Pneumatology and eschatology

T David Beck’s thesis in his book, The Holy Spirit and the Renewal of all Things: pneumatology in Paul and Jurgen Moltmann, is that much Western theology has failed to do justice to the comprehensive and central place of pneumatology in the New Testament.

I tend to agree.

If one response has been the ‘institutional tendency’ (e.g. Barth) driven by Christology and ecclesiology and an ‘experiential tendency’ in response (e.g. Wesley), Beck argues both don’t adequately capture the NT’s framework itself.

NT pneumatology is not driven, he contends, primarily by Christology, ecclesiology or experience, but by eschatology. All NT reflection on the Spirit operates within an eschatological framework.

But what does this mean?

He goes for an inaugurated eschatology of the ‘already’ and ‘not yet’ most identified with G. E. Ladd.

He doesn’t critique Ladd (and there is room for critique), but the main problem he wants to highlight is how within much systematic theology, eschatology is often reduced to study of the future: topics like the parousia, resurrection, judgement, heaven and hell etc. All things that are yet to happen.

But this, Beck says, fails to grapple with the overlap of the ages so predominant in Paul and elsewhere in the NT.

Yes there will be future consummation of God’s kingdom rule, but this rule has already begun. If the present age is the eschatological age ‘broken into the present’, then eschatology is ‘here and now’ and not just future events yet to unfold.

Systematic theology’s tendency to kick eschatology down the line has, for Beck, several unfortunate consequences:

1. A distance and alienation from the strong sense of climatic fulfillment within the NT. A Christian faith lacking a strong sense of how God’s promises have been fulfilled in Jesus, is one detached from the joyful tone of most of the NT.

2. The NT’s strong continuity between promise, fulfillment and consummation disappears.  For example, while Christians may hope for resurrection to come, it tends not to be seen as a natural extension of the blessing of new life already given in the here and now.

3. Eschatology is often relegated to a sort of appendix of the Christian faith. It gets relegated to obscure debates about times and dates of Christ’s return etc

4. When eschatology is marginalised, an anemic pneumatology tends to follow. This is seen in Western theology’s subordinationistic view of the Spirit. ‘This age’ is seen as the waiting time between the two appearances of Christ (what Beck calls ‘the rickety bridge between two strong towers’), rather than an age of the promised Spirit who has been poured out for many.

Rather, Beck rightly argues, pneumatology and eschatology are inseparable: the ministry of the Spirit is evidence of fulfilled OT  promises in the experience and writings of NT believers and as tangible anticipation of the future work of the Spirit in the consummation of God’s kingdom.

To earth this a bit, some questions:

If you are a Christian, how much do you understand yourself already to belong to God’s new age; as already having new life through the Spirit?

How does this give you joy, assurance and hope, even in the midst of struggles with doubt, disappointment, mundane work, tiredness and weakness?


Wesley and the experiential Spirit

The other end of the spectrum within Western pneumatology to the institutional tendency is what T. David Beck calls the ‘experiential tendency’.

If Barth is an example of the former, John Wesley is an example of the latter. His conflict with the Anglican Church of the day revolved to a large degree around his view of the Spirit in the Christian life. Wesley was charged with being an ‘enthusiast’ (a bad thing to be obviously).

Wesley’s influence has been every bit as significant as Barth’s. His holiness theology was one of the inspirations for the rise of the modern Pentecostal movement, now the largest and most dynamic sector of global Christianity.

If justification is what God does for the believer in and through his Son, sanctification is what God works in the believer by his Spirit.

If the Christian life is a battle between ‘flesh’ and ‘Spirit’, the Spirit can win the struggle. The believer can therefore reach a state of ‘perfection’ – which in Wesley’s terms means loving God with all of our hearts, mind, soul and strength. In this state of perfection, or entire sanctification, there is no room left to commit wilful sin.

Wesley emphasised unique functions of the Spirit. One was assurance through the inner witness of the Spirit. Another was an experience of the depth of God’s love for the individual believer. He talked about a ‘sweet calm’ satisfaction of knowing God’s grace.

The indirect sign of the Spirit’s transforming presence is the fruit of the Spirit – affections like joy and peace and love.

The big point here is the experiential role of the Spirit in transformation – whether assurance of being a child of God; overcoming deliberate sin; or seeing his fruit as a visible witness of his presence.

Wesley never stopped insisting on the perceptibility of the work of the Spirit in the day to day of the Christian life. It is this experience of the Spirit that is the key to preventing Christianity from sliding into formalism and institutionalism.

In other words, this is a theology of encounter with the Spirit. The Spirit’s work is distinct from, and complementary to, that of the Father and Son.

There are great strengths in this form of pneumatology:

– a stress of personal experience of God in and through the Spirit

– a Trinitarian framework, but one in which the Spirit has distinct agency and ministry

– a passion for holiness and personal transformation

A quick read of the previous post gives a sharp reminder of how different Wesley is from Barth.

Beck points to weaknesses in Wesley’s pneumatology:

– The Spirit’s work is too closely focused on the individual believer with the subsequent danger of individualism

– The Spirit’s ministry is therefore tied too tightly to the present time – with little reference to the OT and to eschatological hope.

– And if Barth is overly Christocentric, Wesley could be charged with being overly ‘pneumacentric’ (to make a word up). And it’s no surprise to see this tendency emerge in some forms of Pentecostalism, where there is a search for spiritual experiences of the power of God as a key to revival.

Beck’s overall argument is that neither ‘bipolarity’ of Barth or Wesley is adequate to do justice to the NT witness of the Spirit. I’ll try to summarise his path between them in the next post.

Comments, as ever, welcome.











Barth and the forgotten person of the Trinity

Been doing a bit of reading and research over the last while related to the Spirit and Paul including The Holy Spirit and the Renewal of All Things: pneumatology in Paul and Jurgen Moltmann by T. David Beck.

Beck starts with a bang: consistent with the Filoque clause in the Nicene Creed (the Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son),  Western Theology has struggled to develop a consistent and biblically robust theology of the Spirit.

He’s right.

He identifies two opposing tendencies: the institutional and the experiential. I’ll look at the first in this post which has been reflected in Luther, Calvin and the institutional churches of the Reformation.

The Spirit’s location is in the sacraments and in the Word. But more than this, the Spirit is tied to Christ, as an agent through whom the atonement is applied to believers. This leads to a subordinationistic tone to Western Protestant pneumatology. The Spirit’s work  is tied to ecclesiology (Word and Sacrament) and acts as a function of the church and of Christ.

Beck argues that Karl Barth’s pneumatology is a classic example of the institutional tendency. Take his doctrine of Revelation, corresponding to the Trinity: God the Revealer makes known his Word, the Revealed, to humans. The only way for them to know the Revealed is through divine revelation, the Holy Spirit, God’s Revealedness.

In Barth, the Spirit is the revelatory bridge between sinful humans and God. It is God alone who enables and empowers people to know him. Only through God is God known.

This all sounds fine does it not? What is the problem for Beck? We’ll get there.

Barth, of course, has no time for natural theology. Revelation is the event where Scripture becomes ‘the dynamic and effectual Word of God’. The Word reveals Christ. The role of the Spirit is to make this happen. The Spirit’s role is to enable believers subjectively to know God, based on the objective work of Christ.

Barth’s theology of revelation is obviously trinitarian. Yet, here is the rub for Beck. Barth’s Trinitarianism is so strongly orientated around Christology that the latter overshadows pneumatology. Yes, Barth has an indispensable role for the Spirit, but the Spirit only makes subjectively real what ‘is already objectively real in the being of Jesus Christ.’

Put it this way. For Barth, the church is NOT made the body of Christ, nor individuals become members of the body by the gift of the Spirit. Beck quotes from CD IV.1:667. The church

became his body and they became its members in the fulfillment of their eternal election on the cross of Golgotha, proclaimed in his resurrection from the dead … there can be no doubt that the work of the Holy Spirit is merely to ‘realize subjectively’ the election of Jesus Christ and his work as done and proclaimed in time, to reveal and to bring it to men and women.

So the Spirit is the one who brings to historical reality the eternal hiddenness of believers’ prior election in Christ.  Yes, the church can only exist because of the work of the Spirit. But that church, for Barth, is already the body of Christ.

The Spirit, for Barth, is ‘wholly and entirely’ to be regarded ‘as the Spirit of Christ, of the Son, of the Word of God’ (CD I.1:452.) The Spirit is the power of Christ, whose ministry is orientated around revealing Christ and uniting believers to Christ.

So Barth can say of the Spirit ‘But fundamentally and generally there is no more to say of Him that He is the power of Jesus Christ ..’ CD IV.1:648.

This leads to Barth virtually merging the work of the Spirit and the work of Christ to a point where it is difficult to see any distinct agency for the Spirit.

Barth can say that Jesus attests his own reconciliation to us by the Spirit. He calls believers by the Spirit. He can even talk of the Spirit as the arm of Christ in his self-revelation to humanity. Even that the presence and gift of the Spirit are directly Christ’s own work. Such ideas tend to depersonalize the Spirit.

There is a lot to appreciate about Barth’s Trinitarianism: Father, Son and Spirit all work in harmony and grace in revelation and reconciliation. No-one can know God but through the subjective work of the Spirit.  Rightly he stresses the intimate and inter-related work of Christ and the Spirit and how they are related to the Father.

However, if the Spirit is functionally identified with Christ, the result is a pneumatology submerged within Christology. Another word for this is subordination.

As Beck puts it, the Spirit ‘tends to evaporate as the third person of the Trinity, appearing instead as a thin veneer of Christ’ (7).

Comments, as ever, welcome.


Theology first, always

In our wee church we close the Sunday service each week by saying ‘the benediction’ to each other – not an eyes closed prayer by someone for everyone else, but an eyes-open head-turning blessing/prayer to one another within the community. ‘The benediction’ in question is Paul’s closing prayer for that most vexing group of Christians in Corinth, recorded in 2 Corinthians 13:14:

‘May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, be with you all.’

The closer you look at this verse, the deeper it gets. What’s fascinating with so much NT theology is its ad hoc assumed nature that oozes out all over the place and this verse does a lot of oozing. What seems a nice closing blessed thought actually unveils much about Paul’s priorities for believers, the shape of his soteriology and his understanding of the identity of God himself.

1. ‘The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ’:

Speaks of the immeasurable self-giving of the crucified Messiah of Israel. The good news is Christological – the historical Jesus of Nazareth is the promised Messiah and victorious risen living Lord who has defeated death and sin (1 Cor 15:56-7). His grace is given on behalf of those who follow him as Lord. This grace is a present experienced reality, not a historical highlight, which brings the Christian into an undeserved and unimaginably blessed new status of peace with God (Rom 5:1-2).

2. ‘the love of God’:

The origin, foundation or beginning point of Paul’s soteriology is the character of God. It is God who loves extravagantly and at great cost. He loves us first, before we love him. It is his love that lies behind the great biblical story of redemption and climaxes in the phrase that ‘But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us’ (Rom 5:8). It is in love he adopts us as children through his Son (Eph 1:4-5).

3. ‘and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit’

God’s self-giving continues with the gift of his Spirit to believers. It is the Spirit who brings soteriological life. Those in Christ are a new creation, the old has gone, the new has come (2 Cor 5:17). The Spirit empowers that new life and produces his fruit of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. The Spirit pours God’s love into believers’ hearts (Rom 5:5) – a remarkable image of deep relationship with the living God. It is in the Spirit that believers are united into the body of Christ (1 Cor 12). This is a fellowship of mutuality and service; the body of Christ / the temple of the Holy Spirit is where God dwells among his people. The gift of the Spirit gives eschatological joy and hope even in the midst of suffering and hardship since the future is already here in the present.

The Identity of God

One of the joys I have at IBI is to teach a course in both Christology and pneumatology (at least I enjoy teaching them, hope students do too!). This verse is by no means an isolated route into both Paul’s Christology and pneumatology and therefore his ‘theology proper’ – the nature of God himself.

The picture in the NT is of a radical shift or development in ‘pure theology’ (who God is) that revolves around both Christ and the Spirit. Paul’s prayer in 1 Cor 13:13 captures the way that Son, Father and Spirit are united in perfect harmony of activity and relationship. This is not worked out ontologically (that would come later in church history), but it is just one example among many of how the three ‘persons’ each have a complementary and intertwining role in salvation (what has been called ‘soteriological trinitarianism’). In this verse God, Father, Son and Spirit, are experienced as a triune reality. Salvation is the work of the one God (monotheism is maintained), effected by the distinct and cooperative ministry of Father, Son and Spirit.

You see this triunity in how the Spirit is the ‘Spirit of God’ (eg 1 Cor 2:10-12), and yet also the ‘Spirit of Christ’ (eg; Gal 4:4-6; Phil 1:19 etc). Jesus does not somehow ‘displace’ God, but shares in his function and role of ‘sending’ the Spirit (Acts 2 and elsewhere).

OK, how does this connect back to a church service with 60 people in an Irish secondary school double Maths classroom?

It’s a reminder of how profoundly and consistently Paul’s theology shapes his pastoral ministry and ours needs to do the same.

There is much written about the church; its failures and continual need for reform in a post-Christendom wilderness. And sure there is lots to write about.

But it seems to me that we need to be thoroughly Pauline in seeking reform. Heck, he faced power struggles, resistance to his leadership, incest, pride, prostitution, heresy, super-spirituality, judgementalism, and division – that all just in Corinth.

But he begins and ends in theology – in what is true in light of the gospel – and then moves on from that foundation to address the issues.

It can be easy to see the faults of a local church and especially a denominational institution. It can be easy to lapse into pragmatic ‘solutions’.

But it is into the reality of an imperfect and often weak church that we need to be praying and reminding each other of deep, true, rich, life-affirming good news: good news that Christians know the presence of the triune God, the community of self-giving love that is the Father, Son and Spirit. Good news of God’s saving grace in Christ; good news that the church is not just a random association of individuals but a fellowship where God’s very Spirit dwells.

Theology first. Always.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

‘A slippery customer, the Holy Spirit’

“A slippery customer, the Holy Spirit”, so remarked someone in (a very interesting) conversation the other day.

I suspect what he meant by this was that there is a lot of uncertainty and confusion, not to to say disagreement, over what is, or should be, the ‘normal’ experience of the Spirit in a Christian’s life. By ‘normal’ I mean the type of Christian life described in the NT.

For much of the past century, disagreement has tended to centre on those who hold to some form of two-stage experience of the Spirit (primary reception of the Spirit at conversion, followed by some sort of deeper or higher or second-level experience of the Spirit subsequent to conversion). Two-stagers most famously include classic Pentecostal pneumatology around ‘baptism in the Spirit’, but also forms of Wesleyan and ‘higher life’ holiness theologies. J I Packer’s landmark Keep in Step with the Spirit engaged in depth with these sorts of debates in the 1970s from a Reformed viewpoint.

Maybe I’m wrong, but my sense is that the discussion around ‘two-stage’ reception of the Spirit has lost momentum.  Yes, scholars like R P Menzies have produced robust defences of Pentecostal normative two-stage Spirit reception. But increasingly I get the sense that even within classic Pentecostal denominations and churches that there is a softening / moving beyond older set positions.

A number of factors may be in play here. One might be the increasing diversity of a post-denominational age where strong identity markers (like speaking in tongues and baptism in the Spirit) are just not so important any more.

But perhaps there is increasing scholarly consensus that the exegetical basis of a classic Pentecostal two-stage Spirit reception, has, over time, become increasingly unsustainable. Don’t get me wrong – I have a lot of respect for Pentecostal spirituality – its immediate sense of God, vitality of worship, expectation of answered prayer, passionate evangelism, emphasis on all members using Spirit given gifts in service … But none of these good things need to be tied to a two-stage pneumatology.

Even a Pentecostal like Gordon Fee finds no basis for this theology in his magisterial book on Pauline Pneumatology, God’s Empowering Presence

One of the key figures in this debate among others has been Jimmy Dunn. In a new book of articles in honour of Max Turner of London School of Theology, The Spirit and Christ in the New Testament & Christian Theology, Dunn has an excellent chapter on ‘”The Lord, the Giver of Life”: The Gift of the Spirit as Both Life-Giving and Empowering’. 

In it he argues that life is the fundamental mark of the Spirit. Throughout the NT he is known as the life-giving Spirit. Most of the time this refers to soteriology – he is the Spirit who gives spiritual life (Jn 6;63; Romans 8:11; 1 Cor 15:45; 2 Cor 3:6; Jn 3:3-6; Jn 4:10-14; Jn 7:38-9; Romans 8:2, 6, 13; Gal 5:15; 6:8.)

This rich picture is of a dynamic life, of living water (not a stagnant pool). This is the normative Christian experience, a made possible and sustained by the empowering and soteriological Spirit.

All this means there is no need to develop artificial two-stage theologies; what  Dunn calls a sort of ‘booster rocket’ theology. All Christians are given this dynamic and empowering Spirit to drink (1 Cor 12:23).

And this means that in John’s Gospel, it does not hang together to say that the disciples had drunk the Spirit during Jesus’ pre-resurrection ministry. In John 7:39, the giving of the Spirit was to be a future event. The disciples had NOT been ‘born again’ already – they receive the Spirit in Jn 20:22 in the context of being commissioned for mission.

In Luke’s volume of Acts, the Spirit’s empowering and saving (life giving) functions are inseparable. Luke describes this in a wide variety of ways but the fact is that there is NO second action of the Spirit on believers.

The first one is both soteriological and empowering and is tied to ‘believing in the Lord Jesus’ (11:16-17); forgiveness of sins (2:38);  new fellowship; commissioning for mission (9:15-16; 26:16-18); inclusion of the Gentiles (Cornelius – see 11:17-18 where they have been given ‘life-giving repentance’)

And in relation to the controversial and contested case of the Ephesian disciples in Acts 19, Paul’s question to them “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” assumes that the life-giving Spirit is the gift given following belief. There is no life before receiving the Spirit. This is contra Calvin who argued that the Ephesian disciples were ‘regenerate’.

Dunn concludes with these words

“It is the character of the Spirit that the life thus given is vitality, a life that liberates, energizes, empowers, and expresses itself in a wide variety of forms all indicative of the fact the that the Spirit is life!” (17)

This emphasis is not only persuasive biblically, but it helps move the discussion on to where it really matters – not a two-stage normative experience or not (who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out’), but a focus on the good news of the empowering and life-giving Spirit given to all as a gift of grace to all who believe in the Lord Jesus Christ. And the expectation and possibility of a subsequent life ‘filled with the Spirit’.

Comments, as ever, welcome.