INSPIRED: The Holy Spirit and the Mind of Faith. (Jack Levison): A Review
INSPIRED: The Holy Spirit and the Mind of Faith. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2013. Xiii + 246 pages.
The Holy Spirit may not get much space in the creeds, but in recent years the Spirit has drawn increasing interest within Christian communities. It’s not only Pentecostals who want a stake in the conversation – many others do as well. Conversations about the Holy Spirit often center on matters of experience – spiritual experiences that sometimes move into the arena of spiritual ecstasy. While some Christians welcome intense ecstatic experiences of the divine, others who prize order and rationality can find such experiences can be off-putting and even frightening. As a result a divide has emerged with partisans on both sides claiming to have the superior vision of the Christian faith.
As an ordained minister within a Mainline Protestant denomination that prizes rationality and who has a Pentecostal background, I am deeply interested in this conversation and concerned about the gap that exists between communities. In my own book, Unfettered Spirit: Spiritual Gifts for the New Great Awakening, I have attempted to make sense of my own journey into both of these communities. Although my journey is different in many ways from that of Jack Levison, a professor of New Testament at Seattle Pacific University, his book – Inspired – also seeks to build a bridge between those who prize ecstasy and those who prize rationality.
In this book, Levison attempts to lay the foundation for a new and more fruitful pneumatology – doctrine of the Spirit – one that can bridge both sides of the equation. He does this methodically – bringing in biblical exegesis and extra-biblical sources, both Jewish and Greco-Roman. He explores in some depth the differing understandings of ecstasy that emerge within Jewish and Greco-Roman societies, recognizing that the spiritual experiences and understandings that emerge in the New Testament writings have been influenced by both of these streams. While many explorations of Christian spiritual experience begin with the New Testament, especially the Book of Acts, Levison believes that it is important to begin with the Old Testament. He notes the traditional view that the Spirit essentially disappears during the inter-testamental period, and appearing in a major way with Jesus and then at Pentecost. He makes it clear – exegetically – that the writers of the Old Testament had a robust view of the Spirit, but that vision did not tend toward emphasizing ecstasy. Greco-Roman writings, especially those related to the Delphic Oracles, did emphasize ecstasy – that is spiritual possession where the one possessed lost control of their faculties. This is rarely true in the Old Testament. When he arrives at the New Testament he acknowledges that some of the Greco-Roman vision is present – ecstasy is more prominent – dreams and vision and prophetic words, along with speaking in tongues – he wants us to recognize as well that even if these experiences are allowed to exist, they are always accompanied by a focus on comprehensibility. Consider that Paul allows tongues, but also requires that public use of this gift must be accompanied by an interpretation.
This deep biblical and historical investigation is not merely an academic exercise. As we learn in the course of the discussion, Levison has a bold commitment to contemporary Christian life. He wants to engage not only the academic world, but religious leaders in a way that can open up new avenues of conversation that can benefit a church in danger of splitting apart. He reminds us that in an age when Mainline Protestant Churches, which often prize education and study, are in decline, while Pentecostal/Charismatic groups are on the rise in the Global South. If we don’t find some common ground we could see the development of another major schism within the Christian community.
This isn’t the first contribution that Levison has made to this topic. He suggests that Inspired fits somewhere between two earlier books – one written for scholars focusing on biblical exegesis (Filled with the Spirit, Eerdmans, 2009) and another written for a more general audience -- Fresh Air: The Holy Spirit for an Inspired Life (Paraclete, 2012). He notes that Inspired is more topical than Filled with the Spirit. I must confess to not having read either of the earlier books, so this is my first encounter with his vision of the Spirit.
The focus here is on the relationship of ecstasy with virtue and learning. Levison notes that this book “contains dense thickets of exegesis, accompanied by a clear agenda.” While he doesn’t discount ecstasy, seeks to put it in its place. Christian faith should not be dry and lifeless, but it should lead to understanding and virtue. He is dismayed by stories of persons who disconnect the two, or who believe that somehow study and learning distracts from spiritual experience. He is committed to the premise that while ecstasy or spiritual experience is part of the Christian life, so is learning, and he seeks to keep them together.
The key to his vision is his starting point. In contrast to those, like many Pentecostals, who start with Acts 2 and move from it to a doctrine of Spirit-baptism as a subsequent experience, Levison reminds us that the Hebrew word ruach, like it’s Greek counterpart, pneuma, can be translated as spirit, but it also has the meanings of breath and wind. With this in mind, he begins with the second creation story in Genesis 2. He notes that in the creation of the first human, after God forms the body of the man, God breathes life into the man. The word used here for breathing is ruach. Levison believes that we can interpret this to mean that God essentially gives spirit along with breath to the man, thus ruach could be translated as “spirit-breath.” If so, this means that every human is endowed with the spirit/Spirit from the beginning of life. Thus, no one is barren of that Spirit, including persons outside the faith. This of course has significant implications for interfaith relationships. We must not assume that people of other faiths are without the spirit/Spirit. I should note that for the most part Levison doesn’t capitalize the words holy or spirit, reminding us that in these texts there is a fluidity of meaning and translation.
In the first two chapters, as he reclaims this Old Testament/Jewish heritage, he suggests that by and large, ecstasy is not part of the equation. The Greco-Roman world, on the other hand, did emphasize ecstasy, as with the Delphic Oracle, whose ecstatic experiences are without any comprehensibility. In the New Testament there is more room provided for ecstasy, but rarely if ever is this ecstatic experience embraced without n corresponding concern for comprehensibility. In the third chapter – which is nearly sixty pages in length – Levison gets to the heart of the matter – the role of the Spirit in the interpretation of Scripture. He begins by looking at ways in which scripture is understood and interpreted beginning with Ezra and moving through early Judaism, including Qumran, Philo, and Josephus – and then through the New Testament. He notes, for instance, that Paul interprets Torah in ways that seem idiosyncratic, ways that we would likely reject as playing loose with the text, and yet Paul does so assuming inspiration. Levison suggests that what Paul is doing is reading the texts deeply, in light of Christ. Levison writes that both charisma and study were “indispensable to the teachers of the early Church, among whom Paul counted himself.” That is, teachers “were, among other things, the inspired interpreters of scripture” (p. 170). There is novelty in Paul’s readings, but in his mind he was inspired to see the deeper, often allegorical, meaning of the text. And for Paul this inspired teaching is the correct interpretation.
When we reach the concluding section of the book, Levison is ready to lay out his “agenda for the future of pneumatology.” It is a pneumatology of Creation, one in which the starting point is not a subsequent experience of the Spirit as one sees in Acts, but an endowment with spirit/Spirit at the beginning of life. In his conclusion he engages a number of theological positions, including Barth, Rahner, Moltmann, and Pannenberg. His vision is closest to the latter two, for both of these theologians there is “no facile distinction between breath and spirit, or spirit and Spirit, even when Spirit is set in the context of the Christian trinity” (p. 193). For Levison the biblical story lays out a pneumatology where the “spirit is the source of life for all, but the font of virtue, insight, understanding, and skill for some” (p. 194). All are endowed with the spirit, but the question then is – how is that spirit/Spirit nurtured and expressed. The key here is starting point, and by starting with creation, Levison is able to emphasize the universal scope of the presence of the Spirit – and thus the foundation for a Christian community that is both “highly spirited and deeply thoughtful” (p. 203).
This is the point of the book, a pneumatology that can keep ecstasy and rationality together. Inspiration and study are not mutually exclusive – Paul’s inspired interpretation of Scripture builds on his deep learning in those scriptures and the history of Jewish interpretation. The goal here is symbiosis, and it is this symbiotic relationship that can provide a fruitful future for the Christian community, which is threatened by a growing split between Pentecostal/Charismatic and more traditional, mainline/mainstream Christian communities. Levison offers his book as a starting point for building a bridge. I will be interested in seeing where this goes. In fact I hope to be part of the conversation.
This is an important book, but it’s not easy read. It’s not lengthy, but it is dense. The chapters are on average sixty pages in length. There are times, especially in the early stages, as Levison engages ecstasy, that you’re not sure of his appreciation for Pentecostalism. It is only as you continue through that you discover that he does value this contribution, but that he has concerns. I must admit that I found the book at times taxing, I was glad that I pushed through the sections that I felt were overkill. That is, I could have done with less Philo and Josephus and Plutarch, but in the end the case is built on these interpretations. Thus, it is a most useful text, but it is as the conclusion reminds us the beginning of a conversation not the final word. I look forward to seeing what comes next.