Spiritual LIfe: The Foundation of Preaching by Westerhoff

The purpose of this short paper is to provide the reader with background information about John H Westerhoff, author of Spiritual Life: The Foundation for Preaching and Teaching, a short summary of the book, and an evaluation of his work.

Westerhoff, John H. Spiritual Life: The Foundation for Preaching and Teaching. Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994.

Westerhoff can best be described as a theologically liberal religious educator and Episcopalian priest who really loves God, his parish and all of creation. His early life and education significantly contributed to who Westerhoff is as a professor and author. Westerhoff graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in psychology in 1955 from a liberal arts college. During Westerhoff’s time in college, he organized and led a small group of skeptics seeking to know religious truth. Sensing God’s call in his life for vocational ministry, Westerhoff attended Harvard Divinity School and received a Masters of Divinity degree. Concerning this time at Harvard, Paul Bramer writes:
There he was exposed to influential professors from a broad spectrum of the Christian faith and theological disciplines. From Paul Tillich in particular he learned a dialectical approach to thinking and he reconciled his internal civil wars between faith and doubt, commitment and openness, reasoning and intuiting, practice and theory, by affirming the paradoxical and complex nature of much of truth and life.

There is no question that this “broad spectrum” has continued to influence Westerhoff through his life.
After graduating from Harvard, Westerhoff worked within the United Church of Christ (UCC) for several years in various positions. On staff with the UCC, he traveled around the world interviewing people in religious and secular education while writing articles on how the church could improve spiritual formation in its parishioners. Bramer states that “Ivan Illich reinforced Westerhoff’s skepticism about traditional schooling” and “Paulo Freire persuaded him of the need for liberation theology and pedagogy.” Westerhoff went on to serve at Duke University’s Divinity School. After a twenty year career and numerous books, he retired as Professor of Theology and Christian Nurture. In 1978, he became an Episcopalian priest where, according to Westerhoff, he could embrace both the "Catholic substance and the Protestant principle." He then went on to found an institute for pastoral studies at St. John’s Episcopalian Church and presently serves as an associate priest and theologian in residence at St. Anne’s Church in Atlanta Georgia.

Westerhoff is convinced that pastors, lay preachers, and church-school teachers can take their preaching and discipleship ministry to a level of excellence they have never experienced before by significantly increasing their focus on the development of their spiritual life through certain spiritual disciplines involving themselves, all people, and most importantly—God (Westerhoff 1994, xi, 1). After a brief introduction as to why Westerhoff felt the need to write Spiritual Life: The Foundation for Preaching and Teaching, he goes into a chapter discussion of the spiritual life. Then he goes into a presentation as to why this is a new day in preaching and teaching and follows this with two chapters on spirituality in preaching and teaching. Finally, he closes with application.
In “Exploring the Spiritual Life,” Westerhoff explains the relationship between one’s relationship with God, others and themselves. For example, he writes about the ridiculousness of saying my relationship with God is fine while one is displaying behavior that is prejudicial or another is refusing to be reconciled to a brother in Christ (Ibid., 2). He stresses that all of life must be viewed as spiritual, but that spiritual life has two dimensions…a physical dimension and a nonphysical dimension (Ibid., 3). The importance of one’s view of God is presented with an emphasis on the intimacy Christians should be experiencing with God. Then in chapter 2, Westerhoff presents his case that spiritual life is the basis or “foundation” for preaching and teaching (Ibid., 15). He argues that in the past, unpacking a biblical passage from a historical-critical method may have been acceptable, but it will not work in this new day and age. He argues that the Christian tradition is not just about doctrine, but about life—all of life—calling for a balance between the intellectual and intuitional aspects of life (Ibid., 21). He says that the imagination is the basis for one’s spiritual life and calls for preaching and teaching to engage the imagination (lbid., 25).
Two chapters are packed with the importance of the spiritual life for anyone who holds up the Bible and speaks for God. Westerhoff tells a lot of stories to make his case. He emphasizes the importance of silence, solitude, paying attention to the restlessness of life, and stresses the importance of living in a community that views its members as a reflection of God (Ibid., 37). He puts weight upon continuing to be a learner and challenges his reader to consider if anyone is really learning anything when they preach or teach, or are they merely regurgitating information (Ibid., 42-43). He closes the chapter with the importance of modeling.
Then Westerhoff focuses on the practical development of the spiritual life in two chapters devoted toward application. He puts a premium on the spiritual balance between schools of spirituality, religious orders, and denominations—for they are all part of the entire body of Christ (Ibid., 63). Westerhoff believes that a combination of prayer, reading scholarly works, and exercise is an excellent balance. He provides some very encouraging words of advice on how to start small and move into a more significant regiment of spiritual disciplines balancing prayer, study, work and leisure. He stresses worship, community, and simplicity of life with deep compassion for others (Ibid., 74). Then in a short conclusion, he pleads for revival in the church through the spiritual renewal of those who teach and preach to all the people of God.

What one’s worldview is will determine whether or not Westerhoff made his case that the spiritual life of the man is the foundation of his preaching or teaching ministry. If one subscribes to the existence of absolute truth and verbal inspiration of the Word of God as the supreme authority in the life of the believer, then he may struggle with Westerhoff’s theological liberalism and argue with his failure to make his case from a biblical perspective. However, if a reader is open to the Bible as another good piece of literature, then he will most likely embrace Westerhoff’s perspective as an appropriate alternative to the Bible being the foundation for preaching and teaching.
In so much as theological liberals love God and desire to reflect his love to all of creation, Westerhoff’s work is full of great points of value to any disciple seeking to grow in their relationship with Christ. Westerhoff properly stresses the importance of reflecting the vertical relationship with God in the horizontal plane we live upon with other humans also made in the image of God. He rightly stresses the importance of not living in a state of hypocrisy and duplicity. It would be hard to deny that the importance of being real, as a spiritual being, is of critical importance to the effectiveness of one’s pulpit ministry, but that is not what Westerhoff says—he takes it a step further. He makes one’s spiritual life of greater importance than doctrine. In fact, he struggles greatly with what he classifies as dogmatism and states that “a heresy is a truth taken too far” (Ibid., 54). In this definition, Westerhoff gives away his liberal bias. For example, one could easily wonder how you could take the exclusivity of Christ, as the only way to God the Father too far. However, if the Word of God is not the foundation for preaching and teaching, then the foundation becomes a moving target.
By Westerhoff’s tremendous reliance upon establishing the authority for his position from non-biblical sources, one should not be surprised by the absence of scripture references through a book that is supposed to improve the preacher’s spiritual life. Instead, Westerhoff suggests that reading scholarly books for one hour a day is a vital component to spiritual development, but he does not mention or give a particular time to reading the Bible (Ibid., 66). He does not mention a daily reading plan. While he does stress the importance of journaling, a very valuable discipline, he states that it is more important to record one’s conversation with God than what one got out of his reading of the Word of God. While respecting his position on the importance of not reading the Bible like a textbook, one may wonder what makes his position different from a charismatic perspective in which experience trumps everything else.
Westerhoff rejects the idea that there is only one correct interpretation with multiple applications in every text. He suggests that a singular perspective is a relatively new thing—post nineteenth century. He is more than willing to take parables and change what the symbols represent contrary to the Word of God. He suggests the seeds that Jesus spoke about could be a Christian’s life, but he does not explain the legitimacy of such a position (Ibid., 70-71). Yet Jesus is very specific in identifying the seed as the Word of God (Matthew 13). If the spiritual life is the foundation for preaching, one can be very free to change what the text says to support the objective of the sermon, but if one is committed to exegeting the text, it will be very hard to make the spiritual life “king” with the text subordinate to the experience. Or, in another example of this upside down perspective, Westerhoff suggests that the usual understanding of the Song of Solomon can be reversed and God can be made the bride and the believer the groom. Then he writes, “imagine …God is about to enter into intimate lovemaking with you” (73). This is in fact, one of the effects of not having the Bible as the foundation to preaching and teaching. The author reveals the freedom to alter the text during the sermon from the willingness he presents in a work about setting the conditions for improving one’s preaching ministry.
While Westerhoff’s work is packed full of valuable and important points that can be sifted through when viewed with the lens of a biblical worldview, the book has limited value to anyone other than those already bent on rejecting the supremacy of the Bible in preaching or those whose worldview cannot be altered by a cleverly written book full of quotes from scholars. This book could really confuse a young Bible college student who does not understand that the biblical text must be “king” when preaching or teaching, or a Pandora’s Box of anything and everything is opened every time one says, “thus says the Lord.” One has only to examine the Word Faith Movement of Copeland, Hagin, Osteen etc. to see what happens when any preacher can say, “The Lord gave me a word for you.” Yet, even the most conservative pastors can benefit from some of Westerhoff’s points about the importance of having a partner to grow with in one’s walk with the Lord (Ibid., 69). His recommendation of establishing a routine and sticking to the routine, including turning the phone off for an hour of prayer, is a suggestion that both conservatives and liberals can agree upon (Ibid.,66). Likewise, his insistence upon finding a balance between daily prayer, study, work and leisure is a reminder that every vocational pastor/teacher should be reminded of often (Ibid., 74). Finally, who can argue with the premium Westerhoff puts upon God and one’s relationship with God, yet one may wonder why references to Christ were so absent. Could it be that Westerhoff is not that insistent upon the exclusivity of Christ?

Bramer, Paul. Talbots School of Theology. “Listing of Christian Educators,” http://www.talbot.edu/ce20/educators/view.cfm?n=john_westerhoff [accessed March 28, 2010].

Westerhoff, John H. Spiritual Life: The Foundation for Preaching and Teaching. Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994.

Westerhoff, John H., III. “A Journey into Self-understanding.” In Marlene Mayr (Ed.), Modern masters of religious education. Birmingham, AL: Religious Education Press, 1983.

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