Review: The Holy Spirit

The Holy Spirit (Theology for the People of God), Gregg R. Allison & Andreas J. Kostenberger. Nashville: B & H Academic, 2020.

Summary: First in a new series, a biblical and systematic theology of the Holy Spirit, evangelical and continuationist, but not pentecostal.

If the inaugural volume of this new series, “Theology for the People of God,” is any indication, this should be an outstanding set. Each volume pairs two theologians, one in biblical theology, and one in systematic theology to provide an integrated approach deeply rooted in the biblical text.

This approach forms the organization of this book in which the first half is devoted to biblical theology, carefully considering each relevant text on the Holy Spirit in each book and major portion of scripture, followed by synthesizing the teaching of all of scripture on various theological aspects of the doctrine of the Holy Spirit. It is an approach that is thorough, covering the ground, while providing notes and references for those who wish to dig deeper.

A few highlights for each part. In the biblical theology section, each chapter, or sometimes, subsection, provides a chart with all the references to the Holy Spirit and a phrase summarizing the content. One old Testament highlight was the discussion of the Holy Spirit in Isaiah, anointing the Messiah, and empowering the servant of the Servant Songs to bring good news to the poor, and the Spirit’s role in the new exodus and the new creation.

The New Testament portion was lengthier, with treatment of the gospels, Acts, the Pauline works, the general epistles, and Revelation. Kostenberger summarizes the Spirit’s work in Acts with seven points that will preach!

  1. The Spirit is a person and clearly divine.
  2. The Spirit establishes the eschatological messianic community of the exalted Jesus.
  3. The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of mission.
  4. The Spirit fills all believers.
  5. The Spirit is the Spirit of prophecy.
  6. The Spirit convicts people and holds them to moral standards.
  7. The Holy Spirit directs the affairs of the church.

The section on systematic theology left me at times worshiping God the Spirit and our wondrous Triune God. After an introduction laying out methodology and themes, Allison begins with the deity, the intratrinitarian relations and trinitarian processions. Careful discussion delineates both the inseparability of the works of Father, Son, and Spirit, and yet what may be said to be specific to each. Then, in successive chapters, the author discusses the Spirit in creation and providence, in relation to the inspiration and illumination of scripture, a fascinating chapter distinguishing the Spirit and angelic beings, the Spirit’s relation to human beings and sin, the Spirit’s work Christ, salvation, the church, and the future. The author addresses contemporary issues in pneumatology (the three ages, Spirit-emphasizing movements, and the Spirit and theology of religions). The concluding chapter is applicative, addressing our worship of the Spirit, our reliance on the Spirit’s illuminating work, our thanksgiving for the Spirit’s application of Christ’s work in our life, and keeping in step with and being guided by the Spirit.

The book is marked by a clarity of language and explanation and summary throughout, making this a great text for a course in theology or for the lay person wishing to understand more deeply the person and work of the Spirit. One possible criticism of the work is little engagement with theologians in the developing world. Inclusion of theological discussions and issues outside the white European and North American contexts will make this a more broadly useful text. The authors do engage pentecostal and charismatic theology, appreciative of the emphasis on the ministry of the Spirit, affirming, against some Reformed understanding, the continuation of the gifts and empowering work of the Spirit for mission. However they would associate the baptism of the Holy Spirit with conversion and not as a second and subsequent act. The response is gracious, and they denounce the vitriol that has often existed. The concluding pastoral applications are worth the price of the book.

In sum, this book sets a high bar for this series, marked as it is by an approach in which systematic theology is built on biblical theology. It models this work well for young pastors and theologians and offers the clarity of teaching that both preserves doctrinal integrity, and warmth of devotion.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: The Uncontrolling Love of God

the uncontrolling love of God

The Uncontrolling Love of GodThomas Jay Oord. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2015.

Summary: Proposes a way of addressing God’s goodness and providence in the light of randomness, pointless suffering, and genuine evil by arguing for uncontrolling love as the cardinal attribute of God.

Random accidents where a tumbling rock kills a motorist. Terrible suffering that results from a random genetic mutation. Genuinely evil actions resulting in injury and death with no evident intervention of God. It is often said that as difficult as these things are to understand, they are all part of God’s sovereign and providential plan. Thomas Jay Oord finds these explanations unacceptable, and not just the trite versions of these explanations, but also those more theologically nuanced. They end up being susceptible to making God the cause of evil, or raise questions of why God fails to prevent evil, including random events if God is capable of doing so. Either God is sovereign but seems unloving; or God is loving but ineffectual.

In this book, Oord argues for a better account of the providence of God, rooted in an open and relational theology of God. He begins with an exploration of both the randomness and regularity that seems to exist even in the physical world for which our understanding of providence must account as well as the existence of both genuine evil and good in the world. He then outlines seven models of God’s providence that have been proposed, briefly critiquing each, except for model four, which he proposes as the most plausible:

  1. God is the omnicause.
  2. God empowers and overpowers.
  3. God is voluntarily self-limited.
  4. God is essentially kenotic.
  5. God sustains as impersonal force.
  6. God is initial creator and current observer.
  7. God’s ways are not our ways.

He then offers an overview of open and relational theology (and antecedent theological corollaries) for those who may not be familiar with this, since it is foundational to his argument. In brief, open and relational theology contends that God and his creatures relate and his creatures make a real difference to God; that the future is open and not determined and neither God nor his creatures know all that will occur; and that love is God’s chief attribute and primary lens for understanding God’s relations with his creation.

This last is crucial to Oord’s argument as he contends in the following chapter. Traditionally, theology begins with the primacy of the sovereign power of God over all creation, an error he believes even John Sanders, an open theologian falls prey to. Oord would argue that the love of God that is preeminent must be understood as uncontrolling love, and that this uncontrolling love governs God’s relations with his creation. He would contend that God has created a world with creatures (and he would extend this to the fundamental building blocks of the world) that he cannot control. It is not a question of whether or not God will intervene to control but that God will not act contrary to his character as a God of uncontrolling love. This accounts for randomness and for genuine evil in the world without making God either the cause of these, or implicating God for failure to prevent genuine evil.

Oord goes on to describe and elaborate this as the “essential kenotic model of providence.” Oord contends that Philippians 2:4-13, and indeed the gospels, are not about what attributes of God Jesus relinquished in the incarnation, but rather how the incarnation reveals the very nature of God, and that in his humbling even to death on a cross reveals the God who works through uncontrolling love to serve and redeem. Christ does not prevent the evil done against him, the evil choices of human beings, but through love works to accomplish our redemption. And in this, something is revealed of God’s essential character in which God works non-coercively. This raises the question of miracles, which Oord would define as God’s unusual, good, and special actions in relation to creation. His explanation recognizes the ways God often works in cooperation both with natural elements and human agents in these works for good and non-coercively. This was least convincing in considering the plagues of Egypt, including the death of Egypt’s first-born, or even Jesus’s cursing of the fruitless fig tree. In other instances, I felt Oord was in danger of explaining the miraculous in natural terms. I would propose this part of his case needed strengthening.

There is much in Oord’s account to consider, particularly in offering a strong account of how we may speak of the goodness and love of God in light of both random and genuine “evils” without reverting to trite platitudes that do not comfort, and actually make light of human suffering. I also appreciated the clarity of writing and argument I found in Oord. I do hope for a serious engagement of his ideas, particularly because of the important pastoral implications of these discussions.

I personally wrestle with fully embracing this view for some of the reasons that I wrestle with openness of God theology more generally. It situates God within time, and also seems to make “uncontrolling love” a kind of law God must obey that doesn’t allow for God to be more “complicated” in the exercise of God’s power (Oord does allow for God to be “almighty,” although within the constraint of “uncontrolling love”). In Narnian terms, it feels to me that the Aslan of open theology is a tame lion. I happen to think there are too many “messy counterfactuals” that this apparently logical and compelling argument inadequately address. Likewise, those who uphold traditional understandings of providence must address the unsatisfying character of their explanations. Might this be an instance where iron could sharpen iron?

This book won a 2016 IVP Readers Choice Award.

Review: Engaging the Doctrine of Creation

engaging the doctrine of creation

Engaging the Doctrine of CreationMatthew Levering. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2017.

Summary: A systematic theology of the doctrine of creation beginning with the nature of the Creator, the significance of creatures, the meaning of the image of God, the mandate to be fruitful and multiply, original sin, and atonement that engages with scripture, contemporary sources, and most significantly, the theology of Thomas Aquinas.

In the last century, the discussions of the doctrine of creation often quickly have degenerated into creation-evolution debates. Classically, the doctrine of creation has been foundational to our understanding of God, our place in the cosmos, the purpose of our existence, the tragedy of our fallen condition and our hope of redemption. In this magisterial volume, the third in a series on doctrines of the Church (the first two on Revelation and the Holy Spirit), Matthew Levering seeks to recover this classical focus, and particularly one which draws not only upon scripture but the work of Thomas Aquinas.

This is no where more in evidence than in his first two chapters on “divine ideas” and “divine simplicity” in which he draws upon Aquinas to answer more contemporary theologians such as Victor Lossky in defending the idea that all creation has its origin and existence in God’s eternally present thought with no resort to something external to God’s self and that God is identical with his attributes and without parts spatially and temporally. Thus, God as wise and good is utterly distinct from his creation, and yet its source. These chapters involved close theological reasoning worthy of careful attention.

The next chapters focus on God’s created beings. The third chapter focuses on creation and particularly, accepting the geological records, the profusions of creatures that have lived and died on the earth, dealing with the difficulties of death and destruction that are part of this succession. He contends that nevertheless, these offer a kind of “cosmic theophany” that proclaim through “a superabundance of finite ways” something of the infinite and yet personal God. He then turns particularly to humans in the image of God and explores in what this consists, which he contends involves our rationality employed in our royal and priestly mission as wise and good stewards of the creation. In chapter 5, Levering engages the contention that as creatures, we have fulfilled the mandate to be fruitful and multiply and should limit procreation, made by Christian environmentalist Bill McKibben, and others. Upholding Catholic teaching, Levering would not have us “constrict the circle of interpersonal communion for which God created the whole cosmos.”

The last two chapters explore the doctrines of original sin and atonement. In chapter six, he takes on contemporary theologians like Peter Enns, who argue against the idea of a historical Adam and thus, never an original goodness. Levering argues that this undermines the idea of a wise and good Creator in making God the author of sin, and that if we believe in a wise and good Creator, then it follows that there was originally a human who was free of sin, sustained by God in that goodness, until willfully rebelling against God.

The chapter on atonement would seem out of place in this volume until one understands the concern Levering seeks to address and the integral importance of creation to responding to that concern. Levering engages the contention of philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff that since Christianity commends freely forgiving our debtors, it is inconsistent to insist upon a penal character to the atoning work of Christ. Levering’s response, again drawing upon Aquinas points to the original relational justice of the good Creator that was broken or breached by human rebellion that must be restored through the relational act the death of God’s Son. Thus, the doctrines of creation and atonement are closely linked.

Levering writes as a Catholic theologian and yet engages thoughtfully with Protestant, Orthodox and secular writers. I would consider this a sterling example of excellent theological writing. Levering is not content to engage the writers of the last ten or fifty years, but roots his work in biblical teaching, the work of the church fathers, as well as major teachers of the church like Thomas Aquinas. One may not concur with all of his contentions, but to read Levering is to read someone, who like Aquinas, gives first the reasons of other positions, then his own carefully thought-through conclusions leaving it to the reader to conclude which are the better arguments. For those desirous of rooting their faith in rigorous thought and not simply devotional passion, Levering’s work is worth the careful attention it requires.

[My review of Engaging the Doctrine of Revelation appears here.]

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free in e-book format from the publisher through Netgalley. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.