Over the last year or so I have been enthused about the prospect of a thoroughly evangelical, gospel-centered conception of contemplation. I am excited to see more literature coming out in this important area. The Spring 2014 issue of the Journal for Spiritual Formation and Soul Care, Jacob Sherman’s book describing the significance of contemplation in the study and practice of philosophy, and John Kenney’s volume on Augustine’s conception of contemplation are three excellent examples.
I plan to write my first several blog posts about contemplation, including its definition, importance, biblical/historical examples, and practical import. The first post (*this post*) will begin by asking the basic question: What is contemplation?
A moderate perusing of the evangelical literature reveals a lack of understanding and appreciation of contemplation. We often talk about radical Christianity and what gospel-centered living looks like, but we rarely talk about the nature of contemplation in the gospel; we incessantly speak about theology, but we seldom discuss its relevance in the contemplative or prayerful life. A. W. Tozer once quipped of this problem: “Once [Christians] have found God, they no longer need to seek Him” (The Pursuit of God, 16-17). Perhaps we could state his point more expressly: once Christians have ‘understood’ God, they no longer need to ‘experience’ him. The challenge to find an appreciation of contemplation among evangelicals should not be a surprise.
Some of the evangelical neglect undoubtedly is for good reason. Like many other spiritual practices, there are unhelpful forms of contemplation. Some stress a mystical element in contemplation whereby God directly infuses his nature into the human person to produce an ontological union. Others assert the necessity of contemplation while ignoring or otherwise defacing the authority of Scripture and/or overlooking the centrality of union with Christ by the Spirit. These kinds of options, found especially in the mystical and monastic traditions, must be rejected.
Now, to the heart of the post: what is contemplation? To put it simply, contemplation is the intellectual and ruminating aspect of our communion with Christ. It may be defined as a gospel-centered discursive cognition in which the mind, grounded in God’s Word, actively seeks to understand and appraise the person’s union with God through Christ Jesus. Contemplation is thus best understood as a biblically-based and gospel-centered introspective cognition unto God, in Christ, and through the Spirit. In short, contemplation is the action and enjoyment of thinking God.
In other words, in order to believe the gospel, one must think the gospel. This thinking does not simply entail the production and verbalization of information, although it includes these things. It also involves the personal rumination and application of the truths to the mind. Indeed, the gospel is not something that is merely framed in Scripture, taught in words, or systematized in theologies; the gospel must also be personally considered and mulled over by the mind. Indeed, the gospel is the good news that Jesus died, raised, and ascended so that we can live, advance, and flourish eternally in him. It is part of Paul’s exhortation to “set your minds on things that are above” (Col 3:2), and it thus entails counting all things as a loss for the sake of “the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” (Phil 3:7-9). The gospel ought to be mind-saturating. It ought to be contemplated.
In this (more helpful) sense, contemplation is certainly a formative aspect of spiritual formation. One might even say that it is central to the gospel. The gospel ought to be “lived out” (practiced), “thought out” (through theology), and also regularly “ruminated upon” (contemplated) in one’s spiritual life.
Thanks for reading this first blog post. The following posts will spell out the importance, biblical and historical grounding, and practice of contemplation.