Comprehensive Exam #3: Trends in the Study of the Holy Spirit.

After my first two comprehensive exams, the first on Anglo-American Church history in the 17th-18th centuries and the second one on the theology of Pannenberg, I was feeling mentally exhausted. But, I was only halfway done. Fortunately, my third comprehensive exam was on a topic I’ve really focused on since early in my Masters Degree, over a decade ago. Indeed, I’ve written a book and published an academic article on this topic, so this wasn’t nearly as worrisome to me. I’m fascinated with the Spirit and how a doctrine of the Spirit brings to life so many divergent doctrines that had felt troublesome and increasingly incoherent to me. We believe in a Trinity, after all, so theology can not be developed with only an interest in the Father and Son. Times are a-changing, so older theologies are being themselves renewed as the topic of the Spirit is becoming more and more integrated within theological studies. What are the particular areas of interest to theologians? That’s the topic of the first question of my third comprehensive exam on the topic of pneumatology.

Here’s the first part:

1) In your reading of various contemporary pneumatologies, what are the key emerging themes and orientations

In coming to the topic of pneumatology, there are a number of very interesting developments and themes which are being explored in our era. Indeed, one might even say the very fact we can talk about emerging themes and orientations in the topic of pneumatology is itself an emerging theme. Sometimes called the “Cinderella” of theology, often excluded even though beautiful, or described as being in the past more like “tinsel” placed on the tree, a decoration for the more substantive topics of theology, pneumatology is one of the more dynamic topics in contemporary theology.

Indeed, we might say that this “Cinderella” has found its way to the grand ball, no longer excluded, but indeed the invited guest who is wowing everyone with its grace and splendor. Similarly, instead of tinsel on the decorative tree, the Spirit is now seen as the sap in the living tree, providing life sustenance and growth to each various limb. Indeed, over the last several decades, the Spirit has gone from being more of a rhetorical partner in the Trinity to being a theme which helps bind together the whole of theology in newly integrated ways.

Some of these new themes are new for the West, but those in the East would suggest they have been constant themes all along, if only we read the Greek fathers and their theological descendents. Indeed, while there certainly have been Orthodox influences in Western Theology-especially in the traditions descending from Wesley, but also others-the last few years have seen a decided turn to the East, looking for more substantive discussions of newly emphasized (in the West) topics. This is especially true in the case of the topic of salvation, which has long, in the West, been dominated by a more juridical perspective on salvation, in or out, guilty or not guilty. In the East, however, salvation is not as much about legal oriented guilt as it is about corruption and death. Jesus on the cross was resurrected into victory and those who follow him participate in this new resurrected life through the power of the Spirit. This turn emphasizes salvation as theosis, not pointing to a single event but emphasizing a new orientation of transformation in the continuing power of the Holy Spirit.

In this approach, those who are empowered by the Spirit in this new life with Christ are drawn into increasing perfection, a perfection that culminates in a fkee and open relationship with the Triune God. We are, as theosis literally implies, made in gods. God became man so that man could become gods. This language is tricky, however, for those of us in the West, so attempts to describe this in a more palatable way for Western sensitivities are pursued. At the core of this, however, is the constant and pervasive work of the Holy Spirit who unites us with the energies of God so that we do not lose our identity, but indeed regain our full identity in the presence of God, living in eternal communion with his differentiated essence.

For the Orthodox, however, this emphasis on the Holy Spirit tends to be contained within the contexts of the church. And while the Western discussions of salvation also tend to be oriented towards this theosis occurring in the context of Christian community, Western discussions on the Spirit go beyond this seeming limitation to explore what seems to be the broader work of the Spirit in this world. One major area of conversation has been between pneumatology and science, indeed this may be the most popular new theme in pneumatology, as science opens the door for an exciting public theology, that can give guidance to theological considerations as well as provide theology a creative context for interacting with’ those outside the normal bounds of the church.

Pannenberg was especially noteworthy in his attempts to tie a pneumatology to a coherent understanding of science, adopting (though not uncritically) the image of the Spirit as a field of force, whose pervasive presence was involved in, with and under everything, defining life and transforming every topic into a theological consideration. Indeed, Pannenberg focused on this emphasis on science during his last productive years of scholarship, but he was not alone. Scholars from many different traditions and backgrounds have seen science as a very fertile and necessary ground for discussion about the work of the Holy Spirit, leading to all kinds of integrative proposals and developing conversations.

Another major area of focus has been in the broader ecumenical conversations, in discussions between the various churches but also, more uniquely, in the conversations about world religions. If the Spirit is understood as the Spirit of life who works pervasively and comprehensively across the cosmos, and is not limited to the context of the Christian church, then there should be some understanding of this work in the various attempts to describe God or
human spirituality across cultures.

This discussion has a very broad range of beliefs, on the one side seeing a substantive pneumatology as, essentially, suggesting these broader religions could themselves be salvific to a more conservative position of attempting to recognize the work of the Spirit in the themes and hopes, while still maintaining the Spirit always draws people to the salvation of Christ. Understanding the potential work of the Spirit in these various religions encourages theologians towards a more positive view of such religions, seeing in them what can be shared rather than what must be opposed. It also is a forum in which the priorities of the Spirit must be examined. What are the effects of the work of the Spirit if we can’t determine the Spirit by solely Christianized rhetoric?

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