Who’s Afraid of the Holy Spirit? An Investigation into the Ministry of the Spirit of God Today

M. James Sawyer, Daniel B. Wallace, editors Biblical Studies Press, Dallas January 16, 2013
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The editors explain that this book grew out of their own independent experiences of personal and family trauma. In the midst of crisis they each experienced the need for “development of our understanding of the reality and necessity of the personal and existential work of the Holy Spirit in our lives. Doctrine and biblical knowledge alone simply did not cut it” (p. 5). In short, they discovered that their understanding of cessationism (“that miraculous gifts of the Holy Spirit ceased with the death of the last apostle,” p. iii) was reactionary and reductionistic and was in need of modification. The result is this collection of essays, all but one written by cessationists, which attempts “to steer a middle ground between the sterile cessationism that essentially locks the Spirit in the pages of scripture, and an anything-goes approach that has characterized parts of the Pentecostal/charismatic/ Third Wave movements” (p. vi).

In the final chapter Wayne Grudem, a noncessationist, graciously responds, “What a remarkable book! . . . It gives articulate expression to a kind of . . . cessationism that rightly safeguards the primacy and sufficiency and unique authority of Scripture in guiding our lives today, but that also leaves the door open for Christians to welcome the Holy Spirit to work in ways that have not been seen frequently in cessationist churches” (pp. 284–85).

It is tempting to begin a review of this book with an extended criticism of the false dichotomy between doctrine and spirituality and of the rationalistic spirituality out of which the need for the book surfaced. But the editors do that quite well, as do several of the other essayists. One of the most endearing features of this book is that the authors freely confess the inadequacies of the pneumatology they previously held; they set the essays within a theological pilgrimage toward a more holistic and explicitly Trinitarian spirituality. An underlying theme in the book is a critique of a rationalistic approach to exegesis and theology that rejects or neglects the role of experience, personal or corporate, in hermeneutics and theological method. The editors explain that in the past their fear of the Holy Spirit, and any experience of His work was due to fear of a loss of control. “We really are not in control of our lives. The place of control belongs to God alone. Our attempts for control can be a subtle grasp at self-deification” (p. v).

Obviously it is impossible to summarize and evaluate each of the fifteen essays in a short review. But several deserve special mention. Wallace’s introductory essay, “Who’s Afraid of the Holy Spirit? The Uneasy Conscience of a Non-Charismatic Evangelical,” is an intensely personal and touching autobiographical account of the author’s pilgrimage. He concludes the essay with eleven theses on practical issues in pneumatology. As Wallace points out, a theology that ignores the person and work of the Holy Spirit is not distinctly Trinitarian. This essay provides an apologetic for the method underlying the book and proposes the direction in which a more explicitly Trinitarian cessationism could move.

Richard Averbeck’s examination of the language of “Spirit” in the Old and New Testaments treats lexical issues, providing evidence of the continuity and discontinuity in the biblical language relating to the presence and function of the Spirit. Although this essay could have been longer, it is an excellent introduction to the ambiguity of the biblical terms translated “Spirit.”

A second essay by Wallace, “The Witness of the Spirit in Romans 8:16: Interpretation and Implications,” is worth the price of the book. Wallace argues convincingly that Romans 8:16 should be translated, “The Spirit himself bears witness to [not with] our spirit that we are God’s children” (p. 39). The implications of this testimony of the Spirit are profound and intensely practical. Wallace concludes, “We know that we are saved because of the testimony of scripture and because of the inner witness of the Spirit. I know that I am a child of God not just because the Bible tells me so, but because the Spirit convinces me so” (p. 49, italics his). The Holy Spirit provides assurance of salvation through this inner testimony and He “also sustains the belief. True believers continue to believe because the Spirit energizes that faith. And he does more: he also energizes the fruit that results from that faith” (p. 50, italics his). In this way believers persevere in the faith, not by their own efforts but by means of the Spirit’s ongoing work.

Willie Peterson, “The Spirit in the Black Church,” argues that “the context of struggle has been an indispensable ingredient in forging black evangelical attitudes toward God the Holy Spirit. When black evangelical attitudes toward the Spirit are looked at from that angle, one will understand their reluctance to distance themselves from charismatics” (p. 201). This essay, which is both informative and challenging, is an insider’s perspective that evangelicals will find helpful.

The essays in this book treat extremely important issues. They are well written and understandable by a wide audience. The writers come from a variety of disciplines—exegetes, biblical scholars, historians, theologians, preachers, artists—but all of them write with a pastoral focus. Their ideas are based on excellent scholarship and have been tested and applied in the crucible of Christian ministry experience. Scholars and pastors will be challenged to consider the degree to which their Christian life is Spirit-empowered and Spirit-controlled. Students will be encouraged to guarantee that their view of the Spirit is set on the right path from the beginning of their ministries. Most readers will see themselves somewhere in the essays and will be led to a more healthy pneumatology by the humility and honesty of the writers. Scholars and nonscholars will enjoy the personal stories these authors tell.

A vulnerable and pastoral tone permeates these essays, but these writers have a depth of biblical and theological scholarship that lends profound significance to the arguments that even the most seasoned scholar will appreciate. No one will agree with everything, some essays will be more helpful than others, some will be read quickly, and others will be read slowly and carefully, but every essay is worth reading. This book deserves a wide audience and careful reflection.

—Glenn R. Kreider

July 1, 2007
 

Biblotheca Sacra

This review appeared in the Jul-Sep 2007 vol. 164 no. 3 issue of Biblotheca Sacra, DTS’s quarterly academic journal.

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