Filled with the Spirit

It is time for me to read through Jon Levison’s Filled with the Spirit as I have said I would. Due to my lack of diligence in this matter I feel like I owe Michael Thomson of Eerdmans, and Dr. Levison himself, more than a brief sketch of the book. I have decided to dedicate several posts instead outlining the book from front to back.

My delay has not been totally unjustified. It has been a bit intimidating since I am not familiar with the work of Hermann Gunkle and Gunkle is an important figure in this book. It seems like one would want to read Gunkle’s work if Levison’s is to be understood. This has given me a desire to read Gunkle eventually, but I do not have the time now. Sadly, I will have to review this book with little knowledge of one of the main scholarly “characters”.

Levison begins with a story about the politics surrounding Gunkle’s career as well as his contributions various aspects of Old Testament studies. It is from here that he moves to the significance of Gunkle as applies to this book: the rejection of the German understanding of the Spirit as “the substance of human potential, as the force of ordinary human life” (xvii). Ahead of his time Gunkle suggested that Pneumatology must begin with Judaism. According to Levison, “Gunkle’s contention, of course, was the knowledge of Judaism would function to illuminate early Christianity and to underscore what was distinctive about it.” (xviii) This seems to be a common place presuppositions in biblical studies today; it was revolutionary then.

For Gunkle the focus was upon the Wirkungen of the Holy Spirit–the “inspired effects of the spirit”. (xvii) Several scholars began to pick up this motif in their own studies on the Spirit. For the last century Pneumatology has become an important branch of theology that prior to Gunkle seems to have been ignored. Levison comments in relation to his own work, “The questions Gunkle raised about the spirit  provide indispensable direction for this study: the question of whether the spirit is invariably an extraordinary impulse; the role of early Judaism in reconstructing early Christian pneumatology; and the diversity of pneumatologies in the New Testament.” (xxi)

Levison’s goal in this book is to further develop Gunkle’s work by “offering a more in-depth analysis of Israelite, early Jewish, and early Christian literature and by pressing the case for farther-reaching implications in the study of ancient pneumatology.” In order to do this Levison adopts the paradigm of “filling with the spirit”. Why this instead of the spirit being poured out, coming upon, et cetera? Well, for Levison (1) “it applies more universally than most most of these, encompassing individuals and communities”; (2) it spans Israelite, Greco-Roman, early Jewish, and early Christian literature; (3) “language of filling with the spirit would become the most popular way of expressing the spirit’s presence for first-century Christians, more so that the others”; and (4), the most important, “The lens of filling with the spirit…is exhilarating in its expansiveness”. (xxv)

Levison will follow this motif, and Gunkle, by dividing his work to focus upon (1) Israelite Literature; (2) Jewish Literature of the Greco-Roman Era; (3) Early Christian Literature. It is to (1) that I will venture in my next posts. I am looking forward to going further into the book Amos Yong compared to Barth’s Romerbrief in its potential impact in its field.

One may notice that in my quotations of Levison he does not capitalize “spirit”. The reason for this according to n. 4 on p. xv is “I have consistently written ‘holy spirit’ without capitalization in order to prevent a misunderstanding that is based on the unnecessary distinction between an allegedly divine Holy Spirit and a human spirit”. This will unfold more as I blog through the book. Needless to say, there seems to be important theological implications for this small decision in regards to capitalization.