Conversatio Divina

Part 8 of 12

Diagnosing the Problem of Christian Immaturity: A Historical Perspective

Bruce Hindmarsh

The seventh session of the 2024 Martin Institute Christian Formation Workshop featured a presentation by Dr. Bruce Hindmarsh (historical theology, Regent College) and comments by Dr. Helen Rhee (history of Christianity, Westmont College). The session was moderated by Dr. Alister Chapman (history, Westmont College). Dr. Hindmarsh’s paper was titled “Diagnosing the Problem of Christian Immaturity: A Historical Perspective.” This session continues our attempt to explain the problem of Christian immaturity/malformation and consider actionable steps toward fostering greater spiritual and moral vitality among Christian individuals and groups.

Below is a summary and some key quotes from Dr. Hindmarsh’s paper. In the video, Dr. Hindmarsh briefly summarizes the main points of his paper and Dr. Rhee offers additional comments.

Download and read the full presentation paper, Diagnosing the Problem of Christian Immaturity: A Historical Perspective, by Bruce Hindmarsh.

01.  Summary

Hindmarsh believes that it is possible for Christian pilgrims to make spiritual progress. Toward this end, he presents four hindrances to Christian maturation and draws on the history of Christian experience to offer some helpful correctives. Hindmarsh says that Christians will fail to mature if: 

  1. There is not a clear goal. He argues that for early Christians there was a clear goal (teleology). He draws on the desert tradition to make the case that union with God or Christlikeness ought to be the goal of the Christian life. 
  2. We assume the fullness of the spiritual life can only be achieved by elites. Hindmarsh warns of the dangers of a “two-tiered” Christianity that places the lay and clerical in opposition to one another and instead calls all Christians (lay and clerical) to a “mixed life” that weds Martha and Mary (action and contemplation). 
  3. We maintain a nominal affiliation with the church. He notes that “after the first generation of Reformers, there was a period of ‘confessionalization’ that set in,” which led to nominal forms of Christian life achieved through a mere confession of faith. As a result, certain reformers sought to recover the pursuit of Godliness over empty creedal confession. Citing exemplars such as Teresa of Avila, Hindmarsh urges us to “abandon all the false security of mere rectitude, propriety, and observance” and instead be humble and open to transforming grace. 
  4. There is not a proper sense of the depth of our misery and the extent of the spiritual problem troubling the human condition. Hindmarsh is concerned with “our preoccupation with self-actualization” (Moral Therapeutic Deism-MTD), which often ignores the depths of our sin. Hindmarsh, following Chrysostom, says “that we need more than analgesics to dull the pain. We need a physician who will deal with the root issues in our diseased souls.” Hindmarsh calls for us to go deep into ourselves and uncover the depth of our sin. This is not about condemnation, but rather simply acknowledging, as in Hans Urs von Balthasar, that “judgment and salvation [are] two aspects of the same reality.” Moreover, the focus of this interior exploration is not to stress guilt or shame, but rather “so that we can know we are forgiven sinners. We want the whole truth to be told about us, and still to be loved.”  

Hindmarsh concludes by reiterating his hopeful outlook, “I think the history of the church affords many examples of real sanctity and encourages us about the untold possibilities of the Christian life as we are truly disposed to the grace of God. The pilgrim can progress, even today.”  


02.  Key Quotes

“From the earliest days of Christian church, there was a sense that the spiritual life that begins in conversion ought to properly progress toward its proper consummation. It is inherently teleological.” 

“The early church was profoundly concerned with integrity, authenticity, and holiness, not as ends in themselves, but as the path to life itself, living radiantly in the presence of God. The patristic anthropology was that ‘like understands like,’ so the more that one grows in Christlikeness, the more one experiences of God.”  

“All the faithful of Christ of whatever rank or status, are called to the fullness of the Christian life and to the perfection of charity” (Lumen Gentium, §40).”  

“People were resting content in their doctrinal correctness and confessional identity, but they were not showing any signs of real change in their spiritual lives. They were merely nominal Christians.”  

“One of the illusions that has allowed nominal Christianity such a long run in the church is the illusion that our human condition is actually not all that bad, really.” 

“If we do not reckon with the depth of the problem, we cannot appreciate the greatness of God’s grace as he condescends to heal us. The spiritual life becomes inevitably flattened, a journey not into the depths but into the shallows. It is as though we think of sin as something like a sliver that needs to work its way out, or be removed, rather than like a cancer that requires radical treatment. And it is so pervasive that though it may be under control or in remission, one would never say it was gone until death . . . I worry that the most consequential difference between us and our pre-modern brothers and sisters is the depth and extent to which we consider the human condition as flawed.”  

 “We do need healing, as Chrysostom acknowledged, including emotional healing. But it is perhaps for this very reason that we need a deeper diagnosis of our condition, so that we can know we are forgiven sinners. We want the whole truth to be told about us, and still to be loved.”  

03.  Applications Questions

  • Hindmarsh asks, “Are believers in our churches being taught with clarity that their life in Christ has a goal?” and “are [believers’] imaginations fired like Cassian with a clear vision of what this goal looks like?”  
  • Hindmarsh asks, “have [we] consciously or unconsciously communicated to believers that the fullness of the spiritual life is attainable only by an elite or that it is possible to rest content in a lower standard of conventional Christianity?”  
  • Hindmarsh asks, “Is the reason why Christians are not maturing in our churches today that we have failed to diagnose for them the depth of their need for transformation? Are they under the illusion that ‘It’s all good’?”  
  • How might our discipleship models maintain that “judgment and salvation [are] two aspects of the same reality?”  
  • Another way of asking this might be to say, in the process of transformation, is there a correlation between the extent to which we acknowledge the depth of our sin and the extent to which we come to know/experience the depths of God’s love?