Christian spiritual formation, spiritual discipline, spiritual formation, Theology; Trinity; Trinitarian; Christianity; God; Son: Holy Spirit
by Jonathan Yao
Asia Graduate School of Theology Alliance
This paper seeks to evaluate Alex Tang’s “Holistic Spiritual Formation Crucible Paradigm” (Tang 2014, 13, 244ff.), henceforth referred to as the Crucible Paradigm (moniker by the writer), by using Jeremiah Gruenberg and Annang Asumang’s “Axes of Formation” model of assessment (2019). Tang is a medical specialist and a spiritual director and teaches Christian spirituality, spiritual formation, and biomedical ethics at graduate seminaries in Malaysia and Singapore. Gruenberg and Asumang are with the South African Theological Seminary; the former being a PhD candidate with a submitted thesis in theology and spiritual formation (2019); the latter a medical specialist and faculty and post-graduate supervisor in biblical studies, theology, spiritual formation, and education.
The intended outcome of the study is a learning opportunity in critiquing a spiritual formation system that the writer, a Singapore resident, has been learning, practicing, and exploring in its possible integration with other disciplines. It would also be intriguing in using a standardized assessment model which apparently sought to plug a gap in the “academic venture into Christian spiritual formation” and hopefully contribute in a small way toward a better understanding of one such approaches in the discipline toward a larger meta-theory (Gruenberg and Asumang 2019, 3-4). Another reason for this choice is its claim to be able to assess theories of spiritual formation by meeting five requirements: “ecumenically applicable [in any denominational or traditional context], receptive to interdisciplinary approaches, biblically grounded, theologically sound [which reflects historic Christian orthodoxy], and comprehensive in scope [through various facets of Christian spiritual growth and maturity]” (Gruenberg and Asumang 2019, 4-5).
Tang’s Crucible Paradigm
The assessment will be done on Tang’s Till We are Fully Formed: Christian Spiritual Formation Paradigms in the English–speaking Presbyterian Churches in Malaysia (2014). A related instrument developed by Tang, “Spiritual Formation Inventory,” will provide supplementary material as well (Tang 2018, 14-19). Tang’s definition for Christian spiritual formation is “the intentional and ongoing process of inner transformation to become like Jesus Christ himself, to become with others a communal people of God, and to become an agent for God’s redemptive purposes” (Tang 2014, 6). In this paper, spiritual formation and formation are terms used interchangeably for Christian spiritual formation. A Christian faith community is a “gathering of believers who meet regularly and consistently to worship, learn about their faith, and encourage and support one another”; it includes those from parachurches and marketplace and home fellowships that are not part of any church (Tang 2014, 6).
The Four-Axis Formation Assessment Model
Joe Rodgers, a psychology professor and researcher, stated that a model is one which “matches the reality that it describes in some important ways” and “is simpler than that reality” (Rodgers, 2010, 5; quoted in Friedman, et al 2010, 81). The four-axis model seeks to describe reality although it may fall short in some ways as it is a simplified version of reality. This is the inherent limitation of any such model and is acknowledged here. According to Gruenberg and Asumang (2019, 5), the four axes of this model are: 1) the intended goal/s of spiritual formation according to the theory, 2) the key concept/s undergirding it, 3) the theological foundations of the theory, and 4) the formational activities associated with it. In using the model, Gruenberg and Asumang (2019, 6) outlined three stages of application: 1) identification, systematic description, and analysis of each one of the four axes, 2) description and assessment of the interrelation of the four axes, and 3) final critique of the theory as a whole. This paper will follow the three-stage methodology as above.
Four Axes of the Crucible Paradigm
In this first stage of assessment, the goal, concept, theology, and activity as axes of the paradigm are individually described and analysed.
Goal of Spiritual Formation (First Axis)
The intended outcome of Tang’s theoretical approach sees Christian spiritual formation not just “for self-development, but also part of God’s larger plan of redemption for his created order, which includes nurturing a people committed to him and restoring the created world” (Tang 2014, 1). The goals of such a formation are, therefore, “ Individual believers’ acquiring a Christ-like character;  Development of a people of God;  Establishment of the kingdom of God and the healing of the whole of creation” (Tang 2014, 86). The three formative strands that will achieve the desired goals are, “ Person-in-formation [to Christ-likeness];  Persons-in-community formation [to become a people of God];  Persons-in-mission formation [in the kingdom of God and the healing of creation]” (Tang 2014, 86, 88, 91, 93). Tang used the following (Figure 1) to show the inter-relatedness of the three strands as part of a unified process where “their functions overlap and are indistinguishable from one another” with the Holy Spirit as the active agent in all three formative strands (Tang 2014, 86-8; figure is adapted from Angela Reed’s diagram, “Three Foundations of Spiritual Formation” 2010, 160).
|Figure 1: Formative strands of spiritual formation (Tang 2014, 88).|
In analysing Tang’s three goals of formation, it is recognised that 1) “becoming Christlike individually” is a common goal shared with other formative theories (e.g. Gruenberg and Asumang [2019, 7-8] listed nine major works on formation showing the same goal) and reflects biblical concepts of believer’s growth (e.g. Gal 4:19; Rom 8:29; 2 Cor 3:18) toward the restoration of imago Dei and classically affirmed by theologian Anthony Hoekema (1986, 27); 2) “becoming a people of God as a community” in formation as less common (though affirmed by Steve Kang [2002, 146-49], professor in interdisciplinary studies) and Tang seeing a) God actively calling out a people to Himself in both the Old Testament and New Testament (e.g. Exo 6:7), b) Paul’s use of “the called-out ones” or ekklesia as an image of the Church (e.g. “church” and “churches” in Rom 16:4-5, cf. Thayer and Smith, Greek Lexicon entry for “Ekklesia”), and c) Pauline references to individual believers as “temple of the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor 6:19) and to the church as “temple of God” (1 Cor 3:16-17) underscores the workings of the Spirit through individuals and collectively as a whole (affirmed by Richard Averbeck [2008, 43], a theologian); 3) “becoming missional for the kingdom of God and the healing of creation” by bringing Christ’s atonement and reconciliation to the individual, community, and creation is consistent with Paul’s “to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ” (Eph 1:10, NIV) which F. F. Bruce (1984, 261) described as “the unification of a divided universe.”
Paradigmatic Concept (Second Axis)
The key ideas behind this paradigm are as follow. Tang’s favoured metaphor for the spiritual development of a person-in-formation is that of a journey (Tang 2014, 89); crucible or womb as analogical containers of development for the persons-in-community formation (Tang 2014, 91-3, 185-86); and persons-in-mission formation as redemptive agents of God’s holistic shalom in his kingdom and to both the human race and creation (Tang 2014, 93-5, 108-16).
Spiritual formation for a disciple of Christ describes the sanctifying and transforming process as a journey (discipleship pastor Bill Hull 2006, 35, quoted in Tang 2014, 73) and it is not linear and predictable like a pilgrimage but the journey “is like an unfolding drama, with unpredictable twists and turns in the plot” with “fits and starts, sudden shifts and surprises, as well as imperceptible growth” (educator Suzanne Johnson 1989, 104, quoted in Tangs 2014, 89). The formative processes are to be carried out in a crucible which parallels the faith community where formation and transformation takes place (Tang 2014, 133-36, cf. theologian LeRon Shults and psychologist Steven Sandage’s intensification model as basis for the crucible analogy 2006, 31). Tang also used the womb analogously as “a nurturing crucible” which “supplies not only nutrients but also growth-enabling elements” (Tang 2014, 185-86). The concept of shalom is important to Tang’s theory on spiritual formation and is deeply connected with the kingdom and the mission of God: “Shalom signifies the state of wholeness of the pre-Fall creation, the redemptive acts of God, and the gathering of a people to promote the kingdom of God” (Tang 2014, 116). I.e. shalom is God having “a whole person, a whole people of His own, a whole earth, and a whole creation in interconnected relationship” (Tang 2014, 109). God’s people then “have a mission to reveal his righteousness and share this love” (theologian Chris Wright 2006, quoted in Tangs 2014, 107). Spiritual formation sees the need for holistic social justice and creation care beyond communicating the gospel (Tang 2014, 117).
In analysing the journey metaphor for personal formation, the crucible analogy as community for formative nurturing of its members, and the shalom concept intrinsic to the kingdom of God and his mission, we see Tang’s formational orientation toward process of transformation, context of community, and missional eschatology.
Tang’s premise is that “a holistic Christian spiritual formation paradigm based on a crucible of spiritual formation elements [italics for emphasis]” in the context of ESPCs’ “unique socio-political and psychocultural” environ will achieve the goal of spiritual formation (Tang 2014, 7). It is holistic in seeing the three formative strands as noted above being an intrinsic part of the formation paradigm. Spiritual formation is therefore personal but not individualistic, shows a balance of both relational and service-orientation within the faith community, and is not just about “being” but also about “doing” as well. The seven spiritual formation elements are “growing into Christ-likeness, building relationships [with God, self, others], being missional, pursuing intentionality, seeking spiritual learning, being dependent on the Holy Spirit, and developing community” with the formational community as the context and supporting “crucible” for such development (Tang 2014, 175). The formative crucible is the faith community where these spiritual formation elements are nurtured and allowed to flourish. Tang’s “Spiritual Formation Inventory” instrument reordered the elements into the acrostic SHALOM to help individuals assess their spiritual development (Tang 2018, 14-19). In folding the seven elements into the six SHALOM components, Tang left out explicit mention of the Holy Spirit as conceptually “it is understood to be incorporated into all the other elements” (Tang in WhatsApp message to writer, 9 December 2019).
Theological Underpinnings (Third Axis)
|Figure 2: The nature of spiritual formation (Tang 2014, 118)|
The theological and philosophical foundation is the “substance” answering the “why” questions behind the theory whereas the paradigmatic concept is the “shape” (Gruenberg and Asumang 2019, 12). Christian spiritual formation is a process involving “restoration, relationship, and shalom” in the context of three major biblical and theological concepts: 1) Restoring the imago Dei; 2) Relationship with the triune God; 3) Shalom and the kingdom of God (Tang 2014, 95). The following diagram (Figure 2) shows the nature of spiritual formation (Tang 2014, 118).
Restoring the Imago Dei
At creation, God made man and woman in his own image as the imago Dei (Gen 1:26-27). Reformed theologian, Anthony Hoekema, then explicate two results when they disobeyed God resulting in the Fall: 1) a functional aspect: rupture of man’s threefold relationship with God, with others, and with creation; 2) a structural aspect: the “original image” became the “perverted image” at the Fall, and from the “renewed image” becoming “perfected image” through Christ’s redemption (1986, 75-96). Hoekema noted, “the purpose of redemption is to restore the image of God in man” (1986, 27). In restoring the imago Dei in a person, that person is becoming more like God which “also means becoming more like Christ” (Hoekema 1986, 89). The Church is then made up of those who are restored to the divine image. The theological underpinning of the person-in-formation is the restoration of imago Dei (which is an epistemological dimension of formation).
Relationship with a Triune God
A theological foundation of spiritual formation is having right relationships with God (vertically), with self and others (horizontally). The Jewish Shema reveals God’s heart in wanting a community of God’s people in love relationship with the triune God for his glory (Jn 17:20-25; Eph. 3:11): “Hear, O Israel: The LORD is our God, the LORD is one. Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength” (Deut. 6:4-5, NIV). Theologian Scot McKnight (2004, 6) called it the “Jewish creed of spiritual formation.” Jesus Christ gave the Great Commandment derived from the above passage in Mark 12:29-31 (cf. Matt 22:37-40 and Lk 10:26 27). McKnight (2004) labelled it the “Jesus Creed” reflecting the heart of Christian spiritual formation. In Romans 8:27-29, Paul connects the triune Godhead with its outworking in the spiritual formation of believers. The triune Godhead invites believers to join in the perichoresis or dance of the trinitarian community (Tang 2014, 104; this is another epistemological reality of formation). The faith community of believers is to demonstrate to all others what shalom as perfectly whole and complete relationship is (Tang 2014, 106). Christian faith communities can thus learn from the perfect triune model of relationships amongst the Godhead (Tang 2014, 106-7). The persons-in-community formation should look to the example of the trinity in their relational behaviour (Tang 2014, 108).
Shalom and the kingdom of God
Shalom in the Old Testament occurs 250 times (Mounce 2006, 503) and means “a state of wholeness, completeness, well-being, prosperity, health, contentment, salvation, righteousness, and justice” (Beck and Brown 1986, 777; Kittel, Friedrich, and Bromiley 1985, 406-20, as quoted in Tang 2014, 108) and is often used to describe relationship to God. In the New Testament, the equivalent Greek word is eirene which occurs 91 times. Shalom is a key concept in Christian spiritual formation viz: 1) Christ as the Saviour is the mediator of shalom, reconciles people to God, and brings wholeness to people and the world (Eph 2:14-18; Col 1:20; Gal 6:15); people-in-formation thus experience growth in shalom (Tang 2014, 111); 2) The kingdom of God as a “shalom world” with “the rule of God in the hearts of His people” (Tang 2014, 112); 3) Mission of God carried out through shalom by Christians and their faith community as persons-in-mission; Missiologist Leslie Newbigin (1995) suggested a trinitarian model for the mission of God: a) proclaim the kingdom of God as faith in action, b) share the life of the Son as love in action, and c) bear witness of the Holy Spirit as hope in action (Tang 2014, 113).
The biblical and theological foundations of the Crucible Paradigm are based on the theological concepts of a process of being restored to the image of God, becoming a people of God, and as agents for the mission of God. Tang’s psychosocial foundations of Christian spiritual formation integrates educator James Loder’s (1989) “logic of transformation,” theologian LeRon Shults and psychologist Steven Sandage’s (2006) “intensification model,” and Dallas Willard’s (2002) “renovation of the heart.” There are sound biblical, theological, and psychosocial foundations for the Crucible Paradigm of formation.
Role of the Spiritual Formation Community
A Christian spiritual formation community with underlying spiritual formation and discipleship coupled with committed leaders and members to spiritual formation will provide the impetus, vibrancy, and identity to the spiritual dynamics of congregational life. The community will need to demonstrate a good mix of relational and service-oriented ministry to support the Crucible Paradigm of formation.
Role of the Spiritual Formation Elements
Within the crucible of a formational community, Tang listed the following five elements as key to generating synergy within the community: 1) Growing into Christ-likeness; 2) Building relationships; 3) Being missional; 4) Enhancing spiritual learning; 5) Developing community (Tang 2014, 259). He left out the other two as listed below.
Role of the Holy Spirit and Human Intentionality
According to Tang, “the Holy Spirit is the generator that powers the elements of spiritual formation while human intentionality is the engine that drives it.” He concluded, “the Christian spiritual formation paradigm may be described as a spiritual formation community that acts as a crucible for the spiritual formation elements to act with the formative assent of individuals and transformative action of the Holy Spirit.” While the role of the Spirit is seen here as sovereign (and thus separated out from the other five elements) perhaps there could be more discussions on how the Spirit does act transformatively in response to certain trigger events or states, if any.
Formational Activities (Fourth Axis)
The formative activities advocated by the crucible paradigm may be grouped under the spiritual formation elements for which examples are provided by Tang (2014, 295-332). These seek to help Christians ameliorate negative external socio-political an psychocultural influences. According to Tang (2014, 332), it is aimed at a holistic and integrated approach using socialisation or enculturation principles. Some of these include: 1) Growing in Christlikeness by being restored from spiritual brokenness “through the spiritual disciplines, critical thinking, and mentoring” (Tang 2014, 295-300); 2) Building relationships with God and with each other “through their spiritual lived experiences to enrich one another” (Tang 2014, 300-15); 3) Spiritual learning by “taking personal responsibility for learning and learning through the catechetical process” (Tang 2014, 315-23); 4) Developing community “by using Christian practices, through intergenerational composition, living by community rules, and sharing testimonies and celebration” (Tang 2014, 323-29); 5) Being missional through social engagement by “caring for the sick, poor, and oppressed” (Tang 2014, 329-32).
In analysing this axis, it is noted that Tang used 37 pages of his book in providing rich suggestions and relevant examples as possible activities in implementing the Crucible Paradigm. He used the spiritual formation elements as the framework for these actionable items.
Relationship Between the Four Axes of the Crucible Paradigm
In this second stage, an assessment will be made in the interrelatedness among the four axes of the paradigm. In general, there appears to be good fit and alignment between all the four axes. The common constructs include the three goals of spiritual formation, the associated three formative strands, and the seven/five plus two spiritual formation elements. There may be apparent exception when the second axis, paradigmatic concepts, is compared to the third axis, theological underpinnings. The metaphor of the journey (second axis) may not seem aligned with items on the third axis. This may be reconciled if the “process of becoming” is seen as part of the “journey” of person in formation.
Critique of the Overall Crucible Paradigm
In this third and final stage, a critical assessment of the unified paradigm is made. Tang presented a theoretical construct of the holistic spiritual formation crucible paradigm that is systematic in its approach, comprehensive in scope, relevant in its intent and actual study, and contextual in its suggested application. The use of womb as an analogy for a nurturing environment may well fall short as the growing foetus does not need to do anything for growth. This is not Tang’s approach toward spiritual development and he has prescribed active participation in formative practices to aid the process. The shalom concept is so fundamental to this paradigm that a suggestion is now made for the inclusion of the term in the paradigm description itself, within the outcome goals, or in the name of the paradigm, e.g. holistic shalom formation crucible paradigm.
The Holistic Spiritual Formation Crucible Paradigm was assessed through breaking it down into the four axes covering the goal, concept, theology, activity, and the interrelatedness between axes and the critique of its unified paradigm. The four axes were found to be consistent conceptually and the overall unified paradigm acceptable with a suggested tweak to the name or description of the paradigm. One of Tang’s future research suggestion is exploring the paradigm applicability in other Asian situations in the region. While the assessment by this paper has not directly addressed the point, it does appear to be relevant in its theory and approach beyond Malaysia or the Presbyterian Church (Tang did note some practices and lessons from the Presbyterian Church in Singapore, for instance). It is also noted that the initial research done by Tang utilized Western philosophy and practice but he has had been able to extract the relevant and contextualise them accordingly.
Averbeck, Richard E. 2008. “Spirit, Community, and Mission: A Biblical Theology for Spiritual Formation.” Journal of Spiritual Formation and Soul Care 1, no. 1: 27-53.
Bruce, F. F. 1984. The Epistles to the Colossians, to Philemon, and to the Ephesians. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans.
Coyle, Adrian. 2011. “Critical Responses to Faith Development Theory: A Useful Agenda for Change?” Psychology of Religion 33, no. 3 (September): 281-298. Accessed: December 21, 2019. https://doi.org/10.1163/157361211X608162.
Fortosis, Steve. 1992. “A Developmental Model for Stages of Growth in Christian Formation.” Religious Education 87, no. 2 (March): 283-98. Accessed: December 21, 2019. https://doi.org/10.1080/0034408920870211.
Friedman, Harris, Stanley Krippner, Linda Riebel, and Chad Johnson. 2010. “Transpersonal and Other Models of Spiritual Development.” Models of Spiritual Development of Transpersonal Studies 29, no. 1 (January): 79-94. Accessed: December 21, 2019. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/283189611_Models_of_Spiritual_Development
Gangel, Kenneth O. and James C. Wilhoit. 1998. The Christian Educator’s Handbook on Spiritual Formation. Grand Rapids: Baker.
Gruenberg, Jeremiah, and Annang Asumang. 2019. “Axes of Formation: A Model for Assessing Theories of Spiritual Formation.” Journal of Spiritual Formation and Soul Care 12, no. 2 (August): 212-31.
Hoekema, Anthony A. 1986. Created in God’s image. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans.
Hull, Bill. 2006. The Complete Book of Discipleship: On Being and Making Followers of Christ. Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress.
Johnson, Suzanne. 1989. Christian Spiritual Formation in the Church and Classroom. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press.
Kang, Steve S. 2002. “The Church, Spiritual Formation, and the Kingdom of God: A Case for Canonical-Communion Reading of the Bible. Ex Auditu 18, no. 1: 137–51. Accessed December 21, 2019. http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=rfh&AN=ATLA0001389466&site=ehost-live.
Loder, James E. 1989. The Transforming Moment. 2nd ed. Colorado Springs, CO: Helmers and Howard. (Quoted in Tang 2014, 128-33.)
Lowe, Mary. 2010. “A Summary of the Findings of the Study: Assessing the Impact of Online Courses on the Spiritual Formation of Adult Students,” Christian Perspectives in Education 4, no. 1: 1-18. Accessed: December 21, 2019. http://digitalcommons.liberty.edu/cpe/vol4/iss1/3.
McKnight, Scot. 2004. The Jesus Creed: Loving God, Loving Others. Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press.
Meye, Robert P. 1988. “Theological Education as Character Formation.” Theological Education 24, no. 1: 96-126. Accessed: December 21, 2019. http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=rfh&AN=ATLA0000799787&site=ehost-live.
Newbigin, Leslie. 1995. The Open Secret: An Introduction to the Theology of Mission. Rev. ed. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans.
Porter, Steve L. 2010. “The Willardian Corpus.” Journal of Spiritual Formation & Soul Care 3, no. 2: 239-66. Accessed: December 21, 2019. http://media.biola.edu/pdf/SFJ-Willard.pdf.
Reed, Angela H. 2010. Quest for Spiritual Community: A Practical Theology of Congregational-based Spiritual Guidance. PhD diss., Princeton Theological Seminary.
Rodgers, J. 2010. “The Epistemology of Mathematical and Statistical Modeling: A Quiet Methodological Revolution.” American Psychologist 65, no. 1 (January): 1-12. Accessed: December 21, 2019. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0018326.
Shults, F. LeRon, and Steven J. Sandage. 2006. Transforming Spirituality: Integrating Theology and Psychology. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.
Smith, George T. 1996. “Spiritual Formation in the Academy: A Unified Model,” Theological Education 33, no. 1: 83-91. Accessed: December 21, 2019. http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=rfh&AN=ATLA0001029116&site=ehost-live.
Tang, Alex. 2014. Till We Are Fully Formed: Christian Spiritual Formation Paradigms in the English-Speaking Presbyterian Churches in Malaysia. Kluang: Malaysia Bible Seminary.
——. 2018. Spiritual Assessment Tools. 2nd ed. Malaysia: Kairos Spiritual Formation.
Willard, Dallas. 2002. Renovation of the Heart: Putting On the Character of Christ. Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress.
Wright, Christopher J. H. 2006. The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative. Nottingham, England: InterVarsity Press.