The Holy Spirit: In biblical teaching, through the
centuries and today
Anthony C. Thiselton
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THE subtitle of Anthony Thiselton's new book lists three areas:
the Bible, the centuries of Christian theology, and "today". In and
among his meticulous attention to scripture and tradition, "today"
looms large - and by "today" he primarily means the Charismatic
movement and the need for a dialogue "with Pentecostals and those
influenced by the Renewal Movement". He does not define the other
side of the dialogue so clearly, but the sense is that it consists
of doctrinally and biblically minded "non-Charismatic" Christians,
primarily Protestants and Anglicans.
The provocation for this book, we are told, is a "dangerously
widening chasm of church practice" between Charismatics and
non-Charismatics. I am not sure that this rings entirely true. An
ever wider range of churches is now "influenced by . . . Renewal",
as he puts it, and those congregations and denominations that are
more exclusively defined by this "renewal" are far less likely to
be sectarian than in previous decades. We have seen a trend towards
involvement in ecumenical discussion and common practical action
with other Christians.
Thiselton is well placed to attempt this project, being so
strongly grounded in both biblical and doctrinal study. Certainly,
a more specialist scholar of any of the figures he discusses might
point to other aspects of their thought on the Holy Spirit, or to
writings that Thiselton does not mention. Nevertheless, in
introducing what any of these authors wrote about the Holy Spirit,
Thiselton has done valiant service.
Just as important, Thiselton is a scholar of hermeneutics, and
this theme recurs throughout the book, including some fairly sharp
criticisms of Charismatic approaches. When it comes to mediating
between Charismatics and the rest of the Church, as he wishes, this
sort of attention not only to the text of the scriptures but also
to hermeneutics could not be more important.
In terms of proportions, we are given a great deal more on the
New Testament than the Old. Later figures and representative groups
(such as the Apostolic Fathers) typically receive between three and
six pages each. When it comes to balance, the coverage starts out
more or less universal, but narrows as it proceeds. So, there is
equity in coverage between the Greek and Latin Fathers, but, after
that, the Orthodox tradition more or less drops out until Lossky
and Zizioulas. Thiselton's attention to the "Catholic" Middle Ages,
over two chapters, is extensive: much more so than in most surveys
of pneumatology. That said, after the Reformation, there are no
Roman Catholic figures until Newman and then, after him, only Yves
Congar. After the Reformation and before the 21st century, the
focus is on British writers, although not exclusively; and, among
them, on Anglicans, although, again, not exclusively.
Thiselton goes too far in describing his book as "unique in
offering a thorough biblical and historical study of the Holy
Spirit in systematic form", unless by "thorough" we mean both long
and disciplined. There are thorough studies along the same lines as
this book, but of moderate length (for instance from Badcock or
Heron), and Congar's I Believe in the Holy Spirit is as
long as Thiselton's book, but is disorganised (or supremely
idiosyncratic in its structure).
Thiselton's style is dry and factual. This suits his aim, which
is to collate an enormous range of scholarship on his subject. He
likes lists, and they structure much of his writing: "Eight Basic
Themes in the Epistles of Paul" is an example. This suits his goal
of passing on information, and, likely as not, any one point from
any list could be the basis for a good sermon. In between lists, we
often find miniature essays on disputed or technical points.
Topics are catalogued more than integrated, although some of
that comes at the end of chapters. In view of all this, it is hard
to imagine that anyone would want to read the book from cover to
cover, although anyone with an interest in the doctrine of the Holy
Spirit will want a copy post-haste. Should you want to know what a
minor apologist of the second century had to say about the Holy
Spirit - Aristides, say - or anyone else, you will find it here.
The only chapter intending to be creative or "original", the final
one, is a little too fragmented to amount to a great deal, although
it is full of provocations to thought.
There can be no doubt that this is a milestone in writing about
the doctrine of the Holy Spirit. That it constantly addresses
"Charismatic" questions might render it a little quirky, as
magisterial surveys go, but, given the shape of the Church today,
both in the UK and globally, that is not at all inappropriate.
The Revd Dr Andrew Davison is Tutor in Doctrine at Westcott