More exposure is needed of the teachings behind the Contemplative practices surging through the church, an area I have researched and written on since the late 1990s. The first part of this post is based on a video which is one of 25 in a video series given at the Renovare Institute in Colorado. Renovare was founded by Richard Foster and the late Dallas Willard.
In 2010 and 2011, Dallas agreed to teach separate two weeks for the Renovaré Institute in Denver, a cohort of 40 students, mostly in ministry positions. In these videos he systematically works through his main teaching points which lay the theoretical foundation for spiritual trans-formation in Christ.
At about 3:45, Dallas Willard refers to something AGNES SANFORD said. This must have made Richard Foster happy, since Sanford was Foster’s mentor. Sanford, known as the founder of the troubling and unbiblical practice of Inner Healing, was spiritually confused, and included New Thought theology about God and even had the atonement wrong.
I might have been deceived by her had I not been a New Ager prior to knowing Christ. I picked up her book, The Healing Light in a bookstore (I had been a Christian for 3 days at this point) and was astonished when I read her account of visualizing a white light around an injured finger. Foster suggests similar techniques in his perennially popular A Celebration of Discipline, and quotes and promotes Sanford on his Renovare website.
That Sanford is apparently admired by Willard and Foster should be a major red flag early on.
Dallas Willard (henceforth DW) comments about God giving Adam and Eve “some space.” Then Richard Foster responds by saying that when Adam disobeyed, God “hid himself.” He claims this is what God does when man disobeys.
Where are they are getting this? it is not in the Genesis account that God hid, nor do I see this idea elsewhere. It is actually the opposite: Adam and Eve hid from God (Genesis 3:8-10).
Around 17 minutes, DW states that Pentecost is when there was the “blow-up,” because that is when people
came from all the nations around and they are imprinted and in many cases inhabited by this God that came in Jesus through his Spirit now and take that message out.
I am not sure what being “imprinted” by the Spirit means, and what distinction there is, if any, between that and being “inhabited” by the Spirit, but Dallas Willard seems to see a difference. The fact is that those who believed in Christ at Pentecost were inhabited/indwelt by the Spirit. That was a major change from previous times when God would send the Spirit on certain people, but removed the Spirit also. Permanent indwelling of the Holy Spirit in all believers began at Pentecost.
Willard states that
crucifixion with Christ….leads us into the greater life of the Kingdom of God in which we hear and obey the formation of the soul leading us into an all-inclusive community of loving persons, with God at the heart of that community as its prime sustainer.
I find that obtuse. Also note that Willard uses the term “formation” since that was his main focus, and by “formation,” he means the mystical practices from medieval monasticism and mystics, some Eastern meditation methods from the Contemplative Prayer Movement, and man-based Quaker ideals mixed in (via Foster).
The statement as it stands could mean a lot of things but also seems to be a word salad meaning nothing. This is how mystics sound.
The “Still, Small Voice”
Around 32 minutes, Foster refers to Willard’s writing about the “still, small voice” of God and Willard talks about learning to “recognize” the voice of God. The problem is that the “still, small voice” from First Kings 19 is misused by Contemplative advocates (Ruth Haley Barton, as an example, uses it throughout one of her books).
DW admits that this could mean a “whisper” (I have read it can also means a “stirring” and similar) or even “just a thought.”
But did God always use a “still, small voice” (however that is interpreted)? I can think of many ways God spoke unlike this, such as the burning bush, asking Abraham to sacrifice Isaac and then revealing the ram as the sacrifice, speaking to Moses on Mt. Sinai with accompanying thunder, and God’s voice being like the sound of many waters in Ezekiel 43:2. The voice like the sound of many waters is echoed as a description of Christ when he appeared to John in Revelation 1:15. Later in Revelation 14, John hears a voice from heaven like the sound of many waters.
This passage from First Kings is discussed in the CANA article on Thomas Keating (look under section “What Happens in the Inner Room”). It is enough to say that there is no basis for anyone today to expect any “still, small voice” from God. Nor is it clear that what Elijah heard was God’s voice. Elijah heard a sound of a gentle blowing (NAS) and went out of the cave, and then God spoke to him verbally. God speaks to man with words so that we are clear on what God is saying; that is why he gave the Scriptures.
More of the Still Small Voice
There is a video with Foster and Willard specifically on God’s so-called “still, small voice” which is one of the lectures in this series. Willard uses the example of Samuel hearing God’s voice, thinking it was Eli to declare that we cannot always recognize the voice of God but that we can learn to recognize God’s voice. He then misuses the 1 Kings 19 text to set up his teachings on how to recognize God’s voice.
There are problems with the example of Samuel:
- An example from the Old Testament regarding a prophet hearing God is not applicable today. We are not told to expect to hear God speak to us as God spoke to the prophets.
- The fact Samuel thought it was Eli was reasonable because he was very young and the text in verse 7 tells us
Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord, nor had the word of the Lord yet been revealed to him.
The bottom line is that Samuel’s situation has nothing to do with learning to hear God’s voice. After being instructed by Eli to answer the voice next time, Samuel did so. This was God’s calling Samuel to be his prophet.
- This example of Samuel is a single instance and is narrative, so it should not be used as the basis for a broad principle or doctrine.
Examining the Spiritual Formation Bible (originally, The Renovare Bible, now the Life With God Bible) put out by Foster and Willard is eye-opening.
Willard states that the form God’s voice takes will always be “in our thoughts,” so I surmise from this that he does not mean hearing an audible voice. Willard then gives markers on how to recognize God’s voice (under next section).
DW lays down what he believes is a rule on hearing God:
The less dramatic the form the message comes, the fuller is the content, and the more advanced is the person receiving the message.
What Willard bases that on is not clear, but this idea cannot be found in Scripture. It sets up an elitism with those who receive good content from God’s voice being “advanced.” This is tier system of those more “advanced” as opposed to those less “advanced.”
Did Willard mean “mature?” “Mature” and “advanced” are not necessarily the same thing, but even if he meant “mature,” there still is no basis for this idea. God spoke to unbelievers like Balaam and Abimelech, he moved King Cyrus to release the Hebrews from captivity, and he sent a message to Pilate via Pilate’s wife dream.
There is no special status for hearing from God in Scripture. Although God’s prophets received messages from God to relay to others, and the biblical authors were given words from God via the Holy Spirit, this did not happen due to any merit of their own.
The Three Markers of Gods’ Voice
Willard teaches that God’s voice can be a thought, the voice of another human, or come via other avenues. You will “hear a certain tone or quality,” claims Willard, that has a “certain weight to it.” The “weight” is the first of three markers of God’s voice.
The second marker is “confidence” – the voice comes with confidence. You do not sense it “as coming from you or from another person though another person may be speaking.”
The voice, continues Willard, is “peacefulness, sweet, a warm but firm presence.” He cites James 3:17, but that verse is talking about the “wisdom from above,” not a voice.
We learn to recognize the Voice by “experience,” claims DW. He repeats this several times in the talk.
However, when God spoke to people in the Bible, it was not always a “sweet” or “warm” voice but often one of rebuke or even condemnation. There is no sentimental malarkey with God. He does not send Hallmark Cards.
Willard offers a rule of thumb that
if The Bible says it once, don’t worry about it. If it says it twice, think about it twice. If it becomes a fundamental principle, use that as a guideline to understood what comes to you as the voice of God.
These are not the hermeneutical principles I learned in seminary or at church, nor do I think they are in any credible hermeneutical teaching. If the Bible says something only once, don’t worry about it? There are many places where we have only one account of something, or something Jesus said that was not repeated. It is true that repetition is often an indication that we should pay attention, but that hardly means that we dismiss what is stated only once in the Bible.
These criteria are all very subjective and, moreover, there is no biblical basis for them. To follow this advice would be, in my view, spiritually deceptive and likely damaging. It is astonishing that one of Willard’s stature in the church would teach this, but this shows the effect of contemplative thinking that Willard imbibed.
Willard Gives God a Deadline And Advises You to do So
We come now to perhaps one of the worst ideas I have ever heard in the church.
Willard explains that if he wants to hear from God, he will tell God he would like to hear within a certain time period. Willard asserts that we should set time limits on hearing from God.
This is astounding! I do not think even God’s prophets did this. And whatever the prophets may have done, we are not prophets. Willard puts it in a low key way so that you might think you are not hearing him correctly. But I listened to this part at least 3 times.
This is evidence for how a low view of God is secreted in Contemplative teachings. For all their talk of being close to God and knowing God intimately, awe for the majesty of the Lord is sorely missing in contemplative teachings and writings I have heard and read. Lip service may be given but when the teachings are stripped down, all that is there are the bones of a hollow spirituality, which is the essence of mysticism. Mysticism always undermines or even attacks doctrine and Scripture (the continual misuse of Scripture by contemplatives is the evidence), and when the authority of Scripture is removed, only the vain imaginations of men are left.
The Contemplatives Endorse Each Other
A book is referred to in the video with Richard Foster and it seems to be Dallas Willard’s Hearing God: Developing a Conversational Relationship with God. There is an endorsement of this book from contemplative leader Ruth Haley Barton who calls this a “classic.”
Another endorser is John Mark Comer, a man who has gone fully contemplative (as well as approvingly quoting Rohr and endorsing the Enneagram. A third endorser is Richard Foster, not surprisingly.
Jan Johnson, a Spiritual Director who apparently likes Richard Rohr, had a hand in the expanded edition of this book. Jan Johnson is President of Dallas Willard Ministries where we read:
Jan has worked as a trained spiritual director for 20 years. She graduated from Ozark Christian College, Academy for Spiritual Formation, Stillpoint, and earned a D. Min. in Ignatian Spirituality & Spiritual Direction.
Johnson’s credentials indicate she is someone to avoid, not someone who is credible as a source of sound Christian teaching.
Johnson also collaborated with DW on some of his books:
Jan co-authored several books with Dallas: Renovation of the Heart in Daily Practice and Dallas Willard’s Study Guide to the Divine Conspiracy. Additionally she edited and compiled Hearing God Through the Year¸ a daily devotional book based on Dallas’s book, Hearing God. She did the initial compilation and editing of Dallas’s book Knowing Christ Today. The goal behind these efforts was to help people live into the ideas Dallas taught. Jan also assisted in his Fuller Seminary class, Spirituality and Ministry, from 2002-2012. She served on his Supervisory Council regarding speaking engagements (2001-2013). Jan and her husband Greg also met with Dallas and Jane on other matters. From Johnson’s site
“Jesus Never Had A Vision”
Around 27:30, Dallas Willard states “Did you know that Jesus never arguably had a vision? Isn’t that interesting?” I find it odd to be surprised at that. Jesus did not need a vision since he was directly in communication with God all the time (John 5:19; 8:28-30; 12:49; 14:10).
And He who sent Me is with Me; He has not left Me alone, for I always do the things that are pleasing to Him. – John 8:29
Dalas Willard asserts that those closest to God get a clearer message because they are “already paying attention” and God “does not need to get their attention.” He gives examples from the Old Testament.
If Christians need to practice techniques and “pay attention” in order to hear God, what is the Bible for? Why make it so complicated? If the Bible is composed of God-breathed words, then Christians can find God’s “voice” in that. The Holy Spirit illuminates Scripture as Christians read and study God’s word.
Moreover, would this idea not mean that God is unable to communicate with someone unless he has their full attention?
Willard seems to think he discovered things about God and Jesus not known before. This is always a red flag. I did not coin the phrase “Neo-Gnostic,” but it is a good one to describe the contemplatives like Willard, Foster, Ruth Haley Barton, John Mark Comer, Peter Scazzero, Pete Greig, and many more.
God’s word is immensely profound. One can never finish studying it, or ever reach a point of not needing to read more, so let that be the source of wisdom, not contemplative practices.
Listen to a podcast by Pastor Chris Rosebrough on an interview of Dallas Willard by his disciple John Ortberg. The segment on Willard starts around 36 minutes.