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An Analytical Integration of the Spiritual Theology of the Three Ways (Purgative, Illuminative, Unitive) and Action Science, Reflective Practitioners and Frame Reflection Theories of Learning.

by Dr Alex Tang



Can modern learning theories help to us to understand, inform and transform spiritual growth? This question can be answered in many ways. There are many who hold to that spiritual growth has nothing to do with ‘secular’ learning theories. Their contention is that the Holy Spirit as our teacher is more than enough for our spiritual development. Others view ‘secular’ learning theories with suspicion. This is the legacy of a dualistic neo-platonic view of spirituality that the Church has inherited. It is the aim of this paper to prove that modern learning theories does help us to understand, inform and transform spiritual growth. There are many ways to describe spiritual growth. In this paper, we shall limit the discussion of spiritual growth to the Three Ways or Stages (purgative, illuminative, unitive). The reason is that the Three Ways is the most commonly accepted description of spiritual growth for a greater part of Church history and also the foundations on which other descriptions of spiritual growth are based upon. In modern learning theories, we shall examine the works of Chris Argyris and Donald Schön. Working alone and in collaboration, their studies in learning such as single and double-loop learning, espoused and theory-in-action, the reflective practitioner and frame reflection gave important insights on how we learn. We shall examine how these learning theories help us to better understand the ways of purgative, illuminative and unitive. It is hoped that in understanding the learning processes in each of these stages, we shall be able to develop some curriculum of andragogy that helps in our spiritual growth.



Spiritual growth and development are essential part of the Christian life. John Calvin regarded justification by faith as the start of the spiritual life which should be followed by the process of sanctification (Alexander 1988; McNeil MCMLX). Spiritual life is often likened as a journey (McGrath 1999). Conversion is the starting point. The end of the journey are described as when the traveller becomes mature in Christ (Eph 4:13), be like Christ (Gal 4:19; Rom 8:29; 2 Cor 3:18), achieve union with God (2 Pet 1:4; 1 Jn 3:2) or theosis (divinisation). Throughout the 2,000 years of Christian history, many people had tried to describe this spiritual journey. The Desert Fathers and Mothers, the early Church Fathers and Doctors of the Church described it as the Three Ways: purgative, illuminative and purgative. Later teachers describe this journey by using metaphors of stages, ladders, scales, rooms in a mansions, and mountain climbing[1]. In the 19th and 20th Century, it is described in terms of psychology, psychotherapy and developmental sciences[2]. The reason the spiritual journey is described in so many ways is because it is difficult to quantify. Various theologians and spiritual writers tried to describe it in the context of their time, level of knowledge and culture. However there are certain common features in all these descriptions of the spiritual journey:

  1. They start at conversion. Conversion is when there is repentance and acceptance of Jesus as Lord and saviour. It may be an instantaneous epiphany or a gradual process.
  2. The journey is a choice. One can choose to grow or remain stagnant. Growth occurs when we choose to obey God.
  3. The ways forward is often accompanied by setbacks. It is possible to slip backward or remain stagnant.
  4. The journey may not be completed at the time of death.
  5. The Holy Spirit is the transformative agent and the means of grace for progress are given by God.

The spiritual life is a life of growth or development of the spiritual life of the Christian convert.



The three ways was the description of the spiritual journey that was widely accepted and helped the Church for more than a thousand years. Origen was the first to set forth a three stage developmental model. However he spoke of the stages as the moral (based on Proverbs), natural (based on Ecclesiastes) and contemplative (allegorical Songs of Solomon)(Holt 1993,36). Later under the influence of neo-Platonism, Pseudo-Dionysius was the one who formalised the stages into the stages (or ways) of purgative, illuminative and unitive. Conversion is the important starting point before moving into the first stage. The first stage of purgation is associated with the deepening knowledge of self and of God. It is in this stage that we becomes aware of one’s sinfulness, one’s helpless to redeem oneself and the need for God’s intervention in one’s life. With these internal processes, one develops moral integration, maturing faith and trust in the faithfulness of God. This stage is often associated with struggles with temptations, trials and sometimes spiritual darkness. However if one persists in trusting God and developing faith in Him, then one will move into the next stage.


The second stage is the stage of illumination. In this stage, one becomes more aware of the presence of God in one’s life. There is greater clarity and zeal for the Kingdom of God. Joy and peace is often associated with this stage. There are fewer struggles and more yielding to the Lord. “Let go and let God” becomes one’s philosophy of life. There is more reflection on life in the light of Biblical and church tradition and more seeking to apply what one knows into one’s lifestyle. The attractions of worldly pleasure became less attractive.

The third stage is the stage of union with God. Most of the writers state that not every Christian will experience this stage. In this stage, surprisingly one first experiences the darkness of God. Here John of the Cross’ description of the dark night of the senses and dark night of the soul is most helpful in understanding this stage (May 2004). Only when one move through the dark night of the soul does true union with God occurs (Groseschel 1983). Others, however, consider that no one in this stage moves out of the dark night of the soul until death (Green 1991, 1998). Teresa of Avila regarded it as a momentary glimpse of heaven (Teresa 1964) while Thomas Merton considered it as infused contemplation (Merton 1961).


In this brief survey of the stages of purgation, illumination and union, we can note that there are both cognitive and experiential elements in the stages of spiritual growth.



These are learning theories developed by Chris Argyris and Donald Schön. Argyris’ main research interest was in (1) impact of organization structures, control systems and management on individuals, (2) organizational changes involving top executives, (3) role of social scientist as both researcher and actor which was also called action science(What is action science? 2005), and (4) individual and organizational learning - single and double-loop learning; espoused theory and theory-in action (M.K.Smith 2001). He did most of his research in Yale and Harvard. It is in the last two areas of research that he collaborated with Schön. Schön was the first to postulate that change is constant and society need to become a learning society to keep up. His other area of research, aside from developing the double-loop learning with Argyris, is about the reflective practitioner especially in reflection-in and reflection–on-action and later in collaboration with Martin Rein, on frame reflection (M.K.Smith 2005). All these are learning theories.


  1. Espoused and Theory-in-action

This is the result of the collaborative research of Argyris and Schön. They postulated that human beings are idealistic and have a sense of right and wrong. They have a preconceived idea of the goodness they are capable of and this is what they called the espoused theory. Unknown to them, there is a ‘master program’ which everyone has which seeks to (1) remain in unilateral control; (2) maximise “winning” and minimize “losing”; (3) suppress negative feelings; and (4) to be rational in their thinking (Argyris 2004). The ‘master program’ takes over whenever the person wants to do anything and will take defensive action when the status quo is disturbed. Argyris and Schön called this theory-in-action. Argyris described theory-in-action behavior as Model 1 thinking. He wants to move people from Model 1 thinking to Model 2 thinking. Model 2 characteristics include (1) reviewing valid information; (2) making free and informed choices; and (3) developing internal commitment to this way of thinking (Argyris 2004; M.K.Smith 2001). The way to develop Model 2 learning is by double-loop thinking. This theory explains why people claim one belief structure but often acts contrary to their belief structure. It can also be applied to spiritual formation. Moving from Model 1 to Model 2 may be considered metanoia.


  1. Single and Double-Loop Thinking

Argyris has a favourite illustration for single loop thinking. He noted, “Single-loop learning asks a one-dimensional question to elicit a one-dimensional answer. My favorite example is a thermostat, which measures ambient temperature against a standard setting and turns the heat source on and off accordingly. The whole transaction is binary.” (Argyris 1994)

However for double-loop thinking, he wrote,

“Double-loop learning takes an additional step or, more often than not, several additional steps. It turns the question back on the questioner. It asks what the media call follow-ups. In the case of the thermostat, for instance, double-loop learning would wonder whether the current setting was actually the most effective temperature at which to keep the room and, if so, whether the present heat source was the most effective means of achieving it. A double-loop process might also ask why the current setting was chosen in the first place. In other words, double-loop learning asks questions not only about objective facts but also about the reasons and motives behind these facts."(p.64-65).  This double-looping thinking is reflective thinking.


  1. The Reflective Practitioner

Schön continued from there and developed his theories of the reflective practitioner. He is interested in reflection-in-action and reflection-on-action. His main target study groups are professionals especially managers because he is interested to learn about “thinking on their feet”(M.K.Smith 2005). This has led to the concept of “framing” which is building a correct perspective with available data. Frame reflection occurs when one re-examine available data and forms new perspective or “reframes” in which subsequent changes to thinking or decision making will be made.



The Three Ways are descriptive stages or ways of the development of the spiritual life. One moves through the ways by the grace of the Holy Spirit and the cooperation of the individual concerned. Therefore we can study these Ways in the way an individual learns. Learning is both cognitive and affective. The purgative way is where single and double-loop learning; the espoused theory and theory in action are relevant. The reflective practitioner is the way of illumination. And frame reflection is important in the unitive way.


1.                  The Purgative Way and Espoused Theory and Theory in Action

The purgative way starts after conversion. Arthur Devine writes, “The purgative way is the way, or state, of those who are beginners, that is, those who have obtained justification, but have not their passions and evil inclinations in such a state of subjugation that they can easily overcome temptations, and who, in order to preserve and exercise charity and the other virtues have to keep up a continual warfare within themselves. It is so called because the chief concern of the soul in this state is to resist and to overcome the passions by nourishing, strengthening, and cherishing the virtue of charity”(Devine 2003). Paul described these as the struggle between the two natures in Roman 7:14-25.  There were some controversy as to whether Paul was describing a person before (unregenerate) or after (regenerate) conversion. Douglas Moo has given both sides of the controversy based on his expert word-exegesis, grammatical and logical hermeneutic study of Rom. 7:14-25 (Moo 1996)[3]. However looking at the flow of argument of Romans; in chapters 6-8, Paul was writing about sanctification (righteousness imparted). Chapter 6 deals with being freed from sin’s tyranny. Paul then wrote of freedom from the law’s condemnation (chapter 7) before concluding in chapter 8 about life in the power of the Holy Spirit. Sanctification implied a regenerate person. In the earlier chapters, Paul has dealt with justification through Christ. Hence Rom 7: 14-25 refers to a regenerate man. Paul detailed in these verses ‘his post-conversion perception of what had previously occurred, or more likely, is a description of the struggle he continued to experience as a Christian between his old and new natures’(Klein, Blomberg, and Hubbard 1993) Calvin notes,  “I do not so strictly demand evangelical perfection that I would not acknowledge as a Christian one who has not attained yet attain it. For thus all would be excluded from the church, since no one is found who is not far removed from it, while many have advanced a little toward it whom it would nevertheless be unjust to cast away”(McNeil MCMLX). This emphasis on the unregenerate and regenerate man or nature is similar to espoused theory and theory-in-action. The espoused theory is the perfection in spiritual life that the new convert wants. Often it forms the ideal for the spiritual life. A good example of the components of a espoused theory is the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5,6,7). Jesus explained what a Christian life should be. There are teachers who teach that this perfection has already been achieved. But in reality, the new convert finds that his or her theory-in-action does not reflect his or her espoused theory. In the gospel narratives, Peter was a good example of how his theory-in-action did not fit his espoused theory. Peter was so sure that he would not deny Jesus even if all the other disciples would. His espoused theory of himself is that he will be faithful to the end. Unfortunately, when Jesus was caught, Peter in self-preservation did deny Jesus. Only then was Peter aware of how strong is his theory-in-action and Model 1 behaviour. (Matt 26: 31-35, 69-75). All new converts exhibit Model 1 behaviour. It is during the way of purgative that one develops Model 2 behaviour. This is through prayers, study of the Word, fellowship, worship, practicing the spiritual disciplines and making choices for God. However it must be recognised that these spiritual disciplines can be single-loop learning. For example, in some churches, a new convert are taught to give 10% of their income as tithe. If the new convert accepts this and follow it religiously, single-loop learning is said to have taken place. If the new convert begin to question the 10%.; Why 10%? Where in the Bible does it teach that Christians have to give 10%? Why not more? Then double-looped learning would have said to have taken place. Acts 17:11 described the Bereans as an example of a community that practises double-loop thinking. It is through these learning processes that a new convert learns to develop new habits of thinking, both cognitively and affectively.


Another way to look at this is what modern spiritual writers called the true and false self (MulhollandJr 2006; Pennington 2000; Shannon, Boshen, and O'Connell 2002). The false self is theory-in-action while the true self is espoused theory. It is through spiritual learning and the work of the Holy Spirit that one moves from the false self to become our true self.


It can be argued that the action science theories are developed in an organisational setting and are mainly concerned with interpersonal relationships hence has no relevance in studying spiritual growth. However it must be noted that all spiritual growth develops in a community (organisation) and is about relationships. These are relationships between man and God and man and man (Buber 1970). Hence it is applicable to the study of the spiritual life.


2.                  The Illuminative Way and the Reflective Practitioner

The next stage is the way of illuminative. Enough inner learning has been done that the new convert is now behaving model 2 behaviour. In the illuminative stage, “The fundamental virtue of this state is recollection, that is, a constant attention of the mind and of the affections of the heart to thoughts and sentiments which elevate the soul to God -- exterior recollection which consists in the love of silence and retirement, interior recollection in simplicity of spirit and a right intention, as well as attention to God in all our actions.”(Devine 2003). This stage is often referred to as the stage of contemplation and meditation. Growth in this stage is by reflection on our spiritual journey and deepening our relationship with God. Its experiential element is zeal for the presence of God. Ignatius of Loyola taught about the examen of consciousness; reflecting on our daily life at the end of each day and examining how we behave and look for the presence of God (Ignatius 1964). This is similar to what Schön was writing about the reflective practitioner. His emphasis was on how professionals “think on their feet.”  He studied designers, psychotherapist, town designers and managers. These studies was on how these professionals cope with their professions and how they learn by reflection-before-action, reflection-in-action and reflection-after-action (Schon 1983). Again, there are similarities here with the illuminative way. Spiritual persons are also reflective practitioners. Spiritual persons grow in their spiritual life by learning by reflection-before-action, reflection-in-action and reflection-after-action. Training in how to reflect effectively is important (Barns 2002; Schon 1987). This is what Schön call a reflective practicum, “a practicum aimed at helping students acquire the kind of artistry essential to competence in the indeterminate zones of practice.” (1987, 18). Life is messy. Spiritual practitioners also need a curriculum to learn to master their artistry, which is to experience the presence of God in their daily life. The apostle Paul is a good example of the spiritual reflective practitioner. Throughout the book of Acts, there is evidence that he was reflecting on his actions and learning from his mistakes. His approach to preach the gospel is different in Thessalonica and in Athens. In Thessalonica, he approached the Jews through Old Testament messianic history and in Athens, his approach was through Greek philosophy and “the unknown God”. (Acts 17:1-34)


3.                  The Unitive Way and Frame Reflection

The final stage is the unitive way. The three ways are no always linear. One can move forward or drift backwards. “The unitive way is the way of those who are in the state of the perfect, that is, those who have their minds so drawn away from all temporal things that they enjoy great peace, who are neither agitated by various desires nor moved by any great extent by passion, and who have their minds chiefly fixed on God and their attention turned, either always or very frequently, to Him. It is the union with God by love and the actual experience and exercise of that love.” (Devine 2003). Many spiritual writers wrote that not many Christians will enter this stage. There is a total mindset change here that the spiritual practitioners become one with God. This will be what Schön will call framing and reframing (Schon and Rein 1994). Although Schön wrote about framing and reframing in the context of the approach of practitioners dealing with intractable public policies, I believe there is relevance to our discussion on the unitive way. Our being in the world and carrying the original sin, though forgiven are in a way caught in a fallen-world intractable public policy. This policy is anti-God and keeps everyone in bondage to the evil one out of fear and temptations. There is this constant conflict between the Christian spiritual practitioners and the world. The unitive way is breaking free of this world’s policies and uniting with the Kingdom of God’s policies and become one with God. Schön’s approach to frame reflection consists of identifying the problem (cavitas), developing mutual trust, putting yourself in the other’s shoes, double vision (seeing both side of the coin), knowing the necessity of the policy and inventing new policy modification and resolving frame conflicts (1994, 207) . This has certain resonance to spiritual practitioners. As part of the policy change, the spiritual practitioner moves through the dark night of the senses and the dark night of the soul. It is in these powerful spiritual experiences, that the spiritual practitioner comes to identify and understand the delusions of the world, understand self, know God better and reframe the world’s policy. The new frame is the Kingdom of God. Paul’s Damascus experience in Acts 9:1-19 is a good example of frame reflection. This personal experience of meeting Jesus Himself changed his frame of reference and helped him to reframe himself as the apostle to the gentile.


 However, there are limitations to Schön’s frame reflection. This model will work only in the first stage of the unitive way. As we move deeper into the unitive way, we find that there is less and less need for us to act because God takes a more active role as He draws us into union with Himself. In the final stage, we do not need to do anything. In this stage, even the theologians and spiritual writers are at a loss for words because they are describing the indescribable. Teresa of Avila writes, “One can say no more-insofar as can be understood-than that the soul, I mean the spirit, is made one with God.”(Teresa 1961)



Modern learning theories do help us to understand, inform and transform spiritual growth. We have seen how the learning theories of Argyris and Schön can be used to understand the learning process underlying the spiritual ways of purgative, illuminative and unitive. It is beyond to scope of this paper to design or suggest a learning curriculum for the Three Ways. However, the learning theories have helped us to understand the process and it would not be too difficult to think of such a curriculum. This will be especially important for Christian educators to consider especially when they design learning programs for their faith communities. One such example is an attempt to design the training of spiritual directors in the Archdiocese of Louisville (Wirth 1995) and another is in the college classroom teaching (Brown 2005) using the learning theories of Argyris . It must be acknowledged that finally all spiritual growth comes from God who is the author and finisher of our faith.

                                                                                                                                                                      Soli Deo Gloria



Alexander, Donald L., ed. 1988. Christian spirituality: Five views of sanctification. Downers Grove, IL.: InterVarsity Press.

Argyris, Chris. 1994. Good communications that blocks learning. In Leadership insights: 15 unique perspectives on effective leadership:63-73: Harvard Business Review.

________. 2004. Teaching smart people how to learn. In Harvard business review on developing leaders:83-110. Boston: Harvard Business School Publishing Corporation.

Barns, Ian. 2002. Becoming theological reflective practitioners in professional life. Journal of Christian Education 45, no. 2 7-20.

Brown, Cynthia L. 2005. Double-loop learning in the college classroom. Christian Education Journal (Series 3) 2, no. 1: 62-76.

Buber, Martin. 1970. I and thou. Translated by Walter Kaufman. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Devine, Arthur. 2003. State or way (purgative, illuminative, unitive). Accessed 5/11 2004. Available from www.newadvent,org/cathen/14254a.htm.

Green, Thomas. 1991. Drinking from a dry well. Notre Dame, IN: Ave Maria Press.

________. 1998. When the well runs dry: Prayer beyond the beginnings. Notre Dame, IN.: Ave Maria Press.

Groseschel, Benedict J. 1983. Spiritual passages: The psychology of spiritual development. New York: The Crosswroad Publishing Company.

Holt, Bradley P. 1993. Thirsty for god: A brief history of christian spirituality. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress.

Ignatius. 1964. The spiritual exercises of st. Ignatius. Translated by Anthony Mottola. New York: Book-of-the-Month Club.

Klein, William, Craig Blomberg, and Robert Hubbard. 1993. Introduction to biblical interpretation. Dallas: Word Publishing.

M.K.Smith. 2001. Chris argryris:Theories of action, double loop learning and organizational learning. Accessed 14 Feb 2005. Available from

________. 2005. Donald schon (schön): Learning, reflection and change. Accessed 21 May 2006. Available from

May, Gerald G. 2004. The dark night of the soul: A psychiatrist explores the connection between darkness and spiritual growth. New York: HarperCollins Publishers.

McGrath, Alister. 1999. The journey: A pilgrim in the lands of the spirit. New York: Doubleday.

McNeil, John T., ed. MCMLX. Calvin: Institutes of the christian religion. Edited by John Baillie, John T.McNeill and Henry P.Van Dusen. The library of christian classics. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press.

Merton, Thomas. 1961. New seeds of contemplation. New York: New Directions Book.

Moo, Douglas. 1996. The epistle to the romans. Edited by Gordon D. Fee. The new international commentary on the new testament. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.

MulhollandJr, M. Robert. 2006. The deeper journey: The spirituality of discovering your true self. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

Pennington, M.Basil. 2000. True self, false self : Unmasking the spirit within. New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company.

Schon, Donald. 1983. The reflective practitioner: How professionals think in action. New York: Basic Books.

________. 1987. Educating the reflective practitioner: Toward a new design for teaching and learning in the professions. The jossey-bass higher education series. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Schon, Donald A. and Martin Rein. 1994. Frame reflection: Toward the resolution of intractable policy controversies. New York: Basic Books.

Shannon, William H., Christine M. Boshen, and Patrick F. O'Connell. 2002. The thomas merton encyclopedia. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books.

Teresa. 1961. Interior castle. Translated by E. Allison Peers. New York: Doubleday.

________. 1964. The way of perfection. Translated by E. Allison Peers. New York: Doubleday.

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Wirth, Steven. 1995. Shifting the focus of the training conversation. Presence: A International Journal of Spiritual Direction 1, no. 2 May: 31-45.

[1] It is a reflection of the difficulty of describing the spiritual life that numerous theologians and spiritual writers use different metaphors to describe it. The commonest is the Three ways or Stages, proponents are  Origen. 1979. Origen: An exhortation to martyrdom, prayer first principles: Book iv, prologue to the commentary onthe song of songs, homily xxvii on numbers. Translated by Rowan A. Greer. Edited by Bernard McGinn. The classics of western spirituality. Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press.;  Bonaventure. 1978. Bonaventure: The soul's journey into god, the tree of life, the life of st. Francis. Translated by Ewert Cousins. Edited by Richard J. Payne. The classics of western spirituality. Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press.; Ladders:Climacus, John. 1982. John climacus: The ladder of divine ascent. Translated by Colm Luibheid and Norman Russell. Edited by Richard J. Payne. The classics of western spirituality. Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press. Scales: Hilton, Walter. 1991. Walter hilton: The scale of perfection. Translated by John P.H. Clark and Rosemary Dorward. Edited by Bernard McGinn. The classics of western spirituality. Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press. Rooms in a Mansion: Teresa. 1961. Interior castle. Translated by E. Allison Peers. New York: Doubleday., Mountain climbing: The ascent of Mt.Carmel in  John. 1991. The collected works of st. John of the cross. Translated by Kieran Kavanaugh and Otilio Rodriguez. Washington D.C.: Institute of Carmelite Studies Publications.

[2]Some examples of modern day description of the spiritual journey. Adams, Jay E. 1986. How to help people change. The jay adams library. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, Aden, Leroy, David G. Benner, and J. Harold Ellens, eds. 1992. Christian perspectives on human development. Edited by David G. Benner. Psychology and christianity. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House.; Bright, William R., ed. 1965. Teacher's manual for ten basic steps toward christian maturity. San Bernardino, CA: Campus Crusade for Christ, International, Patterson, Richard B. 1995. Becoming a modern contemplative: A psychospiritual model for personal growth. Chicago,IL: Loyola University Press.

[3] Douglas Moo concluded from his exegesis that vv.14-25 refers to the unregenerate man. Decisive for him are two sets of contrast. The first is between the description of ego as “sold” under sin (v.14) and Paul’s assertion that believer-every believer- has been “set free from sin”(6:18,22). The second contrast is that between the state of ego, “imprisoned by the law [or power] of sin” (v.23), and the believer, who has been “set free from the law of sin and death” (8:2). He stated that each of this expression depicts an objective status and cannot occur in the same person. Hence his conclusion that the passage refers to the unregenerate man. Douglas Moo, 1996 The Epistle to The Romans NICNT Grand Rapids. Michigan: Eerdmans p.448

|posted 10 July 2006|

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