Spirit of Love (Amos Yong) -- Review

SPIRIT OF LOVE: A Trinitarian Theology of Grace. By Amos Yong.  Waco, TX:  Baylor University Press, 2012.  Xviii +228 pages.

                The Holy Spirit didn’t go into hiding at the end of the First Century CE and then suddenly reappear at the beginning of the Twentieth Century, but the Azusa Street Revival of 1906, which gave birth to modern Pentecostalism, did bring the Holy Spirit back into the church’s conversation in ways that would transform the church as we know it.  During my late adolescence and early adulthood (through college), I actively participated in Pentecostal/Charismatic Churches.  I embraced the movement’s message of the empowerment of the Spirit, and found strength for my journey as a result.  In the course of time, I found myself further out on the margins of Pentecostalism and eventually ended up in a movement that embraced rationalism over spiritual experience.  I made the move in large part because I felt the need for a more intellectually focused faith, which I found among the Disciples.  This being true, the Spirit’s hold me never really was broken.  I may have moved out of Pentecostal circles, but the Pentecostal spirit remained within me.

                My difficulty over the years has been finding a way to integrate the two components (leaving aside my Episcopal foundations for the moment) in a way that is compelling and transformative.  I’ve read a lot of books on the Holy Spirit and spiritual gifts  -- I’m finishing up my own book on the subject – but it was in the reading of this book, Spirit of Love, by Amos Yong, that I found a compelling reason to truly reclaim this part of my own spiritual identity.  The book is written with academics in mind, which appealed to that side of me, but more importantly it uncovered elements of the Pentecostal embrace of the Spirit that spoke directly to me.

                Amos Yong is an interesting person – I’ve had the opportunity to spend quality time with him in recent months.  I’ve come to know his heart and his spirit, so I come to the book with a different sensibility than I did when I read and reviewed his book Who Is the Holy Spirit?: A Walk with the Apostles (A Paraclete Guide), (Paraclete, 2011).  Amos Yong is a dedicated theologian and student of theology.  He is committed to the church and its transformation.  He’s a Pentecostal teaching at a Pentecostal/Charismatic divinity school.  He has engaged in important conversations on the relationship of religion and science, disabilities and the church, and interfaith dialogue – especially with Buddhism.  It is this breadth of interests and experiences that have helped form his understanding of the role of the Holy Spirit in the world, in the church, and in one’s life.  Perhaps this is why this book speaks so directly to me.

                So what is the point of Spirit of Love?  Without abandoning the idea that the Spirit of God is power, Yong wants to broaden our understanding so that we can see the Spirit of God being love.  He notes in his preface that he has made two discoveries.  First, while the Pentecostal tradition has placed a strong emphasis on power, there are important expressions in Pentecostal experience, especially in its formative stages, of references to love.  Second, there are important resources within Pentecostal experience and reflection to love that can contribute to the discussion concerning godly love.  This, then, is his thesis:  “Pentecostal understandings of the Spirit of God can shed new light on God as love and loving, and on what it means for creation as a whole and for human beings in particular to receive the love of God who gives graciously” (p. x). 

                If God is Spirit and the Spirit is God’s presence in the world, and the Spirit can be defined in part as love, we need a definition of love.  Yong’s definition is similar to that laid out by Thomas Oord, which I have found very helpful.  Yong’s definition is “the affective disposition toward and intentional activity that benefits others” (p. xi).  The book then is an exploration of what this means. 

                Spirit of Love is divided into three parts.  Part one, “God is Love,” seeks to lay out a theology of love in conversation with scientific explorations of love.   This section explores the topics of the Spirit and love by laying out theological understandings of love, including those espoused by Augustine, Aquinas, and Paul Tillich.  From there he moves to science and discussions of altruism.   This section concludes with a conversation about the role of love in Pentecostal theology and practice.  Here, in chapter three, Yong develops his view that while Pentecostalism has emphasized power, there is a strong tradition of emphasis on acts of godly love.  The Spirit is Divine love and by experiencing this Divine Love, persons are transformed.  Prayer and worship express a desire for God, which leads to acts of empowered witness and actions.  In essence, love is the true evidence of the Spirit’s presence in one’s life and in the community.   

                Part II of the book is entitled “God is Spirit,” and it’s hear that Yong dives into the resources presented by Pentecostalism.  He notes that the Holiness/Pentecostal tradition spoke of the Baptism of the Spirit as a Baptism in Divine Love, and this understanding was seen with clear expression at the Azusa Street Mission in Los Angeles, with its interracial focus and the work done there to bridge across class and ethnic lines.  This may not have endured in many places, but in its origins the revival broke through significant barriers in the American experience.  In addition there was a strong embrace of pacifism in some parts of the Holiness-inspired v versions of the Pentecostal movement.  I found it intriguing that the movements that followed after William Durham’s “Finished Work of Christ” theology – Assemblies of God, Foursquare, were the most likely to abandon racial/ethnic harmony and pacifism.  Yong goes into great detail in laying out the various theological expressions of Pentecostal understandings of the Spirit and love, which should be attended to by readers.  He also looks closely at how the Lukan narrative (Gospel and Acts) provides an important resource for a theology of love, even if the word love is not present in Acts. 

                In Part III of the book, entitled “God is Spirit, God is Love,” Yong brings the conversation to a close.  He does so with a chapter on the Pauline “pneumatology of love.”  Of course he looks at 1 Corinthians 13, but he also looks at the way in which the gifts of the Spirit (chapters 12, 14) are expressions of this love.  In Romans 8, there is also the discussion of God’s unconquerable love, where the Spirit is implicit in the conversation.  Then there’s Romans 13, where the reader is instructed to owe no one anything except love.  His conclusion is that “the gift of the Spirit is the gift of God and of divine love, one that brings with it the many charisms that enable human beings to live in love amide the suffering, challenges, and tools of the present age.  The Spirit gives God’s love to our spirits, and in that way, freely dispenses the redemptive power for the coming age so that followers of Jesus can build on another up in love” (p. 128).  The Pauline pneumatology is followed by a Johannine one where the emphasis is on abiding in the Spirit, which leads to love of neighbor as the criterion for one’s relationship with God.  Although there is a concern for in-group love, that is in places dualistic, the Spirit is seen as being able to empower love for those outside the group.        
            Chapter nine brings Part III to a close, but also provides an important summation of Yong’s position in nine theses organized around three points.  These focus on an anthropology of love (how is love embodied?), a pneumatology of love (Spirit of love present in creation, incarnation, and at Pentecost), and a missiology of love (a movement toward the reconciliation of all things).  

A word needs to be spoken about the book’s s subtitle, “a Trinitarian Theology of Grace.”  Although the focus of the book is on pneumatology – the theology of the Spirit – Yong wants to make sure that this pneumatology is deeply rooted in Trinitarian theology.  It is also a theology of Grace, God’s bountiful provision that leads ultimately to the reconciliation of all things.  These themes are more implicit than explicit in the course of the book, but they provide the important threads that hold this together. 

Written with an academic audience in mind, I believe that this book can have a wider audience beyond the academy or seminary trained clergy.  His earlier book Who is the Holy Spirit? is written with the general audience in mind, so that might be a good place to start, but there are great riches present in this book that can be mined to the benefit of the church and its mission in the world. We are blessed with this expression of a mature Pentecostal theology, that brings together understandings of power and love that is transformative.  It also helps us see that Pentecostalism is more than what we often see in mega-churches and from TV evangelists.   This is a book to engage with an open mind and heart.  Read and be blessed, and perhaps you will also reclaim that inner Pentecostal as I did in the course of my reading of the book.         


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