Book Review—Shaped by the Word

By Kent Carlson
VP of Spiritual Formation

A Review of Shaped by the Word: The Power of Scripture in Spiritual Formation by M. Robert Mulholland Jr.

In 2 Peter 1, we are told that God has given us everything we need for life and godliness. In addition, we have been invited to become participants in the divine nature. That’s pretty amazing stuff right there. We have everything we need for life and godliness, and we are partakers in the divine nature. Reflect on that for a few minutes and that thought virus can wreak some much-needed havoc in our lives.

And yet, Peter goes on to say that in light of all that God has done and continues to do for us, we are to make every effort to support our faith with goodness, knowledge, self-control, endurance, godliness, mutual affection, and love. In other words, even though God has given us everything we need for life and godliness, and even though we have been made partakers of the divine nature, if we do not apply effort in our pursuit of transformation, nothing will happen. We’ll stay the same.

The Spirit of God is at work in our formation into Christlikeness, and as followers of the way of Jesus we intentionally cooperate with this spiritual formation. Perhaps the most central practice down through the centuries of the church that embraces this cooperative relationship with the Holy Spirit is the reading, studying, and reflecting on Scripture. The late M. Robert Mulholland Jr. has given a great gift to the church in his wonderful book Shaped by the Word: The Power of Scripture in Spiritual Formation. In Shaped by the Word, Mulholland pushes back at the tendency to read Scripture primarily for information. He exposes the temptation for readers of Scripture to use Scripture as a means to control the world, other people, and even God. When we come to God’s Word, the task is not so much to read Scripture but for Scripture to read us.

I once heard a preacher going on a riff on the topic of the Bible. At one point he got a little passionate and said that we were to master Scripture. And then he paused for effect and looked directly into the eyes of his congregation and said, “Master it! Master it! Master it!” Mulholland would not approve. The point of reading, studying, and reflecting on Scripture is not so that we can master it, but rather to be mastered by it. As the author of Hebrews puts it, “The word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.  And before him no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account” (Hebrews 4:12–13 NRSV). Scripture is too wild a thing to be mastered. It is not a tool in our hands for us to use. It is an encounter with the living God. It can be a dangerous thing. As Isaiah 66:2 says, “This is the one to whom I will look, to the humble and contrite in spirit, who trembles at my word.”

Shaped by the Word is an invitation to an encounter with the living God in Scripture. Mulholland invites us to experience a profound formation into Christlikeness as we allow ourselves to be mastered by the Word of God.