King's Evangelical Divinity School

17 September 2009

Review of "Who's Afraid of the Holy Spirit?"

Together with the Calvinist-Arminian debacle, eschatology, and more recently responses to modern Israel, pneumatology (theology of the Holy Spirit) arguably represents one of the major fault lines running through Evangelicalism today and which has divided the movement throughout the twentieth century. As usual with these things, views have tended to become sharply polarised, with Pentecostals/Charismatics and cessationists often poles apart. But several years ago a book came out which contained a collection of essays on the topic by scholars and church leaders from a broadly cessationist perspective who sought to provide a fresh, less ideologically-rigid perspective on this issue. The book calls this position "progressive cessationism", and I was asked to review it for Pneuma: The Journal of the Society for Pentecostal Studies (29.1, 2007, 162-3). I think this book is well worth reading, regardless of your pneumatological stance. My review of the book is reproduced here with permission.

Daniel B. Wallace and M. James Sawyer, eds., Who’s Afraid of the Holy Spirit? An Investigation Into the Ministry of the Spirit of God Today (Dallas: Biblical Studies Press, 2005). ix + 319 pp. $24.99 hardback.

As Wayne Grudem (see Foreword) observes, this is a remarkable book. Though it challenges cessationism, it is not written by Pentecostals or charismatics seeking to enlighten their cessationist brethren. Rather, most of the contributors (many of whom either teach or studied at Dallas Theological Seminary) are themselves cessationists. Yet here they present a fresh and imaginative reappraisal of pneumatology that Grudem labels “progressive cessationism.”

One of the book’s strengths lies in its multi-disciplinary approach, bringing diverse theological disciplines such as exegesis, church history, missions, systematics, practical theology, and Christian arts, to bear upon the subject. The material is outstanding, so it is difficult to single out particular essays in a short book review such as this. Daniel Wallace’s opening chapter describes a family crisis that forced him to reassess his pneumatology. Later, he provides a thorough, linguistic treatment of Romans 8:16 that emphasises the ongoing work of the Spirit in individuals’ lives. Richard Averbeck’s excellent study of the Old Testament draws a parallel between Spirit, breath and life, extrapolating from this how the Spirit brings (new) life, vivification, and empowerment (this vivification is a theme echoed in other chapters) Meanwhile, Jeff Louie explores corporate worship within the local church, discussing imaginative approaches worthy of consideration by both Charismatics and cessationists.

The book proactively constructs a positive pneumatology, yet also warns against an excessively negative or underdeveloped theology of the Spirit. Discussing the Reformed doctrine of the invisible church, Gerald Bray warns against the Spirit becoming invisible in our churches. M. James Sawyer’s two historical essays highlight the dangers of extreme rationalism. Meanwhile, Averbeck’s scholarly treatment of hermeneutics (his discussion of the problem of language is a bonus for hermeneutics students) argues that Bible study is not a means in itself, but rather a means to an end, namely, that through studying the Bible we are illumined and shaped by the Holy Spirit.

Lest some non-cessationists secretly feel somewhat smug in their (at least partial) vindication, this book also challenges them in places. Averbeck dwells upon a water motif in his discussion of the Spirit, juxtaposing purification, cleansing and sprinkling with water baptism and purification by the Spirit (cf John 3:5), which challenges the classical second act of grace view. Even if classical Pentecostals disagree, they do well to familiarize themselves with a carefully-crafted study that does not rely on experiential theology. Meanwhile, James Packer’s examination of that age-old question - hearing the voice of God – deserves close attention within charismatic circles. Several essays also focus on the role of the Holy Spirit in corporate worship. Whether or not intended, these essays draw attention to Evangelicalism’s overemphasis on individualism that can lead to an underdeveloped ecclesiology. Finally, consider David Eckman’s discussion of emotion, which serves as a warning to all Christians, whether those displaying excessive emotion or those who display very little or none.

One is struck by the balanced approach of the book, which is written in a spirit of gentleness. Only one essay (which explores worship) is somewhat pejorative, which is remarkable, considering the divisive nature of the topic. As the authors shift way from a sterile pneumatology, one cannot help but notice a certain commonality between these progressive cessationists and moderate charismatics (Grudem suggests we have exaggerated the differences between moderate cessationists and moderate Pentecostals/charismatics). It is unlikely that the extremes will be reconciled, but dialogical cessationism and dialogical charismaticism have much in common and can certainly learn from each other. More importantly, they can agree to disagree, much like Willie O. Peterson’s description of the interaction between cessationists and charismatics within the Black church. Clearly, the book’s authors have come a long way, reflected in a surprising quote by M. James Sawyer in the final chapter:

I believe that we in the cessationist tradition need to reconceptualize the work of the Spirit in far broader terms than we have in the past. I wonder if we have not become like the dwarfs in C.S. Lewis’ The Last Battle, so blinded by their own presuppositions that they could not recognize Aslan and his gifts to his children, with the result that they treated them as dung (p. 275).

This is quite an admission. But Sawyer goes further, urging cessationists to heed the words of Karl Barth: “Let God be God.” Thus, he concludes: “Might we not need to take to heart his rebuke and ‘Let the Holy Spirit be God!’ – a God who is free to act in ways of his choosing as opposed to boundaries we establish?” (p. 277). Surely such a reappraisal by these authors challenges polarized charismatics to reciprocate and examine afresh their own dogma and practices to bring them in line with moderate charismatics and even cessationists.

In summary, this is a wide-ranging, theologically challenging, and nuanced study. The combination of a multi-disciplinary approach, together with contributions from both scholars and church ministry practitioners, make this an essential resource for any student of pneumatology, particularly those interested in the sharp divisions between cessationists and charismatics.

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