A summary critique of Donald Whitney’s ‘Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life’

Donald Whitney's Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life
Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life is Donald S. Whitney’s offering on the subject of personal spiritual development and growth through intentional practice. Whitney is Associate Professor of Biblical Spirituality and Senior Associate Dean of the School of Theology at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. When he developed the concepts for this book Whitney served as Associate Professor of Spiritual Formation at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, Missouri. He speaks regularly on the subject of spiritual discipline and founded the Center for Biblical Spirituality.

Whitney’s book follows the seminal “Celebration of Discipline” by Richard Foster, whom he quotes and to whose work he refers occasionally here. This text also joins publications by Dallas Willard and Walter Brueggemann as leading sources on spiritual discipline and formation. “Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life” does not enjoy the widespread evangelical acceptance and adoption of Foster and Willard, but carries the endorsement of theologian J.I. Packer (9-10) and finds implementation in many Southern Baptist-affiliated colleges and seminaries.

Summary

Donald Whitney’s book teaches the biblical necessity and practical application of ten spiritual disciplines for the Christian adult. These disciplines stand alone in that Whitney does not argue that one must of necessity master any single discipline before engaging in another. He also refrains from grouping his disciplines into subsets, as does Foster with his twelve. However, Whitney makes clear in his exposition on the first discipline, Bible intake, that “it is is not only the most important Spiritual Discipline [capitalization Whitney’s], it is also the most broad” (29).  He emphasizes this importance and breadth by devoting two chapters to this discipline while the others receive one each. Whitney’s other disciplines are prayer, worship, evangelism, serving, stewardship, fasting, silence and solitude, journaling, and learning. They share essential similarities to those in Foster’s book but differences in application.

In his introductory chapter, Whitney states the goal for practicing spiritual disciplines is development of personal godliness (17). Indeed, each chapter title reinforces this theme by appending the words “… for the Purpose of Godliness” to its title. Together they are “those personal and corporate disciplines that promote spiritual growth … that have been practiced by the people of God since biblical times” (17). Whitney names spiritual disciplines, other Christians, and life circumstances as the three catalysts God uses to form His children into Christ-likeness (19). Because we cannot control the other two, he states, intentional discipline is a believer’s personal contribution to the goal of godliness. While noting that prominent Christians in history exhibited disciplined lifestyles (17), Whitney holds up Jesus as the One who perfectly modeled such personal devotion for us to imitate (21). This is one instance in which he uses Foster’s similar argument as support for his own.

Each chapter in “Spiritual Disciplines” features biblical and practical explanation and application, as well as a “More Application” segment that provides questions intended to encourage the reader to begin practicing the discipline as soon as possible. Whitney uses frequent illustrations and analogies to emphasize his arguments, quoting often from conservative Evangelical and Puritan theologians. He also occasionally refers to the works of Foster, Willard, and others who have written on similar subjects, but neither builds his teachings on their works nor argues against them. In each chapter on disciplines Whitney provides examples of how faithful practice and application will reap positive rewards for the believer, both personally and within the church context.

Whitney’s work culminates in a chapter devoted to perseverance in spiritual disciplines (235). He explains that because Christians are typically busy people regularly occupied by demands of church, family and work, practicing disciplines must find support in personal commitment. Whitney cites the role of the Holy Spirit to sustain the believer (237-239); fellowship with other Christians for encouragement and support (239-242); and the importance of personal struggle (242-245) as three forces that help one to overcome deterrents to such perseverance. With a final charge (245-249) he exhorts the reader to begin practicing these disciplines faithfully to progress in godliness and spiritual maturity.

Critical Evaluation

“Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life” provides an adequate framework in which an adult Christian can learn to understand, appreciate, and implement regular practices that will contribute to spiritual growth and ministry effectiveness. However, the Christian would do better to compartmentalize use of this book rather than subscribing to its more holistic messages. This is because while Whitney’s specific biblical extrapolations of his disciplines typically fall within a proper hermeneutic – with occasional errors of which this report will provide examples – at least part of his expressed reasons for communicating the importance of spiritual disciplines fall outside biblical limits.

One must examine Whitney’s introductory paragraph to find the flaws in his premises. First, In his “three catalysts” argument Whitney states that spiritual disciplines are the forces we operate upon ourselves from within to effect positive change (17-18). Yet with the proper understanding of the Christian as a justified yet spiritually imperfect being warring against yet-sinful flesh with spiritual weaponry (Ro 7:14-25; Eph 6:10-13) one could classify many of the disciplines examined in this book as external forces. Indeed, the only truly “internal” of Whitney’s disciplines may be “Bible intake” and “prayer,” since although having an external component are activities that depend fully upon God’s internal work to be of value.

Second, there can be no refutation of the many scriptural commands to the Christian to engage in regular disciplined behaviors. Yet Whitney’s argument, with referential support from Willard, that the Lord Jesus “modeled” (21) disciplines for the church does not find support in correct interpretation of the gospels. Certainly all of God’s Word is profitable for teaching, correcting, rebuking, and training in righteousness (2 Tim 3:16), but this is not license to apply each of these four qualities to every passage. The popular “What would Jesus do?” fad of years past belies its weak theological underpinnings; the only practices Jesus exhibited that His church is obligated to imitate are those He commanded. Such commands are limited in scope, including His instructions on prayer (Lk 11:2-4); that His disciples love one another as He loved them (Jn 15:17); and in the case of Luke’s further writings that His followers go into the world making disciples (Ac 1:8), teaching them all He had commanded them. Whitney’s chapter on solitude and silence, then, cannot rightly hold up Jesus’ many solitary, isolated prayers as instructive to the Christian in that our Lord never commanded we do the same.

Examining Whitney’s disciplines individually finds much to commend, yet with the occasional exegetical caveat. His two chapters on “Bible intake” form the proper foundation of God’s Word as primary to spiritual instruction and formation. There is ample emphasis on reading, studying, and applying God’s truth. His chapters on “prayer,” “meditation,” and “worship” avoid the mysticism and questionable inspiration Foster so readily employs, finding instead biblical underpinnings for these practices. Similarly “evangelism” takes seriously our Lord’s command to carry His gospel message. Yet at the point of “service” Whitney retreats to a cliched statement that all believers are endowed at the moment of salvation with spiritual gifts (123). He provides the proper biblical explanation from 1 Corinthians 12 about the nature of these gifts but does not back up his earlier claim about when God gives them. His “stewardship” chapter ranges widely from an indirect refutation of Foster’s spiritual valuation of dreams (133) to the notion that believers will experience regrets in heaven for the time they waste on earth (139).

Whitney’s most egregious interpretive error is likely his example of the poor widow in Mark 12:41-44 as someone whom Jesus “commended” for her generosity and trust in God (143). Nowhere in this passage does the Lord commend this woman, but in context shows her to be a victim of the false Temple worship system that would fall to pieces in A.D. 70.

The content on “fasting” is refreshingly biblical, but “solitude and silence,” which find no biblical mandate, includes a dangerously unclear encouragement to “hear God’s voice better” (186). Whitney weakly supports the discipline of “journaling” with an improper allusion to David’s psalms and Jeremiah’s book of Lamentations as examples of “charting spiritual growth” and “keeping track of goals” (206, 214). “Learning” is certainly a biblically supportable discipline with innumerable references in both testaments to gaining wisdom, understanding, and discernment.

Conclusion

Donald Whitney’s Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life is a fine, biblically based alternative to other more mystical and subjective works on this subject, yet also flawed in certain aspects of doctrine. The discerning reader would do well to examine each and every discipline, and its subsequent explanation and application, in light of the Bible’s overall message on spiritual growth and development. Where Whitney adheres to proper exegesis and interpretation of these scriptural instructions, this book can provide fuel to help the believer grow in faith and maturity.

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  • Michael Crittenden

    I appreciate the book review. Most do not, or are not willing, to see the similarities between Whitney and Foster/Willard, and they seem unaware (not willing to read critically?) of the misuse of Scripture in Whitney’s book. Here is the web address for another review of this book. I think he (Bob DeWaay) brings up some important points about the book and Whitney on ‘Spiritual Disciplines’.

    http://cicministry.org/commentary/issue111.htm

    I had the experience several years ago of coming across Whitney’s website by accident. I did not know who he was, but found it as a link on a Reformed Baptist church’s website (it was still titled “Spiritual Disciplines”). I had always associated this term with contemplative mysticism, so it made me wonder why it was a link on this church’s website. I went to the link and perused through Whitney’s website. I found that he had chapter 10 Silence and Solitude from this book posted on-line so you could read it. I did so and noted a number of misuses of Scripture and his teaching on “hearing the voice of God”. I also noted that he quoted from Dallas Willard twice in this chapter. I emailed him through the website and asked if he was familiar with Willard’s ties to contemplative mysticism. I also mentioned that I had a few questions regarding some of the things he wrote in this chapter and asked if he still held to what he had written.

    After a month, I had not heard back from Prof. Whitney, so I decided to go back to his website and re-read the posted chapter. Much to my surprise, the quotes from Dallas Willard had been removed from the on-line version of the chapter (also from the end of the chapter references). I emailed him again and said that I had seen that he had removed the Willard quotes (but I pointed out they would still be in the book) and mentioned a few of the things that I had questions regarding, still no response.

    After one more message, Prof. Whitney did respond stating that he did not promote mysticism and that he would like to “tighten up the wording” in his book, but that the publisher wouldn’t let him. Subsequent interviews I’ve heard, and information from other people have shown that he still holds to what he wrote in this book. In an interview with Mark Dever, Whitney stated that of the two (Foster and Willard) he was probably closer to Willard. Although Whitney is more biblical in some ways than Foster or Willard, and isn’t as ‘mystical’, I think, as DeWaay shows, that Whitney’s foundation regarding ‘Spiritual Disciplines’ and sanctification are not biblical.

    • Daniel Kassis

      Michael,

      I’m so glad you found this post and contributed your excellent comment! As I’ve continued to explore the origins and teachings of contemporary spiritual formation, I’m more and more convinced this is not the right path for the Evangelical church to follow. These ideas sprung from a false understanding of both justification and sanctification according to Scripture. People like you and I must continually warn the church of the dangers she faces.

      I was already familiar with Dr. DeWaay’s work, as it was one of the first sources that alerted me to the truth behind contemplative spirituality.

      I hope you’ll continue to contribute here.

      Dan

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