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Tailored to this Charismatic era

06 December 2013

Andrew Davison on along and disciplined book on the Spirit

The Holy Spirit: In biblical teaching, through the centuries and today
Anthony C. Thiselton
SPCK £30
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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 House, Cambridge.

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