The Holy Spirit in the Protestant Tradition: Book Review of The Spirit Unfettered

After reviewing Breath of Life: God as Spirit in Judaism, Paraclete Press graciously allowed me to review other books in their Holy Spirit series (You can read my original review of Breath of Life here). For my second review from the series, I read a book reflecting on protestant views of the Holy Spirit. As a Protestant, this is where I live, so some of it was familiar terrain. Yet I appreciated Edmund Rybarcyzk’s guidance in exploring the history of Protestant thought on the Spirit.

http://ep.yimg.com/ca/I/yhst-38174537758215_2191_74440273Rybarczyk

Rybarczyk, an ordained Assemblies of God minister, Associate Professor of historic and Systematic Theology at Vanguard University and former managing editor of Pneuma: The Society for Pentecostal Studies, presents here a broad overview of protestant understanding of the Holy Spirit by profiling different protestant theologians. With the exception of chapter two (which focuses on the 16th Century Anabaptists), each of the chapters profiles different protestant theologians and examines their contribution to our understanding of the Holy Spirit. The chapters are as follows:

1. Martin Luther
2. The Sixteenth Century Anabaptists
3. John Wesley
4. Friedrich Schleiermacher
5. Abraham Kuyper
6. Karl Barth
7. J. Rodman Williams
8. Jurgen Moltmann
9. Wolfhart Pannenberg
10. Clark Pinnock
11. Michael Welker

This list, though not exhaustive or comprehensive does hit many key theologians who reflected on the reality of the Spirit. Personally my list would have also included Calvin (whose understanding of the sacraments was that the Spirit mediated the presence of Christ in the ecclesia), Pietists and some Anglican theologians, and Miroslav Volf, but as a whole, Rybarczyk’s group has a nice balance between Lutherans, Reformed and free church theologians and so provides a nice balance overall.

Rybarczyk’s outline traces the history of Protestant pneumatology. In the first half of the book (Luther to Barth) traces the story from Luther’s musing on the nature of salvation, protestant accounting for subjective ‘spiritual’ experience, and reflection on God’s personhood and sovereignity. The second half of the book shows how in the late 20th Century, Pneumatology explored different avenues and directions.

The Story Rybarczyk tells begins with Luther’s musings on the nature of salvation and sanctification and the Spirit’s role. The Anabaptists, Wesley and Schleiermacher each, though in significantly different ways, talked about how the Spirit mediated the felt, subjective experience of the faith (i.e. Spirit guiding believers, sanctifying us, and ‘God-consciousness). Kuyper responded to this subjectivity by emphasizing the cosmic scope of the Spirit’s work in transforming culture for the common good. He also emphasized the historicity and objective elements of the Christian faith and argued that the Spirit made these ‘subjectively alive.’ Barth in turn, also reacted against the subjectivity of Schleiermacher by approaching theology from above, focusing on God and Trinity and God’s sovereignty in salvation. According to Barth, believers share in God’s story by being baptized by the Spirit into Jesus’s identity and story, His community and his mission.

In the late 20th Century saw the maturation of pentecostal and Charismatic scholarship as exemplified by the Reformed Charismatic theologian J. Rodman Williams who explored the experiential dimension of life in the Spirit. Moltmann further probes the cosmic and contextual understandings of the Spirit’s work in this world. Pannenberg’s approach upholds the Spirit’s creative work his approach is more rationalistic and far less subjective than any of the other theologians in this study and he cautions an over emphasis on the Spirit to the exclusion of Jesus (both are central). Pinnock’s approach blurs categories and draws an expansive vision of the Spirit’s work in creation and redemption. Welker doesn’t restrict his reflection on the Spirit to Biblical revelation (as would Barth) or theological literature, but seeks to discern the Spirit’s presence with science and philosophy. Moltmann, Pannenberg, Pinnock and Welker are all ecumenical and expansive in their exploration of the Spirit.

This book provides quite a survey of protestant visions of the Spirit! I found it helpful, even though the size of the book and accessibility of its prose, dictated that the exploration of each thinker was much more general than it was in-depth. At times I found Rybarczyk’s theological eye oversimplified historical matters (as in the case with his brief chapter on the wildly divergent 16th century Anabaptists). But in the main, he was fair and judicious in his analysis of each thinker’s theology of the Spirit. Certainly I have flagged several of these theologians to delve into more deeply as I seek to deepen my understanding and experience of the Spirit.

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