This is the third book in Paraclete Press‘s Holy Spirit series which I have reviewed. I now feel like I can say a little bit about the series and what I have appreciated about it (you can read previous reviews here or here). If you are really only interested in the orthodox tradition, skip the next few paragraphs and my review there.
First of all, each of the authors in the series embody their particular tradition. Rachel Timoner wrote Breath of Life to present a Jewish understanding of the spirit of God and she continually references the rabbinic tradition and Jewish history to explicate her points. In presenting Protestant views of the Holy Spirit, Edmund Rubarczyk describes individual thinkers, how they challenged prevailing views (protested) and their impact on our understanding of the Spirit. I didn’t see how each of their approaches embodied the traditions they were describing and representing until I read Fr. John Oliver’s description of the Holy Spirit in the Orthodox tradition. A prayer from the orthodox liturgy frames the entire structure of the book and Father Oliver’s reflections. Not only do each of these authors describe the Spirit through the lens of their tradition, but the unique spirituality of each tradition informs their approach.
Secondly, I applaud the ecumenism of each author. They write from their own spiritual tradition, and do not sacrifice their own identity. It is in offering the insights of their own traditions that each author has contributed to a deeper understanding of the Spirit for us all. Too often ecumenical dialogues and discussion of God devolve into what we can all minimally affirm and doesn’t value the unique contributions. It is so refreshing to read a series on the Holy Spirit where each author is true to their theological convictions but presents them in a winsome and engaging way, offering them to the wider church (or in the case of Timoner, beyond her own religious faith). When unique visions are offered, they are given here without polemics.
Third, all of these books are thoughtfully engaging but accessible to the general reader. This is sometimes a hard balance, but each of the author manages to convey something of substance without getting mired in academic discussions and over complicating the matter. Nor do they retreat to shallow waters. I commend the whole series to you, on to the review:
The Giver of Life: The Holy Spirit in the Orthodox Tradition
Father John Oliver is priest of St. Elizabeth Orthodox Christian Church in Murfreesboro, TN and is a graduate and (former?) faculty at St. Tikhon’s Orthodox Theological Seminary as instructor of Old and New Testament and American Religious History. My first exposure to him was through the Hearts and Minds podcast. Here he explores what the Orthodox church’s understanding of Spirit, exemplified by quotations and stories from the Christian East. But more than that, this book is an exercise in prayer. Maximus the Confessor (580-662 C.E.) somewhere said, “Theology is prayer and prayer is theology-Theology without prayer is demonic.” Thus it is fitting that reflection on the Spirit in the Orthodox tradition is given within the context of prayer. Each chapter begins with this epigram:
O heavenly King, the Comforter, the Spirit of truth, Who art everywhere present and fillest all things; Treasury of good things and Giver of life; come and abide in us, and cleanse us from every impurity,and save our souls, O Gracious Lord.
This ancient prayer to the Holy Spirit, often uttered for Morning and Evening prayer, frames the reflections in this book with each chapter reflecting on a phrase from the prayer. Here is the table of contents which shows how Oliver breaks the prayer up:
1. O Heavenly King
2. The Comforter
3. The Spirit of Truth
4. Who Art Everywhere Present and Fillest All Things
5. Treasury of Good Things
6. Giver of Life
7. Come Abide in Us
8. Cleanse Us From Every Impurity and Save Our Souls
9 O Gracious Lord
By probing this prayer, Oliver is able to both probe Orthodox reflection on the Spirit and the grandeur of all the Spirit is and does. In these pages the Spirit emerges as creator and king, God’s comforting presence, the Spirit of Truth who exists in unity with the Father and Son, as both transcendent and immanent, as giver of gifts and God’s abiding gift, the one who brings life, as the one who cleanses our sins and brings us to perfection in God, the gracious God who leads us from our depths to new heights. Along the way, Oliver quotes some of the great saints of the eastern church, quotations and stories and shares how the sacraments nourish life in the Spirit for the faithful.
There is a lot to chew on. I personally love patristics and was pleased to read many quotations from the early church (Cappadocians and desert Christians are well represented). I am not Orthodox, at least with a capital ‘O,’ but loved the prayerful framework and the Spirt in which Oliver offered this to the wider church. There is little I would disagree with in the book, even if my own emphasis would be somewhat different. Oliver stays clear of theologically contentious matters (i.e. he discusses the Nicene Creed but doesn’t pick a fight with the West for changing it) but gives us something that is both true to his theological tradition and instructive for us all. Thus far, this is my favorite book in the series!
Next week I will review the final book (to date) in Paraclete’s Holy Spirit series: Amos Yong’s Who is the Holy Spirit? I am very excited about this because Amos Yong is one of the most well respected Pentecostal scholars and I am sure that his exploration of the Spirit will widen our vision for who the Spirit is and all he does for us!
[Thank you to Paraclete press for providing me with a review copy of Giver of Life and the other books in this series in exchange for my review. I was not instructed to write a positive review but an honest one, which I have done here.]