I am often asked if, and in what ways, Donald Whitney differs from those who are promoting mysticism and the ancient practices of Roman Catholicism in evangelical circles. After all, he uses many of the same terms: spiritual formation, spiritual disciplines, meditation and the like. At the same time Whitney is a solid evangelical who is presently a professor at Southern Seminary, has the endorsement of men such as Al Mohler and Bruce Ware, and has spoken at The Master’s Seminary. Where does he stand on issues such as the spiritual disciplines?
On the one hand we must avoid guilt by association. His use of some of the buzzwords found within the unbiblical Spiritual Formation movement may be questionable but does not definitively mean that he is saying the same thing. For example Jay Adams wrote a little book called Godliness Through Discipline and Kent Hughes wrote The Disciplines of a Godly Man and yet neither man has been linked to the Roman Catholic understanding of spiritual disciplines. In a private conversation with Whitney he told me he has written against mysticism and does not link arms with Rome. We must also recognize that because he quotes questionable sources, even in favorable ways, does not necessarily imply that he agrees with all they teach. For example, he often quotes Richard Foster and Dallas Willard even though he differs significantly with much of their theology. And there is nothing to quibble with concerning the quotes he lifts from these men. We must be careful to hear out an author like Whitney and determine what he is really saying.
On the other hand, we cannot dismiss too lightly Whitney’s favorable endorsement of men such as Foster and Willard. Where I would find virtually nothing of value in Foster, and a lot that is dangerous, Whitney sees much that is helpful. For instance he speaks of the “great contribution” of Foster’s Celebration of Discipline (p. 23). J. I. Packer in the foreword tells of Foster’s ringing the bell concerning the spiritual disciplines as “a happy thing.” Quoting Carl Lundquist we are informed that by the closure of the New Testament the church had four spiritual disciplines: prayer, Bible study, the Lord’s Supper and small cell groups. For argument’s sake let’s grant this. If so, should not the New Testament believer stop where the New Testament does? When we layer the Scriptures with our man-made traditions do we not invalidate the Scriptures (Matt 15:1-8)? But Lundquist tells us that “the medieval mystics wrote about nine disciplines clustered around three experiences: purgation of sin, enlightenment of the Spirit and union with God” (p. 66). Lundquist is correct, the mystics did exactly this, using the same three steps or experiences found in all forms of mysticism—but this is a bad thing. It is bad because there is nothing like it taught in Scripture and, therefore, it certainly cannot be the key to our spiritual lives. Mysticism is something that should be exposed and rejected—and it was by the Reformers and their followers, until Richard Foster wrote his book. But Lindquist, and apparently Whitney, does not see Foster’s teaching on these subjects as unbiblical and dangerous, as Lundquist goes on to state, “Today Richard Foster’s book, Celebration of Discipline, lists twelve disciplines—all of them relevant to the contemporary Christian.” Foster clearly builds off the mystics—he even ups them by three disciplines. In all, Whitney quotes Foster six times and his spiritual twin, Dallas Willard, six times as well. As already mentioned, none of the quotes is wrong in itself. Yet it is disconcerting to say the least that not one mention is given of where these men are trying to lead the church—straight to Roman Catholic mysticism. I find this troubling. If Whitney is not promoting Foster’s mysticism why does he not distance himself? Instead Foster and Willard and their cronies are quoted as experts on spiritual disciplines.
Of a more positive nature I am happy to mention that when Whitney defines and describes the spiritual disciplines he gives them a biblical treatment in contrast to Foster. In my study of Foster he provides none of his twelve disciplines a biblical description, but manages to distort them by forcing them through a mystical grid (see my book This Little Church Stayed Home). By contrast most of Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life is simply good old fashioned teaching on the time-honored and biblical means of spiritual growth. Whitney offers fine chapters on the study of Scripture, prayer, worship, evangelism, serving and more. With the exception of the chapter on fasting, in which I do not believe Whitney proves his case biblically, each chapter is full of sound advice.
I do take exception with what I call Whitney’s “soft mysticism.” He writes often of “hearing the voice of God” and the like (pp. 44, 179, 184, 186, 193, 194, 195, 236, 237). By this the author means the inner voice, the prompting, and the inner “still, small voice of God.” I find no example or instruction in the Word concerning such inner voices.
So I must give Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life a mixed review. There is much to commend and any Christian will profit from the vast majority of the book. But Whitney’s link with Foster and company is deeply disturbing. It is as if he leads his reader right to the threshold of the corrupting influence of classical mysticism and then pulls back—without explanation. If he agrees with Foster’s brand of mysticism I would like him to say so. But if not, I need clarification.