Mystical Rebirth to Life (part 1)

A couple of weeks ago I participated in a presentation on The Spirit of Life by Moltmann. This was an interesting task for me because one, this book is probably among the most significant book on the Holy Spirit in our era. Two, because I had done an overview of Spirit of Life back in 2000 (and adapted it for an Amazon review), so it was interesting to revisit it.

I didn’t present on the whole book, just four chapters in the middle of the book, pages 144-213.

Here’s what I had to say, in easily digestible chunks.

God works so that what was broken can be restored to wholeness, to whole life. That is the hope we have in and with God, that is the work of the Holy Spirit in moving us past the place of injustice and brokenness into a more fully realized existence. There are two perspectives worth considering in this work of the Spirit. These are the focus of chapter seven of Spirit of Life. Moltmann enquires about “the human experience of the Spirit and about the divine experience of the Spirit in this human experience of the self” (144ff).\

This idea of regeneration is important not only to keep the theological discussion going beyond a settled moment of apparent completion, but because the Scriptures themselves point to the idea of regeneration as part an absolutely key part of the mission of Jesus. He died, and in that death took on suffering, but his suffering and death was not the end. We do not have hope simply because Jesus knew what it was like to suffer our suffering, share our death cries, mourn over the injustices and loss. We have hope because in Jesus we do not only share suffering, but we see that there is more than suffering. Our suffering is not the end. Jesus was resurrected. On the other side of the cross there is life, and this restorative life is the continuing work of the Triune God. The Holy Spirit who was the source of Christ’s birth, was the vivifying power of life in the tomb.

Moltmann writes, “The medium of regeneration is the Holy Spirit, which is ‘richly’ poured out.” To understand Moltmann’s contribution here it is important to briefly consider what has been meant by the idea of Spirit in previous scholarship. While we might find agreement and see continuity between such statements and earlier statements about the Spirit in the work of human progress, the very word Spirit is not used the same way in every context. In the context of German Idealism, which formed the philosophical milieu of German scholarship, the idea of Spirit was not inferring the third person of the Trinity, but rather more of a generalized human potentiality. It is, essentially, a very positive perspective on the topic of human moral progression. The idea of the spirit is the figure of this idealist goal (see pg. 6 for Barth’s response). Moltmann is not arguing for an idealist perspective on the Spirit, with its very positive sense of humanity’s self-movement to a higher plane of existence. This idea became untenable after WWI, and entirely indefensible after the concentration camps of WW2.

Moltmann, as he always does, strongly asserts the active work of God, reaching out to a broken, death-oriented humanity. In his very brief consideration of the Scriptural discussions of rebirth, he concludes that new birth is a work of new creation that is “christologically based, pneumatologically accomplished and eschatologically oriented. The Spirit is the medium of these elements who makes the risen Christ present, and with this the experience of “the presence of eternity.” Regeneration, for Moltmann, is not then simply a moral progression or ecclesial activity. Rather, “regeneration means emerging from this mortal and transient life into life that is immortal and eternal” (147) In the power of the Spirit we enter into the eternal reality of Christ’s resurrection that is both a future and present promise to us in the midst of our own experiences. This eternal experience includes the eternal love of God that has been poured into our hearts ‘through the Holy Spirit” (148).

This is a progression, but one that derives from the work of God for us and with us, rather than our own self-propelled progression, enabled by reason, towards some ideal. The idea of the Spirit is not an internalized Pietism nor is it an over-optimistic anthropology dressed in spiritualized language. Towards the end of his life, Karl Barth suggested that pneumatology was the next, needed step for fruitful theological consideration. But, Barth worried that future scholars would seem to move on to the third article but never really move past the topic of humanity. “As if,” writes Barth, “pneumatology were anthropology!” Moltmann, a well-informed Theban, moves towards developing an understanding of the Holy Spirit without devolving the discussion towards anthropology. He gives the work of resurrection its “due weight” and seeks after a more holistic perspective on God’s being and work in this world (149).

Barth started the turn away from idealism in making the significant move of pushing theology out of prioritizing anthropology (150) through his magisterial considerations on the work of Christ. Moltmann presses on in this move, emphasizing Christ but not limiting the work of God to the work of Christ. “Life in the Spirit,” he writes, “is not absorbed by, or completely congruent with, the mere knowledge and acknowledgment of Christ.” (151) A perspective that only looks at the cross leaves out the continuing reality of eschatology and in doing that does not progress to a fully Triune perspective.

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