Friday, September 02, 2011

Who is the Holy Spirit? A Review


WHO IS THE HOLY SPIRIT?  A Walk with the Apostles.   A Paraclete Guide.  Brewster, MA:  Paraclete Press, 2011.  Xiv + 221 pages.

                 “Who is the Holy Spirit?”  That is essentially the question the “disciples” in Ephesus asked of Paul when he asked whether they had received the Holy Spirit when they had become believers (Acts. 19:2).  It is a question that Christians have wrestled with through the ages, but answers have proven elusive.  Once can look at the attention given the Spirit prior to the fourth century to see that by and large the Holy Spirit was little more than an add on to debates over the divinity of Christ – except perhaps in heterodox communities such as the Montanists.    The question begins with identity – is the Spirit an it, a he, or a she?   The Greek word for the Spirit, pneuma, is a neuter, but surely the Spirit is not an it (a thing).  The Hebrew, Hebrew ruach is feminine, but is this usage definitive of the nature of the Spirit or just a fact of the language?  For Trinitarians Father and Son have tangible identities, even if rather male, but even if the Spirit is defined in feminine terms, the idea of Spirit seems ephemeral. 

Although there was some important theological work done in the fourth century with regard to the Spirit (Basil of Caesarea), and then there was the filioque controversy, but that had more to do with the Son than the Spirit, the Holy Spirit really didn’t receive much attention until the 20th century, when the rise of Pentecostalism forced consideration of the Spirit upon the Christian world.  No wonder that early Pentecostals saw the Pentecostal revivals as expressions of Joel’s latter rain (Joel 2:28ff).   Today this conversation has broadened, so that the Spirit is receiving attention from all across the theological spectrum. 

As Pentecostals raised the issue for modern Christians, it is helpful to hear a distinguished Pentecostal theologian speak to this question – “who is the Holy Spirit?”  In this particular book, which forms part of a series of guidebooks published by Paraclete that deal with issues such as this, Amos Yong, a Boston University educated theologian, who teaches at Regent University’s Divinity School, takes up the question.   I should note that Regent University was founded by TV evangelist Pat Robertson, but while Yong is certainly a Pentecostal I found no evidence that he embraces Robertson’s political agendas.  In fact, I would say that this is a book that will appeal to a wide cross-section Christians, including those on the liberal side of the Christian community.    

Although not an academic treatise, this book that is written for a general audience is deeply rooted in solid scholarship. Yong admits that he’s a theologian and not a biblical scholar, but he deftly handles the Lukan texts (Gospel and Acts) that provide the foundation for his response to the question:  “Who is the Holy Spirit?”   The book is organized around Acts 1:8, in which we hear Jesus commission his disciples to be his witnesses to the world, once the Spirit comes upon them.  Beginning in Jerusalem, and then continuing outward to Judea and Samaria, and then to the ends of the Earth, the message of the Kingdom will go forth, carried by those whom the Spirit empowers.   According to Yong, this verse does not speak of a “generic witness” to Jesus, but has a clear destination in mind – the center of the Empire – Rome.   Thus, “ not only does the Spirit empower the disciples’ witness to the kingdom teachings and realities of Jesus, but the Spirit does so in order to establish the kingdom amid the present imperial rule of Caesar and his regional governments” (p. 5).  The message inherent in this commission is “subversive of the empires of this world” (p. 6).

With the expansion of the kingdom of God in the world in view, a movement of the reign of God that undermines human empires, the book is broken into thirty-nine chapters that are organized into eight parts.  These eight sections lead the reader outward from Jerusalem to the ends of the Earth.  By alternating chapters that look at the Gospel of Luke with those that look at Acts, Yong is able to connect the ongoing ministry of the church to the ministry of Jesus.  That is, the work of the church is rooted in the ministry of Jesus.  For Luke, the key is the restoration of the kingdom, and this is linked to the work of the Holy Spirit.  It is a work of the Spirit that begins with Jesus and then extends to his followers.   This work of the Spirit not only has spiritual or religious implications, but social, economic, and political implications as well.

This purpose of God is made clear in the Pentecost story, where, according to Yong, the covenant promises of Israel are restored through the “constituting of a new people of God.”  This new people of God that is emerging does not replace the Jewish people (supersessionism), but rather it includes both Jews and Gentiles.  As this new people of God is constructed it comes with new social structures and relationships, which brings with it the empowerment of both men and women, and equalizes the relationship of slave and free.  Thus, it overturns the social status quo.  The manner in which this new people of God will be called together is revealed in Peter’s sermon on Pentecost and its aftermath.  When asked what they should do in order to be saved, and thus included in this new people of God, Peter declares that the way forward requires repentance and baptism, which brings to the persons forgiveness and the gift of the Holy Spirit.  It is a message that goes back to the preaching of John the Baptist (Luke 3).   This will be the foundation of a message that will continue to be developed as the gospel moves outward to include Samaritans and eventually Gentiles.  It will embrace a new way of living together where the needs of others are met, through the sharing of one’s lives and possessions with the others.  It is a message that calls into question both the stifling Communist regimes and the “greed, consumerism, and militarism that characterizes much of life amid today’s neoliberal market economy” (p. 31). 

As one might expect, as a Pentecostal, Yong deals with the issue of healing, which he finds present both in the ministry of Jesus and the church that emerges afterward.  But it’s not just a matter of healing individual bodies, but a message of wholeness that enables the person afflicted to be reintegrated into the community – consider Jesus’ healings of those whose disabilities kept them outside the Temple.  Although he sees medicine as part of God’s means of healing, while allowing for God to bring healing outside the conventional means of medicine, he sees in this message of healing a political/economic statement.   He notes that “our health-care systems in this world are interwoven with complicated economic and political structures (e.g., as manifest in the congressional debates regarding health insurance)” (p. 41).  The implication of the kingdom message is that we must work toward making medicine accessible to as many people as possible.

The outward movement of the Spirit, which begins in Jerusalem, continues to work its way, through the ministry of Paul toward Jerusalem.  As it does it brings Gentiles into this new work of God, which is designed to bring into existence God’s realm.  It is an inclusive movement that brings in the disabled (the Ethiopian Eunuch), the outcast (the Samaritan), and the one far from the kingdom (the Gentile).  It is a movement that calls for repentance, so that those who hear and respond can be drawn out of the system of the world.  But, the story of Cornelius, in which the Spirit prepares Cornelius for Peter’s visit, reminds us that God is not dependent on missionaries. 

As the kingdom movement moves beyond Jewish and even Samaritan regions it encounters other religious traditions and philosophies.  We see this in Ephesus where Paul encounters the worshipers of Artemis and in Athens where he debates philosophers.  In his examination of these encounters, Yong, the Pentecostal/evangelical scholar, notes that Paul engaged other faith traditions with deep respect.  Yes, there are power encounters with demonic forces, but that is something different from religious faith groups.  Where these encounters occur they do so because the people are being held captive by systemic forces, including economic ones, that are oppressive.  Thus, the problem with the Ephesian situation is that the worship of Artemis has gotten entangled in the economic/political realities.  Yong notes that Paul didn’t engage in evangelistic efforts there that disrespected the Ephesian religion – that is, Paul’s focus was positive – on the gospel – not on the negative, tearing down the Ephesian religious tradition.  Thus, the disturbances that broke out there resulted from the fact that the conversions to Christianity disrupted the religious economy.  Something similar occurred as Jesus cleared the Temple in Jerusalem.  Yong is very perceptive about the interfaith relationship, even if he is committed to sharing a conversionary faith with people of other faiths.  Returning to the economics of religion, Yong asks whether or not Christian faith itself has been even more “compromised by the capitalist system than was the cult of Artemis or the Jewish temple economy of the first century?"  (p. 169). 

There is much to commend about this well written and readable guide to the Lukan understanding of the Holy Spirit.  It embraces political, economic, and interreligious issues.  It suggests that the purpose of the messianic movement that begins with Jesus and continues on in the ministry of the church, which goes forth into the world empowered by the same Spirit who is present in Jesus, is the renewal of Israel.  But this envisioned renewal is broad enough that includes not only Jews, but Gentiles as well.  In fact, it includes the disabled and women as well as men.  It is an expansion of the kingdom that seeks to overcome the barriers that separate people.   As it turns our focus to the contemporary situation, for Yong is not content to leave us in the first century, he finds, rightly so, in the very open-endedness of the book of Acts a word for today.  The fact that the  Book of Acts ends in chapter 28 with Paul still alive in Rome “suggests that the work of the Holy Spirit begun in the life of Jesus and among the early church continues to the present” (p. 189).  Thus, the power of the Spirit available then remains present today.  That is, of course, the chief claim of Pentecostalism.  The Spirit is still working! 

I recommend this book highly to anyone who wishes to understand the movement of the Spirit today.   The study guide found at the end of the book makes will make this an excellent resource for groups wishing to explore the work of the Spirit in the modern world.  And don’t let his employer deter you from taking up this book!

The review copy of this book was provided by Paraclete Press. 

2 comments:

Rev. Steven F. Kindle said...

So, who is the Holy Spirit? It seems to me that this book should be titled "What Is the Work of the Holy Spirit?", as it shed no light (in as far as your review is comprehensive) as to the Who.

Mark Brussen said...

Holy Spirit is one of the three distinct persons of God, along with God the Father and God the Son. The Holy Spirit, often referred to as the Holy Ghost, is an ethereal spiritual force that empowers those who seek the Lord. Thanks a lot.
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