Adoption and Spiritual Formation

I really appreciated John’s post on Wednesday about narrative spiritual formation. I think he is right about the way the story of Jesus is told in the Christian calendar and how that annual journey through the story shapes our lives.

Spiritual formation is the theme of Lent and, for those of our readers who don’t follow The Surprising God blog too closely, I want to draw your attention to a great link on spiritual formation that Ted  Johnston posted there last Tuesday.

The link is to an article by Julie Canlis called Calvin’s Institutes: A Primer for Spiritual Formation. Ted’s posting prompted several comments from different readers, including me, and I’d be very interested to hear comments from you guys about what you think of the article.

If you’re like me you usually think of Calvin in terms of dogmatic theology, not spiritual formation. What is remarkable about Julie’s short article is that she shows how Calvin, as a pastor, was deeply concerned about spiritual formation and rooted his thinking on the subject in the Trinity and in Adoption. That’s right – adoption! In fact, Julie makes this soul-thrilling statement:

Calvin jumps headlong into this world of God’s love, and our being caught up in it, by use of one word: adoption. Although he is best known for his formulation of justification, I believe his insistence upon “adoption” best captures the big picture of his theology. Historically, justification has been used in a limited way, primarily having to do with the event of Christ on the cross. By use of the word adoption, Calvin can communicate not only the miracle of our justification but also that for which we have been saved. Spiritual formation begins with this question: for what (and for whom) have we been saved? And Calvin is quite explicit that we have been saved not only from sin but also for a life of trust, joy, and intimacy as God’s own children. What is more, Calvin takes his cues for this life on earth from the hypostatic union: Jesus’ own intimacy with God, by the Spirit. The remarkable thing is that Calvin sees Jesus’ sonship—his life of intimacy with his Father—as being offered to us through the Spirit. It is not a nice “picture” for us to strive after. Instead, it is the reality into which we, unsuspecting, have been inserted. [emphasis is mine]

As you might guess, I am planning to go read a lot more of Calvin in the coming weeks. I do have one reservation though: Julie never makes it clear whether she believes that all humanity has been inserted “unsuspecting” into the Father/Son relationship (as I think) or whether it is only an elect portion of humanity that has been inserted. My guess – and this is really just a guess – is that she thinks it is only the elect, and I believe this is what Calvin thought as well. My guess is that Augustine still rules the roost on these subjects!

But even if that is so, I am still thrilled to see someone talking about Adoption and Spiritual Formation together. I’ll be interested to hear what you guys think.

~ Jonathan Stepp

3 comments so far

  1. Pat Ballard on

    After spending over 7 years watching a close friend devour all things “Calvin” and all those who follow the Calvin doctrines, and watching this friend go from a standpoint of “Jesus died for all mankind” to a “Jesus died for the elect,” standpoint, I have no doubt that you’ll find John Calvin’s writings are meant for the elect “few,” not all mankind.


  2. shackbible on

    My semi-educated understanding of Calvin is that his doctrines of election and limited atonement were his clumsy way of avoiding universalism. He saw clearly that faith does not change God’s attitude toward us. Calvin felt the need to avoid unversalism, so he judged that atonement must not be universal, i.e., God’s attitude toward some people is not love. This doctrinal arrangement makes it possible to avoid universalism while affirming that Christ’s work on the cross to be 100% effective (for those few it was meant to be effective for).

    I think Calvin can be intructive for us IF we make a small (but important) re-arrangement in our mental furniture. As a possible rule of thumb, can we take his statements about the elect, and apply them to all people, while understanding the effect that belief and non-believe have on those people?

  3. Pastor Jonathan on

    Pat, sorry to hear about your friend, I’m sure that was a painful experience for you!
    John, as usual I’m amazed at how you can summarize a complex situation so well. I think your take on why Calvin said what he said is right on the money.

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