New Testament Spirituality: A New Field of Study or Field Full of Mines?

A handful of scholars agree today: Christianity was always about a complete way of life––versus a belief system or a private spiritual experience.  On the other hand, “spirituality”, as a way of talking about that complete way of life, has come under scrutiny.  Like the word “experience” itself, “spiritual” or “spirituality” seems laden with too much baggage; the wise suspect that there are all sorts of meanings smuggled into the trunk (boot) of these words.

So why talk about a “New Testament Spirituality”? Why are there so few books on the topic? What would we mean exactly by NT Spirituality? And would it even be possible to discover a spirituality from 27 documents that each have their own agenda and primary focus?

Personally, I am open to exploring just what we mean by NT Spirituality and think it is a worthwhile endeavor––and even perhaps a corrective to the now-fractured work of studying the Bible. With fifty different methods and a hundred different approaches,  we must find new ways of bringing these categories together. What would a New Testament Spirituality include?

  1. First a New Testament Spirituality would have to mean “a complete way of life” versus the normal understanding of private times of personal piety.
  2. Second it would, by definition, examine the nature of the Holy Spirit along with a biblical anthropology, in relation.  It would locate particular developments in Jewish teaching about YHWH’s spirit, its role in the biblical narrative, and the ways Early Christians re-conceived of the Spirit’s role in the life of the world.
  3. Third it would include work on virtue formation and the transformed human heart in Jewish and Early Christian Literature. This includes the place of pride and idolatry in the biblical narrative.
  4. Fourth it would, by definition, include an integrated vision of human existence including the role of mind, body, spirit, relationships, guidance on living in a local situation––always tempered by guidance on how to deal with the world at large, including over-lording empires and international events.
  5. Fifth it would cover a range of material on social history and the role of particular traditions in shaping and forming and individual and community. I see identity issues, ethnic issues, and the study of Hellenistic Judaism falling under this category.
  6. Sixth, and only in light of the other lines of inquiry, would it discuss the place of prayer, fasting, ritual, and sharing of resources in a religious community.
  7. Seventh it would discuss the central role of worship and formation in the shaping of communities––including a vision of how these two elements relate and what insight that relationship would produce in our understanding of Christian Origins.
  8. Eighth, and finally, a New Testament Spirituality would look to the authors of each text, as well as characters in each text, as potential spiritual masters.  From Ezekiel’s masterly vision of the human heart to Luke’s portrayal of Paul as missionary, a NT Spirituality would attempt to see literature as conveyor wisdom and revelation, challenge and spiritual guidance.  On the other side of this coin, we would look to Christian masters throughout church history, like the Francis of Assisi’s, the John of the Cross’s, and the Teresa of Avila’s as men and women who––claimed by their disciples––had the whole of the Christian scriptures memorized.  We would look to them and their formulations of the human journey of transcendence, with a discerning eye.

I realize the risks of new formulations. They are forever claiming to integrate that which has been long fractured, though they often cause more problems than they offer solutions.  This is especially true in the relatively recent field of spirituality.   We could spend days collecting definitions and being tossed about by the winds of scholarly inquiry.

This is a preliminary sketch fueled by my 15 years of study in the disciplines of world-religions, New Testament, and spirituality; and it’s been funded by the powers of intuition.  I have paid  little attention to the land minds of biblical theology and ethics and how they would relate to a biblical spirituality. I have avoided the thousand limitations historical criticism would pose.  And I’ve gone at this without a detailed study of the our texts, in light of the eight categories above.

But, with an understanding of the limited nature of these types of things––and realizing that when somebody hears NT Spirituality they immediately hear “devotional literature”––, we can start on the common ground that Early Christianity, like its pagan counterpart and its Jewish heritage, was a complete way of life.  Some of us should begin to think of our study in terms of mapping the rise of Christianity in this way.

What do you think? Have I missed any import lines of study? Have I gone too far? What potential land minds do you see for the study of New Testament Spirituality?

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3 responses to “New Testament Spirituality: A New Field of Study or Field Full of Mines?

  1. I am very late in seeing this post, but (1) I like where what you have said and (2) there are 15 serious NT and OT scholars meeting next week at Uni Gloucestershire, led by Gordon McConville and Andrew Lincoln, to discuss one another’s papers on biblical spirituality. It’s the second such conference. I’m looking forward to it very much.

    • Hi Dr. Gorman,

      Thanks for the note about New Testament Spirituality. I’m excited and interested to hear about the meeting next week at Gloucestershire. Do you think Profs McConville and Lincoln would be open to an email from me inquiring about the papers? I’m working on my dissertation at St. Mary’s St. Andrews with Prof. Wright and am thinking through Luke’s Spirituality in the ways I mentioned in this post. It would be great to get some insight into groundbreaking work in biblical spirituality.

      With appreciation,

      • Sure, you can ask, though I think it will be up to individual presenters. There will be a conference book rather soon (Wipf and Stock). I was with Tom W 2 weeks ago and mentioned the conference to him briefly. There are no papers just on Luke at this conference, but Stephen Barton has one on joy in Luke-Acts and Philippians. More importantly, the papers have great bibliographies and are really a statement of the state of the art and question. I am sending my paper to your St Andrews account by email.

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