Book Reviews

Life with God, Reading the Bible for Spiritual Transformation by Richard J. Foster

Life with God was published to coincide with the 30th anniversary of Foster’s first and best-known book, Celebration of Discipline.  The original volume in many ways changed the landscape of evangelical Christianity by introducing “Christian” mystics, mostly from Roman Catholicism, to evangelicalism.  Accompanying the mystics was the idea, heavily promoted by Foster, Dallas Willard and others, that mysticism offers a superior way of knowing God than other Christian traditions.  In just three short decades since the publication of Celebration of Discipline mysticism has infiltrated virtually every Protestant denomination, school and organization.  Life with God is Foster’s latest attempt to keep the mystical ball rolling.

Foster is correct to state that the Bible should not be studied for knowledge alone (p. 4), although I can’t think of anybody who teaches anything close to this.  Nor does Foster deny the value of Bible study, although he warns that we should not try to control the Bible (pp. 7, 61).  This idea needs to be understood in light of Foster’s distain for propositional truth (p. 83), his accusation that the Pharisees practiced bibliolatry (p. 25) (a false accusation since Jesus condemned not their devotion to Scripture but their additions to it), the assurance that God will not “serve our favorite orthodoxy” (p. 73), and his belief that “trusting Jesus is ultimately not a matter of the mind, but the heart” (p. 50).  What we are left with is a Bible whose value lies not in what it says but in how it transforms us through some other means.  With all this in mind Foster has two main agendas to promote:

• Spiritual formation, defined as “the process of transforming the inner reality of the self in such a way that the overall life with God seen in the Bible naturally and freely comes to pass in us” (p. 10) (emphasis in original). 

• Spiritual disciplines “which are the God-ordained means by which each of us …go about training in the spiritual life” (p. 13).  “A spiritual discipline is an intentionally directed action by which we do what we can do in order to receive from God the ability (or power) to do what we cannot do by direct effort” (p. 16).  Others would call this means of grace.  The Disciplines include disciplines of abstinence (solitude, silence, fasting, frugality, chastity, secrecy and sacrifice), and Disciplines of engagement (study, worship, celebration, service, prayer, fellowship, confession and submission) (pp. 142-143).

The idea is that spiritual transformation takes place as we practice the Spiritual Disciplines.  Not that the Disciplines have power in themselves but they connect us to the Source of Power—God (p. 137).  The issue that must be critiqued is, do the Scriptures ascribe Foster’s Disciplines as conduits by which the grace and power of God is brought into our lives?  The answer to this all important question is “no.”  Only the Scriptures (John 17:17) and prayer (Heb 4:16) are described as means of God’s sanctifying grace in the life of the believer.  This is not to say that none of the other Disciplines has value, but God does not call us to practice these as a means to spiritual reformation.  The Disciplines recommended by Foster, as well as his whole spiritual formation system, are derived from the mystics.  His list of recommended spiritual masters is witness to this:  Ignatius of Loyola (p. 66); Teresa of Avila (p. 166); Jeremy Taylor; William Law; Dallas Willard (pp. 24, 80, 153); Henri Nouwen (pp. 64-65, 110); Father Anthony of Sourozh (p. 77); Phoebe Palmer (p. 114); Gregory the Great (p. 115); Hildegard of Bingen (p. 115); Francis of Assisi (pp. 115, 166, 168); Aimee Semple McPherson (p. 115); John Wimber (p. 115); David Yonggi Cho (p. 115); Brother Lawrence (pp. 126, 166); Flannery O’Conner (p. 126); Walter Rauschenbusch (p. 128); John Woolman (pp. 149ff); Julian of Norwich (p. 166); Mother Teresa (pp. 192-196) and Soren Kierkegaard (pp. 189-190). 

Life with God is focused mostly on how the Bible transforms our lives.  But while Foster recognizes other approaches to the Bible it is lectio divina, a method developed by Catholic mystics, which is “the primary mode of reading the Bible for transformation” (p. 62).  Lectio is a contemplative means of approaching the Scriptures, not for understanding and application, but through imagination and “attentiveness to the heart of God” (p. 73) we allow the Holy Spirit to speak to us beyond the written Word (pp. 62-73).  While the goal is to draw closer to God, in practice lectio is a highly subjective attempt to mystically unite with God who will speak to you apart from Scripture (pp. 15, 24, 58-59, 67-68, 70-71, 104-105, 162-163, 187).  The draw of this type of experience is not just a mystical encounter with God but also the promise of spiritual perfection: “Old affections of hate and guile and envy are simply gone, new affections of faith and hope and love are in their place.  Love and joy and peace in the Holy Spirit seem to flow from us, simply, naturally” (p. xi).

While Foster writes with flowery words and winsome offers, his mystical system fails the test of Scripture.  God does not promise sinless perfection, does not instruct His people today beyond the Scriptures, does not offer a program of Spiritual Disciplines that plugs us into His power, and does not prescribe a mystical approach to Scripture.  Foster’s plan has the “appearance of wisdom in self-made religion and self-abasement and severe treatment of the body, but are of no value against fleshly indulgence” (Col 2:23).