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What is spiritual theology?

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Spiritual theology is a branch of theology that emphasizes living “in the spirit” instead of “in the flesh.” In other words, it is concerned with how a person grows and develops spiritually. While there are biblical, evangelical approaches to spiritual theology, the term spiritual theology is most often used in Catholic circles, where it involves the exploration of the works an individual must perform in order to advance to “perfection” in the Christian life. Spiritual theology is seen by Catholic theologians as the uniting of the theologies of asceticism and mysticism.

Catholic theologian Fr. Jordan Aumann defines spiritual theology as “that part of theology that, proceeding from the truths of divine revelation and the religious experience of individual persons, defines the nature of the supernatural life, formulates directives for its growth and development, and explains the process by which souls advance from the beginning of the spiritual life to its full perfection.” Note that, in this definition, “religious experience” is given equal weight with “divine revelation.” In other words, spiritual theology is not drawn from the Bible alone; it comes from experience in addition to the Bible. This fact alone should cause us to be wary of such a theology.

According to spiritual theology, in order to attain “perfection” in the Christian life, one must practice vocal prayer, meditation, and contemplative prayer; must pray the Rosary; must put off sin and serve God; and must experience hardship and suffering, including “the dark night of the soul.” As the soul progresses closer to perfection, it must go through three stages: the purgative, the illuminative, and the unitive ways.

The main problem with spiritual theology, besides its departure from Scripture alone, is that it focuses on physical means to a spiritual end. Scripture teaches that we are born again by the Spirit of God and that we are kept by the Spirit of God and that we are sanctified by the Spirit of God. Simply practicing rituals or maintaining discipline is no guarantee of salvation, let alone spiritual growth. John Wesley established his “Holy Club” with its rules and “method” of holy living years before his conversion. Religion does not equal regeneration.

The Bible commands followers of Christ to walk in the Spirit: “So I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh” (Galatians 5:16). Christians are those who have been born again, those “who do not live according to the flesh but according to the Spirit” (Romans 8:4). We should all desire to “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord” (2 Peter 3:18). But we follow Christ, not St. Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross, St. Catherine of Siena, Thomas á Kempis, St. Ignatius of Loyola, or any of the others that Catholics lift up as models of perfection.

We must always guard against legalism. The example of the Galatians provides a warning for us: in an attempt to “grow spiritually,” the churches of Galatia were slipping into legalism. They were trying to live a “good Christian life” by going back to the Law and Old Testament ordinances. Paul rebuked such a course of action: “Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law, or by believing what you heard? Are you so foolish? After beginning by means of the Spirit, are you now trying to finish by means of the flesh?” (Galatians 3:2–3).

God, who began the good work in us, will complete it (Philippians 1:6). Prayer, meditation, and other spiritual disciplines are good and helpful in our spiritual growth. But we should reject manmade methods that promise perfection. We should avoid programs that are touted as an aid in “receiving salvation” and in “cooperating with Christ’s redemption.” The just will live by faith (Galatians 3:11). We live by the power of the Spirit, not by the works of the flesh or by adherence to the Law.

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This page last updated: January 4, 2022