Following is the introduction to the article:
In 1971, when I was a new Christian and in Bible College, I had the desire to be the best possible Christian. And while the Holy Spirit imparts to all Christians a desire for holiness (an obvious good thing), potential pitfalls that can lead us off course and harm us always exist. I have shared my story before in CIC but it is pertinent to the topic of this article. My desire to be an exceptional Christian led me to pietism, which led me to a Christian community where I worked on practicing holiness in a communal setting. In that community we tried any practice that anyone claimed would bring us closer to God. Sadly, my desire to be closer to God led me away from the truth because I was not committed to the principle of scripture alone. That brings me to our topic.
Many people concerned about Donald Whitney's endorsement of Richard Foster and Dallas Willard (two popular evangelical mystics) have asked me to review his book Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life.1 These people have wondered how someone who claims to be Reformed2 in theology and teaches at a seminary known for Reformed theology could endorse Foster and Willard. They also wondered if Whitney's own teaching contains Foster's and Willard's same errors. This article is my answer to these requests.
Before I begin my critique, I want to place before you the areas where Whitney and I agree. Whitney has the gospel right and explains it (Whitney: 28).3 He is correct that it is the Holy Spirit who imparts a desire for holiness and does so for all Christians. He is correct that the purpose of sanctification is to conform us to the image of Christ. Some of the practices he endorses are valid means of grace (such as the Word of God and prayer). He cites in valid ways many orthodox teachers from church history. He understands that evangelism includes the call to repent and believe and that sharing the gospel constitutes "success" even if people refuse to listen (Whitney: 103). I appreciated his emphasis on the need to study the Bible in a scholarly way in his chapter about learning. And his thesis that we ought to make holiness a priority and take action to that end is a valid implication of his theme verse: "Discipline yourself for the purpose of "godliness" (1Timothy 4:7b). But I disagree with the manner in which Whitney uses Paul's athletic metaphor in his applications. Paul implies neither asceticism nor sanctification by human effort.4
Had Whitney's book been written when I was in Bible College, it would have proven toxic to me. I would have eaten up his ideas and embarked on a plan to put into practice everything he teaches. In fact, taken as a whole, the errors I pursued as a young Christian would be the most practical way to implement Whitney's approach to holiness: join a Christian commune or a monastery. I am very concerned that Whitney will harm young Christians who wish to be the best Christians they can be, just as I was. Because it contains the true gospel and begins with a respect for the scriptures, I believe Whitney's book to be even more seductive than were the teachers I was reading—like Watchman Nee. Ordinary life does not lend itself to the high level practice of asceticism, pietism, and mysticism.
The problems with Whitney's book are these: serious category errors, a lack of boundaries, failure to understand the means of grace, pragmatism, the endorsement of false teachers such as Richard Foster and Dallas Willard without caveat, and his own toned-down version of mysticism. I shall proceed to show what I mean by interacting with his ideas.