Last month I began to explore how the ’emergent church’ promotes Roman Catholic mysticism among its ‘evangelical’ adherents – citing particularly Tony Jones’ recent book, Soul shaper: Exploring spirituality and contemplative practices in youth ministry.
Jones is the US National Coordinator of ‘Emergent-US’ and minister to youth at Colonial Church of Edina, Minnesota. He is a regular speaker at Youth Specialties National Youth Workers Conventions.
Jones was also one of the featured seminar presenters for the Zondervan National Pastors Conference in February 2006. The back cover of Soul shaper claims that the book ‘is hands down the most comprehensive primer on the study and use of spiritual and contemplative practices for the benefit of your teenagers – and especially your own soul’.
Past apostasy comes alive
Soul shaper advocates sixteen ‘ancient-future’ spiritual tools or disciplines including ‘The Jesus Prayer, Lectio Divina, Silence and Solitude, Stations of the Cross, Centering Prayer, The Ignatian Examen, and the Labyrinth’. Jones combines aspects of what he sees as common spirituality in Evangelicalism, Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions (along with oriental religious practices). His major goal is to make his very Roman Catholic view of the ‘past come alive in the present’.1
This is particularly dangerous because he passes off obscure heretical practices from Papal Rome as if a they were rediscovered spiritual treasures apt for ‘postmodern’ Christianity. Sadly, few ministers know enough about the history of the Christian Church to recognize that Jones is selling them spiritually bankrupt goods. Moreover, pastors within the Evangelical mainstream are taught these practices at such places as the Zondervan National Pastors Conference 2006.
Regrettably, Tony Jones misleads pastors and youth when he writes of ‘the saints of the Christian church who have over the past two millennia laboured at practising and perfecting these disciplines’.2
He also states, ‘A lot of the practices herein will seem very “Catholic” or very “Eastern Orthodox”, and if you aren’t from one of those traditions, remember this: before 1054 we were all Catholic/Orthodox! That’s right – for the first half of Christian history, there was one church, and most of the practices in this book are from that time’.3
Jones, of course, is not drawing from genuine Christian history before 1054. He takes his history from the apostate Roman Catholic Church, conveniently forgetting the Vaudois, the Waldenses, the Paulicians, the Albigenses, the Spanish believers, and many others who in the first eleven centuries never followed the mystic practices promoted by the papacy since the Dark Ages.
At the heart of Tony Jones’ mystical philosophy is the humanistic message of Ignatius of Loyola – following which Jones emphasises the use of visualisation and human choice to overcome evil and become the person one wants to be.
Thus in chapter 8 of Soul shaper (‘The Ignatian Examen’) Jones declares, ‘From the first day, meditating on the Incarnation and nativity of Jesus, through the final meditation focused on the week leading up to Palm Sunday, the retreatant imagines Lucifer arrayed with all of his forces in one plain, ready to do battle, and Jesus and his forces lined up against him.
‘By the end of this week, Ignatius says the retreatant will be ready to make Election – that is, to choose which army she wants to be a part of, to choose what kind of a person she wants to be’ (p.92).
In addition to encouraging non-biblical visualisation techniques, this suggests that a person determines his own election (chooses his own destiny) – in stark contradiction to the Apostle Paul’s statement that salvation is by ‘the election of grace. And if by grace, then is it no more of works: otherwise grace is no more grace’ (Romans 11:3-6).
Salvation and fellowship with God are by his gracious or merciful choosing, that is, election – not by any manoeuvre of man.
Jones also teaches gross idolatry, implying that God’s holy presence is found in icons. In The sacred way he quotes an Eastern Orthodox woman who says,
‘The sober presence of the Lord in an icon makes us uncomfortable because it makes us realise how far short we fall from the ineffable beauty and power of God … The steady, unsettling gaze of the Lord in an icon is like the gaze of a surgeon as he looks at a patient’s wounded, broken body. The surgeon understands the woundedness better than the patient does, and … invites us to open ourselves to his healing, a healing that will progress very gently … as we are able to bear it’ (pp. 98-99).
Jones could have rejected this sentimental notion that an icon can serve as a substitute for conviction of sin leading to repentance and faith in Christ. Instead, he uses this ‘castle-in-the-air’ to soften up his audience concerning icons.
He then builds his case for idolatry, stating, ‘The Catholic belief [is] that Christians can pray through saints, especially the Blessed Virgin Mary, and their prayers will be delivered to the throne of God … The bottom line is that we use icons to pray, but we pray through them, not to them.’
This is exactly the issue in Exodus 32 when Aaron made the golden calf. They still considered themselves to be worshipping the God of Israel who had brought them out of Egypt (Exodus 32:4-5). They presumably believed that their worship was somehow going through the image to the Lord God. However, in God’s estimation they had ‘corrupted themselves’.
Get an icon!
Exodus 20:4-5 specifically forbids the making of such images, a reminder that is much needed today. Because he claims to address a postmodern age, Jones thinks that Catholic tradition and icons are now acceptable to God.
He counsels, ‘In order to incorporate praying with icons into your personal devotional life, the first item of business is to get an icon. Shadows are never seen in an icon, and no source of light illuminates the subject’s face. The icon itself is a source of light … an icon is not meant to be a depiction of a normal human being but of Jesus or Mary or a saint in their resurrected state’.4
Thus Tony Jones endorses forbidden images as being good for a person’s spiritual life; but the Lord God says those who use such images hate him, and he will visit their iniquity upon them to the third and fourth generation (Exodus 20:4-6).
Rule of life?
In the Epilogue to his two books, in the sections called ‘Developing a rule of life’, Jones urges his readers to place their faith in the religious exercises. He writes, ‘Following some experience with the ancient practices outlined in this book, you may decide to incorporate some of them into your personal Rule of Life.
‘An example of a rule could look something like this: Pray through two centuries of the Jesus Prayer in the morning and evening every day. Keep the Sabbath from sunset Friday to sunset Saturday every week. Walk a labyrinth once a month. Take a two-day silent retreat once a year. Fast and walk the Stations of the Cross every Friday during Lent. Take a 28-day Ignatian retreat every decade …’5
His final platitude is simply on the level of feeling – ‘We have lots of options in our ministries, but developing a disciplined spiritual life isn’t one of them. That is, it isn’t optional. It’s mandatory … Slow down. Listen to God. Be silent. Meditate. Make the Stations. Stare at the icon. And there, do you feel it? The divine light of the Risen Christ flickering within you, slowly building to a roaring fire …’6
Inventions of men
The notions that Jones advances are the inventions of men and certainly not taught by divine revelation in the Bible. The traditional Catholic practices that Jones so warmly promotes may have an appearance of spirituality but history demonstrates that they serve only to deceive men and lead them into pride and sin.
In effect, by propagating mystical experience through religious disciplines, Jones disclaims Christ as the only Mediator between God and man. Yet he is himself a living demonstration that when men let go of the knowledge of Christ (who is the only valid Way to the Father) they become entrapped by the traditions of men and the bankruptcy of false spirituality. If Evangelicals follow the teachings of Jones, it will lead them to asceticism and immorality.
Rather than indulge our imaginations, believers are to be ‘casting down imaginations, and every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God, and bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ’ (2 Corinthians 10:5).
1. Soul shaper, back cover.
2. The sacred way, p.21.
3. Soul shaper, Introduction, p.20.
4. The sacred way, p. 103 Antidote: Christ can’t be pictured by Virgil Dunbar available on www.bereanbeacon.org.
5. Soul shaper, p.233.
6. The sacred way, pp. 198-199; Soul shaper, pp. 233-234.
The author’s website is:
www.bereanbeacon.org and his book Catholicism: East of Eden can be obtained in UK and Europe from