fellowship. Nothing can improve on that, certainly not methods extracted from medieval mysticism and Eastern meditation.


Part 2

This is new material to the original article and can be read as a separate article.

The Same Ol’ Same Ol’

Ancient Appeal

On the Biola website , Jeff Jennings writes enthusiastically of his support of Mindfulness (a Buddhist based practice I did for 12 years), and admits his training under the key leader of this movement, Zen Buddhist Jon Kabat-Zinn:


However, as I sat through an eight-week, mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) program last year developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn, I could not help but note the striking similarities it had to Christian contemplative practices, particularly centering prayer. I am not, of course, the first person to note or write about these similarities, but what surprises me when I review the literature is how little attention people have given mindfulness within discussions about the integration of Christianity and psychology.
Christianity has a rich contemplative tradition that traces back to the desert Fathers and Mothers of the third and fourth centuries, and arguably the apostle Paul himself (what else could be said of his three years spent in the desert), from which to draw a wellspring of contemplative practices deeply rooted in Christian orthodoxy


Jennings’ claim that Christianity has a contemplative tradition going back to the “desert Fathers and Mothers,” a common claim among Contemplative proponents, is full of problems:



Eastern Meditation Methods

Jennings, to his credit, gives a brief history of the Contemplative/Centering Prayer movement, naming the three Trappist monks who started it, and the role of the 14th century book, The Cloud of Unknowing, in it. See this video where these three monks admit they adopted Eastern meditation methods for their movement.


Jennings then offers instructions for doing this prayer, which include choosing a “sacred word,” You sit comfortably and “begin the prayer by closing your eyes and silently repeating your sacred word until coming to a place of rest.”


Distractions will come in the form of thoughts, feelings, memories, images, etc. but Jennings urges:


As these arise, rather than resist them, just acknowledge them and allow them to gently pass from your mind as though each one is like an object floating down a river that you are observing from the riverbank. However, if you find yourself floating down that river, or in other words find yourself engaged in a thought, gently return to your sacred word, repeating it softly a few times until you are again centered on God’s presence.”


These are exactly the techniques of Hindu mantra meditation, and are similar to some methods I was taught in the New Age for doing Eastern spiritual meditation. Even the example of seeing the thoughts or feelings as an object floating on the river is something I heard (among others). This advice is confusing and misleading:


“It’s important to note that Centering Prayer is not the absence of thought, but rather the intentional letting go of thoughts, which dominate our conscious experience.”


There is a difference without a distinction between the absence of thought and letting go of thoughts. No one can achieve the “absence of thought” while awake, but since the mind is considered a barrier to spiritual progress, Eastern meditation teaches to “let go” of thoughts, which is exactly what Jennings is claiming this prayer is.


I was never told to empty my mind or to not think. I was taught to let go of thoughts.


 The Appeal of “Deeper”

As usual, one is told that Centering Prayer (remember that what is called Contemplative Prayer is the same thing today) will form a “deeper relationships with God.” This is the constant lure:


“The purpose of Centering Prayer is ultimately to cultivate a deeper relationship with God through a greater awareness of his presence in every moment of our lives.”


Every contemplative website, book, or teacher I have encountered makes the claim that one can have a “deeper” or more intimate relationship with God through these practices. There are four major flaws with this, and no one should be not be shy about calling people out on it:



Misuse of Psalm 46:10

As is typical, Psalm 46:10 (“Be still” in the KJV) is taken out of context. While Jennings does give the best meaning for “be still” as “cease striving” in the New American Standard translation, he then applies it wrongly.

Psalm 46 is not about what he claims:


“Centering Prayer is an intentional letting go of our standard ways of striving, being, thinking, and doing. It is a willingness to just be in the presence of God without having to fill up the space with word or thought, trusting that you are perfectly loved just as you are without having to add anything else.”


Note that he writes it is about being in the presence of God “without…word or thought.” Here we see another hallmark of contemplative teachings: the downgrading of verbal communication and thinking. I have documented this in several articles.


Psalm 46 is not about being silent or even physically still, or sitting in the presence of God, as explained in this CANA article.


The Big Bad West

The article also mirrors other contemplative writings by making a false dichotomy between East and West, as though Christians in the “West” are missing out due to ignorance of or prejudice against “Eastern” ideas. Jennings writes that objections to Centering/Contemplative prayer show “just how Westernized our understanding of God and prayer has become in our culture.”


However, this is not about a “Western” understanding of God and prayer. The issue should be what a biblical understanding of God and prayer are. But referring to the Bible as an authoritative source and as the sole standard for faith and practice is not what Contemplatives like.


Just as the Emergents in the past (such as Rob Bell, Tony Jones, Brian McLaren, etc., now called Progessives) kept repeating that Jesus was “Eastern” and that the Western church has missed out on or rejected these “Eastern” aspects, so we find the Contemplatives (as well as heretic Richard Rohr, friend of the Progressives) doing the same thing.


Contemplative practices need to be recognized for the danger they are. They are a counterfeit to biblical prayer as modeled in God’s word, thoughtful Bible reading and study, and sanctification by the Holy Spirit.


“And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” Philippians 1:6


“His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire.” 2 Peter 1:3-4


“For those whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, so that He would be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters; and these whom He predestined, He also called; and these whom He called, He also justified; and these whom He justified, He also glorified.” Romans 8:29-30


“….on the other hand, there is the introduction of a better hope, through which we come near to God.” Hebrews 7:19b


More Information

Lectio Divina

By Tom Challies


From the Master’s Seminary, by Brad Klassen


Lectio Divina and Visio Divina from Got Questions


Inner Healing Critiques

Critique of Inner Healing


Articles by Bob DeWaay

Inner Healing


Healing of Memories


Thomas Merton

Merton said: “Zen is perfectly compatible with Christian belief and indeed with Christian mysticism (if we understood Zen in its pure state, as metaphysical intuition)” (Zen and the Birds of Appetite, p. 47), found here


From Way of Life Literature