What’s wrong with Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline?
Richard Foster, and especially his book Celebration of Discipline, is very influential in many churches. Celebration of Discipline has sown the seeds of the ‘experience movement’ that is characterized by contemplative prayer, lectio divina, and mysticism. Pastors regularly quote Celebration of Discipline in their sermons, conveying the message to their members that Celebration of Discipline is a trustworthy source and recommendable reading. But this is not true: Gary Gilley is right in regarding Celebration of Discipline as an encyclopedia of unbiblical teaching that leads unsuspecting believers away from biblical Christianity and into unbiblical mysticism.
Celebration of Discipline describes an inward journey “to explore the inner caverns of the spiritual realm” (p. 1) and promises that the path to spiritual growth will be found by practicing Foster’s spiritual disciplines. These disciplines are “merely the means” (p. 110) to obtain knowledge of a spiritual reality through direct personal messages. However, the spiritual realm that is not revealed in Scripture is occult (knowledge of the hidden) and God forbids us to go there. Foster’s spiritual disciplines are meant especially for recent converts (contrary to what Foster claims in one of his other books, namely Prayer!), and also for “people who have yet to turn their lives over to Jesus Christ” (p. 2).
According to Foster, you don’t even have to be a believer to grow spiritually! Foster’s views are fundamentally unbiblical. Paul rebukes the Colossians who believe that their man-made rules, commands and teachings will lead to spiritual growth (Col. 2:20-23). Paul also rebukes the Galatians that “after beginning by means of the Spirit,” they are “now trying to finish by the means of the flesh” (Gal. 3:3). Richard Foster is making that same mistake all over again.
The two editions of Celebration of Discipline that my wife and I read (1978 and 1998) differ significantly from each other. In the original 1978-edition Foster describes an out-of-body-experience and a meeting-with-Jesus-Christ-in-the-flesh-experience, during which he received personal instructions. These two episodes are omitted in the subsequent editions of Celebration of Discipline. The foreword of the 1998-edition tells us that Celebration of Discipline has a large indebtedness to secular thinkers. This is weird: how can secular thinkers contribute to Christian spiritual growth? A few examples of Foster’s spiritual disciplines:
Foster’s discipline ‘meditation’ is very similar to Eastern meditation and the discipline ‘prayer’ refers to contemplative prayer (see the first topic in this summary). You might think that the discipline ‘study’ focuses on studying the Bible in order to get a real grip on the Christian faith, but nothing could be further from the truth. To the credit of Foster, he does say that “the first and most important book we are to study is the Bible” (p. 68), but he subsequently buries that remark under many other “verbal and nonverbal books” (p. 68) that we should study. Studying verbal and nonverbal books is all about getting an ‘eureka experience’, which leads us “to insight and discernment. It provides the basis for a true perception of reality.” (p. 66, emphasis mine) “Experience is the only way we can interpret and relate to what we read” (p. 68, emphasis mine).
Let Foster’s quotes sink in for a moment. It’s not the diligent study of Scripture in the classic and systematic way (e.g. exegesis, hermeneutics, historical context) that provides insight in what the Christian faith really is about and that provides discernment regarding God’s will. On the contrary, it’s a highly subjective ‘eureka experience’ that provides true insight and true discernment. Foster presents this ‘eureka experience’ (or, as it is now commonly known, ‘illumination by the Holy Spirit’) as the sole means to understand the Bible text. This is lectio divina and while it opens the floodgates to all kinds of heresies, it shuts the door to a real and meaningful understanding of what the Christian faith is about. Even worse, non-verbal books are “the least recognized but perhaps the most important field of study: the observation of reality in things, events, and actions. The easiest place to begin is with nature” (p. 73, emphasis mine).
Foster leads us uncomfortably close into the worship of creation rather than the Creator (which is strictly forbidden in the Bible—see, for example, the second of the Ten Commandments and Rom. 1:18-32). Foster tells us that “the first step in the study of nature is reverent observation” (p. 73, emphasis mine). Then we have to “stretch out by a distinct act of loving will towards one of the myriad manifestations of life that surround you” as “the object of contemplation” (p. 73, emphasis mine). “The next step is to make friends with the flowers and the trees and the little creatures that creep upon the earth” (p. 74, emphasis mine).
Foster’s discipline ‘solitude’ is about “an inner immersion into the silence of God” (p. 108). “The fruit of solitude is increased sensitivity and compassion for others” (p. 108). It’s not easy to see how increased compassion for others can be obtained by keeping away from them. Matthew 9:35-36 says that Jesus had compassion on the crowds, when he “saw” them, when he “went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness.” It seems far more likely that following Jesus’ example will stir up compassion for others in our heart, rather than following Foster’s suggestion to keep away from others.
Foster’s discipline ‘confession’ is blatantly unbiblical. By quoting John 20:23 out of context (p. 146) Foster suggests that we, the believers, decide who will be forgiven and who will not be forgiven. According to Foster we, the believers, become mediators between God and sinners. Foster’s idea spawned the profoundly false ‘little gods’ theology that portrays Christians as mediators (‘little gods’) between God and sinners. Apparently, Christians, instead of Christ (1 Tim. 2:5!), decide who receives forgiveness and blessings from God. Read the Bible verse in its context (Jn. 20:21-23) and it is clear that it’s not us, but the Holy Spirit (God) who forgives sins. Foster’s views on forgiveness are drawn from personal experiences. On p. 149, Foster describes a personal experience of forgiveness in which God is completely bypassed and forgiveness is based on an inner prompting from above and a fellow believer’s mediation.
Foster’s discipline ‘worship’ is also blatantly unbiblical. Worship God (in the sense of ‘submit to God’) is the most important commandment in the Bible (love God above all), but Foster defines worship as “to experience Reality, to touch Life. It is to know, to feel, to experience the resurrected Christ in the midst of the gathered community” (p. 158). Foster defines worship in terms of man-centered experiences. Foster completely ignores the biblical, God-centered definition of worship as submission to God and giving glory to God. This is troubling, because Christian life starts with worshiping God (submitting to God). Everything else flows from it.
The main problem with the teachings of Richard Foster is that they are predominantly based on subjective, man-centered experiences rather than biblical, God-centered guidelines. Our opinion of Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline can be found in Foster’s own words: “Worse yet, many have been brought into the most cruel bondage by false teaching.” (p. 84) Therefore, we should discard Foster’s unbiblical teachings from our churches.
Pieter Bouma is mainly occupied by teaching and writing. Inspired by the big questions of life (Does God exist? Where do we come from? How should we live? Is there an afterlife?), his main focus is on discipleship, explaining the New Covenant, apologetics in general and the question of origins in particular. Having a strong preference for direct, personal relationships (shared lives), Pieter is not active on Twitter, but will post regularly on Theology Mix.