Last week I posted my review of Jack Levison’s Inspired: The Holy Spirit and the Mind of Faith and yesterday I invited readers of this blog to discuss Levison’s concluding chapter, “An Agenda for the Future of Pneumatology”. As I mentioned in that post Levison’s “agenda” is divided into four parts: (1) the Pneumatology of Creation; (2) The Significance of a Starting Point; (3) the Bible and the World that Shaped It; (4) A Model of Inspiration and a Unified Future for the Church. Today I want to discuss part 2.
“The Significance of a Starting Point” is oriented toward hermeneutics. When Christians discuss the holy spirit we often begin with a section of Scripture that resonates with us the most. For example, most Pentecostals begin with the Acts of the Apostles and Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians because Pentecostal Pneumatology begins with the charisms of the spirit. Most Evangelicals fear the charisms of the spirit, or self-describe as “open, but cautious”, so their starting point is elsewhere: maybe Paul’s “fruits of the spirit” or some connection between the prophetic and homiletics. Many Mainliners emphasize the prophetic as it relates to social injustices, the empowerment of the spirit of God to call people back toward justice and righteousness before their Creator.
For Levison his acknowledged point of departure would be “the spirit-breath within” (see pp. 202-203). He finds this aspect of Pneumatology to be grounded in the Torah. Therefore, all subsequent canonical literature is expanding and redefining the Pneumatology of the Books of Moses. Also, this is a Pneumatology that is shared by all people, Christians and non-Christians (read Part 1 for further explanation). Levison writes (p. 203),
I decided that the starting-point of pneumatology should be the spirit understood as a presence in individuals by virtue of God’s inbreathing (e.g., Gen. 41:38; Exod. 31:28-35). This view of God’s spirit shapes belief early in the biblical canon — long before the advent of the notion of the spirit as an intermittent charismatic presence, as in the book of Judges and 1 Samuel it is universal in scope — as universal as human’s breath; and it may lead to a Christian church that is at once highly spirited and deeply thoughtful.
That last statement has to do with Levison’s exegesis of texts where the spirit of God is not divorced from the life of the mind, but an essential part of it just as much as the spirit is part of the endowment of various charisms. When Levison reads texts about the outpouring of God’s spirit he doesn’t see this as God giving something totally new, but instead God refilling, refreshing that which is given to all.
Levison is comfortable with reading about the outpouring of God’s spirit in places like Joel 2:28-29. Likewise, he welcomes a Pneumatology like that of Isaiah 11:2 where the spirit of the Lord rest upon the Lord’s servant. This “anointed leadership” Pneumatology is as canonical as the “spirit-breath” Pneumatology from which Levison’s launches his project. Similarly, Levison discusses passages where the spirit of God is active in bringing or empowering people to bring liberation to the oppressed. All of these angles present us with a “biblical” Pneumatology (see pp. 204-209).
Pneumatology has “an array of starting points” as Levison says. What we need when we talk to each other about God’s spirit is an awareness of our own prioritized starting point. Often we talk past each other because we ignore the diverse witness of Scripture as regards the spirit of God.
How can we learn to be more aware of our starting points? How does an awareness of our starting points help us in our dialogue with others?
Levison: “I decided that the starting-point of pneumatology should be the spirit understood as a presence in individuals by virtue of God’s inbreathing (e.g., Gen. 41:38; Exod. 31:28-35).” Brian: “That last statement has to do with Levison’s exegesis of texts where the spirit of God is not divorced from the life of the mind, but an essential part of it ..”
It’s not clear Levison appreciates a distinction between the Spirit of Elohim and the breath of life. The Spirit of Elohim, though not limited by the sanctuary (God is bigger than the sanctuary) still serves to set apart the sanctuary of the Holy mountain from the remaining sea of humanity. In other words, where God’s spirit does not reside, the sanctuary is not. God could remove His Spirit, thus removing the Sanctuary, without destroying life. For example [Eze 39:29], “And I shall not hide my face any more from them, when I pour out my Spirit upon the house of Israel, declares the Lord Elohim.” is clearly related to pentecost and is clearly particular – not universal. This is distinguishable from the ‘life of the mind’ in a common sense, yet shows how particular minds are quickened by its presence.
What Levison takes from [Gen 41:38] he applies universally to mankind. Such a generalization is Hasty. If we read [Gen 41:38] in context, the Spirit of Elohim is specifically being used to distinguish Joseph from all others (so this spirit is absolutely a distinguishing feature of one out of humanity). The same is true of; Othniel the son of Kenaz in [Jud 3:10]; Gideon in [Jud 6:34]; Japhthah in [Jud 11:29]; etc. The presence of the spirit also distinguishes the mind of the prophets in [Neh 9:30] from all others. I wasn’t able to find the [Exod. 31:28-3] quote to see how it read, so I expect it might have been a typo. It’s true that all aspects of Pneumatology must be grounded in the Torah just as they much be grounded in the new covenant (since God does not contradict Himself). Yet Levison’s use of the Torah (in this book at least) doesn’t inspire much confidence when references are used out of context to construct a gloss the scripture itself doesn’t construct. Yes – Jacks point that we find the spirit in human breathing, in social transformation, in community, in hostile situations, and in serious learning. This is all true except that the Torah also shows the Spirit of YHWH acting independent of the life of mind, doing far more than setting conditions for life.
Lest I be accused of being overly critical of Levison, two things need also to be said in addition. All theology must contain fidelity to the bible first and foremost. Pointing these out quirks with respect to Levison are done with the greatest charity. One of the things I’ve come to admire about Levison’s work, from your reviews, is that Levison grasps the Holy Spirit as less a mountaintop variety, and more a valley variety (no my words). Levison: ““Exhaustion is not necessarily a sign of the spirit’s absence . . . exhilaration is not necessarily a sign of the presence of the spirit.”. Right. He understands the spirit’s humility perfectly. Many don’t. The presence of the spirit is separate from feelings, physical sensations. Excellent!
Yet even if the spirit is not an earthquake, or blazing fire, but only a mere small voice, it is still something far more immense, unbounded by human life and experience, and yet that doesn’t make it universal in humanity. From the scripture it is still particular even there. A quote such as – Levison: “It wasn’t just breath that God gave, but the spirit, and with that spirit the gift of how to live well.” is too under-whelming to do the spirit justice.
Thank you for introducing us to Levison’s work. It has been of immense value in stimulating though!
FWIW, (and this may be a misunderstanding caused by the limitations of trying to discuss something summarized) Levison doesn’t fail to acknowledge the uniqueness of Joseph, Daniel, etc. He does see their giftedness as having to do with something they’ve cultivated rather than a momentary charism that comes and goes from the person though. So, Levison does distinguish between “modes” of spirit (if you will) but I think he would say that the spirit in Joseph and Daniel is not missing from the rest of humanity as much as it is quenched, minimized, abandoned by the rest of humanity, though it still resides deep within everyone (again, the analogy of God’s image in all people is helpful here).
I must caution that my summaries will always fall short of the book’s actual argument, so if my summaries seem fishy I encourage one to read Levison’s work itself.
I recognize that one of Levison’s chief complaints about other theologies of the spirit is the spirit’s portrayal as spontaneous. This exposes the depth of his insight. Indeed the spirit is not something that ‘comes and goes’ so he recognizes a problem begging for a solution. Levison’s solution is to see the spirit innate in all.
Though this is one solution, would it not be more biblical to see it as something one is ‘grafted into’ or cut off from given that this is the language the bible uses ([Rom 11:23])? The idea that the spirit of God is innate to all humanity has too many strikes against, not the least of which is that such a notion is more eastern than biblical.
Seeing the spirit as eternal, but seeing it something that one is grafted into or cut away from works with the notion the spirit is God, the notion Israel was cut off, set apart, that the nations were grafted in. It also solves the problem of the apparent spontaneity of the spirit. With respect to Imago Dei the idea would be that the spirit places the role of making or unmaking us perfectly reflect that image. Yes we were created in that image, but the marred image we currently bear requires restoration. The spirit Himself is not the Imago Dei that we all carry (Christ is the Imago Dei), but the spirit is what restores it. Since all bear residual Imago Dei, but not humanity has been perfected (undergone this restoration), we cannot say that the spirit is innate in all.
Nevertheless, that Jack has the wherewithal to even ask these questions though, shows the value of his work, even if his conclusions are sometimes questionable.
@Andrew: Again, I’ll have to recommend a reading of Levison’s Inspired and for more in-depth exegesis Filled with the Spirit because I think juxtaposing “biblical” with Levison’s insights (labeled “eastern”) is possible only if one dismisses his exegesis. When we say “biblical” as if there is a singular Pneumatology to be found from Genesis to Revelation we may ignore the diverse yet complementary witness of Scripture regarding the various activities and modes of God’s spirit. Levison won’t deny that spirit must be restored, neither will be ignore passages where God’s spirit is essential for the sustaining of all things. This is why Levison asks us to recognize our starting points because if we don’t we’ll wrongly assume a “biblical” Pneumatology that gives credence to some of Scripture’s witness while ignoring or glossing over other aspects of it.
Ok. I’m sorry.
The idea that the spirit of divinity resides in all humans is an idea found in Hinduism. The idea the third person of the trinity resides deep within everyone is a departure from orthodoxy, so Levison’s Pneumatology raises the question whether or not this notion aligns with Christian scripture.
I was not using ‘eastern’ to insult Levison, dismiss his work, or dismisses his exegesis. My quote alluded to the parallel between Levison’s idea and another religion (specifically Hinduism). Christianity has traditionally taught that the ‘Spirit’ is a person of the Trinity and it has shied away from the idea that the spirit is innate to all – however deeply. Instead Christianity has taught all bear Imago Die, now corrupt, and declared that Christ is that Imago Dei. With respect to human dignity then, Christianity has credited Christ as being the perfect convergence between divinity and the profane, rather than the spirit which Levison is doing.
Referencing his unorthodoxy was not meant as an insult, and I acknowledge that Levison advocates his own starting point as being the bible (whether or not he draws influence from elsewhere). Please accept my apology then.
(As a footnote, I believe we would be hard-pressed to show a different pneumatology existed between Genesis and Revelation – apart from the slight nuances different authors bring to scripture – this, since I believe the spirit, in a Trinitarian sense, is God and one. Therefore He has revealed Himself in a consistent way across history).
@Andrew: No worries, I understand that Levison’s Pneumatology doesn’t always jive with traditional ways of thinking about the holy spirit. I appreciate your willingness to consider his presentation and I hope you find time to read one or two of his books. At the end of the day you may find his views depart from your understanding of Christian orthodoxy, or like myself, you may find that his views compliment Christian orthodoxy helping you to think more broadly about Scripture’s diverse testimony regarding how God works in the world by his spirit. Either way, I hope you enjoy the process!
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