Levison, INSPIRED
Levison, INSPIRED

Jack Levison, Inspired: The Holy Spirit and the Mind of Faith (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2013). (Amazon.com)

John R. (Jack) Levison is no stranger to writing about the holy spirit. He has written articles, essays, and influential books such as The Spirit in First-Century Judaism (1997) and Filled with the Spirit (2009). In 2012 he ventured in writing for a popular audience with Fresh Air: The Holy Spirit for an Inspired Life. In that book he said of himself, “I am one of those Christians, you see, who has one foot in the mainline Protestant church and one in Pentecostalism, more or less (p. 3).” Levison is a Professor of New Testament at Seattle Pacific University, an institution associated with the United Methodist Church, yet he often talks of the holy spirit like a charismatic or a Pentecostal. Likewise, Levison has one foot in the academy where most of his research has led him to ask what people thought of spirit in ancient Israelite, Graeco-Roman, Jewish, and Christian contexts and another foot in the Church where he has applied pastoral sensitivity when speaking to people about the reality of the holy spirit in our every day lives. There are few people as qualified as Levison to write a book that aims to bridge the gap between the holy spirit as a charismatic endowment and the holy spirit as a cultivated reality resident within us all (if this language seems strange consider the Christian Doctrine of the imago Dei which we might say is recognized most fully in Christ, is being restored and renewed in Christians, yet resides within each and every human being). Can ecstatic, emotional experiences of spirit be reconciled with discipline, learning, and ethics? Levison says “yes” and goes to work making his case from a variety of angles.

Message of the Book:

On the opening page of his introduction Levison sets out to overcome the false dichotomy wherein Pneumatology refers to the ecstatic but not the intellectual side of our religious lives. In his words, early Christians—as well as ancient Israelites and Jewish writers— “discovered a rich symbiosis between various experiences akin to ecstasy and inspired intellectual acuity.” [1] Or, as with the example he gave, we do not have to drive a wedge between say “glossolalia and inspired interpretation of scripture.” [2] We don’t have to choose between the spontaneous, the immediate, the ecstatic and the premeditated, the long-haul, the life of the mind. [3] This is the the message of the book: the holy spirit can be found both when we have charismatic experiences such as prophecy and glossolalia but also over time as we study, develop discipline, and seek to become people of virtue.

Contents:

The aforementioned Introduction is a helpful guide to the reader. Levison presents his agenda succinctly, explained how he foresees his book impacting our thinking on Theology/Pneumatology, hermeneutics, culture, and Ecclesiology. He explains the trajectory that he aims to take and explains some of his key terms and concepts.

Then the book is divided into three large chapters: Chapter 1: The Spirit and the Cultivation of Virtue; Chapter 2: Putting Ecstasy in Its Place; Chapter 3: The Spirit and the Interpretation of Scripture. In Chapter 1 he explains how our translations of ruach and pneuma can be misleading. These words can mean “spirit”, “wind”, and “breath” among other things. Often because we capitalize “Spirit” when referring to the divine spirit we ignore passages where the spirit of God is the very thing that sustains people, animals, and the whole created order. While Levison does not deny that there is a nuance between the divine spirit that sustains all things and the divine spirit as a charismatic endowment upon followers of Christ he does aim to emphasis that nuance is not necessarily difference: it is the same spirit.

The spirit as “breath” or life-force is an important motif in the Hebrew Bible. Levison works through various narratives in order to present his argument. Whether or not one is comfortable with Levison’s refusal to create a stark contrast between the divine spirit and the spirit that sustains all things is secondary to whether or not one finds Levison’s exegesis convincing. In my estimation he does a fair and accurate job as he describes the Pneumatology attributed to characters ranging from the patriarch Joseph to the prophet Daniel. These figures do not receive an outside, alien spirit but instead have developed an internal, intrinsic one. Levison is quick to admit that this is more characteristic of the Hebrew Bible than the New Testament, but he does show at various points where the S/spirit divide is thinner than is often suggested (FWIW: Pentecostal scholar Gordon D. Fee explores many passages like this in his book God’s Empowering Presence: The Holy Spirit in the Letters of Paul).

Chapter 2 should be relevant to Pentecostals, charismatics, and any Christian who ponders the role of ecstatic experience in Christian spirituality. Recently the Evangelical world was divided when John MacArthur attacked Pentecostals/Charismatics with a book titled Strange Fire: The Danger of Offending the Holy Spirit with Counterfeit Worship. MacArthur may have a right to be concerned about a variety of matters, but I find that Levison handles this subject with the insight and grace that is necessary for all parties to be edified. Levison does not deny the importance of experiences such as glossolalia, but his scholarly understanding of ecstasy in the ancient world sheds much light on how balanced, cautious, and discipled the Christian expression of ecstasy was (intended to be) in juxtaposition to that of other religious groups contemporary to incipient Christianity. While many people described possession as something free of the mind, something where a person loses control of one’s self, people like the Apostle Paul emphasized that glossolalia while good and beneficial remains so only if kept to one’s self (between a person and God) or interpreted for the assembly because understanding is not to be divorced from the charismatic in the Christian experience, ideally.

In Chapter 3 Levison begins to draw together his argument by showing how figures like Ezra, Ben Sira, Philo, Josephus, and most importantly for Christians how Luke-Acts, John, Hebrews, and the Pauline Epistles present the holy spirit as the primary agent in what we call the inspired exegesis or interpretation of Scripture. These figures do not make a distinction between the empowerment of the spirit and their need to be submerged in the holy texts. Instead, when one is actively engaged in the study of Scripture it is the holy spirit that uses this knowledge to empower the Johannine witness of Jesus, or the apostolic sermons in Acts, or how the author of Hebrews depicts the spirit as presently speaking through Scripture Christocentrically.

In the Conclusion Levison sets “An Agenda for the Future of Pneumatology” wherein he seeks to overcome some of the false dichotomies that have arisen in Christian Pneumatology; help us better understand our “starting points” (e.g., for many Pentecostal-Charismatics it is the endowment of Luke-Acts; for many Evangelicals the Pneumatology of Paul; for Levison it is admittedly the spirit as that which gives lives and sustains all people and things); challenge us to engage the Pneumatology of the ancient world from which Christianity emerged; and finally, seek to develop a current Pneumatology that will help us avoid the fracturing we see between Liturgical and Charismatic congregations.

Concluding Thoughts:

As with any good book this one provides many answers while simultaneously inviting new questions. In my estimation Levison succeeds at breaking down the barrier between the charismatic spirit, the life-giving spirit, and the cultivated-virtuous spirit. He does a fine job of showing how the biblical witness speaks of all humans receiving the spirit of God while acknowledging that early Christianity envisioned something related yet unique for Jesus’ followers. As someone who too has had one foot in Charismatic circles and another in Evangelical/Mainline circles I think Levison’s insights will benefit both traditions, create dialogue, and hopefully allow us to think about the holy spirit in a way that unifies us like it did the Church at the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15!

Meanwhile, some things remain in need of more exploration, personally. For example, while I see exegetically how it is the same spirit that enlivens all humans, and who charismatically fills Christians in the New Testament, I think more needs to be said regarding why the NT authors felt obligated to emphasis the latter so strongly over the former. Similarly, while we need to make more space for “inspired exegesis” I wonder how we might guard against the very real dangers associated with this idea. All of us have seen people blatantly abuse the biblical text for their own agenda while claiming supernatural insight. How does one acknowledge that we need the holy spirit if we are to rightly understand the text as Christians while realizing this can get a bit wacky! (I aim to explore these ideas further in subsequent blog posts, but for now this long review must come to an end.) If you are seeking a book on the holy spirit that will go beyond a merely academic treatment, or something equivalent to a spiritualized self-help book (as many Charismatic contributions to Pneumatology have been), then this is a book you should consider adding to your library.

This book was provided courtesy of Eerdmans in exchange for an unbiased review.

__________

[1] p. 1

[2] Ibid.

[3] I wrote this paragraph in an earlier blog post: “Ecstasy and Intellect: Jack Levison’s Ambitious Pneumatology”

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