The last couple of days I’ve been discussing the final section of Jack Levison’s Inspired: The Holy Spirit and the Mind of Faith (if you haven’t had a chance to read my review you can find it here). This book concludes with “An Agenda for the Future of Pneumatology” which Levison divides 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. Each of these headlines represents aspects of Pneumatology that the author foresees benefitting students of Scripture and the Church as a whole as we think about the role of the holy spirit in the world.
Today I want to briefly summarize “The Bible and the World that Shaped It”. In this section, in gist, Levison calls upon students of Pneumatology to consider how an understanding of the world in which early Israelite, Jewish and Christian Pneumatologies formed may better help us understand Scripture’s depiction of the holy spirit. For those who study the Hebrew Bible an awareness of other semitic languages and ancient near eastern cultures is helpful. For those who study the Christian New Testament the same can be said of the language and culture of the Greeks and Romans. Those who are familiar with historical Jesus studies know that while the “quest” may begin with the Gospels it isn’t limited to the Gospels. Similarly, when we study Scripture’s depiction of the holy spirit we’d be wise to become familiar with the Pneumatology of ancient cultures and thinkers.
Levison’s work on Pneumatology shows an awareness of the Pneumatology of individuals like Cicero, Plutarch, Philo, and Josephus. He juxtaposes Scripture’s language about the spirit of God with that of other Graeco-Roman authors. He tries to compare and contrast Christian Pneumatology with other Pneumatologies of early Judaism. Sometimes he find points of contact and at other times he find points of contrast. Either way, he displays an awareness of the nuances being presented by the biblical authors that we may not possess if we ignore the historical context of the Bible’s formation.
If we don’t follow Levison’s example in this we risk the danger of drifting far away from the intent of figures like the Evangelists, the Apostle Paul, and other formative thinkers in the history of Christianity. As contributors to the New Perspectives on Paul have shown, if we think we’ve “got it” we may find ourselves presenting ideas that are completely divorced from the Jewish and Graeco-Roman matrix from which they emerged. As Levison points out—following the paradigm shifting insights of Hermann Gunkel in Die Wirkungen des heiligen Geistes back in the late nineteenth century—Paul and the Evangelists talked about the holy spirit in a time and place when there were particular ideas about the spirit. If we forget this fact we’re bound to put ideas into the biblical texts that don’t belong there.
Many Christian Pneumatologies do a fine job of discussing how the Church has spoken of the holy spirit—and this is good because tradition matters—but we should never be satisfied with our language about the spirit of God as if the language of generations past have solidified and calcified our understanding of the spirit. We must continue to seek to balance the horizon of the ancient world with that of our contemporary setting while keeping in view the doctrines that have been handed down to us.