Although the Holy Spirit indwells believers in Christ, nothing in God’s word teaches that within is a Divine Center or a Speaking Voice. The Holy Spirit is not comingled with the believer’s nature but is distinct from it. God’s voice is found in the Bible, a precious source of truth for all who seek guidance from it. Barton’s view is more akin to a Gnostic or New Age outlook, which seeks and values what arises during an inner experience. Does this fan the flames of spiritual elitism?
In this first installment of a two-part series, we will look at two of Ruth Haley Barton’s books, Invitation to Silence and Solitude (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press Books; 2nd ed, 2010) and Sacred Rhythms: Arranging Our Lives for Spiritual Transformation (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press Books, 2006). They are two key books in the burgeoning movement of contemplative practices in the church.
The extent of the issues in these two books is substantial, even for a two-part series. As a result, for the sake of time and space, almost as much will be left out as will be covered. The issues are addressed under four categories: Misuse of the Biblical Text, Reliance on Experience; Elitism; and Buddhist Influence. Many examples for the categories necessarily overlap. Quotes will be referenced by page number followed by the initials SR for Sacred Rhythms and SS for Invitation to Silence and Solitude. All Scripture is from the New American Standard 1995 unless otherwise stated.
Misuse of the Biblical Text
Invariably, the slide to false teaching begins with a misuse of the word of God. It also paves the way to introduce new, equally authoritative ways of knowing God.
Throughout Invitation to Silence and Solitude, Barton continuously cites the account of Elijah in First Kings chapter 19 as an illustration to support her points. In the preface, Barton writes that we are starved for quiet, to hear the sound of sheer silence that is the presence of God himself (19, SS).
The sheer silence is a reference to verse 12 in First Kings chapter 19, a phrase rendered in the New American Standard (1995) as a gentle blowing, in the KJV and NKJV as a still small voice, in the ESV a low whisper, while the CSB has a soft whisper.
In most languages, words have a range of meanings, and it is no different in Hebrew. Since there are different uses of this word, it cannot be established that Elijah heard an actual voice. A voice speaks words, and this does not appear to be a use of words. But immediately following this gentle blowing, there is a voice: a voice came to him and said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” (verse 13b).
This event is the third in a series for Elijah after he flees Jezebel. He first goes to a Juniper tree, where he asks God to let him die (verse 14). But the angel of the Lord brings food and urges him to eat (many believe the angel of the Lord is the pre-incarnate Christ). He then travels forty days to Mt. Horeb, where Elijah again laments that Israel has abandoned God and God directs him to stand on the mountain. That is where Elijah witnesses a wind, earthquake, and a fire before the gentle blowing/stirring. When God speaks to Elijah, Elijah repeats that Israel has broken the covenant with God and killed God’s prophets. After this, God instructs Elijah to anoint two kings and a prophet, Elisha, who will be the successor to Elijah.
This is a narrative passage, not a prescriptive text. Although one learns about God in this passage and can draw important principles from it, it has nothing to do with, nor is it prescribing the practices Barton promotes.
Barton bases a number of her teachings on this account of Elijah, including entering a time of solitude (136, SS, and numerous other places) where Elijah acknowledged the truth about himself. Barton discusses Elijah as though he deliberately set out on a personal journey seeking silence and solitude as a way to hear from God, saying that he was hungry for an experience of divine Presence (87, SS), something found nowhere in the text. Elijah was a prophet and did not need to do anything to hear from God. God communicated with him often and directly, as God did with all his prophets. It appears that Barton was reading her own ideas into the text.
Barton has a section, “Moving from Head to Heart,” where she commits the logical fallacy of the false dilemma by making a distinction between head and heart. This distinction is a modern one, not a biblical one. She misuses Luke 10:27, where Jesus tells the lawyer to love God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind. That Jesus says heart before mind, according to Barton, means that the mind comes a little further down the road in Jesus’ list (52, SR).
There is no evidence that Jesus listed these things in order of priority. In fact, the use of these terms together indicates an emphasis on loving God with one’s whole being, not with separate parts of the self. One cannot divide one’s mind from one’s heart or one’s will. They interact, work together, and overlap. I cannot say now I will love God with my heart, and later I will love God with my soul and later with my mind. In order to love God, one must know God, and one must use the mind to know and understand who God is. Loving God is not an emotion; it is an act of will and mind resulting from recognition of who God is and knowing God’s love through faith in Jesus Christ.
The mind is not inferior to what Barton calls the heart, nor is the mind the enemy. But in contemplative, New Age, and Eastern spiritual teachings, the mind is a barrier or sometimes an enemy. Nothing in Scripture teaches that the mind needs to be silenced or put aside. Being vain about knowledge, and allowing the mind to follow worldly philosophies or false beliefs is condemned, but those are related to pride and truth issues, not with the mind itself.