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Pneumatology

All too often relegated to a minor role, one of the most exciting developments in 20th century theological thought is a resurgence of interest in the Holy Spirit. While historically there have been a broad spectrum of views held with regard to the person and work of the Holy Spirit, no denomination or movement can be said to hold a monopoly on the Spirit’s activity or involvement, and the Bible itself presents no systematic view of the Holy Spirit any more than it presents such a neatly delivered package on any other doctrine. In his book Pneumatology: The Holy Spirit in Ecumenical, International and Contextual Perspective Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen surveys the Biblical canon (with commentary from church history) to form a solid ‘core’ for understanding the Holy Spirit. This is followed by an examination of perspectives on the Spirit from the main Christian traditions (Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Lutheran, and Pentecostal/Charismatic) with contributions from leading contemporary theologians.

An overarching theme throughout Pneumatology is the assertion that one cannot simply pursue abstract definitions or general facts with regard to the Holy Spirit, but rather (Kärkkäinen believes) the Spirit himself must be encountered. Further, he says “the experience of the Holy Spirit is as specific as the living beings who experience the Spirit, and as varied as the living beings who experience the Spirit are varied”. Thus while we should earnestly attempt to repair the Pneumatological deficit present in much of the contemporary church, a fuller understanding of the Holy Spirit cannot be acquired without the lived experience of the living Spirit, and that in the communal discernment of the church – called and gathered by the Spirit.

There is much to say when it comes to documenting the unfolding experience of the Holy Spirit throughout Church history. Beginning with the Charismatic experience – which Kärkkäinen proposes (via James D. G. Dunn) actually found expression right from Christianity’s inception – Pneumatology traces the church’s growing understanding of the Holy Spirit and the various expressions that this experience was manifest through. Next came the Eastern Fathers; the most noteworthy of which is perhaps Gregory of Nazianzus who was likely the first of his company to call the Holy Spirit “God”. Contemporary Christianity owes a great debt to the Eastern Fathers for their wrestling with the doctrine of Pneumatology and how it is interwoven into every other area of theology. Almost simultaneously over in the Western church, Augustine was hard at work laying a foundation with the same purpose with the notion that the Spirit is the bond of love between both Christians and God, and Christians one with another. The implications of this rippled forward to medieval mystics such as Bernard of Clairvaux, who spoke of the Holy Spirit as the one who makes the knowledge of revelation possible – but ultimately love is the goal, not knowledge – the Spirit also revealing the intimacy of love between the persons of the Trinity that is now offered to humankind.

While historically there have been a broad spectrum of views held with regard to the person and work of the Holy Spirit, Kärkkäinen brought together a coherent introduction to this crucial doctrine. His treatment of the depth and breadth of such an array of perspectives was enlightening, accessible, and holds much value for the contemporary Christian. His summaries of the main traditions (enhanced by rich discussion from the voices of prominent theologians) were formational both in gaining a better grasp of Pneumatology as held by the orthodox Christian Church, but also for acquiring a more considered appreciation of what different contextual Pneumatologies throughout history have revealed about the experience of encountering God the Holy Spirit. Pneumatology makes an excellent contribution to a broadened understanding of the person and work of the Holy Spirit in a way that will help Christians in the church today to understand and encounter what was once a seemingly incomprehensible doctrine through this clear, accessible work.

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Published in2016 Reading ChallengeBook Reviews